Connecticut Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller summed up the 2019 WNBA Finals nicely after his team fell short on the road in Game 5 against the Washington Mystics.
“I think, when this thing goes away, that if we would tell them that we get to check it up with 10 minutes to go with a two-point lead in Game 5 of a winner-take-all game, I think we would play that 10 minutes over and over and over again,” he said postgame.
Nonetheless, Washington outscored Connecticut 27-14 in the fourth quarter, led by regular season MVP Elena Delle Donne and Finals MVP Emma Meesseman.
In a season largely defined by the glut of big names that were unavailable, these two teams entered the year with the most continuity and treated viewers to a high-level series culminating with the seventh Game 5 in WNBA Finals history.
This Finals trip was a tremendous step forward for the Sun after back-to-back 21-win seasons that ended with single-elimination playoff exits, which had hardly given the front office much to work with in evaluating its core’s ability to compete at the highest level.
Now, Miller got a look at his group on the game’s biggest stage ahead of an incredibly critical offseason as eight players are set to hit free agency. Here are some of the biggest questions facing the Sun as they look to reload for another deep postseason run:
Who gets brought back?
Rachel Banham, Bria Holmes, Jonquel Jones, Morgan Tuck, Courtney Williams are all members of the 2016 draft class. Those five will also be restricted free agents.
Jones and Williams, the team’s two primary scoring options, must take priority. Locking them in for multiple seasons would be preferred. Unless the definition of restricted free agency is altered in the new collective bargaining agreement, they will be RFAs again if they opt for one-year deals.
Tuck and Holmes each would be very difficult to replace. The former is a capable stretch option and fits into multiple configurations because starting power forward Alyssa Thomas is versatile enough to defend the league’s best at either forward spot. Holmes provides some important punch when driving to the rim and can also defend all three perimeter spots.
Connecticut will also have the inside track to retain 2019 second-round pick Natisha Hiedeman. The Marquette alum was waived by the Sun prior to the start of the season, then spent some time with Atlanta before Connecticut brought her back in July. Hiedeman would be a reserved player—a designation for anyone with one to three years of service.
Backup point guard Layshia Clarendon and starting wing Shekinna Stricklen will be unrestricted free agents. Without an obvious successor waiting in the wings, prioritizing Stricklen would also appear to be an obvious choice.
Clarendon went down in June with an ankle injury and was shelved for the rest of the season. Her absence highlighted the need for Hiedeman’s return. Because the latter is cost-controlled as a reserved player, the Sun may look to keep both behind starter Jasmine Thomas going into next season.
Clarendon’s market will have a big say in how things play out.
Stricklen, the other unrestricted free agent, has to be seen as less of a flight risk. Miller optimizes her well, and she already has a big role with a serious contender. Connecticut’s view of Hiedeman will be key: Is she good enough to draw a line between Clarendon, despite Miller knowing how tough it will become to get under the hard cap as at least some of these players get significant raises?
Banham will likely be the toughest individual decision. She’s a fan favorite and has been with the club for four years, but as a combo guard that hasn’t sustained a level of play to demand more run, the Sun may be better off using her roster spot to bring in somebody with more upside, starting with one of their two first-round 2020 picks.
What’s the return on two first-round picks?
Miller holds the No. 10 and 11 selections in the upcoming draft. If he were looking to make a move, packaging a player and those two picks to either move up or target a player on another team would be an obvious starting point.
As some of the Sun’s core pieces begin making more money after coming off their rookie-scale deals, it will become even more important to land some young players that can contribute. 2018 first-round pick Lexie Brown was dealt to Minnesota this past offseason for the pick that became Hiedeman, and 2019 first-round pick Kristine Anigwe was shipped to Dallas for stretch big Theresa Plaisance.
Plaisance (back) did not play in the final three games of the regular season and logged just five minutes during the playoffs, further adding to the challenges facing Miller as he navigates free agency: He never got to see what the midseason acquisition could do in a series.
On a surface level, dealing two first-round picks so early looks like a cause for concern. The Brown deal is fine if Hiedeman becomes a dependable backup point guard. Although their needs changed once Clarendon got hurt, the fact that the Sun were willing to cut her out of camp says something.
Anigwe is still very much “TBD” as a pro. Plaisance really adds value (if she’s healthy) as another big body that can slot in next to Jones or Alyssa Thomas. She’s somebody that teams have to guard out at the 3-point line. Plaisance’s deal is guaranteed through 2020, too, which may make Tuck more expendable—or at least easier to pry away with a hefty offer sheet.
The only real criticism, then, comes back to not simply selecting Kia Nurse back in 2018; She made her first All-Star appearance this season with the New York Liberty. Getting a surefire starter at No. 9 (No. 10 for the Liberty) in any draft is a tremendous value. Maria Vadeeva was also still on the board. That’s much more complicated, however, as it would be unfair to assume every international player is willing to come over and play in all 12 markets.
Miller needs to turn these picks into some serviceable depth, especially if they lose a piece or two in free agency.
What Miller does with his one-position backups at point guard and center will be fascinating. Holmes alone can fill in a lot of those other gaps. 2017 first-round pick Brionna Jones, a pure 5, will still be under contract, and Plaisance can soak up a lot of the available 4/5 minutes next to either Jones or Alyssa Thomas.
So start with the center outlook. Does Miller want an upgrade there? Will a player be out there that he can bank on for 10-to-12 minutes in the playoffs behind Jones?
If he sees a player like that, cutting ties with Jones to free up that spot would be a logical choice. Having a physical, reliable presence behind Jones would also make it easier to buy more pockets of rest for the All-WNBA big throughout the regular season.
Circling back to Clarendon, we’ll have to wait and see the lengths the Sun are willing to go—and how robust her market will be—to retain her. No, she isn’t much of a threat spotting up from deep. But Clarendon is really big, something that often goes unsaid.
With players like her, Holmes and Tuck, Miller has been able to put a ton of size on the floor when mixing starters and reserves. They’re also able to shape-shift in unique ways with how they pair Alyssa Thomas to frontcourt shooting.
Washington picked on Williams and Stricklen some as one-on-one defenders in the Finals. Losing some of their versatile size off the bench may leave the Sun even more susceptible to that kind of targeting in the playoffs.
Next steps for Jones, Williams as their engines?
Let’s not forget some of the actual basketball!
Williams is only 25. What she showed in Game 1 of the Finals was special. She has already become one of the league’s top mid-range artists, but she shot 6-of-9 from deep in that game, sticking some tough looks off of movement. If those become a regular occurrence, she will become a much, much tougher cover.
As constructed, the Sun needed her to deliver as a top-two scoring option. Now with 10 games of total playoff experience, she has piled up some really solid performances: 2018’s round two against Phoenix; 19 points per game on 46 percent shooting in the semis against Los Angeles; and now Games 1 and 2 of these Finals.
Forcing people to run hard to her at the 3-point line will open up the playbook and create more passing windows to set up open teammates. This is still a team that wants Jasmine Thomas getting downhill, Alyssa Thomas slipping into open space to attack, Stricklen darting around screens and Jones catching on the move looking to score.
All five players can be scoring threats. Williams can also make each of them better by punishing defenders that inch away from her or dig down to muck things up in the lane.
Finally, Jones getting enough touches became the buzziest phrase of the Finals. It’s tough for them to throw it to Jones and let her work with one non-shooter (Alyssa Thomas) and two capable ones that don’t strike fear in you (Jasmine Thomas, Courtney Williams) surrounding her.
Miller needs to really hone in on what he wants her to be as a shooter. Jones shot 47 percent on 107 attempts in 2018 and 31 percent on 139 attempts in 2019.
Regularly running her and Stricklen around screens becomes really tough to guard. Unlike Stricklen’s defenders, bigs aren’t going to be as comfortable or adept chasing their mark all over the floor, and those chances free Jones up to attack off the bounce when a seam opens up or a defender flies by.
Jones is a wonderful rebounder on both ends and single-handedly swung Game 2 in Washington with nine offensive boards. She won’t have size and length advantages in every matchup, however, and brute strength isn’t her headliner.
She and Alyssa Thomas do have some nice high-low chemistry that they can continue tapping into, and Jones certainly could have worked to establish deeper position at times in the Finals.
The Sun know who they are.
But with Jones (and Williams, really), they need to strike a better balance, possibly incorporating more off-ball action to occupy defenders and open up some juicier kick-out options when Jones does go to work in the post. They must also continue empowering her to unleash the face-up and shooting ability that makes her such a unique talent—one that’s sure to keep Connecticut in title contention for years to come.
Note: Contract and free agency status for players derived from the High Post Hoops salary database.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.