At the midpoint of the WNBA season, the Minnesota Lynx have been one of the best teams in the league, despite turning over more than half their roster in the offseason.
Through their first nine games, the Lynx have the fourth-best net rating in the league at +3.5 points per hundred possessions. The Lynx’s three losses this season have come against the teams currently above them in net rating—the Seattle Storm, the Las Vegas Aces, and the Los Angeles Sparks. In two of those losses, the Lynx were either mostly or entirely without the services of All-Star center Sylvia Fowles, who is now indefinitely sidelined by a calf strain.
Minnesota’s continued success may come as a surprise to some in light of their roster turnover and the loss of superstars from their championship core, including most recently Seimone Augustus’s offseason signing with the Sparks. Still, the Lynx have found ways to win by sticking to core tenets of their identity.
Defense and offensive rebounding keeping the Lynx afloat
So far this season the Lynx have won games primarily through defense and offensive rebounding. Minnesota has the fourth-best defensive rating in the league this season and at times has ranked in the top two of the category.
The Lynx have excelled at holding down their opponents’ shooting percentages, keeping them off the free throw line, and forcing turnovers. Minnesota currently holds the third best mark in the WNBA in opponent effective field goal percentage (49.3 percent), opponent free throw rate (0.255), and opponent turnover rate (20.5).
In addition, the Lynx have feasted on second chance points as the number one offensive rebounding team in the league, securing 34.2 percent of possible offensive rebounds. Collier and Fowles respectively rank 2nd and 3rd in the WNBA in offensive rebounds per game, averaging 6.2 combined per contest.
Minnesota’s offense still needs some work
Despite their stout defense and offensive rebounding prowess, the Lynx’s overall offense remains a work in progress. This is to be expected from a young team with a lot of fresh faces. So far this season, the main issues facing the Lynx offense are lack of consistency in shot-making from perimeter players and turnovers.
Speaking on the team’s developing offense before their first of two matchups with the New York Liberty, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said, “We’re pleased that our defense and rebounding [are]getting us through until we can get the offense to be much more smooth or confident, comfortable. Chemistry on offense, It’s one of those things that [players can miscommunicate on, saying]‘Oh, I thought you were going here,’ ‘I thought you were doing this,’ and on defense you’re pretty much assigned what the heck you’re doing so it’s a little bit easier. You’ve just got to give effort. Offense takes a lot, and so we are continuing to learn.”
Part of the Lynx’s difficulties on offense has been simply missing open shots. Reeve expressed confidence that the looks Minnesota has gotten would start paying dividends soon.
“With regard to [players like]Lexie Brown who when she was playing had some open shots where you know she’s not comfortable yet—if she gets the same shots, I’m going to be very comfortable coming out of this break,” Reeve said. “I think Rachel [Banham] has played really well scoring in a variety of different ways. So I think we’re close [to breaking through on offense]. I think we’re close, but it’s got to happen soon because we can’t keep surviving this way.”
Turnovers continue to be an issue
Turnovers have been the other ongoing problem for the Lynx. Minnesota had the highest turnover rate in the league last season and have been one of the four highest turnover teams each year since the 2017 season. This season, the Lynx have the third-highest turnover percentage at 20.5 percent.
Speaking on the team’s turnovers earlier in the season, Reeve said, “The turnovers are largely coming from two players. You know that if one player cut her turnovers in half, we’re going to come back to [about]league average—and that’s going to happen.”Nine games in, the turnover problem has yet to be solved. The combination of Crystal Dangerfield, Naphessa Collier, and Damiris Dantas average 8.6 turnovers per game between just the three of them. Collier also ranks second in the league in total turnovers.
Building more familiarity and rhythm as a team should help in this regard, but that in itself has been difficult given roster fluctuations.
Injuries have both hampered the Lynx and created opportunities
Part of the difficulty in building a consistent and reliable offense for the Lynx has been injuries to key players messing with the team’s regular rotation of players. Karima Christmas-Kelly, after two seasons of battling back from knee surgeries, ruptured her Achilles tendon two games into the season. Shenise Johnson, who was the starting point guard for the first four games of the season, has missed time with a nagging hamstring injury. Sylvia Fowles’ lingering calf injury has held her out of several games, including the Lynx’s recent loss to Las Vegas. The Lynx have had to adjust on the fly to these losses.
While these injuries have negatively impacted the Lynx, they have also created an opportunity for other players on the roster to step up. Lexie Brown and Crystal Dangerfield have been relied upon a great deal this season and have had some great showings.
After missing games due to concussion protocol, Brown recorded a franchise record-tying seven steals against the Liberty, followed by a 26 point, six rebound, nine assist, and four steal outing against the Indiana Fever—only the second such line in WNBA history, per Across The Timeline. Dangerfield had a 29 point outing herself in the very next game against the Sparks.
In addition to Brown and Dangerfield, Bridget Carleton has emerged as a super efficient scorer and an effective floor spacer for the Lynx, currently scoring 7.0 points per game on 61.0 percent shooting from the field and 61.5 percent on three pointers.
Fowles out indefinitely as Sims returns
The Lynx will need more of these kinds of performances if Sylvia Fowles misses appreciable time this season.
After not missing a game for the Lynx since they traded for her in 2015, Fowles has been held out with a troubling calf injury. After re-aggravating this injury against the Aces, she will be out indefinitely as the Lynx take a cautious approach to their star’s health in a demanding condensed season.
Fowles has been the linchpin of both the Lynx’s offense and defense. She leads the team in points, rebounds, and blocked shots per game. If Fowles misses a significant amount of time, the Lynx will have to get contributions from their entire roster to cover for her absence.
Just as Fowles has been sidelined, All-Star guard Odyssey Sims has made her return to the Lynx. Given that she is only four months removed from giving birth to her son, it will likely take some time for Sims to fully get back into game shape and re-acclimated to the team.
Reeve talked about taking a slow, game-by-game approach to Sims’ return. When asked how Odyssey’s return could help the Lynx offense, Reeve said, “I think Odyssey is really good at getting to the basket, getting into the paint. So [having her back]gives us another player that can do that, another player that can play in pick and roll game—not for herself but to be able to pass the ball around to open players, and so I think that’s going to be really valuable to us.”
Collier will be needed even more for the immediate future
With Fowles out indefinitely and Sims working her way back, all eyes will be on Napheesa Collier to lead the Lynx through the next stretch of games.
Collier’s game has grown this year as her scoring, rebounding, and assist averages have all increased from her rookie season. Still, as evidenced by the previously referenced turnover numbers, the season has not been without its growing pains. Following a two-game shooting slump for Collier, Reeve was asked after the Lynx’s game against the Mystics if Collier was forcing the issue on offense.
“[The] simple answer is yes,” Reeve replied. “I think those of us that have been around for a while know that the second year is not exactly easy. Last year the focus was she was playing small forward. To start the year we had Jess Shepard who was a really good passer, [and]we could get Phee on her cutting [game]. We are missing that element for Phee [this season].”
Reeve compared Collier’s struggles to those of another Lynx legend and said that Collier would have to vary her scoring approach.
“This reminds me a little bit of when Maya [Moore] was without a passer and all of a sudden [she had]to work much much harder to score. In Phee’s case, she’s limiting [herself]in the way that she’s willing to try to score, which is only to go to the basket and everybody knows her schtick at this point. So she has to have a willingness to shoot when she’s open, [when]they’re six feet off of her. I think just making that recognition [will help her].”
Collier appeared to break out of her slump with 21 points on 8/12 shooting and a career-high 14 rebound effort in the Lynx’s loss to the Aces. As the sole remaining on-court captain (for now, at least), Collier’s leadership and high level of play will be essential to keep the Lynx afloat.
While they will get a short break after Saturday’s tilt against the Liberty, the season is still progressing at breakneck speed. While the Lynx have been one of the league’s elite teams so far, they will be tested without Fowles in the lineup, and where they wind up by the end of the season will depend heavily on how they are able to fare without her.