Lynx Simplify, Solidify Point Guard Rotation
By Erik Beck
After an uncharacteristically lackluster opening quarter of the season, the Minnesota Lynx appear to have flipped the proverbial switch. A week-long break between their loss at Connecticut and their game against New York allowed the reigning champions a chance to regroup, get back to basics and assess how they wanted to move forward from their disappointing start.
The results of this “mini-training camp” are evident - in the five games since Minnesota’s loss to Connecticut, the Lynx have gone 5-0 and own the league’s best Net Rating at +14.7 with the best Defensive Rating (92.6) and second-best Offensive Rating (107.4) during that timeframe. There are several reasons for this massive turnaround, not least among them the improved play of the Lynx’s two former MVPs. Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles have combined for 46.4 points per game in their last five contests (capped off by a dominant 60-point combined effort in a win against the Storm) and have cut down their combined turnovers from almost 7 per game in the first nine games of the season to 2.6 per game during the five-game win streak.
Building around Moore and Fowles’ dominant play, the Lynx have also worked to re-establish their identity by paring down their rotation, which - especially among their point guards - was fairly chaotic to start the season. Lindsay Whalen, Danielle Robinson, Alexis Jones and even Tanisha Wright all spent some time at the point as Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve tried to find effective player combinations while also keeping Whalen’s minute totals down. If the last five games are any indication, it now appears that the point guard rotation for the Lynx - with a few exceptions - will consist almost entirely of split time between Whalen and Robinson.
Both Whalen and Robinson struggled to start the season. Despite her 17-point, 9-assist performance in the season-opener against the Sparks, Whalen shot just 30.8 percent from the field over the first nine games as her minute totals fluctuated wildly. While shooting a solid percentage from the field at 45.7 percent (averaging 6.0 PPG), Robinson appeared to struggle to find her rhythm with the team early on, averaging 2.7 assists and 1.9 turnovers in under 17 minutes per game. Robinson’s low point of the season came in the loss to the Sun, where she totaled just over five minutes of playing time and was pulled in garbage time in favor of Jones after an egregiously sloppy turnover. Whalen and Robinson had cumulative plus-minus scores of -12 and -26, respectively, over the first nine games of the season.
During the last five games, however, both players seem to have found their groove. Whalen has scored 6.0 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting to go along with 3.8 assists per game. Robinson has appeared much more confident and comfortable lately, using her speed to attack the basket and set up teammates both in transition and in the halfcourt, scoring 6.2 points per game and dishing out 4.8 assists per game. Whalen had a plus-minus of +35 and Robinson had a plus-minus of +29 in these five games.
The pair have played almost an identical number of minutes over the last five games with Whalen playing exactly 35 seconds more than Robinson, but moving forward it appears that some of their minute totals will be matchup-dependent. Some games could see Whalen playing minutes on more of a “break glass in case of emergency” basis, with Robinson and Jones receiving greater shares of minutes. For example, Whalen played only seven minutes to Robinson’s 27 in the Lynx’s last game against Dallas, as Reeve may have decided there was no pressing need to run Whalen through approximately 1,000 Skylar Diggins-Smith/Liz Cambage pick-and-rolls, especially given the Lynx’s comfortable lead throughout most of the game. For most games, Whalen should still be the primary option at the point, as her play and floor leadership remains an essential part of what the Lynx do, but Robinson has emerged as the highly capable “1B” option that the Lynx hoped she would be and that they need her to continue to be for the team to be successful.
The Lynx still have some issues to sort out (including trying to find a more ideal solution for who plays backup power forward minutes than increased minutes for Moore and Rebekkah Brunson), but with improved play from their stars and with their primary point guards keeping the team clicking, the Lynx should continue to build on their recent success.