Welcome to pre-WNBA free agency, where chaos has consumed the world's most competitive women's basketball league and one team has become the early main character.
The Connecticut Sun, months after reaching the finals, appear to be tearing the place down for some sort of a parallel path rebuild after sending away 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and starting point guard Jasmine Thomas.
First, let's look at the two big trades that were made. Then, let's look into why they were made and what the vision is going forward.
Liberty get: Jonquel Jones & Kayla Thornton
Sun get: Ty Harris, Rebecca Allen & the No. 6 pick in the 2023 draft
Wings get: Natasha Howard & Crystal Dangerfield
Sparks get: Jasmine Thomas & the No. 10 pick in the 2023 draft
Sun get: Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Jasmine Walker & the rights to Kianna Smith
Jones is not a free agent and still has one year remaining on her contract. She requested a trade, per ESPN's Alexa Phillipou, and had only the Liberty on her list of desired landing spots.
This has happened with players in the past (Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne etc.), but normally requests aren't granted so soon. Fortunately for Jones, the Sun had little time to waste if they wanted to keep their other impending free agent, Brionna Jones.
The WNBA has a core player provision, which acts like a franchise tag and can only be placed on one player per team. The core designation means that player can only negotiate with the team that tags her in free agency.
Currently, that tag is placed on Jonquel, but after she's traded, Connecticut can place it on Brionna, changing Brionna's free agency from unrestricted (where she can sign anywhere) to core'd, meaning she'd stay with the Sun. That all had to happen prior to the Jan. 21 free agency opening.
So yes, the trade was bad for the Sun, but that's the corner they were forced into
Yes, Connecticut could've held out further, risked Jonquel sitting part of the season, and hoped for a better trade down the line. But that would've come at the cost of almost definitely losing Brionna Jones, a 27-year-old, two-time All-Star the team can build around.
On paper, the Jonquel Jones trade could go down as the most lopsided star trade ever, but the Brionna Jones wrinkle is important context for why that decision was made.
This move was even more perplexing, though I'll lay out both sides of the thought.
Thomas is an All-Star, three-time All-Defensive First Team player, but is also a 33-year-old veteran coming off a torn ACL. She's owed $190,000 this year (slightly under the max), and nobody knows how she'll recover and play in 2023. There's reason for the Sun to be skeptical, and the trade market for her probably is as low as it's ever been for that reason.
The three players the Sun received aren't as good as Thomas, and may never be, but they provide Connecticut options. The first is development. They're 22, 23 and 24 years old with room to grow. Nelson-Ododa in particular may be a backup to Jones.
The second option is they can cut the two players owed money this season (Smith is injured), and use this move to create major cap space to sign someone else on Feb. 1. Of course, that means they just traded a first-round pick to make that happen — an expensive move, albeit they landed the No. 6 pick for Jonquel.
If they choose to cut these players, there's pressure to sign someone big in free agency.
Whether the Sun are trying to get better or worse is up for debate
A team with DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones (assuming they stick with the franchise) is not going to be bad. Barring injury, those are three All-Star players whose floor is probably playing a handful of games out of the final playoff spot.
Maybe, with cap space cleared, the Sun think they're in the mix for one of the other big-impact free agents. (Connecticut isn't far from New York, Breanna Stewart.) Or, even if they can't hit a home run, they're of the belief that their current Big 3 — with some better-fitting pieces surrounding them — can find success again.
Vegas clearly doesn't believe in them much, as the Sun's championship odds dropped from +370 (bet $10 to win $37) to +950 (bet $10 to win $95).
Or, maybe, the goal isn't glory in 2023, but rather a big win in the 2024 WNBA draft, which many have lauded as possibly one of the best ever. It could include UConn's Paige Bueckers, Iowa's Caitlin Clark, LSU's Angel Reese and Stanford's Cameron Brink, who all appear to be franchise cornerstones. If Connecticut misses the postseason in 2023, it's guaranteed to land one of them (if they all declare).
Those are a lot of ifs involved in that scenario, but the vision is there.
We should have more clarity on Connecticut's frame of mind in the next few weeks, but for right now, Sun fans should be at least a little concerned.