UNCASVILLE – Anne Donovan made no secret that coaching the Connecticut Sun for the first time in 2013 was perhaps the most painful experience of her career.
She inherited a team one win from the WNBA finals, with players fiercely loyal to coach Mike Thibault and his philosophies. Of course, she was hired to replace Thibault and change all of it.
It didn't go well. Right from the start, when injuries began to erode her base, the season became a nightmare that ended with the worst record (10-24) in franchise history.
So if there was a highlight to the 2014 season, one that ended with Sunday's 84-55 win over first-place Atlanta, it was that Donovan's demeanor was vastly improved despite her winning just three more games than last year.
"There hasn't been one day this year when I dreaded getting into my car and going to work," Donovan said. "That was not the case last year. I know now that everyone is on the same page, everybody wants the same thing. We have a true team with good chemistry. So all year, despite the ups and downs and gossip, it's been a good year all around."
Of course, it was also a year that plopped a team that had missed the playoffs just twice in 10 years under Thibault into the draft lottery for the second straight time under Donovan.
It was the worst shooting team in the league (.414), had the fewest assists (13.91) and enjoyed just one good burst during a six-game winning streak in June that left it sitting at 8-6.
"Whether we continue to be young or not, finding how to play well together is the key for this team [in the future]," Sun guard Renee Montgomery said. "We just have a lot to work on."
The Sun won just five of their last 20 games and were 4-13 on the road despite having the WNBA's likely rookie of the year, Chiney Ogwumike, and comeback player, veteran Katie Douglas. Ogwumike averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds and led the team in field goal percentage (.536). Douglas, in the league since 2001 and coming off back surgery, led it in minutes (1,040) by a large margin despite missing the final two games.
"I hoped this team would have had enough experience, and perhaps if we had Allie Hightower more [she played only 14 games], it might not have been a lottery team again," Donovan said. "It wasn't our plan to go back and get another [lottery pick]. But that is our fate and it's a hand that we can play to our advantage."
Regardless of what happens Thursday when the WNBA holds its draft lottery for the Sun, New York, Seattle and Tulsa, Connecticut will have two of the top four picks. It owns New York's in return for Tina Charles. But because of its record, Connecticut's statistical probability of landing the first pick is slightly less than 30 percent.
"It's a work in progress. We are all new this year," Sun guard Alex Bentley said. "We didn't have as much experience, because we are such a young team. Now with this experience under our belt, it's really nice. It's bittersweet right now. Obviously, we aren't where we wanted to be at the end of season, but we finished strong. I'm proud of my teammates for that."
Having an advantage in the 2015 draft might not work out in the conventional way for the Sun. The college class, led now by UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Duke center Elizabeth Williams, is not considered particularly strong. There are those who even doubt the ability of Mosqueda-Lewis and Williams to have the immediate impact that Ogwumike and Odyssey Sims [for Tulsa] have had.
So the Sun, already with many players with two years or fewer pro experience, might look to deal those picks and hope that the return of injured rookie guard Chelsea Gray and arrival of international star Alba Torrens from Spain adds what's needed – a point guard and shooting star – to next year's team.
And there will be changes. Although there are no restricted free agents, Kayla Pedersen, Ebony Hoffman, Danielle McCray and Kelly Faris, the former UConn standout, will have a harder time making the team next year.
Faris played a season-high 25 minutes Sunday (she has played just 167) and scored a season-high eight points after having only 20 in her first 24 appearances. Despite being a hard worker and defensive cog, she was just 8 of 33 from the field and 4 of 15 from three. Her minutes dropped from 338 as a rookie to 192 this season and she has scored just 78 points in 49 games with the Sun.
"Obviously, this year didn't go the way I thought it would," said Faris, who does not have a contract to play overseas yet. "I've said it all year; I need to look at this as a challenge and work as hard as I could to help the team. Now I realize I need to keep working on a lot of things in the offseason to give people a reason to want me on their team."