The secret to the success of the Connecticut Sun over the first month of the WNBA season is really no secret at all.
The core of this team has been together for the past four seasons. They have struggled together, they have succeeded together and they have tasted the bitter disappointment of early playoff exits together.
They have chemistry. They have confidence.
Until Tuesday they were also healthy; something few teams in the league can say at this point in the 2019 campaign. But the Sun have now joined the list of teams who will be missing a key player for the remainder of the season with the news that guard Layshia Clarendon sustained a season-ending ankle injury in practice that requires surgery.
“There are too many faces of our league who are not currently playing. You could make an Olympic team with the injured players,” said Sun coach Curt Miller. “No one is going to feel sorry for us. So many teams are dealing with it. Layshia is a sixth starter for us. This is a big blow for us.”
Miller said he can’t count the number of times that he knocked on wood trying to fend off this particular fate.
“We did feel blessed for a while,” Miller said.
The reality is that, Clarendon’s injury aside, the Sun are in a very good place.
Despite a tough road loss to the Chicago Sky on Sunday, Connecticut is riding the best record in the WNBA at 9-2. They are 6-0 at home this season and head into Wednesday night’s game against Dallas looking like a title contender, if not, a title favorite.
They have found something that many teams still seem to be seeking: consistency. It’s a luxury borne of Miller’s plan to build this season when he arrived back in 2016.
“I had 2019 circled on the calendar,” Miller said. “I told (general manager) Amber Cox that if you let me, I want to build this team for the long haul. I don’t want to try to hit a home run every year and make a big-time trade, or have the roster look different every year. I wanted to build with a core group.”
The Sun’s starting five of Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, Shekinna Stricklen and Courtney Williams are in their third season together, despite the fact that the oldest among them is just 29 years old. Six Sun players have been on the roster at least four years.
“They have a lot of synergy and that’s helped us early in the season,” Miller said. “A lot of teams are trying to find that right now.”
Miller said he is proud of his team’s defense commitment over the first third of the season. This has been one of the league’s top scoring teams over the past two years. They currently rank third at 80.5 points a game. It’s their defense, however, that is getting Connecticut through some of these grind-it-out games.
“We watched all 25 made baskets against Chicago on Sunday. We were giving up 28 made-baskets a game and we gave up 25 in the first half against Chicago,” Miller said. “But one of the things you learn is that wins are never as good as you think they are and the losses are never as bad. Chicago hit shots.
“I’ve been pleased with our defense schematically, and we’ve been pretty good early in the season. We know we are going to be pretty good when we bring our ‘A game’ offensively,” Miller said.
Jones is averaging 16.7 points, a league-leading 11.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game. The 6-foot-6 force in the pain is an MVP candidate.
Stricklen has been with the Sun for five seasons, a full-time starter for the past three seasons. She is posting the best numbers of her career, averaging 10.7 points a game, scoring in double figures in six of the last seven games including a career-high 24 points on Friday against Atlanta.
“I feel like this is the best I’ve played since I’ve been in the league,” Stricklen said.
Stricklen began last fall overseas, but an injury brought her back home and she spent the offseason in Connecticut, “putting up a lot of shots”.
Stricklen said she has watched this team growth through the past few seasons.
“We know each other really well,” Stricklen said. “We can look at each other and we know when we need to turn it up and when we need to get it done.”
A strong regular season isn’t going to qualify as “getting it done” for this done.
Two straight years of one-game-and-out in the WNBA playoffs leaves a mark. The Sun have put themselves in position for a home playoff game two years running and been eliminated in a single-game by an experienced Phoenix Mercury each time.
Such defeats make for some very hungry players.
“It’s definitely a motivator,” Cox said. “I know there is always a fear about talking about winning a championship. But if that’s what you want to the goal to be, then that’s the goal. So we are going to say it out loud.
“We know we’ve come up short after great regular seasons. We want a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. There is a quiet confidence to this group. But I think you have to go through these things sometimes to learn what it takes to get there.”
Miller said that the Sun has taken pride in the position they have put themselves in over the past two seasons.
“But we know that ultimately we will be judged on championships and we need to take that next step,” Miller said.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.