The Minnesota Lynx were up and down during the 2018 WNBA regular season.
Losses in four of the first six games, and six of nine to close it out, sandwiched a seven-game win streak in which they looked more like the dominant team that had finished atop the standings during each of the past two seasons.
By her prolific standards, Maya Moore had the worst shooting season of her career. The efficiency of Sylvia Fowles (61.9 field goal percentage, 15.1 turnover percentage) did not quite match her 2017 MVP campaign (65.5 field goal percentage, 18.4 turnover percentage). Lindsay Whalen struggled to keep up with opposing guards, likely accentuated by the condensed schedule in her age-36 season.
Every incremental step backward in a compressed season had a hand in explaining why the Lynx were unable to remain atop the regular season standings. And other teams simply got much better overnight. The return/emergence of five All-Stars made five different opponents much tougher to beat: Liz Cambage, Chiney Ogwumike, Angel McCoughtry, DeWanna Bonner and A’ja Wilson combined to log exactly zero minutes in the 2017 season.
Yet, none of Minnesota’s struggles or shortcomings may have mattered in the postseason had starting power forward Rebekkah Brunson been healthy. A concussion kept her out the final six games of the regular season and their first-round playoff loss in Los Angeles. A healthy and available Brunson would not have guaranteed victory, but the presence of an All-Defense-caliber player would have upped their chances in single-elimination contests against teams led by Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne.
The Lynx found themselves in unfamiliar territory, needing a single-elimination win after reaping the benefits of the double bye available to the top two seeds en route to back-to-back WNBA Finals appearances. Whalen has since retired, and the future of several other key pieces is still up in the air as free agency rapidly approaches.
2018 by the numbers
102.8 offensive rating (9), 101.9 defensive rating (4), 76.0 Offensive Pace Per 40 Minutes (11)
49.1 eFG% (7), 15.5 TO% (10), 27.0 OREB% (4), 79.5 DREB% (1), 24.3 FTAr (8)
Offseason storylines to watch
Brunson, Augustus Contemplate Future
If they return, two of the team’s core will be entering their 16th and 14th WNBA seasons, respectively. Head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve noted on her podcast that Augustus’ knees have been bothering her and that another offseason procedure may alleviate some of those issues. She logged 26.2 minutes per game last season, on par with the previous two.
Neither player slipped all that much on the floor. Augustus even shot over 50 percent inside the arc once again. It was the 3-point percentage (31.8) dragging her overall efficiency down some from 2017 on fewer than two attempts per game.
Brunson shot 18-of-48 from deep last season. The veteran forward had attempted just 12 during her first 13 campaigns before canning 23-of-66 in 2017 as her work to improve that stroke came to fruition. Though her defensive assignments are often daunting, time spent as a floor-spacer could help keep her in what would be her age 37 season.
DRob Takes Over
The time has come for starting point guard Danielle Robinson’s era in Minnesota. The team acquired the speedy vet via 2018 offseason deal with Phoenix. Concerns over her outside shooting ability have been fairly and duly noted. There is a very low ceiling on the value she can add to this team if opponents do not guard her when Moore, Fowles and Augustus have the ball.
However, she brings immediate value as a transition engine to find more easy buckets for this group. They finished near the bottom in offensive pace, but their defensive rebounding has not been an issue. Robinson can put some pressure on the rim with her dribble penetration to open up spot up looks early in the clock for shooters. She can also look to feed Fowles running the floor and ducking in for quick post-ups, especially when catching opponent in cross-matches.
Discussing Robinson’s jumper at length might be jumping the shark.
The Lynx need the player that shot nearly 63 percent on 156 attempts within five feet in 2014 en route to an All-WNBA nod. The questions of what she does without the ball in her hands are fair, but Moore and Fowles are at their best when working quickly. Neither is really the type to pound the ball and slowly work into their move.
Potential free agents
Unrestricted free agents (UFAs): Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore (cored), Erlana Larkins, Sydney Colson
Restricted free agents (RFAs): none
Reserved Players (RPs): Cecilia Zandalasini
Zandalasini has a place in the rotation as a young player with two-way potential on the wing. The size of that role is to be determined: If Augustus retires, somebody would need to step into a bigger minutes share alongside Robinson and Moore with the first group.
Team needs and potential targets
Needs: a floor-spacing 4 that can defend, backup point guard
Potential targets: Dearica Hamby, Big, LV (RFA); Epiphanny Prince, Guard, NY (UFA)
If you’ve read the previous entries in this checklist series, you’ve seen Hamby’s name quite a bit. Minnesota just might be the best long-term fit of all potential suitors. How great would that be to potentially play one season with Brunson still on the roster, and then to have a clean transition to a player that could give them some of the same playstyle freedoms? Regardless of Brunson’s decision, the 4-spot needs to be one Reeve acts on with urgency before Brunson hangs ‘em up.
We are entering what will be year three for Alexis Jones after the club drafted her in the first round out of Baylor. She has a quick release from distance and some shiftiness to her game off the dribble. She has been a victim of a numbers game more than anything in her first two campaigns. The question entering this season will be whether Reeve carves out ball-handling minutes for somebody other than Jones in the minutes Robinson is on the bench.
Round 1 Pick 6, Round 2 Pick 4 (via Las Vegas), Round 2 Pick 6, Round 2 Pick 8 (via Phoenix), Round 3 Pick 6
The Lynx need some rookie scale deals on their books if Brunson and Augustus return. With a top-six pick and three second rounders, they can afford to take multiple shots to find somebody to play behind Brunson.
Stress level: 6
For all the talk of age, this team still has two elite players who can reasonably be expected to do most of the heavy lifting for a title contender. Windows always seem to close faster than one would think, though.
Maybe Reeve lands an impact player at No. 6 that helps Minnesota climb back into the top-four standings. If this is the highest the Lynx hold a pick over the next few seasons, you know they’ll have done something right. (Three years into the league’s new playoff formatting, no team has advanced from single elimination all the way to the finals.)
Early 2019 season outlook
Brunson is the most important figure in the offseason. With her and Fowles together in the frontcourt again, the building blocks would be in place to have a top-four defense for the fifth consecutive campaign. Without Augustus, however, the journey in building an offense would be much more difficult. Crack jokes all you want about being at an advanced stage of her career with knee trouble—to this day she is still one of the league’s most efficient high volume midrange shooters.
But Moore and Fowles are the team’s two best players. Their successes and shortcomings start and end there and with Robinson, a player they bet big on last offseason to be the heir apparent to Whalen, one of the best floor generals to ever do it.
Stats obtained via Positive Residual, Swanny’s Stats, WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference. Player contract info obtained via the High Post Hoops salary database.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.