Last month’s Connecticut Sun – Minnesota Lynx trade was a "blockbuster" because it undoubtedly involved the biggest exchange of talent in the WNBA's short history to date.
Perhaps even more significantly, it is one of those rare professional sports trades that is truly a win-win in terms of talent rather than just bringing heroes home, creating flexibility for a future move or being a matter of "addition by subtraction".
It should be quite easy for most fans to understand how the trade constitutes a win for the Lynx – in point guard Lindsay Whalen, they get a homegrown complementary talent that gives them one of the most flexible rosters in the league and makes them an almost instant contender.
For the Sun, the situation might not be so clear. How could exchanging arguably the best point guard in the league for an unproven second year player be "fair"? Part of the answer lies in a combination of quirky decisions and coincidences that converged to create a serendipitous opportunity for the Sun.
Hartford Courant writer John Altavilla summarized the benefits of the trade best, laying out what would end up being the blueprint for how the Sun plan to capitalize on this opportunity.
Uconn Huskies Women's Basketball News Blog - John Altavilla - Hartford Courant
The Sun were slow and lethargic in many positions last season. They didn't score well and got bogged down by injuries, especially the one that basically ended Tamika Whitmore's season before the All-Star break.
Connecticut needed an infusion of youth, speed and scoring ability. And if things work out as planned, they will get it in abudance in this deal.
Montgomery and Tina Charles, who we anticipate will be the Sun's draft pick, are good friends and have the experience of playing together for two Final Four teams and one unbeaten national champion. They work well together; they are in synch mentally and techincally.
They run the floor with abandon, especially Charles, who may be the most agile post in a long time, and that's taking Candace Parker into consideration. Her inside game has been strengthened by international play over the summer - she was USA Basketball's player of the year - and she can shoot the 15-footer with consistency.
Montgomery is a leader. She can play the poiint and the off-guard. If the Sun sign Kara Lawson in free agency, which is another thing we've been hearing, CT's backcourt not only will be transformed will be one to be feared.
The Sun needed to do this, despite fan sentiment.
Altavilla’s description of what made the trade so great for Connecticut also articulates what made it work for the Lynx – Whalen is a calculating, deliberate facilitator who sees angles on the basketball court as well as anyone in basketball. She ran Thibault’s offense -- which was predicated on strong ball movement -- to perfection. The problem is that the Sun needed her to score in order to win. Montgomery can do that.
Montgomery is still unproven, but she did enough last year to demonstrate that she has the potential to be a star scoring point guard. The thought of pairing her with UConn senior center Tina Charles under the direction of coach Mike Thibault – definitely a key consideration in all of this – is almost too good to be true. So as far as Thibault is concerned, we might as well just end speculation about whether the Sun are considering picking anyone other than Charles.
"I would think it would have to be something crazy that I can't even fathom right now that would make us change our mind," said Thibault when asked about drafting Charles in a phone interview with Swish Appeal yesterday. "She's the reason we made the deal and she's clearly the number one pick. It's a pretty easy choice for us."
The final piece of Altavilla’s blueprint fell into place Tuesday with the signing of free agent guard Kara Lawson, who was left as an unrestricted free agent without the option of re-signing with the recently folded Sacramento Monarchs. So although they lost the veteran savvy that Whalen brought to the point guard position, they managed to add a player that is perhaps most well-known for the "intangibles" she brings to the court.
So in a sense, it’s not even that the Sun have made good decisions so far this off-season – it’s almost as if fate forced their hand.
"For us, this was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so to speak, to dramatically change your team," said Thibault. "Different things kind of came together at the right time. I never not want to make the playoffs, but this year -- with the injuries that we had -- probably not making the playoffs was a blessing in disguise because it put us in a great draft position, it put us in a good position in the dispersal with Sacramento, and allowed us to do some things that under normal circumstances we wouldn't do."However, with all the talk of "intangibles", "leadership", and "potential" – obviously important soft-skills – the matter of how well this team might actually function on the court remains an open question. Altavilla wrote yesterday that the Sun's drastic off-season makeover has "rejuvenated" the team, but what exactly does that mean? How well will all these moves translate into on-court success?
Drawing upon the SPI player styles spectrum and insights from a phone interview with coach Thibault, perhaps we can figure out what type of basketball visiting teams can expect when they arrive in Mohegan Sun Arena.
2009 Review: The final chapter of the Whalen Era
In summarizing the end of the Whalen Era, perhaps it’s useful to go back to Altavilla’s claim from his synopsis of the trade:
"The Sun were slow and lethargic in many positions last season. They didn't score well and got bogged down by injuries…"
Thibault disputes the notion that the team struggled to score last season, rightly pointing out that the Sun were one of the higher scoring teams in the league.
"People talk about our lack of scoring in certain areas and yet we ended up third in the league in scoring," said Thibault. "It's a little bit mystifying to me where the word "lack" comes for our team. When Asjha Jones got hurt and Tamika Whitmore because of her injuries was unable to pick up the slack, I think that was where the biggest problem occurred...it's just hard when you take two prime power forwards out of your offense and a major part of your production."
On the one hand, he's right -- despite a rash of injuries, the Sun finished last season tied for fourth in scoring with 78 points per game, which does account for any noticeable lack of scoring. On the other hand, Altavilla also has a point.
Watching the Sun in person last season against the Seattle Storm (a game in which they were missing Jones), there were possessions on which the Sun just seemed to experience some sort of gridlock – they were still running their beautifully systematic sets crisply, but they just weren’t scoring. It was almost as though Whalen was patiently looking to make plays while the rest of the team was waiting for her to make plays. There were times when it seemed nobody was actually looking to score. That might have been better with Jones, but the fact remains that there were times last season when the team lagged.
Where that shows up statistically is not points per game, but points per possession. Although the Sun did put up points last season, they did so with the third highest possessions per game. So not only were they ranked 11th in points per possession last season with 96.44, but they also had a negative scoring differential, though small (-.01). Combined with a field goal percentage of 40.6% (12th in the league), this team did indeed score, but not particularly efficiently or often.
One way to account for that is that they had the second lowest points in the paint last season (26.71) and the third lowest three point percentage (31.6%). In other words, it could be said that the Sun struggled to score at times because they neither had a reliable three point threat to spread the court and open up driving lanes, nor a reliable interior scoring threat to get them easy baskets. That could be explained by the injuries to their post players as Thibault pointed out, but there's another piece to it. What they had was a lot of players relying on Whalen’s assists – they finished 2nd in the league in assists with 17.88 – without being able to reliably create much, as evidenced by their usage percentages.
That is exactly what we see when looking at the individual SPI playing styles for the Sun in 2009.
As it turns out, the problem was not as much the lack of scorers as much as a lack of aggressive scorers who could create their own shots.
Only four of the players in their regular rotation could be considered scorers and only two players on the roster ranked in the top 50 in usage percentage last season – forward Asjha Jones (#15) and forward Sandrine Gruda (#38). As the team's primary post players, both Jones and Gruda rely on passes from others to get baskets.
Whalen – who was responsible for much of the distributing – had the fourth highest usage percentage on the team (#73). This reinforces the point above – there was a dearth of players able to create their own shots, one of the players who could was more of a distributor, and most of the rest of the team was reliant on the distributor.
Although the Sun suffered injuries to post players, their best post player by most people’s standards – Jones -- was more of a "pure scorer" than an "interior presence", based upon Sparks' SPI styles framework. Sandrine Gruda was the only interior scorer to play significant minutes, but had an average 2 point percentage of 46.7% (15th in the league among forwards). Center Chante Black, the other interior scorer to play significant minutes, was 24th in field goal percentage among centers.
In other words, they didn’t have many scoring options in the post, they weren’t necessarily the most reliable post scoring threats, and yet those were the players who looked to score most often. They weren't necessarily an imposing team in the post offensively or defensively.
From the perimeter, even though they did have two of the top 15 three point shooters in the league (#10 Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and # 14 Tan White), the rest of the team shot 27.80%. Considering that Jekabsone-Zogota was only responsible for 6.6% of the team’s overall production since she didn’t become a major part of the rotation until around August, they were a team that was limited from deep and limited inside for much of the season.
Lingering in 2009 for one moment more, what’s immediately striking is that Whalen (traded) and Tan White (free agent) were responsible for 30% of their production last season, based on valpct and just under 5 wins based on Boxscores.
So how can they make up for that production – while addressing glaring needs -- with their most recent acquisitions?
While White has reached a verbal agreement to re-sign with the Sun according to Thibault, there is still the matter of making up for Whalen’s production, which is certainly no small task.
"She and I had such a good relationship that she kinda knew what I was thinking," said Thibault. "But I think Renee and Kara have great understanding of the game. They know the tempo I want to play at. They both have a great basketball IQ, so I don't think it will be a very long time before we're all on the same page."
However, considering their needs above, the key here might not be "replacing Whalen" but reshaping the team with players who bring the things they lacked. Whalen is not necessarily the best fit for a team without players looking to score (hence why Minnesota, a team with 3 high usage scorers, makes sense for Whalen). Therefore, one could argue that the team either needed to get more scorers for Whalen to distribute to or replace Whalen with players that have a scorer’s mentality. The Sun have opted for the latter, while perhaps still maintaining some of the "intangibles" and "leadership" that Whalen brought.
"Lindsay is historically been about a 15 point a game, you know, 5 assist kind of person," said Thibault. "Well, I'm not going to say that either Kara or Renee will be exactly that, but between the two of them their numbers will be higher than that. I fully expect the two of them between them to average 20-25 points a game, between the two, and somewhere between 7 and 10 assists a game. So that's a huge factor to us."
Essentially, what Thibault is suggesting is that Whalen’s contributions will be distributed between Lawson and Montgomery this year. They will definitely lose Whalen's rebounding at the guard position, but gain two much needed perimeter scorers. As a heady player who plays very well in the flow of the game, Lawson is a complement to Montgomery that might make their backcourt more dangerous despite the loss of Whalen – they’ll be much more difficult to defend this season because of their ability to adjust to whatever the defense throws at them.
The Post-Whalen Era
SPI playing styles for Connecticut Sun 2010 additions
Montgomery, a young player with much stronger scoring tendencies than Whalen, is the perfect response to Altavilla’s assertion that the team needed an infusion of speed and youth. On more than one occasion last season, Montgomery showed the ability to aggressively attack the defense and get to the rim at will, single-handedly winning games for the Lynx. For a team of players that does not look to score and struggles to get baskets in the paint, Montgomery fits nicely.
Given that Montgomery’s usage percentage is likely to increase on a team with less players looking to score, it would seem that a distributor who can defend would be ideal next to her. The Sun didn’t necessarily do the opposite, but went a slightly different direction.
In addition to bringing intangibles, Lawson brings the Sun a scoring perimeter player who complements Montgomery well in terms of scoring – despite shooting a career low 33.6% from the three point line during a season plagued with injury, she is a threat from beyond the arc. Make no mistake – Lawson is on the edge of being a pure scorer, but what she brings to the Sun is versatility from the guard spot.
"She plays both guard positions," said Thibault, in response to what Lawson brings to the team on the court. "So we can play her at the point and have her run the team, she can play off the ball and come off screens and be a spot-up shooter. She can defend both positions -- she gives us the ability along with Renee Montgomery to play full court man defense, which allows us to pressure people more consistently than we've done before. She's a terrific three point shooter, which certainly I thought was a deficiency on our team last year. All of those things are basketball skills that we absolutely need."
Another, perhaps more subtle, addition is Jekabsone-Zogota, who joined the team late last year and started 16 games. In those starts, she not only played just over 10 minutes more per game, but also scored 5.7 more points per game. As a three point shooter, just playing more minutes for a full season will be a huge boost for the team in 2010.
"The last third of the season we got great production from Anete Jekabsone when she became a starter and kind of got used to the league," said Thibault. "She's capable of being a double figure scorer for us as well. So we've enhanced overall our perimeter scoring."
As for their needs on the interior, while it is obviously unclear exactly what Charles will contribute in her rookie season, it is clear that she will likely be some sort of contributing presence in the post, whether that be a stronger rebounding presence or scoring. With Charles, as well as the addition of DeMya Walker, the health of their veterans, and the development of their young players, Thibault is optimistic about their interior game this season.
"Now with Asjha and DeMya Walker and probably drafting Tina Charles, you're looking at players who are capable of getting big numbers every night," said Thibault. "I just think it's a total offensive makeover as far as definitely being able to sustain when one person goes out and having somebody else to take their place."
It would look like the Sun have not only filled multiple needs, but have gotten deeper and have young players that will continue to develop.
So what more might the Sun do in free agency?
With the signing of Lawson and forthcoming draft picks, the Sun are not likely to make any more significant moves in free agency, according to Thibault.
"Unless we were to do some sort of other deal we're pretty close to the cap," said Thibault. "We haven't really been exploring going after any other free agents at this point. We have picks in the draft, we're returning other players. If we do something, it will just happen to all of a sudden [appear] to us."
If they were to make a move, it is likely to involve guard Erin Phillips. Phillips is a reserved player whom the Sun have already offered a contract, meaning she cannot sign anywhere else. However, she has expressed interest in changing teams and the Sun are looking to accommodate that request with a sign and trade.
That means they are likely to add another new player to the roster and the ideal would be an interior scorer given their remaining needs. Even if they were to find that player, complicating the issue for the Sun is the reduction in the salary cap.
"It takes away the equivalent of another veteran minimum salary," said Thibault. "Reduce it by $52,000, just makes it less flexible for a lot of teams to do some things...I get a feeling that we'll see a lot of teams with high end contracts and rookie contracts but not much in between."
In any event, as a team with young talent with new pieces coming together with a shortened pre-season, expectations about the impact of the Whalen trade are probably more future-oriented than 2010 championship expectations of their trading partner.
"I think we've put in position to compete for it again," said Thibault, when asked how far away the Sun are from a championship. "We're bigger, more athletic, quicker, hopefully we've addressed some outside shooting issues. I think we certainly can contend for a championship right away...we need a little bit of luck but I think we can put ourselves in that position again."
- Coach Thibault on White: "Tan is right now pretty mch verbally agreed to a contract -- she just has a couple of things to take care of -- so she'll be back with us."
- Coach Thibault on Phillips: "She's a reserved player, she's not a free agent. She can only sign with us unless we can sign and trade with somebody else. She's been offered a contract. So far, she's not signed it. There's part of her that wants to go somewhere else. She's looking at our roster and seeing what's there and she might think she can play more somewhere else. That's something we just have to work through over the next month or two. So that's kind of one of the last questions to be solved."
- Versatility is becoming the theme in the WNBA and Thibault described an exciting vision of the Sun's versatile backcourt:
"I think you just need to have good players," said Thibault of Lawson and Montgomery. "The fact that they both have skills that are similar but yet you can play them both together at the same time makes our team more versatile. It doesn't matter which one gets the outlet pass to start the fast break because the other one can take off and run. It doesn't matter which one is wanting to take the ball up because one of them at different times is going to make the right decision and the other one can be a spot up shooter on the other side -- it doesn't make any difference. So you don't have to slow the team down to make sure everyone gets back into the right spot each time because they're capable of being interchangable."