A Tale of Two Teams

The two teams that exchanged a handful of players and draft picks in two separate trades this offseason found themselves in a similar situation to begin the season.  

Besides the blockbuster trade that was effectively an exchange of Lindsay Whalen and Monica Wright for Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery both teams were able to raid the roster of the folded Sacramento Monarchs.  Each team adding a post player through the dispersal draft and a perimeter player through free agency.  And by the end of the 2010 draft both teams had effectively declared that they would make the playoffs this season at a minimum.

A franchise already under significant pressure to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 passed up a chance to fortify their roster by trading the third overall pick of the draft to the Connecticut Sun for their 2011 first and second pick and signaled that they had all the talent that they needed in the additions of Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, Hamechetou Maiga-Ba, and Monica Wright.  It was a relatively bold move that has the flavor of a franchise that has just been incredibly fortunate pushing their luck. 

This may end up looking similarly to the Detroit Pistons reaching for the stars by drafting Darko Milic when they lucked into the second overall draft pick instead of taking a safer choice and fortifying a playoff team.  Actually both teams in that trade are looking like they were a little too smart for their own good.  On the other end of the trade the Connecticut Sun, who had just missed the playoffs for the first time since the franchise relocated from Orlando, signaled that nothing less than making the playoffs would be acceptable even though they could have easily sold the 2010 season as a rebuilding year.  

Offseason optimism quickly met the realities of the WNBA season for both teams as they would each face the first few weeks of the season without key players. The Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx were both faced with surviving those first few weeks well enough that the goal of making the playoffs wasn't out of reach before the roster that created those expectations ever saw the floor. 

The Connecticut Sun knew they would be without last season's second leading scorer Sandrine Gruda until early June because of commitments to the French national team.  That seemed  like a minor issue for a team that had added Tina Charles and DeMya Walker to the post rotation, but the slow return from offseason surgery of the Sun's returning All-Star power forward, Asjha Jones, left the Sun thin in the post and without their top three scorers from last season to begin the season.

Connecticut has been able to accomplish exactly what was needed in these first few weeks, winning their three home games and losing their two road games, while looking very much like the team from last season.  When the team shoots the three well and doesn't get over matched on the boards they win easily, and when they fail to do either it can get ugly like it did in Atlanta. So far the shots from Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, and Tan White have only fallen at home where the team has shot over 40% from behind the arc.  

Tina Charles has done her job by leading the team with just under seventeen points and ten rebounds per game and providing the go-to player the teams lacked with Asjha Jones on the sideline.  And the player acquired in that draft day trade because the Connecticut Sun were convinced they already had a playoff team may have saved those playoff hopes.  Kelsey Grffin hasn't had to worry about playing small forward to this point because the Sun have absolutely needed her at power forward with the absence of both Gruda and Jones.  The third overall draft pick has responded by giving the team twenty plus minutes of solid play each game.  As with Charles, the strengths fo Griffin's college game have translated to the pro game where her ability to rebound, make hustle plays, finish around the basket, and get to the free throw line have all been evident.  For the Sun, things are where they need to be with Jones ready to return to the court after playing limited minutes for the first time Sunday and Gruda rejoining the team this week.

The Minnesota Lynx have faced even greater challenges to begin the season.  Last season's starting guard Candice Wiggins returned from playing in Europe, but immediately underwent knee surgery that would keep her off the court during the first few weeks of the season.  This spring it already appeared at USA national team training camp that the return of Seimone Augustus from ACL surgery may be slower than previously expected.  Then the Olympian's return was complicated by surgery to have fibroids removed further delaying her return.  And new addition Rebekkah Brunson missed the first four games of the season before being able to return from Europe.

Similar to the Sun, the Lynx began the season with a roster similar to the one they ended last season with. However, the situation hasn't gone nearly as well for the Lynx. 

After wining their opener on the road against Tulsa, the Lynx have lost five straight games and have the worst record in the WNBA.  And the schedule, while not particularly easy, hasn't been particularly hard either.  The hardest game on the schedule, playing the Seattle Storm in Seattle, is the only time the team has lost by less than eleven points. New coach Cheryl Reeve to this point has not been able to solve any of the defensive problems that plagued the team last season and the missing pieces have meant the team can't overcome the defensive issues with offense, despite strong offensive performances from Charde Houston and Rashanda McCants to begin the season.

When the two teams met last week the game played out like a microcosm of the season so far.  The missing starters for both teams meant a greater spotlight on the offseason transactions between Minnesota and Connecticut.   And the bright lights weren't favorable to Minnesota.  The three players that could have potentially been wearing Lynx Jerseys this season played a large role in a blow out where the Connecticut Sun set team scoring records.  Charles scored 21 points and pulled down double figure rebounds for the third time in four games.  Montgomery had one her of explosive games, scoring 23 points and dishing out six assists.  And Kelsey Griffin who had moved into the starting lineup in the previous game provided solid minutes once again for a team in need of help in the paint with both Jones and Gruda sidelined. 

Lindsay Whalen's return to Connecticut resulted in only six points and two assists and she hasn't shot the ball well so far this season.  And Monica Wright's shooting struggles to open her WNBA career continued in this game with her making only three of fifteen shots.  The new additions weren't helped by the team's All-Star center Nicky Anosike making only one of eight shots.  Anosike has struggled to put the ball in the basket in a way she hasn't since leaving college, but the overriding issue for the team is defense.  

The Sun should return to full strength this week.  Jones is already back on the court and Gruda returns from Europe this week.  Their return may even cause the Sun some short term issues as what was a simple rotation and offensive pecking order becomes more complicated, but the Sun can afford that time to figure out their new roster because they haven't dug themselves a hole to begin the season. 

The Lynx do have a hole to climb out of with nearly 20% of the season already in the record books and the timetable for the return of Augustus and Wiggins still not firmly established, but they have also been fortunate that only Seattle is off to a great start in the West and that the LA Sparks got off to a similarly disastrous start.  The Lynx are still only two games back from the second place Phoenix Mercury in the West, which means the Lynx's slow start has not yet been fatal.  The return of Augustus and Wiggins potentially restores Minnesota's offensive prowess, but they aren't likely to be a remedy for the team's defense.  The Lynx think they made progress last game, but defense could ultimately prove to be the team's Achilles's heel this season.

Tonight the Lynx host the Phoenix Mercury in the first meeting between these two teams this season.  The game will be the first of two games televised on ESPN2 tonight.   The Lynx need to steal a win at home against a Mercury team that's not quite running on all cylinders yet, but doing so will require a solid defensive effort.

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