Despite compiling a league-best regular-season record of 26-6, the Connecticut Sun’s 2021 season ended in disappointment, as the sixth-seed and eventual champion Chicago Sky upset them in four games in the semifinals.
However, because Connecticut was without Alyssa Thomas throughout the majority of the year, their 2021 season, taken in totality, should be considered an overwhelming success. That the Sun claimed three season-long awards — MVP Jonquel Jones, Most Improved Player Brionna Jones and Coach of the Year Curt Miller —confirms that Connecticut should be proud of their 2021 performance.
Yet, it’s now 2022. And the expectations have been raised.
It will be a disappointment if Connecticut does not put together another dominant regular season that is, crucially, followed up by a deep playoff run. Anything less than a title, in fact, should leave the Sun ruing a missed opportunity.
Of Connecticut’s core of six All-Stars (four of whom earned a spot in Swish Appeal’s Top 30) — J. Jones, B. Jones, A. Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Courtney Williams — only A. Thomas is signed past the 2023 season, with B. Jones and Williams becoming free agents after this season.
This season thus projects as the best chance for Connecticut to secure the franchise’s first championship.
Why should Sun fans be optimistic that their squad will earn that long-sought title? And what factors should give them pause about Connecticut’s ability to win it all?
Reasons to be confident about the Sun’s title chances
First and foremost, it’s the talent.
As noted above, the foundation of the Sun rotation is six All-Stars. Entering last season, depth, and a potential dearth of talent, was a point of concern. However, with the full health of Alyssa Thomas and the return of Courtney Williams, in combination by the blossoming of Brionna Jones, talent and depth are clear strengths for the 2022 Sun.
Presumably, the starting five will feature J. Jones, A. Thomas, Bonner, J. Thomas and Williams, with B. Jones coming off the bench. Having a traditional big in B. Jones serve as the sixth woman makes the most sense, as the Sun’s most likely, and most trusted, reserves are guards and wings in Natisha Hiedeman, who took a leap last season, DiJonai Carrington, Kalia Charles and Nia Clouden.
With his proven ability to optimize his personnel with strategic adjustments, it is easy to envision head coach Curt Miller, who also does not hesitate to maximize the minutes of his best players, making the most of this depth of talent. For example, having A. Thomas and B. Jones, two non-shooters, share the floor for extended stretches seems less than ideal. Nevertheless, in the absence of J. Jones during the 2020 season, Miller made this imperfect pairing work.
In particular, Miller should be able to improve the Sun’s offense in 2022. Last season, Connecticut’s offense was far from poor, registering the league’s third-best offensive rating at 104.1. However, A. Thomas and Williams being back in uniform should juice the Sun’s transition offense. In 2021, Connecticut averaged 5.8 fastbreak points, the second-lowest mark in the league. In 2019, the last time both A. Thomas and Williams were members of the Sun, Connecticut led the league in fastbreak points per game with 11.1.
Combined with the Joneses abilities to score in the paint, including through offensive rebounds and second chances, the Sun should be able to threaten opponents with offensive firepower in transition and offensive force in the half court. Even if Connecticut does not increase their 3-point attempts per game, they should be able to consistently pour in the points.
With A. Thomas, a perennial All-Defensive caliber performer, back in tow, the Sun’s defense, best in the W last season with a defensive rating of 91.7, should again smother opponents.
Reasons to be concerned about the Sun’s title chances
While the reasons to be confident in the Sun abound, there are some causes for concern that, if they burble up at the wrong time, could prevent Connecticut from claiming that hoped-for championship.
Last season, the Sun surrendered 15.1 turnovers per game, the second-worst mark in the league. The potential for more turnovers looms, as the running and gunning of A. Thomas and Williams can be high reward but also high risk.
Turnovers also can fuel the most pressing potential concern for the Sun — the integrity of their defense. In their critical Game 1 and Game 3 losses in last season’s semifinals, the Sun allowed the Sky to race into 19 and 23 points off turnovers, respectively.
Yes, Connecticut had the league’s top D last season, but it could be exploited.
Effective jump-shooting teams also gave the Sun problems, epitomized by their three losses — two in the regular season and one in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game — to the Seattle Storm. Although the Sun surrendered the fewest points in the paint per game at 29.5, their stoutness did not matter as much against the Storm and their ability to drain jumpers, both from deep and the mid-range. This shooting prowess, in turn, opened up opportunities to get inside for additional buckets.
Lucky for Connecticut, most squads do not sport a transition game as deadly as Chicago’s or the jump-shooting efficiency of Seattle. Yet, this also means the potential persisting weak points in the Sun defense might not be tried and tested enough ahead of the postseason.