Lindsay Whalen/Lindsey Moore
Seimone Augustus/Monica Wright/Tan White
Maya Moore/Tricia Liston
Rebekkah Brunson/Devereaux Peters/Asia Taylor
Janel McCarville/Damiris Dantas
Significant additions: White, Dantas, Liston, more jewelry
Significant losses: Injury luck (Brunson, Wright and Peters all out to start the season due to knee surgeries)
At some point, there’s not much more to say about the Minnesota Lynx. If you’re reading this, you probably watched them play last year, and the year before, and the year before that – you’ve seen how overwhelming they can be. Their top seven players from last year’s charge to another championship all return, and they’ll be looking to do it all over again. They were easily the best offensive team in the league last year, and their usual cohesive selves on the defensive end. Despite the slip-up in the 2012 Finals, this has been the dominant squad in the WNBA for the last three years, and the team everyone else is striving to challenge. Of course, the one thing that can derail any team is faltering health, and you can only stay so lucky for so long. Heading into this season the Lynx already have some injury issues, and Cheryl Reeve and her team are going to have to show they can handle those. That said, it’s a lot better to be working through injuries in May than in September.
The physical problems are with Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters, all of whom returned from overseas requiring knee surgeries of various descriptions. Brunson could miss at least half the season; the others should be back sooner, but won’t be rushed. The absence of Wright shouldn’t be felt too severely. They still have an all-world trio on the perimeter ahead of her, and they added veteran guard Tan White in free agency who can offer a lot of the same things that Wright provided off the bench – ballhandling, some scoring, an extra dose of attacking off the dribble. The more significant questions arise in the paint, where Peters would’ve been the natural replacement for Brunson – so losing both at the same time complicates matters.
One thing Reeve has never been great at is developing her depth and her bench. She plays such a tight rotation that the reserves, beyond a couple, rarely feature in games. Without those opportunities to play in meaningful moments, development can be slow or nonexistent. So the Lynx tend to cycle through backups fairly frequently, searching for the newer, better option behind their stars. Amber Harris is gone this year (to the surprise of no one, and with no one mourning the absence). In her place are rookies Damiris Dantas and Asia Taylor, both of whom will probably get a chance to prove themselves while Brunson and Peters recuperate. Dantas was drafted back in 2012, a Brazilian youngster that the Lynx were willing to wait on. She hasn’t had the greatest couple of season overseas in the time since, but the raw talent they saw in her in the first place is still there – and she’s still only 21. Taylor was the 36th (and final) pick in the most recent draft and doesn’t have the size of Dantas, but could be a more mobile option. We’re also likely to see Maya Moore playing more power forward than usual while Brunson and Peters are out, with White sliding in as an extra guard on the perimeter.
The Lynx have never run much of their offense through their post players – or at least when they have it’s usually at least 15 feet from the basket – so the rhythm of their offense shouldn’t be disrupted too much. But they’ll miss Brunson’s activity and rebounding, the chemistry won’t be quite as good with important pieces missing, and the defensive cohesion is likely to take a hit. Reeve and her assistants will have some work to do early in the season to keep the machine running as smoothly as it typically has in the past.
Which isn’t to say that this team is exactly in need of anyone’s prayers. They still have probably the best perimeter trio in the history of the WNBA in Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, which is a pretty nice foundation to work with whoever the hell is playing in the post. Whalen is a strong, smart point guard, running the offense exactly as Reeve wants it, and willing to drive into the teeth of the defense for her own points when her team needs it. Augustus has one of the purest jump shots you’re ever likely to see, and scores with remarkable efficiency for someone who takes most of her shots from at least 15 feet out. Moore has slowly taken over from Augustus as the brightest light among this star-studded team. Like Augustus she’s an outstanding jumpshooter, and actually has a little more range, which makes her even more productive. Moore also fills the stat sheet in other areas to a greater extent than Augustus, piling up rebounds, assists, steals and even a few blocks to go with the scoring. She easily could’ve taken the league MVP award ahead of Candace Parker last season.
As a group, the three of them work together like a smoothly oiled machine, breaking out for easy buckets whenever they’re on offer (any of them can lead the break, any of them can finish it). They’ve all improved as defenders – Whalen’s not the quickest but can do her job within the scheme; Augustus dedicated herself to improving at that end a few years ago and came on in leaps and bounds; Moore took some time to work out how to defend effectively on the pro level but continues to get better. It’s just hard for any other team to match up with the Lynx when they have three players with that kind of talent spread around the perimeter, playing unselfish basketball built to win games. Combine the trio, and they shot over 50% from the field last year, for crying out loud.
Janel McCarville joined the established Lynx core last season and there were a few doubts as to how she’d fit in as the replacement for Taj McWilliams-Franklin. It worked out about as well as anyone could’ve possibly hoped. They seemed a little small at times inside and had some problems with the athleticism of teams like LA on the front line, but in general they were quick and active enough to cope with anyone on the defensive end. Offensively they used McCarville increasingly effectively as the season wore on, her slick passing skills offering something they’d never had before from their bigs. She also started to shoot a little more, something that was necessary to keep defenses honest, and hit often enough to prevent defenders from sagging away from her.
Assuming Brunson makes it back at some point in midseason, this is still a strong front-line that complements each other nicely. Brunson is the rebounding fiend charging around the floor, while McCarville’s more cerebral game works around her. Despite her relative lack of height for a center, McCarville’s also most comfortable guarding bigs who want to try to bully her in the low post, and she’s usually pretty effective down there. Peters continues to develop as a backup post as well, but needs to show more consistency from game to game to earn regular minutes, and allow the starters to rest for extended periods without a significant drop-off. While the Lynx will give her as much time to recover as she needs, it’ll be good for Peters if she can return soon and start taking up some of the minutes on offer with Brunson out. She still needs the reps in her third WNBA season to show Reeve can rely on her in crucial moments once they hit the playoffs.
The remainder of the bench is filled by second-year point guard Lindsey Moore and rookie wing Tricia Liston. With the injuries leaving the Lynx down to nine players to start the season, both may receive early chances to impress. Moore didn’t play much as a rookie, with Whalen and Wright swallowing the vast majority of the point guard minutes. If she can play well enough in practice to demand minutes from Reeve, the coach will be happy. Liston’s primarily going to be asked to shoot threes on this team, which is something she did with extreme efficiency at Duke. She’s this year’s variant on Rachel Jarry, who’s skipping the WNBA in 2014 to both rest and train with the Australian national team.
So over the course of the regular season, this version of the Lynx might not be quite as dominant as in the last few years. They’ve finished 27-7, 27-7 and 26-8 in the last three seasons, but that was with very few missed games from their key players. Starting this year off with important players missing – and no certainty about when they’ll be back – complicates matters. But Whalen, Augustus, Moore and McCarville will all be in uniform on opening night, and everyone else is expected back by the time we hit the playoffs. Even if they’re not the #1 seed going into the postseason, the road to the championship is still likely to run through Minnesota.