Lynx Dynasty In Transition
By Erik Beck
Another WNBA season is in the books, as the Seattle Storm defeated the Washington Mystics in a 3-0 sweep in the 2018 WNBA Finals for their third championship in franchise history. What may be somewhat jarring for anyone who has watched the WNBA over the last decade is the fact that the Minnesota Lynx were not one of the teams that were playing for the title. The Lynx have been basically synonymous with the WNBA Finals for the last seven years, as they made the Finals six out of seven seasons and the championship went through the Lynx every single year from 2011 to 2017.
This year, after an up-and-down season, the Lynx were ousted in the single-elimination first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Sparks. The group of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, and Rebekkah Brunson, who won their fourth championship together last season, never got the chance to compete in the playoffs together again, as Brunson was sidelined with a concussion sustained in a late-season game against the Atlanta Dream. With the Lynx’s defeat, Whalen retired from the WNBA, and the Lynx now face a major transition into the future. To understand where the Lynx go from here, it is necessary to examine what happened this season.
What Happened: 2018 Season Brings Upheaval, Inconsistency, Roster Issues
The 2017 Lynx squad, fueled by Sylvia Fowles’ MVP campaign, was one of the most dominant teams in the Lynx dynasty’s history. However, the team that returned to Target Center this year was a very different group. With Jia Perkins and Plenette Pierson retiring after the 2017 season and Renee Montgomery and Natasha Howard departing via free agency and restricted-free-agency-motivated trade, the entire bench rotation for the Lynx was replaced for the 2018 season.
Despite the lack of continuity, the 2018 Lynx were still able to remain a very solid defensive team, at least until Brunson went out for the last six games of the season. Offense, on the other hand, was a different story, and ended up being the main source of the Lynx’s problems.
The Lynx suffered from a lack of consistent bench scoring this season, which, combined with declining scoring numbers and/or shooting percentages from the Lynx starters, led to an uncharacteristic number of lackluster scoring outputs. The team was often too reliant on Moore and Fowles to score, and when those two struggled, their teammates often still tried to force the pass to them or otherwise didn’t look to score themselves until the clock wound down and someone had to force a shot up. When no one stepped up to fill the scoring void, the Lynx offense often stalled, then cratered in this fashion.
The difference in scoring balance between last year’s championship team and this year’s team can be seen in the individual scoring performances from the Lynx players. In 2017, the Lynx had thirty-two 20+ point performances and sixty-two double-digit games from Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles combined. Rebekkah Brunson and Renee Montgomery each had three games in which they scored 20 points or more. Seimone Augustus had eighteen games scoring in double figures, while Brunson had seventeen, Montgomery had ten, and Whalen had seven despite missing twelve games due to injury.
This season, Moore and Fowles had a combined twenty-seven 20+ point performances and fifty-nine double-digit scoring performances—a slight decline from the prior season. While Seimone Augustus scored in double figures in 22 games, no other Lynx player had more than eight double-digit scoring performances, and no bench player had more than six this season. The only players other than Fowles and Moore to score 20 or more points in a game in 2018 were Whalen (22 points in a loss to the Las Vegas Aces) and Augustus (21 points in a win against the New York Liberty).
The other major problem for the Lynx this season was their lack of depth at the power forward position. After Natasha Howard was traded to Seattle, the Lynx had no clear option to back up Rebekkah Brunson. Both Lynetta Kizer and Endy Miyem (signed during last offseason) were quickly cut out of the rotation and eventually waived by the team. Mid-season signee Erlana Larkins provided a boost in defense and rebounding, but played sparingly as the season went on and did not provide a great deal of scoring. Temi Fagbenle had some good moments, especially in the Lynx’s playoff game against the Sparks where she not only provided a scoring lift to keep the Lynx in the game, but also played exceptional defense both on Candace Parker and switching onto Chelsea Gray. However, at other times during the season she seemed uncertain and indecisive when playing in Brunson’s offensive role rather than as Fowles’ backup, making mistakes that got her quickly pulled from the game.
Ultimately the shortage of backup power forward options meant that Maya Moore had to absorb a fair amount of minutes at power forward. Moore then had the responsibility of being both Maya Moore as well as Rebekkah Brunson in many games, an exhausting task which, combined with the demanding schedule, may have contributed to Moore’s shooting struggles over the course of the season.
The void at power forward was exacerbated by Rebekkah Brunson missing 9 games in the regular season (more than 25 percent of the season) including the crucial final six games which saw the Lynx fall from the 3rd seed to the 7th seed. Nine games without their 4th-leading scorer and one of their absolute best defenders did not help the Lynx keep their heads above water in the playoff seeding race. Losing Danielle Robinson for the rest of the season shortly after losing Brunson put the Lynx in an even worse position, giving them little chance for postseason success this year.
With Lindsay Whalen now officially retired from the WNBA the Lynx will be without her services for the first time in nearly a decade. Speaking on Whalen’s impact on the team in the Lynx end-of-season press conference, Maya Moore said, “It’s not replaceable. That’s why it’s so precious. You can’t replace someone like Lindsay Whalen, but people can take the best parts of what she gave to them and bring that. I think that’s the best way to honor her and to carry her legacy on.” Whalen is one of the greatest point guards in WNBA history, a fixture of Minnesota basketball, and was an essential part of the Lynx championship runs. While it will be exciting to follow her next chapter as head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team, Whalen will be sorely missed at Target Center next season.
But this is not an obituary for either Lindsay Whalen or the Lynx dynasty. For all the hand-wringing about the Lynx’s 2018 season, the team still finished with a winning record with Rebekkah Brunson and Danielle Robinson missing several games each at the end of the season, a lack of consistent production off the bench, and no clear answer throughout the season for who to play the backup power forward minutes. The Lynx had the 3rd best record in the league at the all-star break, and without injuries to key players might have won even more games. There are many reasons for them to be optimistic about competing for another title moving forward.
For starters, next season will see a return to a normal schedule for the WNBA. No players for the Lynx were interested in making excuses about the condensed schedule this past season, but it will almost certainly be a greater help to the Lynx veterans to have more time for recovery between games.
In addition, the four remaining core players (Augustus, Moore, Brunson, and Fowles) for the Lynx should all be returning to the team, and none of them will be playing overseas during the WNBA offseason, opting instead to rest and recover. Everyone should be ready to hit the ground running in 2019.
While some have suggested that Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus might follow Whalen into retirement, both players have stated their desire to return to the team next season, and nothing about the play of Seimone Augustus or Rebekkah Brunson suggests that they will be retiring in the immediate future. Seimone Augustus is still an efficient scorer who will probably continue to get buckets until her legs literally fall off. Furthermore, at least in terms of defensive points per possession, Augustus was the Lynx’s best defensive player last year (Per Synergy: 0.813 points per possession, 76th percentile). Rebekkah Brunson provided her usual rock solid defense and hustle plays while also shooting 37.5 percent from three. Both players remain essential pillars of the Lynx culture and winning formula.
The key to getting back on the winning track in 2019 for the Lynx will be maintaining their defensive intensity while adding a bit more scoring. The magic number for Lynx wins is 80 points: when the Lynx score 80 points or more in a game, they win the majority of their games, and when they don’t, they win far less frequently. In 2017, the Lynx scored 80+ points in a game 26 times, winning 24 of those games. When they did not score 80 points the 2017 Lynx went 3-5. This season, the Lynx averaged 78.9 points per game this season, just under the magic winning number. In 2018, the Lynx scored 80+ points in only 17 games, winning 15 of those games. In the 17 games that the Lynx scored less than 80 points this season, the Lynx went 3-14.
For the past four seasons, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles have typically combined for around 36 points per game, and it remains a fairly safe assumption that this will be true going forward. Given the same number of minutes per game next year, Seimone Augustus will probably still score around 11 points per game. This means that to reach the 80-point winning threshold, the team will need the rest of the roster to score at least 33 points per game.
In her end-of-season press conference, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve emphasized that the Lynx front office has a lot of work to do this offseason and the team would remain open to many different roster construction options, telling the media that “no one is safe” this offseason (Author’s note: some players are absolutely safe). Based on Reeve’s comments, it seems likely that the players that will return next season will be Augustus, Moore, Brunson, and Fowles, along with Danielle Robinson, Alexis Jones, Cecilia Zandalasini, and Temi Fagbenle. Last year, these eight players averaged a combined 72.3 points per game, so if none of these players improve their scoring average next season, the Lynx will need to pick up around 7.7 points per game from offseason additions to the roster.
If the above named eight players return for the Lynx next season, that leaves four roster spots to add either through the draft or through free agency. The most pressing needs for the Lynx this offseason are finding a backup/future replacement for Rebekkah Brunson and a third point guard. With Whalen’s retirement, the Lynx will have at least one max contract available to try to pick up a player in free agency or through trade.
An intriguing possibility for the Lynx this offseason would be trying to acquire Tina Charles from the New York Liberty. The move would be a perfect fit for the Lynx, reuniting Charles with former UConn teammate Maya Moore and creating a three-player primary rotation at the 4 and 5 spots of Tina Charles-Rebekkah Brunson-Sylvia Fowles, three of the greatest rebounders in the history of the game. This move would almost certainly vault the Lynx back into the position of being the favorites to win the title in 2019.
Other potential free agency targets for the Lynx include Liberty point guard Brittany Boyd, who boasts fantastic steal and assist percentages for her career. Should Allie Quigley become available, the Lynx could put together lineups with Quigley, Moore, and Zandalsini to maximize spacing around Sylvia Fowles.
If the Lynx try to build primarily through the draft this offseason, they will have many talented players to choose from. The Lynx have the 6th, 16th, 18th, and 20th picks overall in the first two rounds. The 2019 draft should be full of great power forward prospects, and with the sixth pick in the draft, the Lynx would have a great chance to draft a player like UConn’s Napheesa Collier, Australian prospect Eziyoda Magbegor, or Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard. Any of these players could potentially push the Lynx over the 80-point per game scoring threshold, even without the addition of a big-time free agent.
Given the depth of next year’s draft, it is likely that there will be serious talent remaining in the middle of the second round, and there are a number of players that may also be able to be meaningful contributors on the Minnesota Lynx roster. Players like point guard Paris Kea, center Kristine Anigwe, Minnesota’s own Kenisha Bell, wing Sophie Cunningham, and guard Marina Mabrey may still be available.
Sports will always humble you eventually. No one is on top forever. Watching the end of the 2017 finals at Williams Arena, there was a feeling of invincibility in the air among the Lynx and their fans. At the same time, watching the celebration unfold in front of me, seeing Lindsay Whalen putting her arm around Holly Rowe after the championship ceremony in the building where she first put Minnesota women’s basketball on the map, something in me knew that at least one chapter of the Lynx dynasty’s story was over. If real life had Hollywood endings, that 2017 championship could have been the perfect ending to the Lynx dynasty story—every starter had an incredible game to defeat the team that had broken their hearts the prior season, and the Lynx won their fourth championship in seven years to match the Houston Comets for the most titles in league history.
In sports, however, there is no true “ending,” just the beginning of another season’s journey. The 2018 season was a disappointing year for the Lynx, and with Whalen’s retirement, the full Lynx core will not have another chance to seek a fifth title together. However, while the Lynx are in a transitional period, they are in a very good position to reload for next season, and are unlikely to be out of their title contention window just yet. After all, next year is an odd year.