UNCASVILLE — When Connecticut Sun management fired Mike Thibault following the 2012 playoffs, it understood the transition would require patience. Thibault had been the only coach since the team came here from Orlando in 2003.
The arrival of Anne Donovan, who has won both a WNBA championship and Olympic gold medal in her coaching career, brought great change in philosophy and personnel.
Donovan's first season was hampered by injuries and internal unrest among a veteran core reluctant to accept change. The Sun finished 10-24, the worst record in its history.
Donovan's second season has been smoother, although the team sits at 11-19. Rookies Chiney Ogwumike, Alyssa Thomas, second-year assets Kelsey Bone and Alex Bentley, and veteran Katie Douglas have laid a sturdy foundation.
"I think I knew, deep down, that this would be a developmental season," said Mitchell Etess, the Sun's chief executive officer. "I didn't think we'd win the division, but given the right set of circumstances, we might be able to make the playoffs."
But it's beginning to look like that might not happen with just five games remaining in the regular season.
"I am hardly disappointed because we have an entirely new roster," said Chris Sienko, the Sun general manager. "There have been some games this season we probably could have won, but part of the reason we didn't could be our youth. I am actually quite excited about what the future holds for us.
"Everyone naturally wants to be further along, as I thought perhaps we would be. Every team feels that way. But we need to take the positives that have come this season and push it into next year. … We had a lot of changes to this roster. Many people thought there was no way we could make the playoffs. I think that was an outside perspective rather than internal. I think we all thought internally we would make the playoffs."
Both Etess and Sienko said they support Donovan.
"Some of the things that have happened would have made it tough for Red Auerbach to win," Etess said. "But to me, we are going to be a very good team for a very long time. Maybe this was a year that had to happen to make that possible.
"We are happy with the coaching … Things had to be learned this season. Obviously next year there will be higher expectations."
As for this season, beginning Friday at Madison Square Garden against the New York Liberty, the Sun begin a home stretch understanding they can't lose again if they want to avoid elimination.
In sixth place in the Eastern Conference, they began Thursday two games behind New York (12-16) and 2 ½ games behind Indiana and Chicago (13-16) and 3 ½ behind Washington (14-15).
Making the playoffs will require more than just getting even. The Sun have lost season series to Washington and Chicago, costing them tiebreakers.
One Connecticut loss or Washington win means the Sun won't catch the Mystics. A combination of any two Sun losses or Sky wins means Chicago is untouchable, as well.
If the Sun lose Friday, New York will also win the season series, thereby eliminating Connecticut, which would trail it by three with three to play.
Passing Indiana (13-16) is the most likely route. The Sun and Fever split four games and do not play again. The Fever have five games remaining, three against the Liberty and one each against Washington and Chicago. A Connecticut winning streak and Fever losing streak would slide the Sun in.
Problem is, the Sun are 3-13 since the last victory in a six-game winning streak June 25. They are 0-5 at home in that stretch and the last three games are at Mohegan Sun Arena, beginning Sunday against Washington.
Should the Sun finish out of the playoffs, they will again have a lottery pick in the 2015 draft. This year they selected Chiney Ogwumike with the No. 1 overall pick and the Stanford player likely will be rookie of the year.
Should New York also finish out of the playoffs, the Sun will have two lottery picks since they own the Liberty's 2015 first-round pick through the Tina Charles deal.
But this year's college draft, likely highlighted by UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, is not considered strong.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun