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Sun vs. Storm preview: Why did the Sun struggle in July?

Despite an outstanding rookie year from Tina Charles, the Connecticut Sun have sputtered in the second half of the season. <em>Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.</em>
Despite an outstanding rookie year from Tina Charles, the Connecticut Sun have sputtered in the second half of the season. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

Once upon a time at the end of June, the Connecticut Sun were 10-5 and appeared to be rolling after a 7-3 month.

Then something seemed to go wrong.

Coming to KeyArena last Thursday to face the Storm, the Sun had gone 3-8 since beating the Shock in Tulsa on June 29. After their loss to the Washington Mystics on Tuesday, they have only won one of eight games on the road since the end of June.

So what's happened?

When I first looked at the Sun statistically before last week's game in Seattle, it looked as though they had become a much more interior oriented team, most notably with guard Kara Lawson's shots decreasing while Asjha Jones' have increased dramatically. Simultaneously, they're relying more heavily on Lawson and guard Tan White for increased rebounding while rookie center Tina Charles' rebounding percentage has decreased in this losing stretch.

Road trips aside, although they have become a better offensive rebounding team by percentage, the team is showing very different tendencies than what they were early in the season overall.

However, watching the last three Sun games a bit more closely, it becomes evident that there's been another major factor in their success: Renee Montgomery.

The first thing that stands out is that Jones' minutes have increased and her shot attempts have increased dramatically since scoring a then-season-high 16 points in a then-season-high 31 minutes in a road loss against the Chicago Sky on July 1.

Jones went from 6.66 shots/game to 13.66 shots/game with only about one more touch per game, meaning her usage percentage -- the percentage of plays she uses up while on the court -- has leaped from 17% at the end June to 25.58% now. Charles has seen a similar, if less dramatic, increase -- while her shots per game have only increased from 12.56 to 13.22, her usage percentage has increased from 23.99% to 28.78%.

Most surprising was the shift in Sandrine Gruda's numbers -- her shots and touches have remained relatively stable, but her usage percentage has also increased from 18.99% to 25.57%. As might be expected, as the number of plays Gruda uses have gone up, her shooting efficiency has declined dramatically -- her true shooting percentage has dropped from 62.13% through June to 56.51% now. Meanwhile Jones has been the second least efficient scorer on the team with a true shooting percentage hovering around 47%.

And while those interior usage numbers go up, the perimeter numbers have gone down. Kara Lawson went from 8.37 shots/game through June to 5.66 shots/game in the last 10 games and Tan White saw a slight dip in productivity.

Although Montgomery's touches and usage didn't change drastically, her pure point rating did during that time -- it dropped from 2.28 to 1.36 in 9 games. But this might be the more interesting thing -- over the last 3 games, it's gone back up to 2.25. What happened?

Time period Assist ratio Turnover% Pure point rating
Through July 3 21.93% 11.14% 2.28
July 3-Aug 1 24.53% 15.73% -.67
Aug 1-Aug 11 23.91 9.26% 4.60

Renee Montgomery's ball handling numbers for 2010

Yes, the Sun have lost three of those last four games, but they actually outplayed the Storm -- and arguably lost the game due to a bad foul by Montgomery -- and went to overtime with the Lynx. The team played better overall with Montgomery more efficient as a distributor, mostly keeping the turnovers down rather than just piling up assists. A brief look at those three games, including the team's overall performance.

And as much as those numbers might help to understand the connection between Montgomery's play and the team's trends this season, a similar pattern has played out over the last three games.

Game Assist Ratio Turnover% Pure point rating Team performance (MEV) Opp. MEV
@ Seattle 32.50% 3.25% 17.17 96.61 79.6
vs. Was 30.17% 8.62% 8.08 74.16 46.52
@ Was 18.51% 18.51% -4.90 70.6 112.4

Renee Montgomery's ball handling numbers and team performance over the last three games.

So we see a similar pattern here as exists for the season, though far more dramatic and possibly oversimplified given all the factors that have changed for the Sun during the season. But when Montgomery's turnovers go up thus making her pure point rating go down, the team's performance overall shifts. It's also noting that either Lawson (8.88 ppr @ Sea) or White (4.17 ppr vs Was) have stepped up alongside Montgomery in their two best games of the last three, meaning that having an alternate ball handler in addition to Montgomery is a huge asset.

A large part of that is that at her best, Montgomery is able to both drive and score. Given that she has the ball in her hands so much to run the team, what she's able to do with it really matters. On the other hand, against Washington on Tuesday when White stepped up (13.33 ppr) and Lawson complemented (2.22 ppr) the team suffered.

Prior to the Seattle game, coach Mike Thibault reiterated what he said in a pre-season interview -- ideally, the vision of having Lawson and Montgomery in the backcourt to replace Whalen was to distribute the responsibility she had as focal point of the offense to two players. At their best -- particularly in the third quarter against the Storm -- that's exactly what happened: both players were extremely effective distributing the ball with Montgomery getting into the lane and Lawson making savvy plays. At their worst -- the fourth quarter against the Storm -- the turnovers pile up and they have trouble getting into a flow: they had a 24% turnover percentage in the 4th quarter in Seattle compared to the Storm's 6%.

As Thibault said post-game, that Storm game was pretty much a microcosm of the season. They have typically been able to keep their turnovers down but when they go up -- and particularly when Montgomery's go up -- they struggle. Against the Storm at home tonight, it will be interesting to see if the Sun can replicate that third quarter of moving the ball with Montgomery attacking the basket or if they'll revert to their turnover prone 4th quarter.