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What Teresa Weatherspoon’s hiring means for Chicago, WNBA

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What Teresa Weatherspoon’s hiring means for Chicago, WNBA

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What does the hiring of Teresa Weatherspoon mean for the Chicago Sky and the WNBA?

On Thursday, the Sky made it official that Weatherspoon will be their new head coach, filling a vacancy created when James Wade — who led Chicago to the 2021 WNBA championship — left to become an assistant with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

Weatherspoon, a Hall of Fame player who starred for the New York Liberty at the WNBA’s inception, returns to the league as a head coach after spending the previous four seasons on the coaching staff of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.

Weatherspoon’s hiring means half the league’s coaching spots are again held by former WNBA players, with one more vacancy to be filled by the Phoenix Mercury this offseason. Weatherspoon follows in the footsteps of Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon by coming back to the WNBA as a head coach after spending time as an NBA assistant.

Weatherspoon inherits a challenging situation in Chicago. The Sky won’t have a first-round pick to improve a team that went 18-22 this season under Wade and interim coach Emre Vatansever, and don’t control their first-round pick in 2025 either after trading for guard Marina Mabrey.

Let’s break down what hiring Weatherspoon means.

NBA-to-WNBA coaching pipeline

When the Aces hired Hammon, who had been the first full-time, paid female assistant coach in NBA history with the San Antonio Spurs, she was credited with bringing that experience to the WNBA in terms of floor spacing and offensive philosophy.

Las Vegas, already the league’s most efficient offense under predecessor Bill Laimbeer, lapped the field offensively en route to the 2022 title and did so again this season — when the Aces could become the first WNBA team to repeat since the Los Angeles Sparks under former NBA player Michael Cooper in 2001 and 2002.

Weatherspoon brings similar experience. After spending the 2019-20 season as a player development coach for the Pelicans, she moved to an assistant coach role in 2020-21 under Stan Van Gundy. League sources indicated Weatherspoon was a candidate to become the NBA’s first female head coach when Van Gundy was fired at season’s end before New Orleans instead hired Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green.

After spending the last two years as an assistant to Green, Weatherspoon was let go from the Pelicans’ coaching staff this summer.

The bad news is Weatherspoon is part of a trend of former WNBA players needing to leave NBA coaching staffs in order to get an opportunity to become a head coach in the pros. In addition to Hammon and Weatherspoon, the group also includes NCAA head coaches Niele Ivey (Notre Dame) and Kara Lawson (Duke). (For a second time, in Weatherspoon’s case; she spent four-plus seasons as women’s basketball head coach at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, prior to coaching in the NBA.)

Just two coaches with WNBA experience, former WNBA head coach Jenny Boucek and active Washington Wizards guard Kristi Toliver, begin this season as NBA assistants, though Lindsey Harding left the Sacramento Kings’ staff in order to become head coach of their G League affiliate in Stockton. Harding joins Nancy Lieberman as the second woman to serve as head coach of a men’s professional team, and head coaching experience in the G League is a common part of the résumé for first-time NBA head coaches.

Additionally, multiple women without WNBA playing experience remain on NBA coaching staffs, with Brittni Donaldson joining the Atlanta Hawks, Sidney Dobner promoted to an assistant coach by the Milwaukee Bucks and Sonia Raman in her fourth year with the Memphis Grizzlies. Still, the NBA seems farther away from having a female head coach than in 2021, when Hammon was a finalist for the Portland Trail Blazers’ vacant job at the same time Weatherspoon was considered by New Orleans.

The upside is that WNBA teams no longer need to hire male head coaches in order to get NBA experience, helping explain why the league has no former NBA players as head coaches for the first time since 1998. That has created more opportunities for former WNBA players to coach in the league.

It will be interesting to see whether Weatherspoon fills out her staff with more NBA experience, as Hammon did when she took over in Las Vegas. Hammon’s assistants include Natalie Nakase, a longtime part of the LA Clippers coaching staff, and former Indiana Pacers player development coach Tyler Marsh.

Sky in tricky spot

Wade left Chicago in a hole after building the roster that won the 2021 title and reached the 2022 Commissioner’s Cup final in his dual roles as head coach and general manager — duties the Sky now plan to split among two different people, like the rest of the WNBA’s teams, according to what star wing Kahleah Copper told reporters during exit interviews.

When Chicago sent its 2024 first-round pick and swap rights in 2025 to the Dallas Wings in the sign-and-trade bringing Mabrey to the Sky, the risk was obvious. Wade told reporters he wasn’t worried because “I’m not f–ing planning on losing.”

At the time Wade announced his departure for the Raptors’ staff on July 1, Chicago was 7-9. The team finished 18-22, the worst winning percentage for the Sky since 2018 prior to Wade’s arrival, and narrowly avoided sending Dallas a lottery pick. Instead, the Wings will get the No. 5 pick from Chicago, which did add Phoenix’s second-rounder in the trade — No. 13 overall.

Dallas still has the right to swap first-round picks with the Sky in 2025. Given the Wings’ upward trajectory — they reached the WNBA semifinals and finished with the ninth pick in next year’s draft — it’s likely that swap will end up being exercised, making it difficult for Chicago to add star talent to the roster through the draft.

The good news is the Sky were able to extend Copper’s contract before the end of the regular season, keeping her out of unrestricted free agency. Chicago also has starters Mabrey and Elizabeth Williams under contract for 2024, along with post Isabelle Harrison, who missed the entire season following surgery to repair a meniscus tear

Two Sky starters will be unrestricted free agents: guard Courtney Williams, who averaged a career-high 6.3 APG in a lead ballhandling role, and breakout forward Alanna Smith. Smith, who averaged 9.2 PPG and 6.6 RPG in her first season as a full-time starter, is likely to command a raise after making just $100,000 this season according to salary data from HerHoopStats.com.

In recent years, Chicago was a player in free agency, bringing future Hall of Famer Candace Parker back to her hometown to complete the core of the 2021 title team and then adding All-Star Emma Meesseman before the 2022 season. The Sky found competing at the top end of the market more challenging last offseason, when Parker signed with Las Vegas and Courtney Vandersloot left for the New York Liberty after playing her first 12 seasons in Chicago. (Meesseman, also a free agent, opted not to play in the WNBA at all.)

The increased emphasis on practice facilities as a factor in free agency hurts the Sky, who practice 29 miles away from their home court (Wintrust Arena) in a public facility in the Chicago suburbs. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in May that the Sky are scouting potential locations to build their own facility, but that lengthy process won’t likely help them attract free agents now.

Perhaps Chicago’s best hope of landing a star in free agency — Jewell Loyd returning to her hometown — went off the board when Loyd also chose an extension with the Seattle Storm over unrestricted free agency.

Assuming the Sky indeed hire a separate GM — reversing the typical timing of allowing a GM to make the decision on hiring a head coach — building the roster won’t be Weatherspoon’s primary responsibility. If Chicago’s roster doesn’t take a step forward, however, it will be up to Weatherspoon to get more out of her players in order to return the Sky to title contention in the near future.

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