Our Mitchell Hansen sat down with Minnesota Lynx head coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve for an exclusive one-on-one interview discussing the offseason, Minnesota’s approach to the draft, free agency, the trade market, and the overall landscape of the league.
Mitchell Hansen: How are things going so far this offseason?
Cheryl Reeve: Well, I would say it’s still early, which is sort of strange. I think [with]the shortened season and finishing as early as we did, it’s kind of odd that it’s early December. I tell you what—I think the conversations and now that the draft lottery is set, I think we’re all kind of chomping at the bit to get to free agency and really kind of get going with our teams. How’s it going? It’s obviously … You know, we haven’t won and haven’t lost. And that’s in a game; that’s in free agency. Right now we are really locked in on draft preparation and certainly planning for some free agency. There’s a bit of an adjustment in the free agency period, so we’re a little bit later than what we did this time last year in terms of being able to negotiate with players. It’s a little bit longer of a wait. But I’d say overall, we’re knee-deep in planning and sort of traveling the country and watching a lot of fun college games. That’s really what we’ve been focused on.”
MH: What have you thought of the college season so far and the talent at that level?
CR: There’s been a lot of good prospect games, which is always a scout’s dream when you can see a couple going against each other or just quality games. We love the non-conference, not to say that in-conference doesn’t have quality games, but there’s just something about the non-conference matchups that when they’re really good, it makes it a little bit more meaningful.
MH: How is everything going with the draft and preparing for the draft?
CR: Good. We’re locked in on just sort of understanding how we see the draft. In our travels, maybe prior to those travels, you have a starting point of perhaps how you see these players, and then you start to get your evaluations, and you begin to have conversations around these prospects. Then it’s, as they say, fluid. So, each week you can kind of get an update on how you see the players and ranking them. When you’re picking number two, and I’d say probably in this draft that it’s like the draft will begin with our pick. I think it’s widely considered who the number one pick will be. We just have a lot of possibilities to consider while trying to determine the best fit. In some ways, free agency will shape that as well. We’ll do our due diligence and go through our rankings and have conversations with people about that pick—and how do they see it, and what’s the value of it—and just make sure that we’re doing the very best we can with being a number two pick because it’s not necessarily something we want to do year in and year out. I wouldn’t mind if it was another decade [until we have the second pick again]if it’s with our pick. With somebody else’s pick, okay, I’m all for it, but I don’t want it to be our pick. We’re gonna try to make lemonade out of the lemons and the reason why we were in the draft lottery. We did get lucky. We do recognize that, and we’re really appreciative of that. Now it’s how do we maximize it? Like I said, it’s not an asset we want to have Minnesota next to it going forward.
MH: When it comes to free agency, how are you planning to balance both that and what you do in the draft?
CR: I think, like the NBA, the WNBA free agency is a priority in terms of building a successful team. There are possibilities if you’re at the top of the draft to secure a player that can be in your franchise for many years. But the priority is free agency. In our case, and in terms of the idea of a reload, that’s where it’s going to come from. It’s not going to be through the draft. The draft is important to us, but we’ve got some quality picks at two and 12 and 16, and it will be valuable to us. Every team needs the smaller contracts, if you will. But even more than a small contract, you need good, young talent. In terms of meaningful activity in the offseason, it will be centered around free agency.
MH: How do you balance an offseason where you have solid opportunity and possibilities via the draft, free agency, and potentially the trade market? And are you open to the possibilities of using some of those assets at your disposal in trades if the opportunity presents itself?
CR: I think for sure. I think all things are on the table for us. There are three ways to improve your team, and certainly trades would be a way. Having such an asset, as in these first round picks, the consideration is for what people would possibly bring our way to improve our team. So, trades and free agency and draft, any possibility of improving, is what we’re looking at. If it’s pairing a couple of those to get where we’re trying to go, if that makes sense, then certainly it’s on the table. There [are]a lot of conversations with teams, and that will be ongoing all the way through into February. We’re all looking to do the same thing. Opportunities for players via trade requires assets, and we do have assets. That’s a positive. Any possible way to retool our team to achieve the success that we’re accustomed to is what we’re going to be after.
MH: What are a few areas that you’re looking to target as far as players for the team? You have Napheesa Collier and a few other players on roster to build around now, and how do you build around those players now via the three aspects that you talked about: the draft, free agency, and the trade market?
CR: Currently, we have five players under contract, and I don’t know what the future holds in terms of Natalie [Achonwa]’s pregnancy and that sort of thing. I always take the path that it’s best to work as if there’s that player until they are able to play. Our mindset is we have two post players. So, that’s clearly a target of our team. As we know, with the retirement of the greatest center in our game [Sylvia Fowles], in free agency there’s certainly an opportunity for some really good players that we could add. There’s no question that is a target for us. It is a nice free agency class, and there’ll be opportunities there in that regard. Then we certainly have needs on the perimeter that I think really since Lindsay Whalen, there has been sort of an in and out at the point guard spot. I don’t know that [those perimeter and point guard needs]would be any different. In terms of you look at the strengths of the draft, it’s not necessarily that position. I would say that we, like probably eight of the teams in the WNBA, will be searching for the answer in 2023 for leadership at the lead guard spot. That’ll be on our minds, but again, there’s good opportunity there for us as well. Then there are other perimeter needs and depth. We have a free agent in Bridget Carleton that I think teams will find her valuable. Depth is important as well. There [are]layers to this thing. You certainly have your priorities, but all those things are running parallel in terms of how you’re trying to improve in each of those areas. I think it’s not a secret that post play is a target for us.
MH: Not to look too far ahead since we’re still in the middle of the offseason, but what is your view for the future of the Minnesota Lynx, starting with the 2023 season?
CR: What’s unique about this … And change can be hard. We’ve seen that 2018 team to the 2019 season looked very different, and there was a lot of change there. You look at a Sylvia Fowles retirement. Change can be hard in terms of how you’ve always done things or how you’ve always looked. I see it because it’s the nature of sports. It doesn’t last forever, and there’s always going to be the next generation or the next era. I see it as a real opportunity to reshape what we look like. That’s going to be the case because we have just five players under contract. There’s opportunity to sort of be wide open about what we’re going to look like. But what I want is there to always be an expectation not just to be successful but [for]how we do it. It’s one of the things that we’re most proud of, through the course of better than a decade, that not only being successful is a priority for us but [also]who we bring into our community, how we connect with our fan base, and how the fan base connects with us. Those are priorities for us, and that will continue to be the case. I want that expectation of how we do this thing, the chemistry that we play with, and work ethic, the passion that we have to play with and for each other. Those should be things that people expect from the Minnesota Lynx. That’s not going to change.
MH: When it comes to you specifically and the recent news of the offseason of you taking on a bit of a different role with a different title, how excited are you? And how much are you looking forward to being part of the Lynx organization for the foreseeable future?
CR: I think for me, it was maybe the first time being out of contract. It’s not the first time it’s happened. I rarely signed more than a couple year extension. [In the past], it just was not necessarily as noteworthy as maybe this time. The market changing for coaches was an impetus. Just the idea of where you get to a certain place sometimes where you take inventory of where you’ve been, what you have, and where you want to go. That was that opportunity for me this time. I had to ask myself: ‘Is this still the right place for me?’ As I sort of mulled through my future with the organization, [I] also [thought], ‘Does the organization still feel the same about me?’ I mean, that’s a two-way street. What was really exciting for me is to be able to answer those questions really resoundingly. Yes, I believe in this place. I believe in the work that we’re doing for sustained success. I’m very motivated and very challenged by being a franchise that year in and year out finds success. It is hard to do, really hard to do. I’m very motivated by that. I think we’ve got, as you look around the league, we’ve got one of the best situations in the league in terms of fan base, facilities, committed ownership, I hope coaching, I hope in terms of all the ways that we support our players [and]our training staff, and what we do for players with regard to our medical team, with regard to our nutrition and providing them a chef. There [are]just a lot of things that you look at and go, ‘We really do have the best situation.’ That was exciting to look at and take a moment because I don’t do that very often. During the course of that 12 years, you’re always sprinting on to the next thing. This was the first time there was a bit of a pause to sort of go, ‘Let me take stock of everything that we’ve done and what are the possibilities going forward.’ That was really good to do. I have a healthy appreciation for what we have here and what we have to offer for players. That’s what motivates me as does the idea of being in one place. It probably is more who I am. I’m not a leaver, so to speak, [or a]I’m-gonna-jump-a-rounder type. I am somebody that I enjoy being in one organization. We’ve built so much here. Continuing to be a part of it was the only answer.
MH: That leads into my next question. When you first got to Minnesota, you guys obviously built what you built while experiencing one of the greatest dynasty runs in league history. You haven’t left, but now you’re kind of going through a new thing all over again and starting over again. You’re trying to build this thing back up again. Is that something that is fun for you to try and rebuild things in an attempt to get back to the top?
CR: Yeah, there’s real opportunity. What I like about it is, that was an era, and—like I said—it doesn’t last forever. We got those players in the middle of their prime, and we squeezed every bit out of them. I think we all have so much love and fond memories of what we did together. It’s exciting for those players that were a part of it because they’re excited to see who’s next. They’re excited to see who can stand on the foundation that they built, the culture that they built, and the expectation of success. They’re excited to see what’s next. Yeah, it’s highly motivating. It’s what gets you up each day. I would say that when we were in the midst of being picked as a contender each year that when we would be successful and we would win either a championship or a stretch of games, the mindset was always let’s do it again. Let’s win 10 more [games]if we just won 10 in a row, or if we win a championship, let’s win another one. That’s kind of how it’s been here is that we want to do it again. We want to do more of what we’ve always done here. I don’t know; I think they call that greed on some levels. That’s what motivates us all.
MH: Kind of tying all of this together with your new role and the layout of the front office in the organization, that obviously left a hole at the general manager position that you once held the title of. What are you hoping for in terms of that position and working with that individual moving forward?
CR: [Naming me president of basketball operations] was sort of by design. You know, elevating me into a different role to vacate a very important role within an organization. Being in the way of others that are trying to grow wasn’t something that I necessarily wanted to do. So, being elevated into a president of basketball operations role and being able to be more macro-minded is something that was important to me at this point. I have a really, really qualified candidate that’s on our staff that will be great in filling that role.
MH: It has been a busy offseason already in terms of some front office and head coaching changes throughout the league. What are your thoughts on the movement that has taken place in the league, not even when it comes to player movement?
CR: All of the breaking news has kind of been reserved for players for a few seasons. There was a unique time where coaches were on the move. Maybe we see more of that, especially as we near the possibility of expansion in a few years. I think it was unique in terms of someone like a Curt Miller being available. And oftentimes, it was creating chain reactions. We saw a little bit of the idea of new opportunities—an assistant coach getting a position, a coach coming back into the league, a coach moving over from one team to another. Those are things that hadn’t necessarily been a part of our offseasons, but it was this go around. I don’t know what to make of that in terms of whether that’s going to be a regular occurrence. I think it was just some things timing wise; although Curt was under contract, so it’s not a case that he was out of contract. Teams want to be successful. As we get more coverage and the stakes go up for franchises, and as the valuations of franchises go up, there’s greater interest in each of the teams. And there [are]expectations that go with that. There will be probably a little more heat on coaches to be successful.
MH: Obviously the draft, free agency, and filling out rosters will play a huge part in determining how next season looks throughout the league, but what are your expectations for the upcoming season when it comes to the league in general?
CR: It is the whole part. The only team that is essentially known is the Las Vegas Aces because they have their top players are under contract. What will be interesting in their case is just to see how they could manage providing some depth given the constraints of the salary cap. Otherwise, there’s potential for change. It’s really hard to know at this point. There [are]a lot of conversations about maybe there being some change. I think our league has shown that free agency will be busy once again since the new CBA and the freedom that players have sooner to be free agents has created that. It’s hard to know. I just know that there are a lot of good players in our league. I thought it was a heck of a season last season, and I expect more of that and just continued growth.
MH: Do you think that’s a good thing for the league? The movement and the excitement around free agency, do you think that’s an overall good thing for the growth?
CR: I was thankful when I had the team that I had for those years that we did not have that. It is harder [now]to be a really good team and retain all of your players for as long as we did. It is much harder. There’s not necessarily that much more money salary wise. It’s just different. The old CBA was pretty bland. There were mostly foregone conclusions about what people were making, and there wasn’t a significant amount to go make somewhere else. I think what’s changed is that for the top players, there are opportunities for greater income. Do I think it’s good? I mean, I’m probably a little more old school where I like players being loyal and staying. That’s more what I would do, but I certainly get it, and it’s the culture that we’re in. You have to know it when you’re going to go buy a jersey in any sport—free agency means that player probably isn’t going to be there for 15 years. It’s becoming more of a rarity what Sue Bird did. I’m hopeful that Napheesa Collier will be that. Is it good? I think it’s not necessarily good or bad. It’s just reality at this point.