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Connecticut Sun again fall short of championship ambitions

Despite another deep playoff run ending in disappointment, the Connecticut Sun’s 2022 season should not be categorized as a failure. Nevertheless, changes are coming.

2022 WNBA Finals - Game Four
Have we seen the last of the Jones tandem in Connecticut?
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Was the Connecticut Sun’s 2022 season a success?

The first instinct is to answer this question with an affirmative “No!”

Although not quite labeling this season “championship or bust,” the Sun were frank about their championship aspirations throughout the season. Yet, they again fell short, falling 3-1 to the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA Finals with Sunday afternoon’s 78-71 loss.

This was the fourth-consecutive postseason in which Connecticut was eliminated in the semifinals or Finals, suggesting an inability to get over the hump and thus categorizing this season as less than a success (or, more harshly, worthy of mockery). The Sun also continue to hold the WNBA record for most postseason wins without winning a title (37), an undesirable designation.

However, instead of constructing a narrative of endemic underachievement, contextualizing Connecticut’s season shows that the Sun’s season can be considered, if not successful, far from a failure.

The Sun shined in 2022...

First, the almost season-long absence of Jasmine Thomas should not be underestimated. If the Sun had a fully healthy J. Thomas for the playoff run, the fact that they fell short of a championship could more fairly be cast as a failure. Instead, for the third-straight season, the Sun had to adapt to the absence of one of their core players. While J. Thomas’ presence would not have solved all of Connecticut’s problems, as her hesitancy as a shooter can contribute to the Sun’s offensive issues, her ability to get the ball to the bigs and lock down opposing guards (including an impressive track record against Chelsea Gray) was missed.

Nevertheless, without J. Thomas, the Sun had the best net rating (9.5) in the league for the regular season, compiled through the second-best offensive (105.8) and defensive (96.3) ratings. Additionally, the Sun, the No. 3-seed, upset the defending champion and No. 2-seed Chicago Sky in the semifinals, overcoming a seemingly-insurmountable 2-1 deficit to eliminate the Sky home on their home court and advance to the Finals.

Furthermore, the Sun season saw several examples of individual excellence, exemplified by Alyssa Thomas. On Sunday, A. Thomas tallied her second-straight triple-double, posting 11 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. She became the first player to register two-straight triple-doubles (regular season or playoffs) and the first player to earn four triple-doubles in a single season (regular season and postseason). Her four triple-doubles, all achieved since mid-July, are the most for one player in WNBA history. Although a triple-double ultimately is an arbitrary statical achievement that can overrate a player’s impact on the action, Thomas’ triple-doubles accurately encapsulate her status as her squad’s “Engine.”

And she did this after missing almost all of last season due to an Achilles injury. While A. Thomas’ insistence on playing with two torn labrums simultaneously impresses and frustrates, her post-Achilles injury performance is simply impressive (even as she has gotten less credit for her comeback than the likes of Breanna Stewart and Kelsey Plum did).

Along with A. Thomas, Brionna Jones deserves praise for her 2022 play. Despite solidifying herself as an All-Star-level player in 2021, the 2021 Most Improved Player seamlessly shifted to a reserve role for 2022, establishing herself as the near-unanimous Sixth Woman of the Year in addition to earning her second-straight All-Star berth. While her production dipped in the playoffs, her output and efficiency improved during the regular season per 36 minutes. In the Finals, she performed best in Game 4, when she hit several key buckets down the stretch, scoring nine of her 11 points in the fourth quarter to keep Connecticut in contact with Vegas.

It also is worth noting the improvement of Natisha Hiedeman. Thrust into the role of starting point guard after operating as an off guard for much of her collegiate and professional career, Hiedeman did not quite prove that she has the playmaking chops needed to be a lead guard in the W. Nevertheless, she did cement her status as a valuable contributor, primarily because of her elite 3-point shooting. After shooting 41.1 percent from deep during the regular season on 4.7 attempts per game, she shot 44.4 percent on 3.0 triples per game in the postseason. In Game 3 of the Finals, she was perfect from behind the arc, draining all three of her 3-point attempts. When relieved of the primary ballhandling burden, Hiedeman’s 3-ball should be further weaponized through an increased number of attempts per game.

Compared to the above trio, DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones had somewhat disappointing seasons. The effects of age appeared to begin to catch up with Bonner, most evidenced by dips in her free throw and rebounding numbers. Her inconsistencies in the postseason also point to an age-related decline. Nearly invisible in Games 1 and 2, Bonner was critical in Game 3 before an uneven, inefficient Game 4. J. Jones’ season, although not MVP caliber, was not far off from her 2021 performance, despite a perception otherwise. Her play in the Finals is indicative of the difficulty of evaluating J. Jones’ season, as her inability to consistently reach an MVP level often can be attributed to a lack of opportunity. After scoring 20 points on 12 shot attempts in Game 3, J. Jones scored 13 points on eight shot attempts in Game 4.

...but clouds loom

Although it would be premature to proclaim that Connecticut’s championship window has closed, it also is difficult to imagine a brighter future.

The Sun themselves appear not ready to confront such a future, expressing an intention to run it (mostly) back. After Game 4, Curt Miller said, “When you come up short, it certainly really hurts. But that means that there was something that mattered and something special amongst that group of players when it hurts that much.”

Jonquel Jones echoed her head coach, sharing, “This team has heart. This team has a lot of pride. The chips didn’t fall the way we wanted them to, but there’s a lot of selflessness and a lot of sacrifices to be able to have this team back together and make this run.”

However, barring some seemingly impossible financial finagling, this team will look different in 2023. Big salaries for DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones and Jasmine Thomas make it unlikely that unrestricted free agent Brionna Jones can return on a contract commensurate with her value. Additionally, Courtney Williams, who took a pay cut to return to Connecticut in 2022, presumably will seek to sign for the highest salary as an unrestricted free agent. While it is more likely that the Sun’s financial situation will allow the team to retain Natisha Hiedeman, a restricted free agent, an unexpectedly rich offer sheet from another franchise could lead to her departure.

Will these impending personnel changes lead to more significant, strategic changes in Connecticut?

Throughout the regular season, tension appeared to permeate the Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones pairing, particularly on the offensive end. In 2022, J. Jones sacrificed more than Thomas, thus explaining the disparity in perception between the two players’ seasons. A. Thomas appeared to have had the better season because she was given the space to be the best version of herself; J. Jones, in contrast, operated in an offensive environment often not organized in a way to optimize her talent.

Despite advancing to the WNBA Finals, should the Sun re-envision their offense? Might the example of the team that captured that elusive championship — the Aces — prove instructive?

In 2021, the Aces were a great team, led by then head coach Bill Laimbeer. But Becky Hammon made them even better in 2022. More importantly, she made them better in ways that translated to the postseason, resulting in them raising the trophy instead of again exiting the playoffs with a sense of regret.

Although it would be surprising if the Sun moved on from Miller, who also serves as the organization’s general manager, it is tempting to wonder if a new set of eyes with new ideas could help this team get over the hump, not unlike Hammon did for the Aces and A’ja Wilson. Alternatively, Miller and his staff could choose to make changes themselves, using the offseason to implement a revitalized offensive system that not only better takes advantage of the outlier offensive talent of J. Jones but also is less susceptible to the scoring droughts that ultimately have been to blame for the Sun’s playoff shortcomings.

In short, Connecticut has an opportunity to ward off the clouds that could come this offseason and, once again, be in the thick of the chase for that long-sought championship in 2023.