August 1, 2022 

Minnesota Lynx bench vital cog in team’s recent success

'Our bench is everything,' Lynx center Sylvia Fowles said after her team’s recent 84-77 win over the Los Angeles Sparks

The beginning of the Minnesota Lynx’s 2022 campaign was like something straight out of a Stephen King novel. At first glance, things looked good for the WNBA’s most successful franchise, but before anybody knew it, their season resembled the elevator scene from The Shining.

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Their gory 3-13 start could be attributed to many factors, including injuries, unsuccessful offseason transactions and poor defense, which left the team lacking an identity and clearly defined roles. But the rotation’s roles solidified as the team’s overall health improved from May to June to July, resulting in arguably the most prolific bench unit in the WNBA.

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As of the first of August, the Lynx’s bench—primarily consisting of Rachel Banham, Lindsay Allen, Bridget Carleton, Natalie Achonwa, Nikolina Milic and Jessica Shepard—ranks first in the league in scoring (26.0 points per game) and second in plus/minus (+29), net rating (1.7) and true shooting percentage (57.3%). Their strong play has helped Minnesota win nine of their last 15 games, keeping them within striking distance of the playoffs.

“Our bench is everything,” Lynx center Sylvia Fowles said after her team’s recent 84-77 win over the Los Angeles Sparks. “Even when our starting five wasn’t so good, our bench has always carried us. To know that we got girls that can actually go out there and outplay the starting five some nights it’s very comforting. And I think they’ve been showing up all season.”

Banham, Shepard and Milic, in particular, have played prominent roles in Minnesota’s bench success. While all three have seen time in the starting lineup, their most productive minutes have come when relieving someone else. Additionally, Achonwa has played well since missing a large chunk of the season with a nagging hamstring strain and is a member of two of the Lynx’s top four three-women lineups in terms of net rating who have played at least 100 minutes, according to (Achonwa-Shepard-Carleton: 18.6 net rating, first; Achonwa-Banham-Carleton: 16.1, fourth).

“It’s been huge for our team,” Lynx general manager and head coach Cheryl Reeve said of her bench’s play this season. “They have a lot of confidence in one another. They understand how to bring out one another’s skill sets. They do simple things. They move the ball. They share the ball. They just have a really nice [buy-in] and a belief in each other and what they’re doing. And you can’t say enough about that when you can play 10 players, 11 players when you can play everybody. You know, that’s really, really helpful.”

Should Minnesota make the playoffs—as of this writing, they trail the Sparks by one game for the eighth seed and own tie-breakers over Los Angeles and Phoenix and could claim one over Atlanta with a win on Sunday—their bench will be a big reason why and could make them a difficult out for one of the league’s top seeds. While the Lynx are only 2-5 combined against the Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces, their five losses have come by a combined 20 points and their benches rank sixth (-0.4) and ninth (-3.0), respectively, in net rating. (The Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics are the only teams whose starters and bench each have a positive net rating.)

Having a strong second unit is vital in the playoffs as rotations get trimmed and the level of competition increases. Top-end talent may win teams championships, but depth is a vital cog in getting teams in a position to do so. The Lynx have depth and one of the best players in the league in Fowles. (Perhaps two if forward Napheesa Collier returns in time from maternity leave.)

But even if they don’t make the playoffs, the Lynx’s bench play should encourage fans for seasons to come. Although Achonwa and Shepard are the only ones under contract beyond this summer, the Lynx figure to have nearly $540,000 in cap space, according to Her Hoop Stats, which would allow them to bring back most, if not all, of their bench pieces. (Carleton is a restricted free agent while Milic and Banham are unrestricted.)

Banham, Carleton and Milic are beloved by the fanbase and have fans within the front office and coaching staff. All three could realistically be re-signed at or near the veteran minimum, leaving copious dollars left to be spent on other marquee-free agents to trade targets.

Minnesota’s record sits at 12-19 with five games remaining, all of which are coming against teams locked into the playoff race. They are one of the six teams in the WNBA to have a winning record over their last 10 games. Their end-of-season run may ultimately prove to have come too late, but the performance of the Lynx’s bench is a significant reason why they’re here in the first place.

Written by Lucas Seehafer

Lucas Seehafer is a general reporter for The Next. He is also a physical therapist and professor at the undergraduate level. His work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Forbes, FanSided, and various other websites.

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