With the New York Liberty sweeping the Connecticut Sun in the head-to-head regular season matchup four games to none, one would think Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello wouldn’t have much to adjust come playoffs. But 2023 Coach of the Year and Sun head coach Stephanie White has made adjustments, so what moves can Brondello make to counter? With so much fire power from her starting five that has achieved so much success this season, nothing seems to stand out as an area of growth, but leaning even more into Kayla Thornton and her vital role as an off-the-bench defender and rebounder could give Brondello the edge she needs to vanquish the Sun.
To be sure, Thornton has been an important rotational member for Brondello and the Liberty all season. She has played a large amount of minutes throughout the season, but her per game minutes have been inconsistent at best, something that may affect just how effective Thornton is able to be. Per Basketball Reference, Thornton played 10 or fewer minutes three times, 15 or fewer minutes 12 times, and 20 or more minutes another 10 times. Through four games of the postseason, KT has played 7:55, 17:07, 19:13, and 7:19 minutes. While this isn’t completely detrimental for the 30-year-old veteran in Thornton, it stands to reason that offering her a little bit more consistency could help stabilize a burgeoning, valuable bench.
There are no clear avenues for Thornton to earn starter minutes with one of the top starting units in the league. Of league lineups that played at least 100 minutes, the Liberty starting five finished first in offensive rating (ORTG) at the end of the regular season. And while her rotations are fairly consistent, and certainly require more context to analyze them fully, that doesn’t mean Brondello couldn’t find more consistency in the minutes she plays Thornton, especially considering how valuable she can be when she has enough time to contribute. For instance, in games during the regular season where Thornton earned one steal, the Liberty went 18-5. In games where she earned one steal and four rebounds, the team went 11-3. Maybe Brondello sees value in having Thornton ready at a moment’s notice or likes the ability to play her for different amounts and still get results, but while continuing to face a team of Connecticut’s caliber in the semifinals, more will surely be needed from Thornton.
Thornton vs. Connecticut
In looking at how KT and the Sun matchup versus one another, I found some interesting data that may help present a clearer way for how New York can use Thornton to attack. In looking at Thornton’s offense versus Connecticut’s defense, there aren’t a ton of areas to exploit. Thornton’s points per possession (PPP) are fairly average, per Synergy Sports, in most areas where Connecticut thrives defensively. For example, Thornton’s transition game is ranked as average, while Connecticut’s transition defense is within the 83rd percentile, grading out as excellent. Additionally, Thornton’s cutting ability graded out in the 47th percentile, merely average, but Connecticut’s 33rd percentile defense against cutting offensive players left plenty to be desired. What’s evident is KT’s offensive game is not the area for New York to exploit, but defensively, KT has a few places where she can truly shine.
To note, Thornton grades out in the 58th percentile defensively guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler, earning a “good” rating. Conversely, the Sun are only average in the pick-and-roll with the ball handler, earning them a spot in the 50th percentile. While this may not seem like a massive advantage, even the smallest of margins can make a huge difference in the playoffs.
Another area where Thornton is really good defensively is guarding in isolation. Since Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney aren’t the strongest on-ball defenders, especially in dribble penetration, KT’s isolation defense has been critical for the Liberty’s defensive success. KT grades out in the 90th percentile, or “excellent” per Synergy Sports’ metric. The Sun are “very good,” in their isolation offense, grading out within the 67th percentile. This can be an area where Thornton might be able to help slow down Alyssa Thomas, Natisha Hiedeman, or Tiffany Hayes as they dribble drive from the perimeter.
Kayla Thornton is not going to be the sole reason the Liberty win this series, but she isn’t going to be why they lose it either. She is a solid bench player who knows her role and plays it with aplomb. If somehow the Liberty and Sun starters are able to cancel one another out, the benches will be thrust into the spotlight. Should that happen, despite a talented crop of reserve players in Ty Harris and DiJonai Carrington for the Sun, Thornton anchors the Liberty’s second unit with Marine Johannès and Stef Dolson and will prove her underrated importance.
All stats as of Sept. 29. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA.com.