After battling (and ultimately falling to) the Las Vegas Aces in a deciding Game Five of the 2020 WNBA semifinals, the Sun never set on Curt Miller.
The Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager received a well-deserved four-year extension through 2024. With his signing complete and the free-agency period underway, Miller will face some roster challenges this upcoming season.
The Sun registered three straight losing seasons before Miller took over. But his impact on this team has been obvious. When he was hired, Miller’s ultimate goal, carried over from his college coaching career, was to build a franchise capable of sustained success.
And the Sun have achieved that and then some. The team has made the playoffs in four of his five seasons at the helm, notching an 89-69 regular season record. In only his second season with the team, Miller earned WNBA Coach of the Year. He ranks second in regular season wins for active coaches (75), two behind Minnesota Lynx’s Cheryl Reeve.
But after reaching both the finals (2019) and semifinals (2020) the last two seasons, with the most postseason wins over that time to boot, the Sun and Miller are now looking for the ultimate prize.
“I think coming up just short has kept us hungry and has kept us fighting to bring the first championship in franchise history to Connecticut, such an amazing franchise and ownership and the unique ownership, first non-NBA-affiliated ownership of a WNBA team,” Miller said. “So we’re just really really grinding and working hard to try and bring the first championship here to Connecticut.”
While doubt has cast shadows over the team, the Sun have shined brighter, pushing to prove the doubters wrong.
Nothing has come easy—for WNBA teams, or for anyone, really—in recent times, and the Sun overcame challenges to come within one win of their second straight Finals appearance. From the moment he entered the league, Miller learned from Brian Agler—who he assisted in 2015 as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks coaching staff—to be flexible and always be willing and able to pivot.
On paper entering the 2020 season, it appeared the Sun would be sporting a “Big Three,” consisting of newcomer DeWanna Bonner alongside Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones at the 3-4-5 spots, until Jones opted out due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was completely supported by our franchise, completely understanding that it was a personal choice for every single player with what was going on,” Miller said. “But it certainly was a gut punch, and now another pivot, another opportunity to circle the wagons. And ok, JJ’s not going to walk through that door, but we still have a chance to be very good.”
In the midst of starting a pandemic season, and before the team even arrived in the bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, there was uncertainty. All workouts came to a screeching halt after a positive COVID-19 test weeks before, leading to understandable concern from the team. Then, a second test came back positive.
“The two positive COVID-19 tests before we left shook us up,” Miller said. “So I think it contributed on top of our cohesiveness of a group, it hadn’t had time to gel, we had people missing.”
The Wubble season tipped off, and the Sun started 0-5.
But then, something changed.
“You could see it,” Miller said. “You could feel it start to happen.”
Newcomer, three-time All-Star, and two-time WNBA champion DeWanna Bonner got off to a great offensive start; team veterans and fresh faces began to click, their chemistry igniting on court.
And off the court, the Sun changed its entire season—with a team dinner full of heart-to-heart conversations. The dinner created a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, in a time when finding a moment of peace and clarity in this ever-changing and heavy world felt impossible.
“It was something special about that dinner, there was something special about that night that everybody’s guard was down,” Miller said. “There were a lot of genuine conversations. There were a lot of heartfelt conversations. And there was just something in the air that you felt that was different, that was a growing moment for our team.”
The evening was one of his best as a part of the Sun.
“And it still resonates with me,” Miller added. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years as a coach, and not very many times can you point to the exact moment when you can feel it was changing. And we just started to play really good basketball.”
And that they did. The Sun made the playoffs as the seven seed, taking down the six seed Chicago Sky in the first round and the third seed Los Angeles Sparks to reach the semifinals against the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces.
On a team where all contribute on the boards and on defense, the Sun led the league in offensive rebounds per game this season (10), giving them second chances, and placed second with 9.2 steals per contest.
“We weren’t quite good enough offensively to pull off the championship last year,” Miller, who has an offensive-minded coaching style, said. “So that’s the big goal is don’t take a step back defensively, but continue to improve at the offensive end with this group.”
In the absence of Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones stepped into the center role and had success. Bonner, too, finished the season averaging 19.7 points, leading the team, and had 7.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.
Rookie Kaila Charles had a role off the bench, and veteran leadership came from starters to the bench. Miller cited Briann January as a “tremendous leader and a huge influence.”
During the WNBA off-season, Jonquel Jones has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League. Miller said the team is planning on having JJ back this upcoming season.
“She is under contract and will be back, and we hope not too far into training camp,” Miller said. “Typically the Russian league will end early May and our training camp as of now is still scheduled to begin Sunday, April 25. So we’ll cross our fingers that we can get JJ back as quickly and as soon as that league ends.”
After the news of Jones’ opt out for the 2020 season, the Sun found themselves in familiar territory. During Miller’s second year as head coach in 2016, the team received the gut-wrenching news that Chiney Ogwumike had torn her Achilles tendon while playing overseas.
“So again, took a deep breath at the end of the season last year, and said ok now we have the Big Three back in DeWanna, JJ and Alyssa Thomas if we can resign her, and we’ll have the Big Three,” Miller said.
And now, for the third time in four years, they face yet another obstacle entering the 2021 season.
On the same day Miller’s contract extension was announced, the Sun’s world was rocked again by news that Alyssa Thomas had torn her Achilles tendon while playing overseas for USK Praha in the Czech Republic.
Thomas made her presence felt in the Bubble last season, leading the team in rebounds (9.0) and assists (4.8) per game. The 2019 All-Star forward averaged 15.5 points per game in 32.8 minutes. All four categories were career highs, and she was recognized on the defensive side of the ball as well, being named to the WNBA’s All-Defensive First Team. After undergoing surgery on January 19, Thomas will be sidelined indefinitely.
Nicknamed “The Engine,” Thomas played through torn labrums in both shoulders in 2019. And during the 2020 playoffs, Thomas dislocated her right shoulder in Game 2 of the semifinals, but she made her way back to the bench later in the game to cheer on her team.
Other catastrophic injuries, such as Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart tearing her ACL, have ravaged the league’s biggest stars in recent years. However, Stewart, who returned last season to lead her team to their fourth championship title in franchise history, gives the Sun hope. And one thing is clear: the Sun expect nothing less for Alyssa Thomas upon her return.
“There’s no one tougher and we have ultimate confidence that she’s going to be back better than ever,” Miller said.
Regarding Thomas’ abilities as a defender, too, Miller had strong sentiments.
“I believe, and I’m biased, but I believe that Alyssa Thomas is right now the best defender in the world because of her versatility to guard so many different positions. She is an incredible impactor of the game at the defensive end.”
It remains to be seen what the 2021 Connecticut Sun roster will look like, but their perseverance has long been proven.
“But just like the two previous times, we will pivot and we’ll continue to construct our roster and get prepared to fight and battle and put the best product we can on the floor, and absorb the injury loss to Alyssa Thomas,” Miller said.