The Connecticut Sun look impressive in the early going. Through the first week of the season, they have the best record in the WNBA at 3-0, with two of those wins coming over a strong Washington Mystics team.
After losing 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to the Liberty this offseason, the general perception was that the Sun would take a step back this season.
But will they?
Last season, the Sun had the unique and preferred "problem" of having too much talent in the frontcourt. With Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones sharing the three frontcourt positions, the unit was strong but each individual likely had more they could have contributed.
Thus, with Jonquel Jones gone, I entered the season expecting the other three to increase their production -- much like they did when she opted out of the 2020 COVID-19 season -- and keep both the unit and the team very competitive.
This has played out in the first week, particularly in the two matchups with the Mystics.
The Mystics got strong play in the pivot in both games from their MVP, Elena Delle Donne (average 23.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG), and super sophomore Shakira Austin (17.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG), but the Sun got strong contributions from all three frontcourt slots with Thomas dropping double-doubles in both games (18.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 5.5 APG), Brionna Jones turning in 13.5 PPG and 8.0 RPG of her own and Bonner chipping in with 18.0 PPG.
In the end, the Sun's size was too much, even against a strong interior team in the Mystics, and their size should help them contend this season.
Entering the season, Caesars Sportsbook set the wins over/under line for the Sun at 22.5 games. I hammered the over in my preseason picks column. A week in, that win line is up to 25.5 games. That's getting closer to my expectation, but I still see some value in the over.
The Sun's win percentage from last season, 69.4%, would be good for a 27.8 win pace this season. The ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI) has the Sun with the third-highest score in the league, and projects them for 26.3 wins. And that may be a conservative estimate in a league where the Sun should have a size advantage over pretty much any team they play outside of the Aces and Liberty. The Sun look like the real deal in my book.
Now, let's take an early peek at how the awards and championship futures look at this point in the season.
Leaders: Las Vegas Aces (+115), New York Liberty (+140)
Long shots of interest: Connecticut Sun (+1100), Washington Mystics (+1100), Dallas Wings (+3500)
Favorites vs. field
Aces or Liberty to win 2023 WNBA championship: -650
Any other team to win 2023 WNBA championship: +450
The Aces and the Liberty unquestionable won the offseason by bringing in former MVPs and stacking rosters that have the most talent in the league. With that said, there are still some other strong teams out there that maybe aren't as far behind as the perception would suggest.
The Sun and Mystics, in particular, are third and fourth in the WNBA in BPI, and according to the BPI projections both have reasonable chances to make the Finals (36.4% and 24.0%, respectively) and non-negligible chances to win the title (14.7% and 7.8%, respectively).
I also throw the Wings into that next-level contender mix, with Arike Ogunbowale as the electric leader and a strong frontcourt of their own led by Natasha Howard, Satou Sabally and Teaira McCowan.
I still have the Aces as the favorites to win this season's championship, and the Liberty are worthy contenders as well. But I don't think the gap is as large as the odds suggest, and I'd find more value in going with one of the long shots to win than playing for essentially even money with either of the two favorites.
I find a lot more value in picking "the field" to win than going with the favorites, because I do think there are legitimate contending-level teams outside of Las Vegas and New York. And it's a very long season, in which anything could happen. Give me the upside and added security of the field, particularly at such dramatic plus money.
Most Valuable Player
Leader: Breanna Stewart (+200)
In the hunt: A'ja Wilson (+350), Elena Delle Donne (+450)
Others of interest: Alyssa Thomas (+650), Brittney Griner (+1200), Arike Ogunbowale (+3000)
Stewart has the shortest odds to win MVP. The 2018 MVP and 2018 and 2020 Finals MVP is the new centerpiece of a superteam in the Liberty that is expected to heavily contend for this year's championship. She has already set a Liberty record with 45 points in her second game with the team, and has a good chance to mix dominant statistics with excellent team results, both of which play well in MVP races.
Wilson is the reigning MVP, and has won the award twice in the past three seasons. She is also the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and helped lead the Aces to the 2022 WNBA championship. Like Stewart, Wilson is the best player on a superteam, but the Aces have even more talent in their starting unit and it is possible that Wilson's numbers might be a bit lower this season than last. Even so, when adding her defense to her offense and weighing the likelihood of the Aces remaining atop the league, I have Wilson as my early-season MVP favorite.
Delle Donne was the MVP in 2019, but has struggled with back injuries since. She reportedly had a great offseason and expects to play without minutes restrictions this season, and if the Mystics play as well as expected she has MVP upside.
Thomas and Ogunbowale were two of my favorite sleeper candidates to have monster seasons. I've already spoken on the Sun's positive outlook this season, and Thomas leads the way with nightly triple-double upside. The Wings won their season debut, and Ogunbowale has a good chance to lead all guards and potentially the WNBA in scoring this season. Both players could make noise in the MVP race if their teams continue to play well.
And Griner, of course, has the largest comeback MVP narrative in the league. She has started the season playing excellent basketball, which should have her name mentioned in the MVP race if the Mercury are able to string some wins together.