July 16, 2020
Lynx mindset remains unaltered: ‘You can’t focus on what you don’t have’
2020 has packed a punch, but the Lynx are determined to make the most of what remains unchanged.
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Uncasville, Connecticut/USA – Aug. 17, 2018: Minnesota Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve during a WNBA basketball game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Connecticut Sun defeated the Minnesota Lynx 96-79. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Cheryl Reeve couldn’t sit atop a podium or make her way through a scrum of reporters without dodging the word “new” in 2019.
Her new players, her new point guard, her new journey without Maya Moore, her new process of rebuilding.
In 2020, the playing field has been leveled across the league.
All teams are adjusting to their new rosters, new IMG Academy surroundings, new facilities, new fan-less atmospheres, new safety protocols and a new, threatening pandemic thats newness has yet to be completely defined.
But instead of agonizing over what’s been lost in the ever-changing 2020, head coach and general manager Reeve and her Lynx team have chosen to devote their time to what remains. That’s not a new strategy.
“You can’t focus on what you don’t have,” Reeve said. “We’re all in the same boat, and you just have to figure out how to be effective with what you do have. That’s where our mindset stays.”
Desperation to play
Several WNBA players have chosen to opt out of the 2020 season or have shown hesitancy about playing in the “Wubble.”
While the Lynx players respect players’ decisions to miss the season in an attempt to preserve their health or fight for racial equality, they’ve shown few signs of matching their peers’ reluctance about the 2020 season.
Lynx forward Damiris Dantas traveled from her home country of Brazil, where 74,133 people have died of the coronavirus as of Wednesday, to compete in the 2020 season.
“The situation in Brazil is very hard,” said when asked about Brazil and her family’s status during Tuesday’s Media Day. “My family is OK, but there are a lot of problems, and it’s very hard.”
But 29 seconds later, she was laughing at the idea that she wouldn’t join her team in Florida.
“Yeah, I want to play this year,” Dantas said. “Every game … I want to play.”
Lynx guard Shenise Johnson matched Dantas’ conviction when asked about her own decision to play.
“For me, I miss the game,” Johnson said. “I haven’t played in a WNBA season — a full season — in a very, very long time. I just had an itch for it. I don’t care if we were playing in the middle of the Sahara. I’d be playing this season.”
Johnson, who tore her ACL in 2017 and missed the 2018 season to rehab her knee, is one of several Lynx players determined to prove themselves this season.
The average 2020 Lynx player has played in 108 career games while averaging 14.225 minutes per game. Half of the roster has played in fewer than 60 WNBA games, and as for the non-rookies, four players have averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game.
Six of the Lynx’s 12 players are not only brand new to the Lynx system but are also trying to break into the league in a foreign territory even their team’s returners are unfamiliar with.
“I’ve been telling them to just be a sponge,” second-year player Napheesa Collier said. “It’s really hard to come into a new program and let alone in the situation that we’re in.
“Everyone is in the same boat being in Florida and having this season being really crazy. But just in practice, be a sponge. Just try to pick up everything as quickly as you can and watch what people are doing. Listen to us and the coaches. We know it’s difficult, but we all have your back, we’re here for you, and we’re all going to get through it together.”
And whether they’re an accomplished returner or an eager newbie, the reminder that the 2020 season itself was almost swept away has only added to Lynx’s desperation to get the season rolling.
“I think it’s really important for the league,” said Collier when asked why she decided to opt in for the 2020 season. “We’re not new, but we’re still growing. We want to get the league out there, and we want to play basketball. That’s our profession; that’s what we all love to do. So if there’s any way to do that in a safe way, I think everyone is excited to do that.”
Improved floor spacing
Despite their relocation and inability to access Mayo Clinic Square’s first-class facilities, the 2020 Lynx feel they have some advantages over last year’s team.
First and foremost, they’ve added shooters.
The 2019 Lynx averaged 17.5 3-point attempts per game, the third-lowest average in the league. When they did shoot from outside, they only connected on 33.2% of their attempts, a percentage only the Dallas Wings, Phoenix Mercury and Atlanta Dream couldn’t top.
The Lynx’s mediocre outside shooting made things challenging for their player who’s anything but less than average.
“You have to make a choice, and teams are making choices that anybody can shoot but Syl,” Reeve said. “We didn’t necessarily position ourselves all that well personnel-wise last year with the ability to really help her. If you look at our starting group of Danielle Robinson, Odyssey Sims and Napheesa Collier, that doesn’t actually scream spacing.”
Sylvia Fowles shot 58.8% from the field, the second-best shooting percentage among all centers, in 2019. However, Fowles’ prowess was limited by the double- and triple-teams she fought against when opponents were unfazed by the Lynx’s outside shooters.
Last season, just two seasons after being named the league MVP, Fowles only attempted 9.9 field goals per game (fifth among centers) and just 1.9 attempts in the final frame of games (12th) as the Lynx led the league in turnovers per game (16.2).
Fowles is hopeful her team’s acquisitions of Rachel Banham, Johnson and rookies Mikiah “KiKi” Herbert Harrigan and Crystal Dangerfield, plus improved outside shooting from Lexie Brown, Collier and Dantas will help spread her team’s offensive wealth while limiting the number of bruises she has to ice after games.
“You have to keep (opposing defenses) honest, and I think we have the players to do that this year that can shoot beyond the arc,” Fowles said. “It’s pretty much going to be like pick your poison this year, and I’m looking forward to it.”
“We just got to this point where it’s just unfair to Syl,” Reeve said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to choose to do the same thing and double- and triple-team her, it’s just I think we now have the ability to make teams pay for that so we don’t have to continue to force it inside to be successful.”
Compromising in the backcourt
Collier is still haunted by the daunting playbook she had to learn as a rookie.
“I was joking with someone the other day how one day it felt like we put in 15 different plays last year,” Collier said. “I was just like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to learn all of these.’”
That won’t be the case this year.
Not only does the condensed, 22-game season call for a less-complex offense, so does Reeve’s roster.
“Probably the biggest impetus is you don’t have Lindsay Whalen,” Reeve said. “You don’t have someone like her that excels at playcalling, excels at understanding, on time, on target and really picking apart people.”
Brown, Banham, Dangerfield, Johnson and Odyssey Sims, who will miss at least the beginning of the season, are willing to serve as true point guards for their team. But until they prove they’re capable of doing so in the pros, the offense will be led by committee.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a set-in-stone Lindsay Whalen’s bringing the ball up every time,” Johnson said. “No, I think it’s going to be more, ‘Hey, whoever gets it, fly. Everyone else get wide.’ We’ll see how everything goes from there because Lexie’s a shooter, Rachel’s a shooter, I can knock down 3s, we all pretty much can put the ball on the floor.
“I think it’s going to be exciting to watch, but at the same time, it’s going to be hard for the opposition because you never know who’s going to bring it up.”
A continued Lynx culture
The Lynx may not have a veteran-heavy roster or a proven point guard. But when they look at the chaos surrounding the 2020 season, they believe they’ll have a leg up on the rest of the league as they encounter new adversity.
“What’s exposed is your decisions as far as the people that you bring into your franchise in times like these,” Reeve said. “That’s where we feel really confident.”
Filling her roster with players and coaches who possess strong integrity has always been a requirement for Reeve. One could argue that recruitment process will be more vital than ever this season.
“I would say the culture that the Minnesota Lynx have been noted for over the last decade is going to be really valuable,” Reeve said. “That’s something that we’re going to focus on and continue to treat each other well.”
But when the expected challenges of the 2020 season arise, Reeve will lean on what she and her team will always have.
“Probably the greatest thing Lindsay Whalen ever said to our team was when we were hitting difficult times,” Reeve recalled. “And we talk about it a lot — teams that you can break because they hit adversity and they fall apart, they don’t know how to treat each other when things are difficult. When you’re up 10, everybody’s in good shape. When you’re down 10, you start to see some cracks so to speak.
“Lindsay Whalen very wisely said, ‘I don’t care what happens. Just treat each other well.’”
Most elements of life have been dramatically impacted this year. The Lynx are convinced their founding principles will withstand 2020.