The Connecticut Sun (21-10) have been one of the WNBA’s best teams for the vast majority of the 2023 regular season, keeping pace with the Las Vegas Aces (28-4) and New York Liberty (25-7) near the top of the league’s standings through early August. At times, it seemed as if they were in a position to perhaps even surpass the Liberty, which would be quite the feat given the difference in star-level talent between the two teams.
Recently, though, the Sun have fallen off. Connecticut has lost its last three games—the team’s first three-game losing streak since 2021—and with nine games remaining in the regular season, the Sun are running out of time to catch the second-place Liberty in the standings.
The loss of Brionna Jones is catching up to Connecticut
A third-place finish, to be clear, would certainly not be seen as a failure for the Sun, especially after an early-season injury to starting center Brionna Jones forced the team into a major starting lineup change in June. The Sun have been playing long stretches of games without a traditional post player since then, using forward Alyssa Thomas as their de facto center while relying on the length of wing players like DeWanna Bonner and Rebecca Allen in a havoc-inducing “positionless” defensive scheme.
For the most part, it’s worked; the Sun continue to have a noticeable physical advantage against lesser WNBA teams, and what they lack in convention, they make up for by simply playing harder than their opposition. Thomas isn’t just thriving in her new role, she’s been downright superhuman, posting averages of 15.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game while playing an average of 36.6 minutes per contest, and, more often than not, her sheer intensity is reflected in the effort of her supporting cast.
It’s fair to wonder how sustainable that strategy is, though, especially during Connecticut’s current slide. The Sun allowed a total of 186 points in two recent losses to the Dallas Wings, with over half of them coming in the paint. Jones’ absence was certainly felt against 6-foot-7 Wings centers Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown. As a unit, the Sun seemingly had met their match physically, unable to control either the paint or the foul game—two areas a roster short on 3-point shooting cannot afford to come up short in.
Of course, no other team in the WNBA boasts the size on the interior that Dallas does, and the Wings are by far the league’s strongest offensive rebounding team, posting an offensive rebounding rate of 36.1 percent through August 19. One could argue that the Wings are simply a bad matchup for the undersized Sun, who have fared just fine against the rest of the league on Thomas’ broad shoulders.
How the Sun can find more sustainability
Even so, the playoffs are a different beast entirely. You can only “grit and grind” your way so far—just ask previous Sun teams, like the 2019 and 2022 WNBA runners-up or the 2021 regular-season champs who ran out of gas in the postseason.
While the 2023 Sun look a little different than those iterations, the same concerns remain, specifically a lack of 3-point shooting. The Sun currently rank last in the WNBA in percentage of shots attempted from 3-point range at 27.9 percent. An over reliance on Thomas also could leave Connecticut’s star unable to sustain her MVP-caliber play when it matters most.
The most logical solution for the Sun is to get more players involved. Guard Tiffany Hayes has been effective in her first season in Connecticut, but she’s posting her lowest usage rate (18.6 percent) since she was the Atlanta Dream’s secondary offensive option way back in 2014. Bonner has been remarkably steady for someone about to turn 36 years old, but she’s struggled in August, shooting 38.4 percent. Natisha Hiedeman is a threat from the outside but has been an even lower-usage player than Hayes.
Is it feasible to expect some kind of overhaul from Connecticut with nine games remaining? Probably not, and the Sun likely aren’t hitting the panic button, either. No matter how they finish, the 2023 regular season will be another successful one in the franchise’s storied history. Success, though, has many definitions, and depending on which one the Sun choose, their last week and a half could end up looking like a missed opportunity.