Making upward moves
In 2015, Miller took an assistant coaching position on Brian Agler’s staff with the Los Angeles Sparks. He would work with Toliver and a star-laden lineup of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, and crew for a year on the West Coast.
Across the country, the Sun continued to retool, acquiring Jasmine Thomas and Shekinna Stricklen in trades with the Atlanta Dream and Seattle Storm, respectively. The Mystics also picked up two key starters, drafting point guard Natasha Cloud 15th in 2015 (with a pick originally held by the Sun) and signing free agent LaToya Sanders.
The following year, the Sun made some of the most fortuitous moves and ultimately started their process up the ranks of the league. After parting ways with Donovan after a third consecutive losing season, they named Curt Miller the new head coach, and the roster moves were quick and abundant, too.
First, Elizabeth Williams was traded to Atlanta for a first round pick in 2016 that would become Rachel Banham. The Sun used their third overall pick to get four-time NCAA champion Morgan Tuck and made one of the biggest Draft-day trades to get Jonquel Jones, sending Chelsea Gray and a trio of draft picks to Los Angeles. If that wasn’t enough, partway through the season they sent Kelsey Bone (who they had acquired in that 2014 Charles trade) to Phoenix to get Courtney Williams. Early in Miller’s tenure, the Sun’s starting lineup as we know it now was in Connecticut.
The Mystics’ big trades came the following year. After giving up Bria Hartley and Kia Vaughn for a pair of draft picks that would ultimately net them Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Washington landed one of the biggest deals in WNBA history when they finalized a trade with Chicago to get 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne in exchange for Stefanie Dolson, 2016’s seventh overall pick Kahleah Copper, and a 2017 first-rounder. No less important, they also signed free agent guard Kristi Toliver, coming off a championship year with the Sparks.
Both teams immediately saw the fruits of their labor. The Sun got back to the Playoffs after a four-year hiatus under 2017 Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year Curt Miller, and the Mystics finished the regular season 18-16 on their way to a postseason push that ended in a sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Minnesota Lynx.
Since then, it has been a matter of bringing in complementary pieces and building chemistry to get the two franchises to the top.
The Sun drafted Brionna Jones in 2017, traded for Layshia Clarendon and Theresa Plaisance, and signed Bria Holmes. After losing top assistant Nicki Collen to the Atlanta Dream (where she would become 2018 Coach of the Year), Miller brought in a familiar face when he hired Brandi Poole (his assistant at Bowling Green and Indiana) as assistant coach. He promoted Chris Koclanes to assistant coach this year after multiple years on staff.
Meanwhile, the Mystics drafted Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen in 2018 and traded Tayler Hill mid-season to get Aerial Powers as Thibault and company made a push to their first WNBA Finals before falling to the juggernaut Seattle Storm.
A guaranteed first-timer
And, now here we are in 2019, both teams ready to battle for what will be the first WNBA championship for one of these two franchises, one of these two storied head coaches, and most of the players on the carefully-manicured rosters.
There are so many daunting but interesting what-ifs on the way:
- What if the Miracle never left Orlando, or the NBA never allowed a team to settle in a non-NBA city?
- Could either franchise have made deeper (perhaps franchise-defining) runs if not for injuries for the Sun in 2007 and 2008 or for the Mystics in 2011 and 2012?
- What if the Sun had stuck with Thibault for at least one more year during the rebuild?
- What if the Mystics had won a top-three pick in the 2013 Draft?
- What if Miller had continued coaching at Indiana?
- What if Chicago could have held on to Toliver or Delle Donne, or Charles hadn’t intended on finding her way back to New York?
Which team will make history in this year’s Finals is far from easy to figure out. The series will be far from simple for either squad, each of whom will have to make adjustments from start to finish. But, no matter; neither franchise got to this point via a “simple” path. Ups, downs, adjustments and bounce-backs are exactly what got us here.
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