Outside of the serious championship contenders is there a team that has created higher expectations than the Connecticut Sun? The team signaled playoffs or bust by giving up their chance at a golden ticket in the 2011 draft by trading for Kelsey Griffin, the third pick in the 2010 draft.
The Sun management should understand the odds of gambling better than anybody and the odds are on their side, but the recent misfortune of the New York Liberty does strongly skew the perception of this type of move. It’s hard not to think of the worst case scenario in a competitive league where any team is capable of missing the playoffs with a single key injury. And the new rebuilt Sun roster also lends itself to a focus on limitations, rather than potential.
It’s easier to fantasize about the perimeter talent now assembled in Chicago around Slyvia Fowles, what a superstar like Cappie Pondexter can do in New York, the benefit of all that size and athleticism in Atlanta or what all those ACC athletes in Washington can achieve even without Alana Beard. However, at a time when potential rules the imagination, the Sun may not capture that imagination.
The Sun have clearly visible limitations.
Connecticut's guards are undersized and each player has their individual question marks. The team lacks anything close to the athletic star wing player that every other team in their conference seems to have. Even the new strength of the team is filled with question marks. Forward Asjha Jones is returning from surgery and won’t be cleared to play until at least the beginning of the season. Sandrine Gruda will miss the beginning of the season, as usual. Further, there seems to be a lot of confusion about how effective Tina Charles will actually be as a rookie.
And the draft day trade to acquire Kelsey Griffin changed expectations and invited further focus on limitations by raising expectations for the season and for Griffin.
Worth the Risk?
In isolation, the selection of Kelsey Griffin with the third pick in the draft is understandable. The Sun acquired a player that is at least comparable with anyone available in the 2011 draft outside of Maya Moore. And oddly Maya Moore was the player Griffin reminded me most of when I first watched her play. Moore is a significantly better player and excels in areas where Griffin has significant weaknesses, but the way Griffin plays and moves on the court was very reminiscent of Moore.
They both understand how to play aggressively, while still playing unselfishly and within the team concept. They’re efficient with their opportunities, finishing shots and committing very few turnovers. They both get off the floor and attack the ball off of the glass, and while neither is a great individual defender they both contribute heavily to team defense. Griffin won't win many foot races, but she has some Lindsay Whalen-style athleticism. She plays offense in the air and with tremendous body control.
There's a lot to like about Griffin, but when a team with a hole at small forward and an already full post rotation makes a potentially risky trade for a college post player like Griffin, it shined a light on Griffin’s weaknesses and limitations, rather than her strengths. Griffin is no longer the player that shot 60% from the floor, dominated the glass, and changed the fortunes of the Nebraska program, but rather simply the player that has neither demonstrated the exceptional speed nor deep shooting range that one might hope for from a WNBA player.
The Sun have been quiet about what their expectations are for Griffin, but they had to believe Griffin can successfully make the transition to small forward given the makeup of the roster. The transition from post player to wing is very challenging and rarely successful, but Griffin has a shot because of her court awareness and work ethic. This will be a difficult transition, but one worth keeping an eye on considering the size of the bet that the Sun placed not just on Griffin, but on the new team they had assembled.
The New Center
If the season does follow the worst case scenario for the Sun it is hard to imagine the fallout from not only missing out on drafting Maya Moore, but missing out on keeping Maya Moore in Connecticut, regardless of how much the Sun have worked to differentiate their fan base from the UConn fan base. Griffin will automatically be tagged forever as the player traded for Moore even though Griffin herself may not have a major effect on whether the Sun make the playoffs.
Although it's clear that Thibault liked Griffin even before the Big 12 tournament, it might be less clear how exactly Griffin fits into the Sun's playoff hopes. The outcome of the season will be determined by the play of acquisitions made prior to the Griffin trade - Tina Charles, Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery, DeMya Walker - and the play of the core players Thibault kept in Asjha Jones, Sandrine Gruda, and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota. That group will decide the fate of the season.
Tina Charles will be the heart of this team by the end of the season and everything is set up to eventually revolve around her. She won't and doesn't have to be the leader, but by the end of the season there will likely be little doubt that Charles is the best player on the team. Jones will still be more polished, but Charles will be the more dominant player. The shooting range of Jones and Gruda should complement Charles on the low block and Walker provides a physical presence in the paint off of the bench. Any of the four players can be played in combination with each other, providing tremendous versatility.
A team built around post players needs at least solid guard play. Montgomery was the logical player to be included in a trade that was really all about Whalen and Charles. The Sun were trading their star point guard and needed one back in return, but Thibault had also spoken very highly of Montgomery prior to the 2009 draft. Thibault got back a player he believed in and now it is Montgomery’s turn to reward that belief. Montgomery doesn’t need to become a true point guard to be a success with the Sun, but she does need to take care of the ball and score efficiently. And Lawson may be just the player to ground Montgomery and the team as a consistent and efficient force to counterbalance the ups and downs of the aggressive Montgomery.
Thibault also likely expects Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, the other likely starter in a three guard lineup to begin the season, to shoot more consistently in her second WNBA season. That group is undersized, but they are all three-point shooters, which are needed to space the floor for Charles and Jones. The Sun need those three guards to stay healthy and after that Thibault knows he can at least fill in the gaps with returning players Tan White and Kerri Gardin if rookies Griffin and Allison Hightower aren't ready to contribute early on.
The Sun have the best post depth in at least the East and the makings of at least a solid guard rotation.They also haven’t had a strong wing player since Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales both departed following the 2007 season. And Thibault seems content to mix and match at the small forward position once again.
How that plays out will be an interesting story line. Will he eventually be able to put three post players on the court and have them be effective? Can Griffin emerge as a contributor there? Or can the guards simply shoot well enough to make up for being undersized on the wing?
Ideally, Thibault will be able to piece together the forty minutes at small forward with a bit of all three. This is the 2010 Sun team with a lot at stake for the organization. Question marks everywhere? Sure, there's a at least a one in three chance that it never comes together this season. Thibault could end up looking foolish but this also has the feel of a team that could overachieve in the regular season.
Great depth and playing hard consistently as a team can win a lot of games in the regular season. It doesn’t help as much in the playoffs, but it gets teams into the playoffs ahead of seemingly more talented teams. And the playoffs are exactly where the Sun need to be at the end of the season.