New Faces, Same Mindset for the Minnesota Lynx

An “odd year” for the Minnesota Lynx has typically meant great success, as the team captured each of their record-tying four league titles every other year starting in 2011. This year, however, is especially odd as the team opens the 2019 WNBA season on unfamiliar ground, with three of their superstar starters from those championship runs now absent. Lindsay Whalen has retired from playing and has settled into her new position as the head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team. Maya Moore is taking the 2019 WNBA season off to spend more time with her family and on her ministry and other off-court endeavors. Rebekkah Brunson’s status is uncertain going forward as she continues to recover from the effects of the concussion that ended her season last year.

After a 2018 season which saw the Lynx finish with the league’s seventh-best record (a significant departure from the previous seven seasons where they never finished outside of the top two in the overall standings), it was already clear that the Lynx needed to make some changes to their roster and play style. However, the loss of those three players for the 2019 season, all crucial to the Lynx’s identity during their dynastic run, has made more drastic change unavoidable moving into a new era of Lynx basketball.

The Lynx went into the offseason after 2018 with a stated goal of improving the roster in any way possible and with a great deal of salary cap flexibility to accomplish that goal. The Lynx have been very active in re-shaping their roster this offseason, and have been aggressive in pursuing deals for the best talent available up to the last minute of the preseason. The result: a dramatically overhauled roster that will feature just three returning players from the 2018 Lynx team at the beginning of the season (with two more potentially returning closer to mid-season).

After a season of inconsistent production from their bench, the Lynx now have an overload of talent capable of both making the roster and producing for the team. A late pair of trades for sharpshooting forward Stephanie Talbot and center Alaina Coates (the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 draft) will allow the Lynx to begin the season with a full roster of twelve players. However, both backup center Temi Fagbenle (who will begin the season on the temporary suspended list) and backup forward Cecilia Zandalasini (a reserved player for the Lynx who is currently unsigned) are expected to join the team in early July after they have finished playing for their respective national teams at the 2019 European Women Basketball Championship. At that point, the Lynx will have two additional roster cuts to make.

Having a larger pool of players to choose from presents a variety of options for the team. However, when asked before the team’s first preseason game if there was any benefit to having a fluid roster situation like this during the season versus having a final roster set at the start of the season, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve lamented, “I like to have my team set. I like to have everybody together. Especially this [new]  group. We need time together. The seasons where you’re inserting, removing—those aren’t my favorite seasons. So this is part of professional women’s basketball right now, that we have to manage this, but I look forward to when we don’t have to.”

Based on preseason play, the likely early-season rotation for the Lynx looks to be nine to ten players. Returning starters Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles will likely be joined by a fully injury-rehabbed Danielle Robinson and free agent signees Karima Christmas-Kelly and Damiris Dantas. The bench will feature trade acquisitions Odyssey Sims and Lexie Brown at the guard spots, and Lynx draftees Napheesa Collier and Jessica Shepard as forwards. Despite her late arrival to the team, Talbot may be called upon to play important minutes early as well, while minutes for Coates and forward Shao Ting will likely be limited early on.

The Lynx, who for the last few seasons were often characterized as “old” due to an aging core and the team’s tendency to sign veterans near the end of their careers, can no longer be described as such. All of the veterans acquired in the offseason either through free agency or trade are under 30 years old, and the roster will feature at least six players playing in just their third season or fewer in the WNBA, compared to a maximum of three such players present on the roster in any of the last few years. Teams will likely no longer be able to simply try to run the Lynx off the court with younger legs. In fact, with quick guards Robinson and Sims running the point, effective rim runners like Fowles and Collier, and spot-up shooters like Talbot and Brown, transition offense is likely to be a strength of the team going forward.

The Lynx are also focused on trying to modernize their offense and space the floor around Fowles’ dominant post play by placing an emphasis on shooting more three-pointers as a team. Players have been assured that they will not be pulled from the game for taking a shot, but will be subbed out if they pass up an open three-point shot. At Lynx media day, Lexie Brown—a prolific three-point shooter at Duke—laughed when asked about having an especially green light for outside shooting, saying, “I’ve never been told to shoot more. Ever. In my life. And in practice there are so many shots that I’ve passed up, or I’ve taken some shots and missed and there hasn’t really been a shot yet that they’ve been like, ‘Lexie, don’t take that one.’ So it’s been really nice to have that and they have so much confidence in me and I hope that I can bring a consistent three-point threat.”

Some of the early results in terms of the team’s outside shooting in the preseason have been intriguing, but it will still likely take some time to become a consistent weapon. Asked after the Lynx’s first preseason game against the Washington Mystics (where the team shot 1-14 on threes) about the team fully buying in on shooting more threes, Seimone Augustus said, “It’s a work in progress. It’s definitely a work in progress. I mean, it’s day six. Hopefully by the beginning of the season we’ll be closer to where we want to be, but it won’t probably be until mid-season where it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re in a rhythm, we know where we’re supposed to be, we know where the kick-outs are,’ and people feel confident stepping into their shot and shooting.”

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In their third preseason game against the Las Vegas Aces, the Lynx shot 10-29 from three-point range, with every player not named Sylvia Fowles who saw minutes in the game shooting at least one outside shot. On nights with that kind of efficiency on that number of three-point attempts, the Lynx are going to be very tough to beat.

While the team is looking to change their approach somewhat to adapt to their new players and league-wide trends in offense, many parts of the Lynx identity will remain consistent from past years. Asked what she would like the team’s identity to be, Cheryl Reeve said, “[The focus] with any team that we ever coach here with the Minnesota Lynx, [should be]  that there’s an effort about the way we do our business, and how we treat each other. At the core of what we do that’s what I want our identity to be. Obviously, we’ve got to be good basketball players, and so that’s the work that we’re going to put in. We have young players that need to learn a lot, so our player development piece is going to be big. I tell them every day that if we defend and rebound we have a chance to win every game. And we’ve approached it in that way when we played Washington and when we played China. Defend and rebound, play with some physical toughness, mental toughness about you. That’s the stuff we talk about every day. You have to be efficient on offense—I think that might be our challenge. So I have to learn about play calling and who, where, when, you know, that sort of thing. I’m going to learn that as we go. But every team that we coach here I want it to be about those things.”

The Lynx leadership will be important in ensuring that those pillars of identity persist. When asked what the most important part of the established Lynx culture to preserve going forward was, Seimone Augustus responded, “The mindset. I can remember days where we were like, ‘I don’t want to lose by twenty!’ You know, to then flipping the switch to being like, ‘Yo, we can do this, we can win a game by twenty or if we’re in a clutch situation, tie game, we can execute that game plan and pull out a victory.’ So that’s what we want to continue to instill and keep that mindset—a winning mindset. Even if we take a few L’s early on in the season know that that’s just right now. We can always get our stuff together, we can keep working hard, we can keep gelling to get to where we want to be. So that’s the biggest thing.”

On paper, without the wealth of all-star talent that some teams have (and that the Lynx used to have), it’s hard to say that the Lynx will be favorites to contend for a championship this season. However, while they may not have the world-beating starting five of their previous dynasty years, this team has a great deal of talent and depth should be a major strength for the Lynx this season. The template for something special exists with this roster. How soon everything comes together in terms of learning how to win as a group will determine a lot about how the 2019 season will go for the new-look Lynx.

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