A Historic(ally Slow) Team
The 2021 Connecticut Sun were a historic team. The best regular season record in the league. The first team in WNBA history to land four players on the All-Defense teams. The best team rebounding percentage in league history. Star Jonquel Jones capped off the accolades by winning league MVP, the second time for a Sun player. (Tina Charles won in 2012.)
But the season ended without a title or even a trip to the Finals, the Sun instead falling in their opening playoff series to the eventual champion Chicago Sky.
The Sun seemed like a team of destiny, so what went wrong?
Well, unfortunately, Connecticut ranked last in the league in one important area: pace.
For those who don’t have the compulsion to write thousands of words on the advanced stats of a basketball team (you blessed lucky people), pace refers to the number of possessions a team uses in a game. As a basketball statistic, pace gives a sense of who is playing faster or slower, with higher-paced teams using more possessions and lower-paced ones playing with a more controlled tempo.
The 2021 Sun were the slowest team in the league, and not by a particularly close margin. The team (90.96 possessions per game) was roughly 2.5 possessions slower than the next-to-last team, the Phoenix Mercury. Even more jarring, Connecticut’s regular season pace was the slowest the WNBA had seen since the 2015 season, which saw five teams with fewer possessions per game.
But wait—why am I hating on Connecticut’s pace? Also, isn’t this the same website that argued last summer that the Sun’s playing style was an advantage?
In short, yes. In August, Winsidr great Myles Ehrlich detailed how factors like injuries and limited depth essentially forced the Sun into a playing style they may not have otherwise chosen. Myles included a telling quote from Sun coach Curt Miller—“There’s an intent to play slower…It lessens possessions, and we have to play a different style than maybe we all would like, but it’s the smart way to play, pace-wise, this year.”
Ehrlich’s piece also highlighted how Connecticut’s defensive dominance was a factor in their pace, using their dominance on the defensive glass to limit opponents’ second chance opportunities, and helping the Sun finish with a league-best scoring defense.
With all that said, were there any signs of the Sun’s potential failings?
Miller did bring up the weaker points of his team. For one, he mentioned Connecticut’s turnover issues—ranked dead last in the W—which meant, not so coincidentally, that Connecticut was also last in fast break points. Both areas of the game would be their undoing when facing Chicago in the playoffs, where over the last two games of that series the Sky put up 25 fast break points to the Sun’s nine (the scoring difference between those two games was +13 for Chicago).
Now, you’d be well within your rights to ask, “Wait, didn’t the Mercury make it to the Finals last season?” Of course, you’d be right. After spending much of the season dealing with the absence of star players like Diana Taurasi, the Mercury struggled to find their footing in the playoffs. However, once they reached the postseason with most of their roster intact, their pace improved to roughly 95, up several possessions from their regular season performance.
During their brief postseason appearance last season, the Sun improved only marginally (up to 91.06), while Chicago averaged 93.22 during their championship run.
At this point, you may also be asking yourself, “OK, nerd, congrats on operating the WNBA.com stats page—what does this mean?” Well, a) that’s a pretty rude question, but b) I’d be happy to answer!
Since the Sun entered the league as the Orlando Miracle in 1999 (before relocating to the Constitution State in 2003), exactly zero teams have finished last in pace and won a title. In fact, the only teams to win a title after finishing the regular season last in pace were the 1997 and 1998 Houston Comets. There have been several teams to make it to the Finals after finishing the regular season in the bottom three (notably the aforementioned 2021 Mercury, 2018 Mystics, and the 2017 Sparks), but in this modern era of the W, no slowpokes are hoisting the championship trophy.
If league history isn’t enough for Connecticut to shake up their style of play, a look at their last playoff series may prove that a change is needed. Throughout the series, the Sun looked sluggish compared to a Chicago team that was content to push the ball. Even in their lone win of the series, the Sun found themselves down 10-0 early in the game and faced several long scoring droughts, relying on the energy and 10 fourth-quarter points from Alyssa Thomas to eke out a victory.
It was in these moments, with Thomas flying around the court to score, rebound, and create for others, that you saw a glimpse of how good this team could be. If the Sun were able to inject this energy and tempo more often into their offensive arsenal, not only would it potentially add more transitions to a team who desperately need easy ways to score, it could serve as a strategic balance to the more methodical offensive strengths of Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones. That level of intensity and depth may not have always been there for the team last year, but looking ahead it certainly could be.
If the Sun decide that improving their pace is a priority, what should they do going forward? For starters, they are taking care of their MVP, Jonquel Jones, by reportedly working on a multi-year deal. This may go without saying, but Jones has been central to everything Connecticut does on both sides of the court. In 2021, she was number one in Win Shares, Defensive Win Shares, number two in Player Efficiency Rating, number three in Offensive Win Shares, and number eight in Usage Percentage (according to Basketball Reference). In short, the MVP was the center of the Sun’s universe last year. She needs to be back.
In addition to Jonquel Jones, the Sun have DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, and 2021 Most Improved Player Brionna Jones all under protected contracts in 2022. Natisha Hiedeman and Beatrice Mompremier have accepted qualifying offers and are expected to be on the team this season.
Even before free agency officially starts, though, Connecticut may already be in the process of making changes to their offensive production. Reports are that Courtney Williams will be making a return to the Sun. During Williams’ last stint with the team, she was one of the key contributors to their Finals run, and since her departure she has only improved on the offensive end. Last season, she led the league in minutes played and was top ten in points and assists. With one stroke of the pen to make the deal official, Connecticut’s offensive fortunes would brighten.
Work will still exist, though, for Williams to fit in with the changing landscape of the Sun. Last year, she led the league in field goal attempts, and that’s certain to change as her role adjusts this season.
Connecticut’s current situation—with Jonquel Jones potentially receiving a large contract, as well as the addition of Williams—means that the team will be parting ways with guard and defensive specialist, Briann January.
However, in that absence lies opportunity. An offensive focused backup point guard could also serve a role in igniting the Connecticut offense, and whatever defensive liabilities, if any, caused by that addition could be offset by having a tremendous defender like Alyssa Thomas available for the start of the season.
Two restricted free agents that may not be re-signed by their team are also interesting options. Jordin Canada and Stephanie Talbot of the Storm are both players who did not see a lot of time on the court during their Pacific Northwest tenure, as they sat behind stars like Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird. However, both players have interesting skill sets that the Sun could use. Talbot shot 41 percent from three-point land last season and could be an outlet with Jonquel Jones and Brionna Jones spending a lot of time in the paint and midrange area on offense. Canada is a proven playmaker, whose 8.6 assists per 100 possessions average with the Storm last season is certainly a skill that was missing when the Sun offense grew stagnant. If either player became available as a free agent, they certainly could be signed for a team-friendly deal that would allow financial flexibility throughout the season.
The Sun also hold the last pick in the first round of the 2022 WNBA Draft. The team could ultimately use this route to find a player, with different outlets pairing them with scoring guards like Northwestern’s Veronica Burton, Stanford’s Lexie Hull, or LSU’s Khayla Pointer.
Ultimately, it’s up to the Sun to decide what kind of team they’re going to be. A championship is an elusive target, with no one path a guarantee for success (see: the Chicago Sky, who struggled throughout the regular season before winning it all). With a core of Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones, DeWanna Bonner, Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas, and Courtney Williams, the Sun are a contender on talent alone. But as we saw in the playoffs last season, talent alone doesn’t win championships. If Connecticut can’t find a style of play that lets them keep up with the most dynamic offenses in the league, they may find themselves outpaced (literally and metaphorically) again in 2022.