The Minnesota Lynx are not messing around this time.
One year ago, during the frenzied first free-agency period of the WNBA’s new CBA, Minnesota puzzled many by appearing aloof. As top players signed with other teams and free agency rushed along with no major moves from their team, Lynx fans were left to tweet their dismay into the void. This year, however, the Lynx have been one of the biggest players in free-agent negotiations. So far, Minnesota has reportedly come to verbal agreements to sign Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, and Natalie Achonwa. McBride and Powers were two of the very best free-agent wings available, and Achonwa is a center who for years has oscillated between being a solid starter and a very good backup.
Keeping the Powder Dry and Striking at the Opportune Time
Looking back on the 2020 free-agency period, there were a few reasons for Minnesota’s relative inaction. First, the Lynx were largely unwilling to sign any players that weren’t bonafide stars to lengthy or hefty contracts. Once the top free agents were gone, the Lynx waited and filled out their roster with short-term deals to maintain roster flexibility.
Second, some of the last off-season’s biggest signings required teams to acquire stars at full max contracts via sign-and-trade. The going rate for players like DeWanna Bonner and Skylar Diggins-Smith was three first-round picks, which the Lynx were unable and/or unwilling to match. This year, Minnesota appears to have been able to sign their free-agent targets outright without having to give up assets to do so.
While some teams spent heavily last year, the Lynx remained patient and went into this off-season with plenty of cap space. That patience has borne fruit, as Minnesota added major upgrades to an already talented roster.
Adding Star Power, Upgrading on the Wing
Entering this off-season, the Lynx didn’t have many glaring needs. They had just finished as one of the top four teams in the league, even with star center Sylvia Fowles missing over two-thirds of the season due to injury. There was already a strong likelihood of the team improving without doing much, simply by having players like Fowles and Jessica Shepard return to good health to shore up the team’s rebounding and defense.
However, most WNBA champions have won on the strength of overwhelming talent on their rosters. With Napheesa Collier as an All-WNBA player on a league-minimum deal, and with Fowles on a relatively team-friendly contract as well, the Lynx could not afford to rest on their laurels and miss the opportunity to upgrade their roster as much as possible this year.
To push Minnesota back into the category of true contenders, they needed to add star power, preferably while simultaneously adding outside shooting to space the floor around Fowles. With Collier, Fowles, and Damiris Dantas locking down the frontcourt, and with Crystal Dangerfield emerging as the apparent point guard of the future, the clearest position of need for Minnesota this offseason was at shooting guard. The additions of McBride and Powers give the Lynx two talented players with size and shooting to fill that need on the wing.
McBride is a three-time All-Star with a career three-point shooting average of 36.7 percent and the fourth highest career free-throw percentage in WNBA history at 89.5 percent. She also has the WNBA’s 23rd highest career scoring average at 14.7 points per game. McBride is in the midst of a great overseas season for Fenerbahçe, one of the best teams in Europe. She leads that team in scoring with a combined 20.2 points per game on 52.7 percent shooting from two, 43.6 percent on threes, and 97.2 percent on free throws in EuroLeague and KBSL games.
Powers is a dynamic three-level scorer whose productivity exploded after being traded to the Washington Mystics in 2018. During her time playing for the Mystics (with whom she won a WNBA championship in 2019), Powers’ true shooting percentage was consistently north of 58.7 percent. She has shot 34.3 percent from three for her career, but shot 36.7 percent during her time with the Mystics. Powers is also especially adept at getting to the free-throw line, averaging 6.2 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes for her career, making 84.7 percent of those attempts.
It is unclear whether both McBride and Powers will start for the Lynx. The Lynx have generally preferred to play Napheesa Collier at small forward, but she has excelled at power forward as well. McBride has been a starter for all but three games of her career, while Powers has been a high-minute player off the bench—though she did start all six of the games she played last season before she was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Starting both McBride and Powers would mean a move to the bench for Damiris Dantas, with a significant minutes crunch likely at the 4 and 5 spots between Collier, Dantas, Shepard, Fowles, Achonwa, and potentially Mikiah Herbert Harrigan.
Regardless of how Minnesota approaches the starting lineup, the additions of McBride and Powers will help create a well-spaced, dynamic offense while adding length on the defensive end.
Backing up Sylvia Fowles
The only other potential need for the Lynx this off-season was to shore up depth at center behind Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx have had success with Damiris Dantas at the five during the past two seasons. Her combination of exceptional high-volume outside shooting, passing, and defense have made her a significant matchup problem for other teams, while allowing Minnesota to open up the lane for cutters and post-ups on offense. However, outside of Fowles and Dantas, the Lynx did not have another player under contract definitively able to guard true centers, leaving the team’s defense potentially vulnerable in the case of injury to either player.
Achonwa gives the Lynx a high-quality backup for Sylvia Fowles and insurance at center in case of injury. Adding her to the roster lessens the need for Minnesota to play Dantas at the five, though the Lynx will be able to play either or both based on matchups. Achonwa is an efficient scorer and has a career true shooting percentage of 57.7 percent (the 20th best career true shooting percentage in league history). She is adept at scoring in the post, off of offensive rebounds, and can stretch the floor out to the midrange. She has not been a three-point shooter, but has averaged 80 percent shooting from the free-throw line for her career.
What comes next?
While the Lynx have already made significant moves this offseason, there will likely continue to be moves that shake up the roster. The Lynx now have twelve players under contract, not including Bridget Carleton (who has been signed to a training camp contract) or their first-round pick in the upcoming draft (ninth overall). At the very least, Minnesota will have to decide what they want to do about those players, and will also have to see about the availability of players that they have exclusive negotiating rights with, including Maya Moore, Cecilia Zandalasini, Kelsey Griffin, Temi Fagbenle, Erica McCall, and Anna Cruz.
With the signings that have been made so far, it is unlikely that Cruz, Griffin, Fagbenle, or McCall will be on the final roster. Bringing back Zandalasini will depend on whether she wants to return at this time, and how the Lynx decide to manage salaries and positions on the team.
If Moore decides to return, the Lynx would be able to clear space for a full max contract for her, but it would require some significant cuts and trades from the roster. In all likelihood, the Lynx would only be able to field an 11-player roster in this situation, unless they mostly cleared the decks. That said, if Moore did decide to return, the Lynx would surely jump at the chance to bring her back.
The Lynx have undeniably improved during free agency. There is still much to decide and roster finalizations to make, but Minnesota’s moves so far appear to have them primed to compete for a title.