Minnesota Lynx Free Agency Primer: Katie Smith, Maya Moore, and possible FA targets

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The WNBA free agency negotiation period began this week and the Minnesota Lynx have started to take their first steps toward putting together their team for 2020. Several recent developments have provided some clarity for what next season’s Lynx team will look like, but many questions still remain.

Katie Smith (re-)joins the Lynx

The Lynx’s first addition of the offseason was to the sidelines rather than to the court.

After not having her contract as Head Coach of the New York Liberty renewed, former Lynx All-Star Katie Smith joined Cheryl Reeve’s staff as the new lead Assistant Coach. Smith played for the Detroit Shock while Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve was the lead assistant coach under Bill Laimbeer (who Smith would also later be an assistant coach for with the Liberty). The two coaches know each other well and hold each other in high esteem. Reeve called Smith with a job offer soon after the news broke of the Liberty’s decision to not retain her.

At her media availability on Jan. 12, Smith spoke about what appealed to her about the position with the Lynx.

“The organization, first of all, is one hundred percent behind what Cheryl and the Lynx and the players are doing,” said Smith. “[I’m excited] for me to be under somebody I respect both on and off [the court]and to continue to learn and to do my part and to come in here with what I’ve learned over the years both as a player and a coach and just get after it and see what we can get done this summer.”

Asked about the differences between being an assistant coach and a head coach, Smith replied, “Yeah, I’ve been an assistant more than I have a head [coach]. It’s really just doing your job, but also thinking like a head coach, bringing ideas to the table, not sitting back and waiting, throwing things at coach and really just bringing stuff and being ready. You know, prepping for the game just as a head coach [would]  and then going forward with the game plan. So always come in with ideas, preparation, how we can win games, how we can get our players better. So I’m excited about that.”

Reeve added that she expects Smith will be a great assistant coach partly due to her head coaching experience.

“[There are] things that she learned along the way as a head coach in prepping for a season, preparing for your roster. I need that experience, because [of]  losing a couple of the staff that we lost that were here. So now she’s the veteran of the staff and now she’s going to mentor Plenette [Pierson] and those that we’ll hire. I think that [with her]having that knowledge we’ll lean on her heavily with regard to opponent preparation.”

Smith’s specific responsibilities with the team will be ironed out in the weeks to come. “I think it’s everything,” said Smith about what she would be working on with the team. “With us, with the staff that we have we usually kind of cross over and are part of everything. But as we get going here I’ll learn more of what Coach [Reeve] really wants me to do.”

Reeve jokingly added that Smith would act as a “buffer” between her and the players.

“She’s got a great relationship with Syl and ‘Rima (Karima Christmas-Kelly),” said Reeve of Smith. “She’s got really good energy about her. So she’s going to be able to be on the court in a way that the players are going to enjoy. So there’s just a number of facets that I think she’s going to be able to be really good. And then I think you’ll see in game she’ll be very connected to what’s happening and be a great communicator and just be really good. And even better maybe then she was for Bill [Laimbeer] because she’s been a head coach now.”

Longtime Lynx Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson was officially announced to be leaving the team to join Walt Hopkins’ New York Liberty staff on January 28. At Katie Smith’s media availability session, Reeve stated that the Lynx are still looking to sign two more coaches.

“We have two more hires [including]  the video coordinator, and we’re going to go a different route than we have in the past. [Former Lynx Assistant Coach] Jim Petersen’s been my supply of video coordinators. He’s done a great job, but they’re men who aspire to be in the NBA. So we’re going to make a shift there as well and we’ll probably go [with]  more of a coach in that role that learns how to do video.”

Reeve added that with free agency taking priority at the moment, the Lynx were “not in any hurry right now” to finalize those hires, but that they wouldn’t be “months down the road.”

Maya Moore to sit out 2020 season

The first 2020 roster news for the Lynx came the day after Katie Smith’s introduction. Maya Moore confirmed in an interview with the New York Times that she will be sitting out a second consecutive WNBA season to continue to focus on her criminal justice reform work and ministry.

In that interview, Maya expressed that she was happy with what she’s doing with her life at the moment.

“Basketball has not been foremost in my mind. I’ve been able to rest, and connect with people around me, actually be in their presence after all of these years on the road.”

Moore said that while she is not returning to the WNBA this season and will not try for a spot on the U.S. National Team for this summer’s Olympics, she is not retiring from basketball.

“I don’t feel like this is the right time for me to retire. Retirement is something that is a big deal, and there is a right way to do it well, and this is not the time for me.”

Moore has been working tirelessly to help try to overturn the conviction of family friend Jonathan Irons, currently serving a 50-year sentence for a burglary resulting in a non-fatal shooting that he maintains he did not commit. At the UConn—Team USA exhibition game where the 2009 and 2010 teams she had been a part of were honored, Moore told reporters that progress is being made on Irons’ current appeal, and that the next hearing date would be March 9.

Per the Hartford Courant, Moore said that while her past year has been rewarding, the work she has been doing has been demanding.

“I can honestly tell you I’m more exhausted now than when I was playing,” said Moore. “With this next year, I’m so hopeful for seeing some victory soon and then I really will start the resting process that so many people thought I was going to get this year.”

In a statement on Moore, Reeve said, “Over the last year we have been in frequent contact with Maya around the great work in criminal justice reform and ministry in which she is fully engaged. We are proud of the ways that Maya is advocating for justice and using her platform to impact social change.”

Reeve told the Star Tribune that the Lynx were prepared for either possibility of Moore returning this season or not, and that she told Moore that there is “always a place for her” with the Lynx.

Odyssey Sims likely out for 2020 as well/Lynx Free Agency

Moore’s decision to sit out for another season clarifies some decisions for putting together the 2020 Lynx roster. For instance, the team can bring back both Cecilia Zandalasini (Reserved Player) and Seimone Augustus (Unrestricted Free Agent) without having to make any trades to do so, and that appears to be the plan at the moment. With those two returning to the team and with Danielle Robinson the only other incumbent unrestricted free agent, there should have been relatively few needs for the Lynx to address.

However, in breaking news first reported by Rachel Galligan for Winsidr, it appears that Odyssey Sims is unlikely to play during the 2020 WNBA season. Further details on this situation are yet to come, but this development will impact the Lynx’s offseason approach immensely.

Filling in the roster with players under contract and very likely signings, the predicted Lynx roster looks something like this:

Guards:

  • Odyssey Sims***
  • Lexie Brown

Wings:

  • Seimone Augustus*
  • Cecilia Zandalasini*
  • Stephanie Talbot
  • Napheesa Collier
  • Karima Christmas-Kelly

Bigs:

  • Damiris Dantas
  • Jessica Shepard
  • Sylvia Fowles
  • Temi Fagbenle**

*Yet to be re-signed

**Will be offered tender to retain her rights, per Star Tribune.

***Reported to be unlikely to play in 2020, more details to come.

This leaves eleven players on the roster with Sims’ 2020 roster status still requiring clarification. Without Sims, the Lynx would have only one point guard under contract in Lexie Brown.

The first priority for the Lynx this offseason is to address the point guard position. The following is a list of the best point guards that are currently free agents:

Top Free Agent Point Guards

  • Skylar Diggins-Smith (Cored by Dallas Wings)
  • Courtney Vandersloot
  • Kristi Toliver
  • Chelsea Gray (Restricted Free Agent)
  • Danielle Robinson
  • Leilani Mitchell
  • Layshia Clarendon

Reviewing these options, there still is a possibility that Danielle Robinson could return to the Lynx for the 2020 season. Robinson is a solid two-way point guard with two seasons of experience with the team. However, her lack of consistent and efficient three-point shooting may lead the Lynx to look elsewhere.

Courtney Vandersloot and Kristi Toliver seem like safe bets to return to their respective teams this offseason. The same goes for Chelsea Gray. Because she is a restricted free agent, the Los Angeles Sparks will almost certainly match any offer matched this offseason. Layshia Clarendon is another talented point guard, but like Robinson she is also not a perimeter shooting threat. That leaves Leilani Mitchell and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Leilani Mitchell would be an intriguing target for the Lynx. Mitchell is one of the very best shooters in the WNBA (5th highest career three-point shooting percentage among active players at 39.6%). She is also very capable of playing either as a backup point guard or starting point guard. Adding her to the Lynx roster would give the Lynx a steady hand and additional floor spacing around Sylvia Fowles.

Skylar Diggins-Smith is a perennial All-Star, and reportedly is interested in leaving the Dallas Wings for another team this offseason. However, if the Lynx are interested in acquiring her, it will have to be via trade, as the Wings have given her a core designation to retain exclusive negotiating rights in exchange for a max salary. Last season (in a very similar situation) the Wings traded Liz Cambage to the Las Vegas for Isabelle Harrison, Moriah Jefferson, and the Aces’ first and second round picks that year. Keeping this in mind, the Lynx would probably have to trade a combination of players and draft picks to the Wings for Diggins-Smith. The Lynx have the 6th and 14th overall picks in this year’s draft while the Wings have the 2nd, 9th, 15th, and 21st overall picks.

With only one or two likely open roster spots and the WNBA draft still upcoming (not to mention the aforementioned trade necessary for a pursuit of Diggins-Smith), trades do seem likely for the Lynx this offseason. However, until those trades occur, it’s hard to determine other necessary moves for the Lynx to make. It’s easy to speculate that the Lynx might be interested in looking for another unrestricted free agent star at a position other than point guard, such as Angel McCoughtry or DeWanna Bonner. While both have undeniable talent, it is not clear that either is a good fit on this Lynx team as it is currently constructed.

Both McCoughtry and Bonner are forwards. Presently it seems the Lynx are very happy with a starting frontcourt of Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas, and Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx do need to add perimeter shooting this offseason. However, adding a healthy Zandalasini and Augustus to the group of Collier, Stephanie Talbot, Karima Christmas-Kelly, and Dantas should give the Lynx a solid group of shooters at the wing/forward spots. While McCoughtry and Bonner are both willing shooters, neither has a career three-point percentage higher than any of those six players (28.6% for McCoughtry, 30.1% for Bonner).

Teams can sign free agents starting on February 10. Only time will tell how this offseason shakes out for the Lynx.

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