May 13, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: Minnesota Lynx

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'The culture is a championship culture'

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Seattle Storm

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Chicago Sky

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Los Angeles Sparks

Team photo from Lynx Training Camp (photo via Lynx Twitter)

Last year, the Lynx defied expectations of what many expected to be a rebuilding year. Head Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve proved that her system for reaching the playoffs was firmly in place in Minnesota as she, Napheesa Collier and last year’s Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield brought the Lynx to it’s tenth consecutive playoff appearance, losing to the 2020 WNBA Champions the Seattle Storm in a semi-finals sweep, finishing fourth overall.

It’s a championship culture. And it never left.

“It’s hard to break a system that’s already been in place for a long time when you have the right people to lead by example,” Sylvia Fowles said to reporters on media day.

Reeve has created a framework where the Lynx are a team that always sees itself as a championship contender, no matter the year or what players are on the roster. This year is no different.

“People shouldn’t be counting us out now, because of the (disappointing finish last) season that we had and now the people that we have on our roster,” said Rachel Banham, entering her second season in Minnesota. 

The Lynx have their eyes set on a championship. With the return of a healthy Fowles, the integration of their key free agency signings and the winning system Reeve has embedded into the Lynx organization, this team will be in the finals.

Sylvia Fowles getting reps in pregame scrimmage against Atlanta Dream (Photo via Lynx Twitter)

‘Yes, I am healthy this year’

Plagued with calf injuries that kept her out most of last season, Sylvia Fowles is back.

“Yes, I am healthy this year. The biggest challenge for me is learning how to wind back,” Fowles said to reporters during a virtual media avail last week. “I’m the player that wants to go every rep in practice.” Reeve is actively managing Fowles’ practice load and it will help keep Fowles healthy through the season and into the playoffs.

“I just told her, you just go play and I’m going to manage you. I don’t want her coming in everyday thinking about kind of being half in and half out and that sort of thing.” said Reeve on an episode of her podcast, The Cheryl Reeve Show. “It’ll be good for Sylvia Fowles to have that support, so she can keep her focus on playing rather than keeping stock of her load. “I never really had a coach to say, ‘wait a minute, don’t do this rep’ or ‘you’re not going through this drill and you can get back through this drill but take off this drill.’”

A healthy Fowles means the Lynx have their threat under the basket back. But don’t bet on the team running the offense strictly through Fowles, something they have been criticized for in the past.

“We do not want to be that team,” Reeve said during a virtual media avail. “We got a lot of things around Syl and Syl’s gonna have to find, maybe at times generate her own offense. Not because we ran a play for Syl.”

The free agency signings have positioned the Lynx to have those options around Fowles with shooters like Kayla McBride, who averaged 12.5 points per game last season and who some thought was held back in Las Vegas in a Bill Laimbeer system that didn’t prioritize three-point shots.

This doesn’t mean the Lynx are opposed to running the offense through Sylvia Fowles. She is still a threat, shooting a career field goal percentage of 59.3% and teams will be forced to respect that.

“I just don’t wanna get bogged down trying to do (just) that,” Reeve said, noting that the offense won’t solely run through Fowles. The Lynx have spread the floor around the previous focal point of their offense and Fowles is excited to have these additional options around her. “I am looking forward to Natalie (Achonwa)’s aggressiveness, AP (Aerial Powers’) energy and KMac (Kayla McBride’s) shooting ability beyond the arc.”

Yes, the Lynx have added threats beyond the arc around to spread defenders around Big Syl, which means they’ll have several options on the floor, including getting the ball to Sylvia Fowles under the basket.

Aerial Powers in Lynx Heroine jersey (Photo via Lynx Twitter)

Aerial “AP” Powers has entered the chat

The addition of Aerial Powers means the Lynx now have their hype woman — someone who will help keep the energy going and get Target Center to turn up as the Lynx hit another three or snag another rebound. She’s always keeping it loud.

“It’s just me.” she said. “If I’m doing something good, I want my teammates giving me my flowers too.” She’s ready to get the crowd loud and celebrate her team as they out score their opponents. She’s celebrating Sylvia Fowles snagging a defensive rebound or Kayla McBride draining a three, knowing Syl and KMac would do the same for her when she’s on the court.

“Then I’m gonna keep getting it done and then that energy just bounces off of each other and then next thing you know you have possessions on top of possessions of good defense or good offense or whatever it might be and then there comes the win. It’s just me.”

Powers sees that her teammates are ready to fight for another Lynx franchise title. Training camp has that energy geared up and ready to go. How does AP know? “[From] the intensity from my teammates. And getting a stop, and yelling and chest bumping and high-fiving. You guys know that I love that. We’ve had a lot of those the last few days and that’s getting me like so excited to hoop, man, so excited to play in our first game.” 

The Cheryl Reeve System is ingrained into the Lynx organization

“I think what stood between us and the finals last year was defensive rebounding,” Reeve said on her podcast. But she’s addressed that weakness with the free agency signing of Natalie Achonwa, a five-year forward previously with the Indiana Fever, who averages 4.5 total rebounds per game and 3 defensive rebounds per game.

“I do think that we’re going to be better defensively by virtue of Natalie’s presence. I also think Aerial [Powers] and [Kayla] McBride will help us not only defensively in some of the match ups, but also in rebounding. I think areas that we felt like were weaknesses last year, our defensive and rebounding, which stood between us and the finals, we’re gonna be improved. How good, I don’t know.”

Lynx fans can assume significantly improved because the team is confident about the ecosystem Coach Reeve has created at the Lynx organization.

In the initial power ranking put out by ESPN, the Lynx are listed 6th, lower than the overall 4th place finish they had last year. “It’s a starting point for people to start talking about the season. It never really means anything to us. Some people use it as motivation.” Reeve said on her podcast, The Cheryl Reeve Show. “We didn’t care that people had us counted out of playoff contention last year in these preseason polls, despite us having Sylvia Fowles. I’ve always said this, you have Syliva Fowles, you have a chance.”

And Reeve recognizes that the WNBA is the toughest professional sports league to win in. The Lynx know they aren’t the only viable contender. They’re in a league up against defending champs Breanna Stewart and the Seattle Storm; Last Year’s MVP A’ja Wilson with the Las Vegas Aces; Candace Parker with the Chicago Sky; Elena Delle Donne with the Washington Mystics; Jonquel Jones with the Connecticut Sun; and Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith with the Mercury. Over six teams have a more than compelling argument for being this year’s WNBA champions.

“We’re all in the same boat in that there’s been some change,” said Reeve. “There’s been some turnover on the teams. I think it’s pretty darn wide open. There are a lot of really good teams. There’s no bad team.”

Coach Cheryl Reeve in 2018 game against the Sun (Photo via Chris Poss)

But the Lynx have a leadership continuity advantage — Reeve is the longest-tenured head coach entering her 11th season with the team and the Reeve method is baked into the Lynx organization. She’s also still got a piece of the Lynx dynasty on her roster in Sylvia Fowles, who’s entering her sixth season with the team, to help keep that system running.

“I think I’m more impressed with how she gets me involved,” Fowles said. “You go down to these players and she wants to know everything about them. What (they’re) good at, what’s their attitude, would they fit in with the team, if (Reeve) did this, how do (I) think they’d react? She gets down to the nooks and crannies of if they would be a good fit for our program. It’s not just about your athleticism and how you play if you’re good. If you’re not a good person at heart, she’s really don’t go after you. I think she does a really good job of making sure she brings good people in as well as good athletes.”

Players new to the Lynx organization recognize the ecosystem Reeve has put in place too. “When you have a mind like (Coach Reeve’s), there’s no such thing as a rebuild. It’s just a reload,” said Natalie Achonwa during media day. “Yeah, you lost the legacy of these great players and the careers they had, but you have to see who’s coming in too. And Coach Reeve is bringing in players that have a similar mindset, a similar approach, a similar sacrifice for the team. She’s built a culture here.”

The team knows that they won’t start the season firing at all cylinders as they’ll be missing key players. First round draft pick Rennia Davis is out indefinitely with a fractured foot injury and Kayla McBride and 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier will miss the beginning of the season due to overseas commitments.

“Yes, we’ll be better off later in the season probably than earlier in the season, said Reeve, “but I still want to be good. I don’t want to have this, your offense has to catch up to your defense and it requires a lot of work.”

And it doesn’t seem like Reeve has to worry about that too much as the team is already getting into rhythm with each other, even with McBride and Collier missing. “We’ve had some moments already where we’re clicking,” said Achonwa. “We just need to be put in (game) situations that bring us out as players.” 

The Lynx have their first round draft pick out indefinitely, key offensive pieces Napheesa Collier and Kayla McBride will be late arrivals and are slowly reintroducing Sylvia Fowles back into the line up, but they’re ready for their next championship. It’s a championship culture, no matter who’s on the roster. It would be a mistake to count them out this year.

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