The Missing Lynx: Inside Minnesota’s Struggle for Identity and Cohesion

The Minnesota Lynx emerged from the offseason looking like one of the “winners” of free agency, having picked up a wealth of depth in Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, and Natalie Achonwa. But now, just over a week into the WNBA season, the Lynx have gotten off to their slowest start in 14 years, losing all of their first three games. While part of the issue has been the late arrival of young star Napheesa Collier, the lionshare of the Lynx’s problem lies in the lack of a coherent, unified, team identity on both ends of the floor.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so: “We’re still trying to figure out who we are,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said after last week’s loss to the New York Liberty, “I just don’t think we’ve gotten the ball moving around. You know, identity wise, we’re trying to figure things out.” Minnesota’s difficulty sharing the ball within a defined offensive system has really slashed the tires on the Lynx’s offense. The team is having trouble consistently finding good, open looks for their shooters, accounting for their subpar 47.9 percent true shooting percentage, ninth in the league. The team has found success in stretches running the offense through talented individuals, especially Sylvia Fowles, who leads the team averaging 19.0 points a game on 58.1 percent shooting. But by the same token, they’ve had long stretches where their lack of team offense has made it impossible to find the bottom of the net, allowing their opponents to run up the score. 

The team’s three-point shooting is one area of the offense that’s been dramatically impacted by the lack of offensive cohesion. The team is sitting at just 23.2 percent from deep so far this season, which is the second worst mark in the league. This has really hurt Minnesota early in the season, making the Lynx unable to keep pace with teams like the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty, who have built rosters and play styles that successfully emphasize three-pointers. 

The lack of offensive synergy has also made things especially difficult for the Lynx in transition as the team doesn’t seem to know each other well enough to make plays on the fly. Per Synergy, the Lynx rank last in the league in transition offense. All of these scoring woes add up to the Lynx, who are second to last in the league in offensive rating, scoring just 90.5 points per 100 possessions. 

A lack of communication and togetherness have rendered the Minnesota Lynx—an organization that prides itself on championship-level defense—a rather ineffective team on the defensive end of the floor. The Lynx rank eighth in defensive rating, allowing 100.8 points per 100 possessions, and are allowing their opponents to hit nearly 45 percent of their shots, currently the third worst mark in the league. “I think it’s about connectedness and cohesiveness,” Kayla McBride told media when asked about the team’s defensive struggles, “I think we just don’t have trust right now.” Nowhere is that issue of trust clearer than in the team’s tendency to over-help on defense, often leaving quality shooters open for three. As a consequence, the Lynx are allowing their opponents to sink 38.9 percent of their threes, 10th in the league. Check out this play from Thursday’s game between the Lynx and the Storm: 

 

 

With 5’5’’ Crystal Dangerfield guarding 6’1’’ Kennedy Burke in the post, Aerial Powers cheats off her assignment into the paint to help Dangerfield with the mismatch. Unfortunately, in this case, that assignment was Sue Bird, who was given ample space to knock down an open look from the corner. This points to one of the more overarching questions in the Lynx’s quest for identity: What to do with the starting point guard slot?

There are many defensive assignments where Dangerfield gives up almost half a foot, if not more, to her matchup. This contributes  to the team’s tendency to over-help when she’s on the floor as is the case in the play above. In an attempt to address this in the second and third games of the season, Reeve benched Dangerfield, starting Aerial Powers instead, who has spent her career mostly playing at the two or three. “We have some challenges [defensively]with Crystal at the point we want to mitigate in certain matchups,” said Reeve on starting Powers. The issue is Dangerfield presents one of the team’s best options for initiating the offense. The reigning rookie of the year is averaging 5.3 assists per game and packs a lethal scoring punch off the dribble to go along with her improved passing and playmaking. 

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Powers, a quality offensive player in her own right, really thrives more playing on the wing on offense. Understandably, she seems to be struggling a bit to acclimate on the fly to playing point guard. In her last two games starting at the one, Powers has shot 4-of-19 from the floor and 0-of-4 from beyond the arc. A bright spot has been her 10 assists across both games, though she does have just as many turnovers in the same span, including seven in the last game against Seattle. Having had a week to take a look at things in practice, and an ace defender in Napheesa Collier returning to the line-up, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Lynx move Dangerfield back into the starting line-up or if they continue to experiment with Aerial Powers at the one to go big on defense.

Napheesa Collier (who was activated by the team at the end of last week) has finally returned from France and will make her season debut later this week against the Seattle Storm.  As one of the most promising two-way players in the league, “Phee” will bring some much needed help to this squad on both ends of the floor. “We’ve missed the effort Phee plays with,” Reeve said after practice this week, “You know, there’s a fine line between winning and losing. The good teams versus the great teams, what do they have? They have players that are willing to give maximum effort at all times, and they accept nothing less than that.”

Collier had an excellent season in the ‘Wubble’, building on the success she had during her Rookie of the Year campaign. She averaged 16.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.3 assists last season on 52.3 percent shooting on her way to being named to the All-WNBA Second Team. Her presence in the front court alongside veteran Sylvia Fowles, who has been enjoying an impressive offensive renaissance, should help draw defenders towards the basket, freeing up more space for Dangerfield, McBride, and Powers to operate on the perimeter. Collier will also bring the Lynx another threat from behind the arc, having converted 40.8 percent of her three-point attempts last season. 

Collier’s individual defense could be this team’s saving grace; she averaged 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks last season in her first All-Defensive Team campaign. Her versatility should aid Minnesota a ton as she isable to guard multiple spots on the floor in different types of offensive action. Phee will especially be a salve for two areas the team is struggling with most: transition and perimeter defense. She’s an above average transition defender, ranking in the 58th percentile in the league in terms of points allowed per possession. She’ll also bring the team some reinforcement on the perimeter, having held her defensive assignments to 1.200 points per possession on three pointers (75th percentile). But more than that, Collier, like Fowles, will bring a bit of consistency from the Lynx’s past defensive success. 

During the current week layoff between games, Collier and Fowles are tasked with leading this team and helping coach Reeve teach and implement a unified scheme on both ends of the ball. They’ll come back into games having had some time to integrate their new pieces into the offensive and defensive play and forge an identity that can finally secure this team some wins. “This week is going to be a week of work,” Fowles said after the loss to the Storm, “We’re going to go as hard as we can in the direction of getting on the same page.” This Friday, the Lynx’s ability to do just that will be put to the test as they once again face off against the Storm. If the Lynx can pull all of their talent together into a coherent system and learn from what went wrong in their first three games, this match could be the turning point in their season.

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