[Article] WNBA History: Underdogs In The Semifinals
The 2020 Connecticut Sun have overcome the odds and made the WNBA Semifinals. Let's look back at other teams who have made a similar journey.
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As some of you know, I cover the women’s basketball for Her Hoop Stats and the LockedOn podcast network. In the past four years, I’ve grown from someone who looked down on the WNBA to a fanatic about the league. Looking back, I feel like such an idiot for missing out on some of the best basketball in the world.
To make up for that lost time, I going to start using BTTA to dig into WNBA history and share what I find with you guys. I also hope to do my part to make up for the coverage gap in Women’s sports. Women make up 40% of participants in sports but only receive 4% of media coverage. My goal is to do two articles a week here: one on men’s sports (mainly on college football and the NBA) and one on women’s sports (mainly on the WNBA).
Let’s start that coverage by talking about this year’s Connecticut Sun.
The Sun are the seven-seed in the eight-team WNBA playoffs. The playoff format, which was installed in 2016, dictated that they would have to play two single-elimination games against teams with better records before facing one of the league’s best two teams in a five-game series.
Connecticut made it to the Semifinals by beating the Chicago Sky and LA Sparks in blowout fashion. They are now only the second team to make it to the Semis in the current playoff format after finishing 7th or worse in the final standings (the 2016 8-seeded Phoenix Mercury being the other). By beating Las Vegas in game 1, Connecticut also became just the second team to win a semifinals game after playing in the first single-elimination round. The 2018 5-seed Phoenix Mercury won two against eventual champion Seattle because Diana Taurasi loves being the underdog.
This Connecticut team also loves being the underdog, as they showed when they smacked the Aces in mouth in Game 1. Despite Connecticut star forward Alyssa Thomas dislocating her shoulder and missing most of the game, the Sun almost beat Las Vegas in Game 2 before A’ja Wilson decided to go off. Then, Alyssa Thomas (the toughest basketball player on the planet, imo) came back in Game 3 and powered Connecticut to put the Sun on the brink of their second-straight WNBA Finals appearance. I have a feeling we will be talking about this Connecticut team for a long time, so I want to break down just one aspect of their playoff run.
The Connecticut Sun are just the 7th team in WNBA history to have a losing record in the regular season and make it to the Semifinals.
Here’s a chart of teams that have accomplished that feat. I’m going to tell you a little bit about each and then we’ll see if we can learn anything from them.
The Sun’s 10-12 record and 0.6 net rating are very misleading. They lost the first 5 games of the season before starting guard Briann January returned from having COVID. After the rough start, the Sun put up a very solid 2.8 net rating in the last 15 games in the regular season and went 8-5 when January played. But with a shortened 22-game season, Connecticut ran out of time to get over .500 mark.
From a talent perspective, the Sun are also far superior to their record. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are superstars (or close to it). Both January and Jasmine Thomas have been all-stars along with a solid supporting cast. The team needed time to gel and looked good at the end of the season. So it’s not crazy, or even particularly surprising, to see them on the verge of making the WNBA Finals.
The 2016 Phoenix Mercury had a similar season to the 2020 Sun. They started the season 2-7 and, as Richard Cohen of Her Hoop Stats a.k.a the WNBAlien described, played abysmal defense to start the year. Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor were coming back from a year off as Brittney Griner had not yet become the offensive beast we now know. Once they got into the playoffs, everybody knew that the 2014 champs would be a very tough out before they ran into the dynasty-era Minnesota Lynx.
Three teams in the 2014 Eastern Conference playoffs had sub-500 records, so it’s not shocking that two of them made the Semifinals. Tamika Catchings missed the first half of the regular season due to a back injury. In Lin Dunn’s final season, the Fever lost their first three games but stayed afloat without Catchings. I talk more about Indiana later because they are on this list again for their 2013 performance. The only differences between those two groups are Marissa Coleman and rookie Natasha Howard, who both exceeded expectations in Catchings’s absence.
The only team to make the Finals out of this group, the 2014 Chicago Sky, featured two future MVPs, Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles, and a great cast around them including 6th-Woman of the Year Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, and Jessica Breland. However, EDD (Lyme Disease, mainly), Fowles (hip), and Vandersloot (knee) missed a combined 49 games during the regular season.
The team got healthier at the end of the year, snuck into the playoffs via a tiebreaker and beat the previous two Eastern Conference champs (the Atlanta Dream and the Indiana Fever). The Phoenix Mercury, one of the best teams in league history, swept them easily in the Finals after EDD got nicked up in the Semis. Unfortunately, the Sky had to deal with some venue mishaps because the Allstate Arena booked Garth Brooks during the Finals and Chicago had to play in the 6,115-seat UIC Pavilion…. Someday, this will not be an issue in the WNBA.
I‘m going in reverse chronological order, so onward to the 2013 Indiana Fever. The defending champions started off VERY slowly with a 7-game losing streak after winning their first game. Much like all of the teams in this category, they faced a lot of injuries all season and all-star Katie Douglas missed all but 4 games due to a bulging disc in her back.
The Fever got healthy in addition to having some role players step up. Shavonte Zellous won the Most Improved Player award, Briann January made her first (and only) All-Star game, Erlana Larkins nearly doubled her production across the board, and Karima Christmas-Kelly had her best season to that point. Most importantly for our purposes: Indiana convinced themselves that they were the underdog despite winning the title in the year before. The 2020 Connecticut Sun have perfected this art.
The 2010 Phoenix Mercury are the other defending champion in this group. They didn’t quite have the horrendous start of the rest of these teams. But, they did lose 5 games straight early on. The Mercury traded Cappie Pondexter for Candice Dupree in the offseason and loved to score (110.6 Offensive Rating) almost as much as they hated to defend (110.8 Defensive Rating).
Their defense got slightly better as the season wore on like it did in 2016. But they eventually fell to that year’s champion, the Seattle Storm. The 2010 season and 2014 seasons featured one of the dumbest things that happens in basketball as Phoenix was one of 3 sub-500 teams to make the playoffs from Western Conference (like Indiana did in 2014). They finished 7th in league but 2nd in West! Connecticut got screwed out of playoff spot and, luckily, the WNBA fixed this problem. Also, it’s pretty funny that Phoenix knocked out current head coach Sandy Brondello in her first playoff experience with the San Antonio Stars (now the Las Vegas Aces).
The 1999 Charlotte Sting went 5-7 to start the season. But, unlike the rest of the teams here, Charlotte made major changes. They fired head coach/GM Marynell Meadows, named current (kind of) Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes the interim and tried to trade starting center Rhoda Mapp to Houston (the trade was rescinded due to a failed physical).
The Sting won 9 of the next 12 games and snuck into the newly expanded playoffs over Orlando. After beating the Detroit Shock (all of the defunct teams are making me sad), they hosted Game 1 against the higher-seeded New York Liberty for some reason and won! Then, lost the final two games in Madison Square Garden. The Sting were really just a streaky team all season that got a couple wins in a weird playoff setup. But look at these beautiful uniforms.
What Does All This Tell Us About the 2020 Connecticut Sun?
The main point of this article is to talk about the history of the WNBA. There’s a huge dearth of coverage about what has already happened in the WNBA, so I wanted to educate myself and (hopefully) you. However, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from these teams.
First and foremost, suck early not often. Obviously, teams aim to not suck at any point in a season. But if you are going to be bad, do it early and then start getting healthy or getting it together between the 5th and 12th game of the season. Also, try to stay the course with your roster and coach especially if the struggles are due to injuries. Every team on this list, outside of the ‘99 Sting, didn’t make changes due to early struggles.
The second lesson is to try convince your team that no one believes in them. Having a chip on your shoulder always helps so make sure your team feels disrespected at every turn. Even the defending champion 2013 Indiana Fever somehow felt like underdogs! The 2020 Connecticut Sun do that better than any one in sports right now and it’s working.
Finally, the last lesson is to look at the talent on a roster before counting out a team. All of these teams were led by all-time greats or, at least, greats of their time: Diana Taurasi (‘10 and ‘16 Mercury), Tamika Catchings (‘13 Fever), Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles (‘14 Sky), Vicky Bullet (‘99 Sting) among others. Clearly, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner always had a chance to get the Semifinals. That’s how good they are. Apparently, having Briann January is also a massive boost because she played on 3 of the 7 teams we talked about.
All of the teams on this list epitomize resilience and perseverance. The Sun are no exception. This group is gritty as hell and has absolutely no quit in them. They may even have the best chance to win a title out of any of these teams. They are healthy (mainly because Alyssa Thomas is indestructible) and the remaining teams in the 2020 playoffs don’t look unbeatable. I’ll be revisiting the Sun next week to talk about the other history they could make with another playoff win, like how they are beating the league MVP. For now, just know that Connecticut has a great chance to become the first team to finish the regular season under .500 and win the WNBA title.
I hope you guys enjoyed this and please let me know what other WNBA history you’d like to know about. Tweet at me @gabe_ibrahim or email me at email@example.com. Also subscribe to this newsletter! It’s free!