It’s funny how different two consecutive 18-16 seasons can feel. When the 2018 Minnesota Lynx finished with an 18-16 record and lost in the first round of the WNBA Playoffs, it felt disappointing for a team that began the season with championship aspirations. The 2019 Lynx finished with the same record and the same playoff result and yet it feels like the promising start of something new.
The 2019 Season: Building and Re-Building the New-Look Lynx
Heading into the 2019 WNBA season, it was clear that change was coming for the Minnesota Lynx. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Lynx had to play a season mostly without their “core four” that had won four titles together.
Lindsay Whalen retired as a player after the 2018 season. Maya Moore decided to take (at least) a year away from basketball to dedicate time to family, ministry, and work related to criminal justice reform. Rebekkah Brunson had to sit out the 2019 season with continuing post-concussion symptoms. Seimone Augustus played twelve games and just 156 minutes this season, her lowest season total ever, due to ongoing knee issues.
The Lynx countered these losses by acquiring a great deal of high quality players through free agency (Karima Christmas-Kelly, Damiris Dantas), the draft (Napheesa Collier, Jessica Shepard), and trades (Odyssey Sims, Lexie Brown, Stephanie Talbot). The final roster for the Lynx was vastly different from the prior season, as they finished the year with only four returning players from 2018. They began the season with just two active returning players—Sylvia Fowles and Danielle Robinson—as Augustus recovered from a procedure on her knee and Temi Fagbenle played for her national team at EuroBasket.
Due to injuries and absences, the team-building process never really came to an end and we never really saw the ideal, healthy version of this year’s Lynx team. Jessica Shepard, Karima Christmas-Kelly, and Seimone Augustus all played minimal games and minutes this year. Cecilia Zandalasini played through an ankle injury for her national team at EuroBasket and was shut down without playing a game for the Lynx this season. Kelsey Griffin (last year’s WNBL MVP and another offseason Lynx signing) didn’t make it to Lynx training camp with a broken plantar plate in her toe. Seventeen players suited up for the Lynx in 2019, the most of any team in the WNBA this season.
Despite the roster upheaval before and throughout the season, the Lynx statistically improved on their 2018 performance. Minnesota finished fifth in net rating at +3.0 in 2019, compared to eighth (+1.1) in 2018. While they finished just sixth in offensive rating this year, the Lynx were an especially good defensive team this season, finishing second in defensive rating (95.8) behind Las Vegas (95.0).
The Lynx finished tied for the sixth best record in the league and lost to the Seattle Storm in the first round of the playoffs. The playoff loss itself was odd, with Sims and Robinson combining for one point after averaging 24.5 points per game for the season. Still, it’s difficult to make major judgments based on one playoff game, and the Lynx have a lot to be proud of regarding the 2019 season.
Here’s an incomplete list of 2019 Lynx season highlights:
- Napheesa Collier won Rookie of the Year and was named to the All-Rookie Team. She was also named as a replacement player in the All-Star Game (the only rookie to appear in the game). Collier finished ninth in PIPM and fourth in D-PIPM. She also was fifth in Win Shares with 5.2 and tied for second with Jonquel Jones and Nneka Ogwumike for Defensive Win Shares with 2.4. Collier led the team in scoring after the All-Star break with 15.7 points per game.
- Sylvia Fowles moved into second place for career rebounds, 17th in career points, first in career double-doubles, and fourth in career blocks this season.
- Lexie Brown finished the season tied for eleventh in three-pointers made with 52 makes. Only five players who made more threes shot a better percentage than Brown’s 38.5 percent.
- Damiris Dantas became the first player in WNBA history to both shoot at least 38 percent from three (on at least 2 attempts per game) and dish out 3 assists per game while playing primarily at the 4 or 5 spot for a season.
- Odyssey Sims set a career high in assists per game at 5.4. She also earned her first bid as an All-Star this season and was voted onto the All-WNBA 2nd team for the first time in her career as well.
Biggest Questions Facing the Lynx
The most important offseason questions for the Lynx are which players are returning to the team and which players are healthy at the start of the 2020 season. Shepard and Christmas-Kelly—who should be critical pieces on next year’s team—are both recovering from in-season knee surgeries. They should hopefully be ready to go in time for next season, but their status is something to monitor. Likewise, both Augustus and Brunson should have spots on the team if they want to return, though both could opt for retirement if they feel like it’s time.
Augustus addressed the possibility of retiring a year before her original plan to retire after the 2020 season at the Lynx end of season press conference.
“Obviously after the way the year went for me, it’s something that I’ll definitely consider and see how I feel. I have to listen to my body. So if my body says that this is the year, I’m more than happy. I’ve seen the foundation of the Lynx. Napheesa Collier is obviously the face of the team, and I’m happy with that. You’ve seen what she’s capable of doing and being that leader for the future generation of future Lynx players.”
It is still unclear if Moore will be returning to the Lynx in 2020. In recent interviews she has maintained that she is sticking to taking a full year off before taking stock and making a decision on what she wants to do next. Next Spring should be when she will make a decision one way or the other. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said at her end of season presser that whether Moore decides to return or not shouldn’t affect how the team goes about building the rest of the 2020 roster.
“Everything we’re doing would be no different than if Maya were to play. So that’s the good news. It’s not like you can’t make a decision until [she does]. So we’re just continuing to build our team, because you know that if someone like Maya plays you just drop it right in and go. So there’s nothing that’s going to stand in our way of being able to prepare for next season.”
Presently, the Lynx have nine players under contract for 2020 including Moore:
- Odyssey Sims
- Lexie Brown
- Maya Moore**
- Stephanie Talbot
- Napheesa Collier
- Karima Christmas-Kelly*
- Damiris Dantas
- Jessica Shepard*
- Sylvia Fowles
*Recovering from injury; **May or may not return for 2020 season
Seimone Augustus, Danielle Robinson, Temi Fagbenle, and Bridget Carleton are the players from this year’s final roster who will be free agents. As far as other Lynx-affiliated players go, Minnesota holds the rights to Kelsey Griffin and Cecilia Zandalsini, while Rebekkah Brunson remains a free agent. The Lynx will also have 6th and 14th overall picks in the 2020 WNBA Draft
At the end of the season, Reeve talked about building next year’s roster and the foundational pieces that the Lynx already have.
“We certainly have some needs. The good news for us is we know what we don’t need. I think Napheesa Collier gives us a really bright future. Obviously we know that Sylvia Fowles extended [her contract] and wants to be here. Damiris Dantas showed that she’s a big piece of what we’re doing. Really excited about her.”
When asked about Shepard (who Reeve also called a great fit with the franchise), Reeve added, “You hate to talk about injured players because you don’t know how it’s going to go. We’re hopeful that we have those key pieces. But I just have learned that you have to be prepared that, ‘what if they’re not?’”
Reeve also stated that while they like their team, the front office would not be afraid to see what players end up available outside of their own roster.
“There’s a lot of good, there’s a lot of things that we go, ‘yeah, we’re pretty sure we’re going to keep going down that path and then we also—when we were tied for sixth it’s not…this franchise has goals that are higher than that. So how do we best utilize personnel that we have to make any meaningful changes that we think might be necessary? Those are all conversations that we’re going to have.”
Shooting remains a priority
Probably the clearest way for the Lynx to improve in 2020 is by adding more three-point shooting. The team finished tenth in 3-point attempts, tied for tenth in 3-point makes on the season, and ninth in three-point percentage at 33.2 percent. The team had four clear shooters in Lexie Brown, Damiris Dantas, Stephanie Talbot, and Napheesa Collier.
In 2017 (when the Lynx won their last championship), the Lynx shot 37 percent from three and had seven players that shot better than 33 percent from three. While they were only 8th in three-point attempts and seventh in makes that season, they still effectively spaced the floor around Sylvia Fowles.
Even without a lot of shooters, the Lynx finished third in the league in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage this season. However, there is still room to grow, and with more shooters on the roster the Lynx offense could return to being one of the best in the league.
The Lynx will not necessarily have to look far outside of their current pool of players for additional shooters. Augustus, Moore, Zandalasini, Brunson, Christmas-Kelly, and Griffin all could be effective shooters to “add.” The team mostly needs to get healthy. Still, however they address re-tooling the roster, limiting the number of non-shooters on next year’s roster will be essential to maximize the Lynx’s offensive potential.
Prognosis for 2020
The Lynx have a wide range of outcomes for the 2020 season. The best possible version of next year’s roster is likely a championship contender. But there are a lot of uncertainties at the moment about who will be healthy and available to play. Nevertheless, the Lynx have taken a major step forward this season and have built the foundation of a bright future for the franchise.