Editor's note: Before the 2006 season tips off, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman and ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel and Graham Hays each tackle one question facing all 14 WNBA teams. Here, the experts take a closer look at Connecticut.
The Sun went 26-8 in the regular season en route to their second straight appearance in the WNBA finals, where they lost to Sacramento in four games after sweeping Detroit and Indiana. Coach Mike Thibault enters his fourth season in Connecticut.
The team's top six scorers return, including Nykesha Sales (15.6 ppg), Taj McWilliams-Franklin (13.9) Lindsay Whalen (12.1), Katie Douglas (11.0), Asjha Jones (9.1) and Margo Dydek (7.3). McWilliams-Franklin averaged a team-high 7.3 rebounds, while Whalen dished 5.1 apg. Sales also led the Sun in steals (1.8).
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Nobody has greater offensive balance than the Sun, which truthfully, is a team that really didn't have to make any significant personnel changes. They return all five starters from a team that reached the WNBA finals for a second straight season a year ago. In 2005, they were the best 3-point shooting team in the league and got a career season from Taj McWilliams-Franklin. With all that talent coming back, Connecticut was one of the more quiet teams this past offseason.
The chief concern facing the Sun was finding a backup for point guard Lindsay Whalen, who underwent offseason ankle surgery but is now being hampered by Achilles' pain. Of course, with no first-round draft pick (the Sun selected 28th and 42nd overall, and neither Marita Payne nor Debbie Merrill are listed on the current Sun roster), that wasn't likely to happen in this year's draft. Enter Erin Phillips. The Australian 5-foot-7 point guard was actually the 21st overall pick in last year's draft, but ended up taking a year off to train with her country's national team. But now, she's in camp and the buzz is good. Same goes for Donna Loffhagen, a 6-2 forward from New Zealand who was the top rebounder at the 2004 Olympics.
And of course, should Phillips not work out, third-year player Jennifer Derevjanik, who surprisingly wasn't snatched up in free agency, and Jamie Carey also return as possible point guard backups. -- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
Best-case: Lindsay Whalen returns at full strength early in the season and uses the late start to remain fresh by the time the postseason rolls around. With Whalen running the show, Nykesha Sales puts it all together for the same sort of MVP-worthy campaign Taj McWilliams-Franklin put together last season. And someone from the deep mix of small forwards in camp steps forward to replace the underrated Brooke Wyckoff. Putting the experience of two WNBA finals defeats to good use, the battle-tested Sun take the final step to a title.
Worst-case: The Sun are a team that succeeds because the sum of its parts is more than the sum of anyone else's parts, but like Chauncey Billups for the Pistons, Whalen is crucial in binding those parts together. If she misses significant time or can't handle a full load when she returns, undersized second-year guard Jamie Carey and talented-but-untested rookie Erin Phillips will have a tough time keeping Sales, McWilliams-Franklin, Katie Douglas and Asjha Jones clicking on all cylinders. -- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
The Sun mean a can-do spirit for the WNBA. It was the first franchise that went into the league without an affiliation to an NBA team. Connecticut proved that can work. And it's also, of course, in a state where women's college basketball is treated like very serious business by the fans and media. That has transferred over to the pro game in a promising degree -- although that's still growing. -- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel
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