Can The Minnesota Lynx Be Even Better In 2012?

Led by Lindsay Whalen's league-high pure point rating, the Lynx shared the ball more intelligently than any team in the league last season. So how much room is there for improvement? Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

The question for this WNBA season has not been whether the Minnesota Lynx would repeat as WNBA champions but how dominant they might be in the process.

The Lynx return nine of their players from their 2011 championship team and after the way they stormed through the league with a 27-7 regular season record and only one playoff loss last season, it just feels like an encore is inevitable.

Minnesota Lynx 2011 Season in review

Click here for an explanation of this framework and here for our statistics glossary.

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Minnesota Lynx

49.72%

0.26

32.89%

14.44%

Opponent

46.63%

0.28

23.53%

17.24%

Weighted

eFg%

fta/fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Minnesota

0.31

-0.04

0.39

0.24

Four Factors differentials for the Lynx and their opponents in 2011.

The Minnesota Lynx were dominant in the three most significant Four Factors in 2011, as were the Storm in 2010. Of the many ways to describe why the Lynx were so great, the most significant one was their rebounding prowess: the Lynx were the best defensive rebounding team by percentage in the history of the WNBA last season. And yet their real legacy is not that they did that one thing well - in the way the 2005 Monarchs were a dominant rebounding team - but that they functioned so well as a unit that it was nearly impossible to figure out what to take away.

Although rebounding was the dominant statistical strength last season, a more subtle statistical strength embodied by their low turnover rate and significant turnover margin was their ability to share the ball and do so efficiently. Obviously All Star point guard Lindsay Whalen was a large part of what made that offense go last season with a league-high pure point rating of 6.40, but they also had a league-high tying six players with positive pure point ratings. The other team with six - the Connecticut Sun - had neither the scoring balance nor that single dynamic point guard that the Lynx had.

In plain terms, when more than half your rotation is able to distribute the ball efficiently and score efficiently, there's not a whole lot a defense can do to get consistent stops. Moreso than simply having overwhelming talent, they had a combination of players capable of making each other even more dangerous than any one of them would be individually. You don't need statistics to tell you that, but the closer you look at what they accomplished statistically last season the easier it is to truly appreciate what this team accomplished.

And the reason they're expected to maintain that momentum is that they didn't suffer any significant losses.

Key personnel losses

Wnba_2011lynx_pvc_html_173f0d4a_medium

Saying that the Lynx didn't suffer any significant losses is not a matter of disrespect toward Alexis Hornbuckle or Charde Houston; the fact is that Hornbuckle and Houston accounted for only 3% of the team's overall statistical production last season. Meaning that dominant team from 2011 returned 97% of their statistical production for the 2012 season.

While Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve felt better about her team around this time last year, ESPN's Mechelle Voepel suggested that the reigning champion's bench might be even better after witnessing the team run away from the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday. But given how little they lost, the question is where that improvement might come from and how exactly would the bench contribute more on a team whose starters contribute so much?

Veteran addition

New veterans

SPI Style

Min/G

VCR

TS%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTR

Usg%

Value Added

4-yr RAPM

Erin Thorn

DS

16.79

0.76 <

53.10 =

18.83 <

1.99 <

11.66 <

18.28

-0.89

-3.9

2011 statistics for Erin Thorn

Erin Thorn may not be a splashy addition for the Lynx, but what immediately stands out is that she rated as a distributor last season by SPI Playing Style - despite a high turnover ratio - because she had a well above average assist ratio (26.48%). So although Thorn might not be the dynamic point guard that would immediately suggest the team improved, when you consider the way the team shares the ball the addition is valuable in the way that it fits the unit - they added one more player capable of moving the ball, albeit no more efficiently than anyone else currently on the roster, and a shooter who has been right around 40% from the 3-point line for the last three years of her career.

Rookie addition

Rookies

S

P

I

Projected WNBA Style

Devereaux Peters

3.01

49.81

93.58

IU

Projected SPI Playing Style for Lynx rookies based upon 2011-12 NCAA statistics

With so little real need in the present, the Lynx had the luxury of picking either the best fit available with the #3 pick in the 2012 WNBA Draft and their choice was Devereaux Peters.

When you're talking about a team that returned 97% of its production from a 27-7 season, there isn't exactly a whole lot of room for a rookie to add a whole lot. Peters' strength is clearly rebounding, but in addition to being a historically good defensive rebounding team the Lynx had the best offensive rebounding percentage and most second chance points per game in the Western Conference so that's not exactly an area of need or fit - there are only so many missed shots to grab and the Lynx already get more than their fair share.

But the reason Peters does fit or fill a "need" - in terms of filling those last two spots with players that could work in their system - was described in our pre-draft analysis.

In addition to rebounding offensively, Peters is a surprisingly strong passer with an assist ratio of 14.44%, which was better than teammate Natalie Novosel (10.82%) and a couple of other top guard prospects in this draft.

Yes, the Lynx added yet another player who moves the ball well for her position.

But there's still that 97% problem.

2012 Outlook

Returners

SPI Style

Min/G

VCR

TS%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTR

Usg

Value Added

4-yr RAPM

Jessica Adair

IU

10.34

0.98 >

52.99 >

16.71 >

16.17 >

47.57 >

21.15

0.57

2.1

Seimone Augustus

S

29.31

1.16 >

56.16 >

7.37 >

2.30 <

16.16 <

24.04

-2.39

4.2

Rebekkah Brunson

IU

27.60

1.12 >

54.92 >

12.50 >

12.33 >

41.42 >

17.54

3.42

3.2

Amber Harris

IP

10.32

0.71 <

46.05 <

10.78 >

10.39 >

37.35 >

17.61

0.06

-0.8

Taj McWilliams-Franklin

U

28.39

0.90 >

48.81 >

12.56 >

9.24 =

23.37 <

15.80

3.08

4.5

Maya Moore

SP

27.96

1.15 >

54.86 >

9.10 >

7.23 >

21.39 <

21.61

0.57

4.2

Lindsay Whalen

D

28.13

1.34 >

57.47 >

11.07 >

3.78 >

34.86 >

22.39

2.19

2.5

Candice Wiggins

SP

17.12

0.68 <

53.60 >

11.25 =

1.24 <

13.64 <

16.64

-1.17

2.1

Monica Wright

SP

13.57

0.69 <

46.24 <

12.72 <

1.84 <

34.29 >

21.50

-1.34

0.9

2011 statistics for Lynx returners

Strengths

  • RAPM: You might look at those Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus numbers in the right column and say that all they mean is that every player on the team benefitted from being on a good team last season. But that's not quite the case, outside of maybe Harris and Moore - those are four-year plus/minus numbers, meaning these players have been consistently good in the WNBA no matter where they've been. That the only returner with a negative RAPM is Harris speaks volumes about the talent level on this team. Click here to read more about RAPM.
  • Rebounding: Not much to say there - they're one of the few teams in the league that can put a lineup on the floor with 5 players that are above average offensive rebounders for their position and you might even wonder whether Amber Harris or Maya Moore might improve in that regard.
  • Scoring efficiency: Only one returning player has a below average scoring efficiency for her style of play (Monica Wright). It's not just that they're moving the ball well, it's that almost anyone who touches it is capable of scoring efficiently.
  • Complementarity: Essentially what the Lynx have in their rotation is one distributor surrounded by scorers of above average efficiency supported by players whose primary role on the court is to rebound (though they are also efficient scorers). Now they just added another distributor and rebounder to the mix. But it's also interesting to look at usage rates for the Lynx - their two most efficient scorers had the highest usage rates, which is not true of every team. Everyone else either had an average usage rate or had a primary focus other than scoring (e.g. rebounding). Those numbers suggest a team that not only complemented each other well but was smart enough to maximize the strengths of their personnel by getting the ball to the most efficient scorers to score and supporting them as efficiently as possible. It wouldn't be quite as noteworthy if more teams exhibited such a pattern.
  • Sharing the ball: Following the previous point, part of what made the Lynx so efficient offensively is that they shared the ball intelligently in terms of getting it to the right places and maximizing the efficiency of players by distributing touches according to who is most efficient in creating scoring opportunities. It almost looks as though they were deliberate about touches based on how these numbers came out. So regardless of whether Peters or Thorn add to that list of players with above average pure point ratings, they fit the mold of a Lynx player based on how they played last season. So on paper the team definitely did improve - they added two more players to the bench that can move the ball.

Questions

  • Will age be a factor for this team? This is where that Valuable Contributions Ratio (VCR) number matters and of their five most significant contributors, Taj McWilliams-Franklin is the one who was closest to hitting the ceiling in terms of the number of quality minutes she can contribute. It will be interesting to see how some of her minutes might be redistributed over the course of the season and whether Adair - whose VCR suggests that she could continue to be productive in more minutes - will be a player who can fill some of those minutes in the post.
  • Have they actually improved their roster? On paper, yes - the Lynx' roster looks much more balanced and arguably has even greater complementary. But in practice, there are only so many minutes in a game - they're not likely to have a full 11-player rotation (as in everyone receiving significant minutes every game) this season no matter how much depth they have. As well as their newcomers fit, they're not likely to earn many consistent minutes this season. So the puzzle for Reeve is whether the minutes can be distributed any differently - perhaps incorporating the newcomers - to maximize the efficiency of the unit. If players like Harris, Moore, Wright or Jessica Adair earn more minutes that could constitute improvement if they're doing more with those minutes than those they replaced. The VCR numbers suggest that both Adair and Moore can contribute more quality minutes than they did last season. And if Moore improves upon her below average free throw rate, that alone could mean improvement. But for bench improvement the question is who might improve.

Breakout player

It seems sort of weird to suggest that Adair would be a breakout player given how good she was last season, but the opportunity present for her might be to continue producing in more minutes. And Adair has all the trappings of a player that's statistically ready to contribute more than 10 minutes per game - she was an above average player in each one of the Four Factors last season and her VCR was well above average meaning that she could contribute more quality minutes.

Again, the challenge on the Lynx is actually getting those minutes and if Harris or Peters demonstrate improvement over the course of the season it will be a tough numbers game. But as of right now, Adair is probably the player with the most untapped potential statistically. Monica Wright certainly has the tools to be a breakout player as well in the sense of going from a player with below average efficiency to above average.

Projection: WNBA title contender

From the moment the Lynx signed Whalen back in 2010, I not only thought they'd be the perfect introduction to the WNBA for any basketball fan but also that they were a perennial title contender mostly because of what I described above about complementarity - on paper, this is by far the most balanced and complementary team in the WNBA right now. If they're not the perfectly balanced or most versatile team, they are at the very least a team in which the way they play as a unit perfectly maximizes the abilities of each of its parts. It all sounded hyperbolic in 2010; at this point, it's just part of the 2011 season review.

It's hard to say whether this team will get better because it's very possible that improvement could occur without making that much of a dent in their final numbers - sure the last 4-5 players on their bench could all improve as players and thus add to the quality of depth on this team, but there are only so many minutes available for that improvement to impact the final outcomes. But there's an intangible at work there as well - they have a year under their belt now to see what they're capable of and where they can improve as a unit (they were "only" second in the league in both offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rating!). They've talked about being hungry and they have veterans who are aware of how hard it is to repeat. If there was ever a unit that might get better under the force of the pressure of expectations, it's this one.

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