Sun add new faces, loads of talent
Admittedly, the Connecticut Sun might not be the first choice for the average women's hoops fan seeking a rooting interest this WNBA season.
With UConn having won 78 games and two NCAA titles in a row, plus the UConn-heavy presence on the U.S. national team coached by Geno Auriemma, plus a defending champion WNBA squad led by Huskies legend Diana Taurasi well, it's understandable if the rest of the women's basketball world has a little (or a lot of) Nutmeg State fatigue.
Yet there are reasons to overcome that and appreciate what could be a championship-chasing Sun season. Because if coach Mike Thibault is able to guide Connecticut to its first WNBA title, he will have done so largely thanks to the hard work of real talent evaluation and team-building.
Not to mention having done it while accommodating the wishes of two of his best players, Katie Douglas and Lindsay Whalen, to leave Connecticut for their respective "homes." In the latter case, one might even say that in fulfilling Whalen's desire to return to Minnesota this year, Thibault helped his own team just as much as he helped Whalen.
With the No. 1 pick that came in the deal, he nabbed the surest thing in the 2010 draft: center Tina Charles. He also got her former UConn teammate, Renee Montgomery. A draft-day trade brought him Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin.
And the Sacramento Monarchs' demise led to the Sun getting Kara Lawson and DeMya Walker, both of whom bring the experience of having already won a WNBA title. (Which they got by beating the Sun in the 2005 finals.)
"It's going to be awhile before we'll be the team we need to be," Thibault said, referencing adjustments to newcomers and late arrivals (such as post player Sandrine Gruda, expected in June). "That doesn't mean you can't win games. I just think it's going to take awhile for everybody to get used to it.
"I know some people think we're looking down the road. I'm not. I'm looking to try to win this year."
Whalen's guard play, of course, was a major factor in the Sun's trips to the 2004 and 2005 WNBA finals in her first two seasons in the league. Then in 2006, Connecticut fell in the East finals to eventual WNBA champ Detroit. In 2007 and '08, the Sun lost in the conference semifinals, and missed the playoffs last season as Washington won a tiebreaker with Connecticut and Chicago for the fourth spot.
Last season's 16-18 record was the first losing mark the Sun franchise has had since it relocated from Orlando for the 2003 season. Which almost certainly made it easier for Thibault and the Sun brass to decide the time was right for dealing Whalen. There was a sense of frustration and maybe even a little stagnation after the disappointment of 2009. Shaking things up made sense.
Signing Lawson gave the Sun more experience at guard to go along with the burgeoning development of second-year player Montgomery.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to play with Renee," Lawson said. "I think she's a rare young player in our league that just understands the value of team basketball, that gets winning."
It can't escape notice this is a former Tennessee player talking about a former UConn player. Lawson knows that despite those programs' differences, their similarities are profound. They both "get" winning.
Lawson has proven, both with the Monarchs and the national squad, that she can adjust to whatever role a team needs her to fill, and do it without complaint. And she's a more vocal player than Whalen.
So on a Sun team with a significant amount of youth, Lawson's communication skills should be of great value. Lawson (seven seasons of WNBA experience), Walker (10) and Asjha Jones (eight) each will contribute to bringing the rookies along.
"I think our challenge early on is just to try and develop chemistry as quickly as possible," Lawson said. "I'm on a young team this year, which is different than the teams I've been on in Sacramento where we were a veteran core group and played together for years. That's a little bit of an adjustment."
It might take awhile to come together; as Thibault said, he expects that. And there is the chance that there might be too much "newness" with this group to make a WNBA title run in 2010.
But it could also be just the right mix to give Connecticut -- a state that has gotten used to women's hoops championships -- a different team to celebrate.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.