2012 season review and offseason summary
After finishing first in the Eastern Conference and coming within a game of advancing to the 2012 WNBA Finals, the Connecticut Sun shocked many people by firing longtime coach Mike Thibault and replacing him with Anne Donovan.
What was most surprising about that move is that it appeared that Thibault had been getting the most out of the roster he was given, which won games despite two flaws that might seem counterintuitive to some: despite leading the Eastern Conference in points scored per game, the Sun were actually outshot by their opponents; despite having 2012 MVP and league rebounding leader (10.5 per game) Tina Charles patrolling the paint, the Sun were beat on the offensive boards.
2012 Four Factors and efficiency statistics for the Connecticut Sun.
For those who pay close attention to statistics, those negative differentials aren’t actually that surprising: first, as stated in our offseason preview, they had very similar issues in 2011. Second, though Charles is an imposing force in the paint and worthy MVP candidate, she has never been an extremely efficient high volume post scorer. Third, although Asjha Jones had a career-high 10.1% offensive rebounding percentage last season in 20 games and Mistie Mims gave them a huge boost on the boards with an 11.3% offensive rebounding percentage, they were otherwise a jump shooting team filled with a rotation of poor offensive rebounders beyond their their top three posts.
In short, it was a team that relied heavily on Tina Charles – a center who takes a lot of jumpers – and Kara Lawson – who shot a career-high 172 threes in a career year – but didn’t have the personnel around them to outshoot or outrebound opponents.
That could certainly be framed as a coaching challenge in terms of schemes or mentality. But, as weird as this sounds for a championship contender that won the conference, it was at least as much a personnel problem. And that framed the challenge for the Sun this season: how can they either reverse that emergent trend of being outshot, improve as a rebounding team, or both?
2013 WNBA Draft: Kelly Faris
I always found it funny when people said that Kelly Faris was better than what shows up in her college stats – if that were really the case, she probably should’ve been considered a fourth addition to the Big Three in the 2013 WNBA Draft.
Her senior year stats were absolutely outstanding, as we noted here a number of times, and she plays the game in such a way that she probably would’ve fit into anyone’s system. The only problem was that she was a low usage player, a type of prospect that simply hasn’t fared well in the WNBA in the past.
Where she might specifically help the Sun this season is that she gives them an option to replace the injured Danielle McCray with a player who has a chance to become a more efficient scorer and distributor on the wing. If she can do that – meeting or exceed McCray’s rookie year numbers would be a good baseline – she’ll greatly aid the Sun’s effort to become a more efficient scoring team. And that’s to say nothing of her defensive potential.
Faris was limited in the preseason due to injury so it’s not clear how she fits into the Sun’s rotation, but the potential to make an impact is there.
Otherwise, they basically return the same roster minus Asjha Jones who is out for the season due to an offseason injury.
Their biggest strength was their turnover differential, led by the efficient play of Lawson and Charles being a relatively sure-handed high usage interior player. Renee Montgomery wasn’t exactly efficient despite winning Sixth Woman of the Year, but kept the turnovers low enough. Their next biggest strength, and a good complement for a team relying on jump shooting to have, was their free throw rate with a number of players able to get to the line at an above average rate.
They should continue to exhibit those strengths. The problem is they should also continue to exhibit those weaknesses.
2012 statistics for Sun returners and veterans. Jones included despite injury.
In most seasons, replacing the below average offensive rebounding Jones (entering last season, she was coming off three consecutive seasons of career-low offensive rebounding numbers under 7.5%) would be an opportunity to improve their rebounding situation. However given that she had a career-high season last year makes it a bit tougher to see how they’re going to get better in that area.
Kelsey Griffin was the next best offensive rebounder on the roster after Jones last season and more minutes from her could conceivably help the team on the boards, but after that they’re just not returning a lot of rebounders. So that draws attention to their two veteran adds this offseason: for whatever it’s worth, Natasha Lacy is actually a very good offensive rebounding guard for her size, but that’s not necessarily going to change the whole picture for them. That leaves Ashley Walker as someone to watch.
X-Factor: Ashley Walker
We don’t really have anything that would help us get a sense of what Ashley Walker can do.
Her rookie year with the Seattle Storm in 2009 was limited due to injury. Those who watched the Seattle Storm closely in the 2010 preseason were optimistic about her development, but she was waived in favor of Ashley Robinson (depriving all of us of the brilliant reality Stormvision show “The Ashleys”). Since then, she has failed to make a roster in consecutive seasons before sticking with the Sun.
She has always had the potential to become a versatile combo forward who can score from multiple spots around the court, but she has always also had questions about who she would defend (too small for the league’s posts, not accustomed to defending the perimeter in the WNBA). But the Sun could really use her help on the boards and perhaps there’s some hope in the quantum leap that Erlana Larkins made last season in returning to the league after three seasons away: a 6% jump in offensive rebounding over Walker’s rookie year would be a major coup for the Sun. And hey, she did have five offensive boards in her last exhibition game against the Minnesota Lynx. But even a jump to 10% – from Walker or Griffin for that matter – would help the Sun get back to where they were last season without losing too much ground in that department.
The conventional wisdom is probably that everything this team does revolves around Tina Charles, but Kevin Pelton laid out the challenge to that quite well last season: there’s a strong argument that Kara Lawson was the key to the team’s success last season.
Where you stand on that debate now is irrelevant – what’s important is that the Sun have options when Charles is off the floor.
The dual-point guard movement that fully took hold in the NBA this season – perhaps most prominently during the Golden State Warriors‘ playoff run (I’m biased) – is something that the Sun were able to utilize as well when playing Lawson and Montgomery together, with Montgomery being more of a scoring guard than distributor anyway. With Alison Hightower emerging as an elite defender, Faris also figuring to be a solid defender and 3-point shooter and having a couple of other 3-point shooters on the floor, they could opt to play small and fast or go bigger and pound the ball in to Charles.
They’re not necessarily the most versatile roster in the league, but they are certainly among the most flexible teams in their ability to go uptempo or play in the half court efficiently.
Nevertheless, the obvious problem for the Sun is that they’re not particularly deep on the interior. Improvement from Kelsey Griffin would really help them and a big improvement from Walker would be an asset as well. But the Eastern Conference has its share of big or quick power forwards (and Tamika Catchings) and the Sun will need someone who can step up on the defensive end in the post with Jones absent.
On the perimeter, this team has depth in terms of their ability to put players on the floor but could really use someone more efficient than McCray or Kalana Greene were last season on the wing. Faris could develop into that person, but after she spent the preseason recovering from the foot injury she sustained in the NCAA Tournament she won’t be contributing early.
But another thing that could really help the Sun is if Montgomery becomes a more efficient scorer than she was last season: she had a career-high usage rate (25.3%) and a career-low true shooting percentage (50.3%). That’s a slightly above average scoring efficiency for a scoring guard, but also indicative of a dilemma for the Sun given their scoring efficiency overall.
Last season, Montgomery had the highest usage rate on the team at that average scoring efficiency, which meant more efficient scoring options like Charles or Lawson weren’t getting those shots. That’s part of why bringing her off the bench to lead the second unit was perfect: she could come in and give the team a scoring boost with those other scorers out. But in light of the team’s need to improve their scoring efficiency a bit, they need another scoring option with that second unit to take some of the pressure off of Montgomery (going back to the previous point about the wings).
But another interesting point related to the Sun’s scoring efficiency is that Jones has also been an inefficient scoring post player for most of her career and also had a 23.4% usage rate as another jump shooting post. They don’t figure to have a high usage post replacing her (assuming that person is Kelsey Griffin or Mistie Bass), which could actually have the effect of making them more efficient as they redistribute those shots.
Key question: How do things change with Asjha Jones out?
Ultimately the key question for this team is how they move forward without Jones for this season, both in terms of finding offensive rebounding help from someone and redistributing shots to become more efficient as a scoring team.
There are plenty of examples in sports where a team improves after losing a major cog in their machine, not because that player was overrated but because that absence forced them to maximize the skills of everyone else in making up for that lost production. The Sun could very well being a case of that this season: although Jones was helpful on the boards last season, she was an inefficient volume shooting post. If they can find a way to replace her production with a more efficient player – or a lower usage player, thus putting the ball in the hands of more efficient scorers – they could be fine. Similarly, if they find someone off the bench to step up to take some of the pressure off Montgomery, they could become more efficient overall.
But Donovan’s emphasis on defense, which was actually the emphasis in our offseason preview, could help narrow that scoring efficiency differential as well – small improvements on both ends of the ball could go a long way to making this team better even after a year in which they won the regular season title in the East.