Photo via Kailas Images.
If drafting is already a "carp shoot", then rigidly projecting the first pick of the 2011 WNBA Draft before the college season has really even taken off is premature at best.
Normally, that is.
There's always the possibility that someone else could emerge as viable number one pick, but odds are that the Minnesota Lynx will select the University of Connecticut's Maya Moore with the first pick of the draft that they won in Tuesday's draft lottery in New York.
"There's always a chance, but I don't know what that scenario would be this time around," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve when asked shortly after winning the lottery if there was a chance they might select someone other than Moore. "She's been the best player in the country for a couple years now."
And if you thought expectations were high for this team last off-season after bringing in point guard Lindsay Whalen and rookie Monica Wright with the second pick in the 2010 WNBA Draft, adding Moore could send those expectations right back through the roof even after an extremely disappointing 2010 campaign.
Despite finishing only 13-21 last season (second-worst in the league), the fact remains that they had a roster bursting with talent.
"Looking at, just this time last year, becoming the Lynx coach in September, looking at the roster on paper, again some high expectations," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve in a teleconference from New York shortly after winning the WNBA Draft Lottery yesterday. "Every team is a key injury away from those hopes being dashed. We definitely had our hands full with that. We keep our fingers crossed that we stay healthy and if we bring it all together, it should be a great summer in Minneapolis."
I will maintain that this team would have been much, much better were if not for long-term injuries to Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins, Brunson arriving late, and thus having no time to practice and gel. And those were just the beginning of their challenges.
"It was pretty rough last year: being a first-time coach with the Lynx, the players were trying to get a hold of what I wanted to do," said Reeve after the draft lottery on Tuesday. "Trying to learn about each other. Players trickling in, players getting hurt. All that played a factor in how the season went. I've been doing this for 10 years, and a quality training camp usually leads to a quality season."
So assuming this team begins this season healthy and with a longer pre-season, I suppose optimists could simply dismiss last year as a fluke and have higher expectations this year. But that would probably defeat the lessons learned from last season - winning games obviously requires more than compiling an impressive list of players and conditions on paper.
So after winning the right to select Moore yesterday as well as holding the fourth pick, how do we begin to set expectations for them now?
"Shortly after the season ended, we would have liked a crack at getting it going again," said Reeve on Tuesday when asked about expectations this year as compared to last year. "There were a lot of things... Unfinished business. We felt as if we were a good team. We just didn't win games together. I think that's the biggest thing - We've gotta bring it together in a hurry. Take that core group that learned so much last year and put that together with a couple of high draft picks. We have to learn how to win games together fast. That's the biggest thing - It doesn't just happen just because you have a roster with some pretty good names on it. It certainly improves your chances."
In other words, the lofty expectations for the Lynx were established on the assumption that the players they had were extremely complementary, but not necessarily individually dominant. That alone should have been enough reason to temper the expectations of optimists wearing rose-colored lenses, such as myself - as talented as they were, it was probably more important for them to have time to come together as a unit, figure out leadership, and collectively learn how to maximize the potential of the unit.
For whatever reason, it didn't happen in a way that produced wins. And even talented teams that match up with anyone on paper have to learn how to win.
And the struggle with learning how to win was evident in Reeve's comments during the season.
With 6:03 left in the fourth quarter and the Minnesota Lynx hanging on to a two point lead against the surging Seattle Storm on August 17, coach Cheryl Reeve put on a performance worthy of a nomination for 2010 Best Sideline Outburst by an Opposing Coach in KeyArena.
Starting near mid-court, Reeve turned away from the action on the opposite end of the court, threw her hands up while staring up to the rafters and walking toward the baseline, took her jacket off down to her elbows as though she was holding herself back from throwing it, stopped about halfway down the bench to stomp a few times, and then yelled something that probably wasn't particularly pleasant toward the players sitting on the bench.
All because Lynx forward Charde Houston stepped out of bounds with the ball in her hands.
"She's not always going to make the right play," said Reeve prior to a very disappointing 68-64 loss to the Storm that night. "She has the ability, probably more than any other player, to get my blood pressure through the roof in that she'll go coast to coast sometimes, get it knocked away. But then the next time she'll go coast-to-coast and make a great play to shoot over the top of somebody.
"I love coaching Charde Houston. So it's those moments of me kinda going, 'I gotta let Charde Houston be Charde Houston.' And it's more good than it is negative. It's that realization."
While the play in question that set Reeve off on that August night wasn't necessarily the turning point in the game, it definitely ended up marking a significant turn of events for the Lynx -- after a Storm offensive rebound going the other way, center Lauren Jackson hit a three that put them up one point. But of course it would follow that two possessions later, a key defensive rebound by Houston would end up leading to a Seimone Augustus jumper that put the Lynx up one with 4:37 left in the game.
On a broader scale, Houston's entire performance embodied the erratic play Reeve discussed from Houston. Generally more of a pure scorer, Houston had a rather quiet, when not frustrating, fourth quarter for the Lynx going 0-1 from the field while playing all 10 minutes with center Nicky Anosike not with the team.
In contrast, she was quite productive in the second quarter in which she had an efficient seven points on 2-for-3 shooting, went 3-5 from the free throw line, and had two offensive rebounds. So although it wasn't a bad game, the bulk of her production just happened to occur in one quarter.
"I figured out that you gotta let some things go," said Reeve. "I think Charde has met us on the defensive end: four huge steals against San Antonio. Now she's going to screw up my pick-and-roll defense a few times, but she's finding another way to cover for it. So that's what I'm saying: instead of me getting mad that she screwed up my pick-and-roll, it's 'ok, now what is she going to do to make up for it.' So it's those times - just leaving her out there. So it's good fun."
In addition to Houston's frustrating moments, the other challenge was finding poise in all those close games - all but two games were within two possessions during their final month of play and they played four straight games in July within one possession. Win or lose, they repeatedly found themselves in tight situations and unfortunately came up on the short end of the stick a bit too often - their 6-6 record and August wasn't enough to get into the playoffs.
"We've said every one of those situations have happened for a reason - that's all you can do," said Reeve. "I'd say probably say consistently for us when we find our struggles when we stop scoring the ball. All of a sudden we just break down. And the attention to detail that got us a great lead all of a sudden gets lost on us. Big halftime leads - either double figures or up 22. Just finishing - putting the pedal to the medal. Just kind of losing sight of what got us the lead."
One player in particular who they'll be hoping for more poise from is Monica Wright, their #2 draft pick last season. After having something of a breakout game against the Storm on May 19, she sort of hit a lull before finding her way out.
"From that game until about 15 games ago, Monica was not a very efficient player," said Reeve back in August. "In that game she was but she didn't have those moments very often after that. Over the last 15 games, she's been far more efficient. Field goal percentage in the mid-40's from inside the three and outside the three. Just, the word we used for her was poise - we needed her to find poise about what she was doing. And she's just a smart player - she figured it out and she's been steady and we absolutely need her."
"I need Moni and Seimone - Whalen will find her spots but I need both those guys. I can't have one or the other. When we're good, we've got both of them."
While we can immediately see "efficiency" on paper with numbers like the ones Reeve posted in The Reeve Report about the 2010 season, part of Wright's becoming more efficient was how she got shots in addition to what shots she was taking.
"It's not sometimes that she's taking a bad shot, it's the way she's taking a shot that makes it bad," said Reeve in August. "There were more of those instances because Moni's a scorer - you don't want to all of a sudden say, 'Don't shoot.' That's what she's getting paid to do is to be a scorer. And I think for her it was just change tempo, pace. That and defensively: she's a much better defensive player than the last time she was here. Way better. Much smarter. Understands angles better. Not making the silly plays that was really hurting us."
The way Reeve describes her players and the team's heartbreaking losses seems to represent a theme that explains the struggles for the entire season: moments of brilliance mixed with moments of downright frustration as part of an ongoing evolution.
"I think we've evolved quite a bit defensively," said Reeve. "We've changed some schemes quite a bit to help out situations like Charde - Charde is six-foot. Initially the way we were guarding the post was just the worst thing for her. It put her in situations where she's playing behind Lauren Jackson. So we've done some things to put her in better position.
"I think we've become a better team defense - players just understand when to help, where to help. And I think we're a better team."
This was clearly a team learning a new coach with a new system and players moving in and out of the layup for various health-related reasons. She noted figuring out where to be, when to be there, and trusting that their teammates were on the same page defensively. In discussing players, she talked about consistency, focus, and poise. Those are not "basketball problems", per se - clearly they need some post depth, which will be available with the fourth pick, but the bigger challenge was developing a collective winning mindset.
"That's what our timeouts are about usually: 'Hey, we're up 6. Let's make it 12. Here's what you did to get here,'" said Reeve in August. "They've evolved that way."
Those particular challenges are not going to magically disappear with the combination of good health, individual internal development, and adding a phenom through the draft - they'll still have to learn how to win as a unit. And a lot of that was mental.
So the big hurdle as a unit will be getting to a point where they experience enough success with their system that they can remain resilient in tight moments without having to be reminded in order to maintain their focus. And if chemistry - not talent alone - is what makes a playoff team, it also sounds like the team will be taking a look at tweaking a few things.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this off-season will be identifying which combinations of players work well together within the system, turning the system into a common vision, and most importantly determining whether that group can actually come together and win games.
Reeve mentioned that they had identified a core group of players, but declined to name those players to the media. And given the talent they currently have, it's difficult to even guess - one could imagine criteria for exclusion or inclusion that would leave out almost anyone on the roster.
Houston, for example, could either be considered part of that core for her ability to make plays or considered a trade chip given that she "screwed up" their defensive scheme and drives Reeve's blood pressure up. The same goes for Wright: she could be considered a core piece for her defense and potential to improve or the least experienced piece of a logjam on the perimeter with Augustus, Moore, Wiggins, and Alexis Hornbuckle. Someone has to go and a strong case could be made for any one of them.
It's a problem of having an abundance of talent that's not bad to have, but It's anybody's guess as to which would be the better decision for the team given the roster that could show up in training camp.
Regardless of who is in or out of that core, it was abundantly clear from Reeve's chat with media that drafting is just one of many decisions this team will have to make this off-season.
"We will make a couple of transactions; there won't be a lot of them," said Reeve yesterday when asked about the roster makeup. "The other thing we said as a team was we were not going to be relying on the draft to improve our team. We felt the core group that we had was going to be responsible for taking this franchise forward. And they want that responsibility. They know that any draft picks that come in are going to be helpful, but that the group is the one that we're going to count on."
Like most teams that score a number one pick, they have also just come off a very disappointing season that will require them to figure out a lot of things and learn how to win before taking that next step. Unlike most teams that score a number one pick, this team is extremely talented and as primed as any team to become a serious contender.
For them, it seems that learning how to win includes becoming more consistent, more focused, more poised, and a bit more familiar with each other and the vision. None of that can be fully addressed until they actually hit the court together. But with a season of film to look at and more talent coming in, the job of molding this team just got more - not less - difficult.
And that doesn't necessarily preclude another preseason of high expectations, it just tempers that over-the-top optimism while leaving plenty of room for hope for a franchise that is due for some good fortune.