November 4, 2020 

Lynx enter offseason of unknowns in favorable position

Minnesota has financial flexibility and a strong cast of returners

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The Minnesota Lynx enter the offseason with plenty of financial flexibility. Photo credit: Minnesota Lynx Twitter account, @minnesotalynx.

We always remember the end-of-season moments. The emotions behind the champagne popping and the “it’s really over” tears tend to overshadow the offseason moves that preceded the celebrations.

But if Minnesota Lynx fans have learned anything during head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve’s tenure with her team, they’re well aware that offseason decisions have made this franchise what it is today.

Winning the lottery and drafting Maya Moore was the most memorable — and obvious — move of Minnesota’s 2010-11 offseason, but convincing experienced veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin to come to Minnesota in February 2011’s free agency gave the Lynx the competitive, winning edge they needed to secure their franchise’s first championship.

What about signing Janel McCarville in a sign-and-trade deal with New York and Tulsa in March of 2013? The McCarville acquisition proved to be much more than just a feel-good move for Minnesota fans excited to see Whalen and McCarville reunited nine years after leading the Gophers to a Final Four appearance together.

The Lynx are still reaping the benefits of signing now assistant coach Plenette Pierson in March of 2017.

The Lynx had a quiet 2020 offseason, which was headlined by the return of former Gopher star and Lakeville native Rachel Banham, who spent the first four seasons of her career with the Connecticut Sun. Bringing Banham home was a move fans were enthusiastic about — which was needed after Seimone Augustus announced her departure to Los Angeles — but it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster move that garnered national attention. In fact, for non-Minnesotans, it was a relatively minor story given all the other moves that swept WNBA news from January to February of 2020.

The New York Liberty traded Tina Charles to the Washington Mystics, the Dallas Wings sent Skylar Diggins-Smith to the Phoenix Mercury, the Mercury traded DeWonna Bonner to Connecticut, Angel McCoughtry signed with the Las Vegas Aces, reigning champion (at the time) Kristi Toliver left Washington for Los Angeles. Most of the national attention the Lynx received revolved around Augustus’ decision to sign with the Sparks.

In the Feb. 20 episode of The Cheryl Reeve Show podcast, Reeve told Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan her team had the mindset of “being aggressive around a couple of players.” She went on to say there were two and a half players the Lynx targeted specifically (the half representing a player who they would have had to acquire via trade rather than free agency).

Reeve went on to mention the clause in the newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement that only allowed home teams to pay unrestricted free agents the upper max.

“That created this element of sign and trade,” Reeve said. “What is a player who could just simply walk worth in trades? I think it was stunning — I’ll be really honest — that a player that could walk away from a team could command three first-round picks. That’s stunning.

“I think the cost or the price tag of some of these moves ended up being much higher than what we anticipated. To that end, it made it a little more difficult for us to be players in these deals that would require a trade.”

Minnesota’s failure to land either of the big names they targeted in the offseason led to some media members (myself included) having low expectations for what the Lynx could do in 2020. The Lynx, per usual, exceeded those expectations and did so without folding their financial flexibility in Year 2 of the new CBA.

Howard Megdal’s Oct. 8 breakdown of all WNBA cap sheets revealed that the Lynx currently have $886,855 ($468,894 of which is guaranteed) on the books for 2021 while the cap is set at $1,339,000, leaving Minnesota with a comfortable $452,145 of cap space. That leaves quite a bit of room for Reeve, the 2019 Executive of the Year, to get creative.

Before we get into how that money could be allocated in the offseason, let’s first audit the Lynx’s cap sheet and evaluate the current roster.

Kayla Alexander and Shenise Johnson are unrestricted free agents, and Erica McCall is a restricted free agent. I would be surprised if Minnesota offered any of them deals.

The Guards

Rachel Banham

Years Played: 5

2021 salary: $103,000 (non-guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

Banham recorded career-highs in points (6.9), assists (2.4), rebounds (1.3), and shot a career-high 47.2% from 3-point range on 2.7 3PAs per game in her first season with the Lynx. Banham never averaged more than 13 minutes per game in her four seasons with the Sun but was allotted 17 minutes per game with Minnesota.

She got off to a shaky start with her new squad as she struggled to find her shooting rhythm and shot 36.0% from the field in her first 11 games of the season, but her coaches and teammates continued to instill confidence in her throughout her adjustment period.

Banham’s shot improved as the season went on and her ability to ignite her team’s offense off the bench landed her a secure spot in the Lynx’s rotation. However, I’d imagine the Lynx will need to see more from Banham on the defensive end next season if she wants to land a similar deal with Minnesota once her current, two-year contract expires.

Lexie Brown

Years Played: 3

2021 salary: $70,040

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

Brown suffered a concussion in the Lynx’s second game of the season and wasn’t “concussion free” until Oct. 16.

She missed five regular-season games, played her final game of the season on Sept. 6 and left the bubble before the start of the Lynx’s delayed semifinals series against the Storm.

We have to grade Brown’s 2020 season on a scale with the knowledge that she was dealing with concussion symptoms throughout the season — not to mention the ongoing racial injustice and pandemic that players had to deal with this season. But Brown will have a lot to prove in 2021 if she wants to land another deal with the Lynx.

Brown’s passing improved in 2020, but her shooting — what she’s been known for — was uncharacteristically poor. Brown shot 34.2% from the field and a career-low 26.9% from 3-point range and only scored in double-digit figures in four games.

Reeve commended Brown for the maturity and growth she showed before the start of the 2020 season, but I still believe that remains the most lacking aspect of her game.

Crystal Dangerfield

Years Played: 1

2021 salary: $60,946 (non-guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

The Lynx would not have made it to the semifinals without Dangerfield.

The reigning Rookie of the Year led the Lynx in scoring and was by far her team’s most consistent guard during the regular season. She went through a rough patch during Minnesota’s semifinals series against Seattle in which she was mostly guarded by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Alysha Clark. But what better learning experience can you receive as a rookie than going up against Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Clark and Jordin Canada in the semifinals?

Dangerfield is one of the most exciting young players in the WNBA. It’s a monstrous steal that the Lynx will pay her less than $61,000 next season. Furthermore, I’d go as far as to say she solidifies that the Lynx made the right move in not giving up a loaded contract or draft assets during 2020’s offseason.

Odyssey Sims

Years Played: 7

2021 salary: $119,000 (guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

Sims missed the first nine games of the condensed 2020 regular season after recovering from giving birth to her son and serving a two-game suspension for a 2019 drunk driving arrest. Once she joined her team at IMG Academy, her presence was felt.

Sims, despite having been in labor four months before playing in Florida, provided an interior physicality that the Lynx were missing before her arrival. Her veteran leadership shone through in the Lynx’s playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury in which she willed the Lynx to victory with her 10-point, 3-assist, 2-steal second half.

Her shooting efficiency still leaves something to be desired, and the Seattle Storm exposed her pick-and-roll defensive flaws in the semifinals, but her contributions to the Lynx outweigh her deficiencies. The Lynx should feel comfortable paying a 2019 All-Star who’s served as a mentor to her fellow guards $119,000 in 2021.

The Forwards

Karima Christmas-Kelly

Years Played: 9

2021 salary: $106,000 (guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

Christmas-Kelly earned a co-captain role after her first season with the Lynx in 2019. She was poised to have a comeback season in 2020 after missing the majority of the 2019 season due to a knee injury. However, her career faced another setback in the Lynx’s second game of the 2020 season when she ruptured her right Achilles tendon against the Storm. She only recorded 25 minutes played in 2020.

In hindsight, signing Christmas-Kelly in 2019’s free agency was a tough break financially. But she’s the type of person you’re OK paying a $106,000 buyout.

Napheesa Collier

Years Played: 2

2021 salary: $58,710 (non-guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Undecided

2020 season synopsis:

It’s absolutely insane (not hyperbolic) that Minnesota only has to pay Collier, who finished fifth in 2020 MVP voting, $58,710 on the third year of her rookie contract in 2021. Her contract makes her and fellow 2019 draft pick, Jessica Shepard, the Lynx’s lowest-paid players as their current cap sheet stands.

Collier continued to make her mark on the league in her second WNBA season and made the biggest leap on the defensive end where her dynamism allowed Minnesota to stay afloat while defensive anchor Sylvia Fowles was injured.

Collier and Dangerfield are the players of the future, and the Lynx are spending less than $120,000 on the two of them next season. It literally pays to draft well.

Damiris Dantas

Years Played: 6

2021 salary: $126,000 (guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Staying in Brazil

2020 season synopsis:

In September, the Lynx landed a two-year extension with Dantas, which was something Reeve wanted to get done before the current offseason. Understandably so.

Dantas took it upon herself to take on a larger role once Fowles was sidelined with her calf injury and bailed Minnesota out of a few games with her sharp outside shooting that troubled opposing centers.

Getting to play alongside Fowles in 2021 will be good for Dantas who has room to grow when it comes to paint protection and staying out of foul trouble, but Dantas’ name should come up just as much as Collier’s and Dangerfield’s when discussing integral pieces of the Lynx’s future.

Mikiah ‘Kiki’ Herbert Harrigan

Years Played: 1

2021 salary: $66,555 (non-guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Playing for Bellona Kayseri (Turkey)

2020 season synopsis:

Just like I was during the 2020 draft night, I’m still puzzled as to why the Lynx used their first-round draft pick on Herbert Harrigan and waited until the second round to draft Dangerfield. Nonetheless, Herbert Harrigan showed some promise in her rookie season.

After struggling during training camp and not receiving playing time in the Lynx’s season-opener against the Sun, Herbert Harrigan earned her limited minutes (11.1 per game) by being a willing outside shooter and being an aggressive defender. She recorded the second-best net rating among rookies (7.2, only behind Seattle’s Ezi Magbegor) and the best defensive rating (91.6) of rookies who played more than 10 games.

I wasn’t in the bubble, but from what I saw from Zoom and watching games, Herbert Harrigan handled her role with poise. It has to be somewhat difficult watching a fellow rookie teammate who was drafted after you exceed expectations no matter how selfless of a teammate you are. I didn’t pick up on any jealousy from Herbert Harrigan.

Lynx fans should be excited about what her future will hold once as she continues to grow in the Lynx’s system which will make the most of Herbert Harrigan’s game.

Jessica Shepard

Years Played: 1

2021 salary: $58,710 (non-guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

Shepard tore her ACL during her rookie season, and due to the coronavirus, her scheduled 2020 rehab was delayed. The delay led to the 2019 rookie being placed on the Lynx’s suspended list, and she missed all of the 2020 season.

No one knows what Shepard will look like once she returns in 2021 after missing 90% of the first two seasons of her WNBA career. But taking the time to get her back to where she led off at the start of her impressive rookie debut is well worth $58,710.

The Center

Sylvia Fowles

Years Played: 13

2021 salary: $117,894 (guaranteed)

Offseason plans: Not playing overseas

2020 season synopsis:

We all wanted to see more Fowles this season. The Lynx leader was limited to seven regular-season games after sustaining a calf injury just 15 days after claiming the league’s all-time rebounding record.

Fowles signed a new contract with the Lynx in 2019, which will expire at the end of the 2021 season. The 2020 season served as a reminder — to me, at least — that Fowles isn’t going to play forever (it was easy to forget since she had never missed a game with the Lynx before the 2020 season).

Fowles won’t be a Lynx player forever. It’s time the Lynx go all-in in free agency while they still have the best center in the league around.

What’s Next?

When Reeve held her final media availability for the 2020 season, her enthusiasm for the future of her franchise was clear.

Just two seasons removed from the Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen days, the Lynx have been able to bypass a losing, rebuilding period.

“Oftentimes, when you have a group that we had, that we rode until the wheels fell off, and much like the Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge felt like he should’ve made some trades, and that it cost them years, it took them a long time to recover,” said Reeve after Megdal asked about the core of her team. “I think that we’ve been very fortunate to transition from those players, those teams, into a group that we have that you saw this season.”

2020 was a different season, Reeve went on to say, but despite the adversity, her team had to be successful.

“There are some teams that were missing players, but we still had to be successful, and we have some really important players that are going to be essential to the franchise moving forward that are on rookie deals and smaller contracts. That is absolutely vital, and then we have the all-time greatest center still playing. So we have some really key pieces.

“I think we found some other key players, and our eyes were opened, even to other teams. We got a good look at things, and I think there’s some real clarity on what we would call desirables — players on other teams or a path in terms of what we need.”

Reeve admitted the obvious: the Lynx can’t control what happens in the upcoming free agency. But the success her young team produced without Fowles for much of the season may entice free agents looking to join a winning franchise. Oh, and the Lynx’s favorable cap space helps, too.

“We have money to spend,” Reeve said. “That’s the great thing, that we kind of escaped duct-taping this thing together and just trying to hold it up. We’ve got some really good, key pieces to keep the franchise moving forward and to keep us as a playoff team, competing, as we did here in the semifinals. We got a great taste of it. I don’t know what’s next. There’s so many great teams in this league, and things have got to go your way, things went our way down here in the bubble, but we certainly need more.”

You can revoke my media credentials if the Lynx don’t use some of their $452,145 of cap space to retain Bridget Carleton, who had a stellar 2020 season. Minnesota will likely use some of that money to also re-sign Cecilia Zandalasini should she choose to play in 2021. That leaves plenty of leftover spending money to offer a max or even supermax deal to a player who can provide Minnesota with the “more” they need to become title contenders in the final season of Fowles’ current contract.

Please excuse the low-hanging play on words here, but we first have to consider Moore being the “more” Minnesota needs to take the next leap. Moore — whose decision to miss the 2019 and 2020 seasons to dedicate her life to bringing awareness to the continued failures of our country’s criminal justice system should never ever be criticized — has remained tight-lipped about the future of her WNBA career.

“I’m still trying to be so present in this second year away from the game,” said Moore during her September interview on Good Morning America when she and her now-husband Jonathan Irons announced their marriage. “I’m hoping sometime in the spring we’ll be able to have a next step moving forward, but right now I am trying to really just breathe from this long, long battle and enjoy and rest. Again, just being in the moment.

“There’s a lot of unknowns for a lot of us right now.”

Indeed.

I think the Lynx should go all-in on Moore should she choose to return to the game in 2021. If she doesn’t, there are still plenty of intriguing free agents (Alyssa Thomas, Clark, Natasha Howard and, heck, even Candace Parker come to mind) the Lynx could chase.

But the unknowns will continue to mount as our country tries to overcome COVID-19 while salvaging its democracy and reckoning with its past and present of white supremacy.

Will 2021 be a typical, 34-game season played in teams’ arenas, or will the bubble be blown up again? Will Lynx and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor sell his franchises? Will the college basketball season go on as planned, or will the 2020-21 season end without an NCAA Tournament just like the 2019-20 season did? Will our country make substantial changes in police reform, or will we return to the status quo and ignore the pleas to recognize that Black lives matter? How will these unknowns impact players’ decisions of whether or not to opt-in for the 2021 season?

As always, the Lynx will control what they can control and will continue to fight for democracy and equity.

Written by Katie Davidson

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