How New-Look Minnesota Lynx Can Reclaim Their Contender Status

The Minnesota Lynx are one of those rarest WNBA teams (due to the league’s relatively young age) that carries a true dynastic legacy.

Problem is, playing in the shadow of legacies can be hard when you’re endlessly striving to regain a luster that most other franchises have never even had, much less lost.

No team had more success this past decade than the Lynx, winners of four WNBA titles. But after a couple of disappointing (by their high standard) seasons, can Minnesota begin its next dominating chapter?

As broken down by Kurtis Zimmerman for High Post Hoops, (using statistics from his website, Across the Timeline), the Lynx topped the W with 231 wins during the last ten seasons, 32 ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Sparks. Their sustained success netted them statistical success across the board, including attendance, as they averaged 1,939,061 fans per season—their number boosted by home playoff games.

However, a roster overhaul ahead of the 2019 season threatened to upset those winning ways.

The 2018 Core

Oct 4, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore (23) congratulates center Sylvia Fowles (34) after a foul in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota’s top four scorers in 2018 were Maya Moore (18.0 PPG), Sylvia Fowles (17.7 PPG), Seimone Augustus (10.8 PPG) and Rebekkah Brunson (7.2 PPG). It was also the swan song for point guard Lindsay Whalen, who called it a career after fifteen seasons in the W, the last nine of which came with the Lynx.

Of those five, only Fowles returned in a full-time capacity while Moore and Brunson did not play at all.

Moore took a sabbatical in 2019 to fight on behalf of Jonathan Irons, an incarcerated man she believes was wrongly convicted of a crime for which he’s spent 23 of a 50-year sentence. It’s unclear if she plans to return in 2020 or whether she will continue her ministry and faith work.

After breaking her nose late in the 2018 season, Brunson missed all of 2019 while still feeling the effects of a concussion sustained during the injury. Now 38, a new mom and a food truck owner, it seems unlikely that the power forward will return, even though she has never officially declared retirement.

“My body and head will tell me,” she told the Star Tribune ahead of last season.

Augustus had planned to play through the 2019 season but underwent arthroscopic surgery after experiencing significant pain in training camp. Though she made it back for the last month-plus of the campaign, the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer was clearly not yet in game shape. She failed to score in double figures during her 12 games back, and her 3.8 PPG dragged far behind her career average of 15.9 PPG.

The Steadying Force

Sylvia Fowles has been a symbol of consistency since first entering the league in 2008. Her career accolades prove as much: 2017 MVP, two-time Finals MVP, six-time All-WNBA, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, nine-time All-Defensive Team. Though her 13.6 PPG were her lowest since 2014, Fowles’ 58.8 percent from the field led the WNBA. Her 8.9 rebounds were good for third in the sport, and her 16.1 percent rebounding rate landed her sixth league-wide.

Even with the absence of stars like Moore and Augustus, her usage rate dropped from 22.9 to 19.8 percent, her lowest number since her second year in the league. Her offensive game is efficient: low-block post-ups, savvy putbacks and elbow jumpers:

Minnesota worked hard to establish Fowles down low early in games. She averaged 4.5 PPG during the first quarter, good for first on the team. Her scoring dropped in each successive quarter, however, falling to 3.6 in the second, 3.2 in the third and 2.5 in the fourth.

New FacEs in 2019

Despite all the roster turmoil, Minnesota retooled remarkably ahead of 2019. The franchise drafted Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier with the sixth pick in the first round, as well as Jessica Shepard—who looked promising before a season-ending injury—with the fourth pick in the second.

It also made a trade with longtime rivals, the L.A. Sparks, acquiring Odyssey Sims for Alexis Jones. While Sims would become an All-Star for Minnesota, Jones scored just 4.0 PPG in just 12.2 minutes per game during 2019.

The other big rotation move was to sign Damiris Dantas away from the Atlanta Dream, who would space the floor well for the Lynx, making 1.6 threes per game on 39.3 percent shooting (seventh in the league).

Collier took the league by storm in 2019, starting from the very first game of her professional career.

During a win over the Sky on May 25, 2019, she went off for 27 points on 8-of-10 from the field and 8-of-11 from the line. Each night out, she filled up the box scores, finishing with averages of 13.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 2.6 APG. Her 1.9 steals per game ranked third in the league, and her 0.9 blocks per game ranked 16th.

Her basketball IQ is remarkable for a rookie. She moved well without the ball, finding holes in the defense for easy lay-ins. Her athleticism and ability allowed her to find windows over larger defenders, and she shot 69.5 percent on shots from the restricted area while being assisted on 75.3 percent of those 2-pointers.

Shepard only played six games before tearing her ACL, but her impact on the floor was strong during those minutes.

The 6’3” forward out of Notre Dame averaged 4.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 3.5 APG in 18.7 minutes. Her ratings metrics were off the chart: While on the court, Shepard had a 98.7 offensive rating and an 84.8 defensive rating, giving her a positive net rating of 13.9. Dantas had the second-best net rating on the team, coming in at 6.5.

While Shepard’s games played were limited, the solid number of minutes in those contests firmly entrenches her in the rotation going into next season.

Sims’ team-high 14.5 PPG were her most since 2015, back when she played in Tulsa. Her evolution as a passer, though, might have been a surprise. Her 5.4 APG were well above her career average of 3.9. (She also averaged a full turnover above her career mark, but that was to be expected with all the time she spent as a primary ball-handler.) Her 24.5 percent usage rate—also her highest since 2015—paced the entire team.

As Ben Dull wrote for TBW after their playoff exit, Sims struggled in the Lynx’s single-elimination loss to Seattle, playing just 19 minutes and scoring a single point on 0-5 shooting from the floor, though she did lead the team with five assists. Despite her struggles in the 2018 postseason with LA, she’s otherwise had a history of statistical success in the playoffs, albeit with a limited sample size.

Run it Back in 2020

ATLANTA, GA Ð AUGUST 06: Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier (24) gets a high-five from teammate Danielle Robinson (3) after making a basket while being fouled during the WNBA game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream on August 6th, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

The team has all its starters under contract for 2020, with the exception of G Danielle Robinson, who has expressed interest in a reunion. While the league and the Players Association are still negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, free agency will likely begin on February 1.

Both the veteran-led 2018 team and the youth-driven 2019 version finished their seasons with 18-16 records. If Minnesota can run it back with this squad, plus add a healthy Augustus and, potentially, Moore, they’ll immediately catapult themselves back into title contention.

Their story has the potential to be the rare example of an aging dynasty that managed an on-the-fly rebuild, never bottoming out before competing again.