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Sun have talent to win elusive WNBA title, but competition has never looked tougher

Curt Miller, the Connecticut Sun’s general manager and head coach, is a masochist.

ESPN rebroadcast the fifth and decisive game of last season’s WNBA Finals after Friday night’s draft. That would be the same Game 5 that Connecticut led with six minutes, 44 seconds remaining before losing in awful, painful and excruciating fashion to the Washington Mystics, 89-78, and crushing its hopes at winning that elusive WNBA championship.

Miller, rather than turning ESPN off after the draft, had the game on the background as he talked to reporters via a post-draft conference.

“I can see it in the periphery,” Miller said. “I would like to watch until about six minutes to go in the fourth quarter,” Miller said. “I’m going to try not to yell at the officials on a couple of bad calls against JJ (Jonquel Jones) that I don’t want to revisit.

“I know we came up short. ... It’s always tough to lose, but I’m proud to be part of a great series.”

The Sun believe they can make it back to the finals and finally bring a world championship to Mohegan Sun Arena. They certainly have the talent to make it happen. Three key players from the past four seasons are back in Alyssa and Jasmine Thomas and Jones. They traded for DeWanna Bonner, one of the most coveted free agents, in February and acquired Briann January eight-days later. Both have started for WNBA championship teams.

Connecticut wasn’t the only team that added muscle, though, after a dizzying offseason.

“The amount of movement of all-stars, impactful players, in our league seems to be one of the largest ever,” Miller said.

It’s no stretch to suggest that seven of the league’s 12 teams have the talent to win a title, starting with the defending champions. Washington got Olympian (and former Sun) post Tina Charles for a ridiculously low price last Wednesday from the New York Liberty. She’ll form one of the league’s best frontcourts — maybe the best — with two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, last season’s Finals MVP.

The Las Vegas Aces, who lost in four games to Washington in last year’s semifinals, added Olympic wing Angel McCoughtry after she declined to re-sign with the Atlanta Dream. She’ll join a team that already had one of the world’s most dominant players (center Liz Cambage), sharpshooter Kayla McBride and three players it acquired after winning three straight draft lotteries from 2017-19 (Kelsey Plum, superstar post A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young, respectively).

The Los Angeles Sparks, last season’s other semifinalist, has the league’s most stacked roster and ridiculously so. It has FOUR former No. 1 picks in two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker, one-time WNBA MVP Nneka Oguwmike, Chiney Ogwumike and Seimone Augustus, the latter who signed during the offseason after helping the Minnesota Lynx win four WNBA titles. Chelsea Gray is one of the world's best point guards. Kristi Toliver, one of the league's all-time great 3-point shooters, returns to Los Angeles after helping Washington win a championship. She helped L.A. win a title in 2016 before leaving to D.C.

The Phoenix Mercury still have a scary starting lineup provided Diana Taurasi stays healthy after playing just six games last season following back surgery. Olympian center Brittney Griner led the league in scoring last year and earned first-team All-WNBA honors for the second time. Skyler Diggins-Smith, a three-time All-WNBA pick, was traded to the Merc after being the second straight superstar in as many offseasons to demand a trade from Dallas (Cambage did it last offseason). The Mercury also acquired underrated post Jessica Breland via trade.

“It’s fun to think of all these faces (moving) all around,” Miller said.

Oh, there’s more. The 2018 world champion Seattle Storm were unable to defend their title last season because Brenna Stewart (the 2018 MVP and Finals MVP) and Sue Bird were both out with injuries. They're both back. Seattle still finished sixth overall because the likes of post Natasha Howard stepped up and made herself into one of the best in the game, earning both All-WNBA first team and Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Last and certainly not least is the Chicago Sky. Courtney Vandersloot is in the conversation for the world’s best point guard and Allie Quigley, her backcourt mate, is one of the league’s top long-range snipers. Diamond DeShields earned All-WNBA second team honors last season in just her second year. Two-time All-Star Stefanie Dolson continues to be one of the league’s most reliable centers.

So many teams. So much talent.

“We love our pieces,” Miller said. “We can’t talk about the acquisition of DeWanna Bonner enough. We’re bullish on saying that with DeWanna Bonner at the three (small forward), Alyssa Thomas at the four and Jonquel Jones a the five (center) it’s hard to argue that we don’t have the best 3-4-5 (combination) on paper. And that’s not even talking about our leader and point guard and our quarterback on-and-off the court, (point guard) Jasmine Thomas.

“We like other additions, too. The maturity, the championship pedigree that Brian January brings to our locker room. The shooting that KML (forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis) brings with some of the 3-point shooting that we lost in Shekinna Stricklen. Now we’ve added draft picks (guards Kaila Charles and Juicy Landrum). I think we were aggressive and signed some quality WNBA (players) to training camp contracts.”

Connecticut, for all its starting talent, still has its issues. It benefitted from building around a core starting lineup the past four seasons. Two of those players are gone. It was forced to trade its most consistent perimeter threat, Courtney Williams, to the Atlanta Dream. Stricklen also went to Atlanta in free agency.

The Sun’s depth, which had been one of its biggest strengths in 2018, was inconsistent last season. Wing Bria Holmes was their most reliable reserve and returns for her second season. Connecticut is hoping that another player it added via trade, Mosqueda-Lewis, can develop into another consistent reserve. The former UConn star and third overall pick in the 2015 draft averaged 12.8 minutes and 5.3 points over five seasons in Seattle and made a mere 34.7 percent of her 3-pointers. She was a career 44.7 percent 3-pointer in college, ranking 16th all-time in Division I history, and tied for seventh all-time across all divisions for most career 3-pointers (398).

The Sun were also ridiculously lucky when it came to the health of its starters last season. It was the fourth team in the 23-year history of the league to go an entire season with the same lineup, and just the second in a 34-game season.

“What was so special about our last group was the franchise leadership and my bosses allowed me to dig in with a core group and let them grow together and build together over the course of four years,” Miller said. “So we have that new chemistry to form. We have a new culture to create with our new pieces. I’m excited about those pieces, but there’s still a process of getting in the gym and figuring out how to put each of them in position to be successful; how all these pieces fit together. And I know when you do that there’s some speedbumps along the way.

“Potentially, this roster is one of the elite rosters in the league. And certainly, if we can stay healthy and gel together and form that chemistry, we have the talent to be in discussions to be one of those teams that makes a run towards a potential championship.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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