Last year, I took four WNBA first-timers to see Seattle Storm games: one against the Phoenix Mercury, the other against the Connecticut Sun.
I didn’t choose those games simply because they were the “best” teams, but the teams that are most representative of what the WNBA has to offer.
The Mercury were an obvious choice: in addition to emerging as a favorite to win the WNBA championship, they had Diana Taurasi (and you don’t), and their pace alone is usually a revelation to people who dismissed women’s basketball long before Taurasi even started her freshman year at UConn.
The Sun might be less obvious: they weren’t even a playoff team, but one of the people I was with noted on multiple occasions how well they seemed to work as a unit and how systematic they were in executing their offense (despite not shooting well) -- even during scoring droughts, it was good basketball. And of course, the biggest reason to see the Sun was Lindsay Whalen, arguably the best point guard in the WNBA and a player that the WNBA needs more of, if you believe Bethlehem Shoals.
Hopefully, that adds some context to why Minnesota’s acquisition of Whalen is so significant for the WNBA: the trade puts a player the WNBA needs more of in position to win a championship in a situation that almost perfectly complements her style of play. The Lynx are undoubtedly the team I would take a new fan to see in 2010.
On paper this team looks really good. In my imagination, this team is almost a basketball ideal. Although they will enter the season with five former All-Stars, there is no one dominant star whose style of play stands to shape or overshadow the team. Each one of these players not only does what they do well, but they are also all adept at playing within themselves well. Selflessness, rather than talent, might be the defining characteristic of this team by the end of the 2010 season.
“Having so many buttons to push will make us a difficult opponent to beat,” said new coach Cheryl Reeve in an email Q&A with Swish Appeal. “Our players know how much talent we have on this team. The key will be our players being selfless - we cannot care who scores the most, etc - it has to be about the big picture - the TEAM winning the CHAMPIONSHIP.”
That the team has championship expectations is the icing on the cake that separates them from the young balanced teams with “potential” in the NBA – the Lynx seem to be a perfect blend of new and returning, veteran and young players and are instantly a contender. And with two top 3 draft picks and free agency now upon us, this team only stands to get better. However, given where the roster currently stands, forthcoming moves will likely involve complementing their existing unit rather than plugging holes, a luxury rarely enjoyed by a non-playoff team.
Still, a question to ponder until everything is solidified and the season tips off is what makes this particular team look so good on paper, in basketball terms, rather than the box office revenue possibilities of bringing a home town hero back?
Using David Sparks’ SPI playing styles framework, it’s possible to talk about how well these pieces fit together – and what the team could add – with a bit more specificity.
Lynx 2009 Review
It’s probably not much of an understatement to say that the Lynx weren’t exactly a strong defensive team last season.
Although they were the second highest scoring team in 2009 in terms of points/possession and third in points off turnovers, they gave up the second most points and the second most points in the paint, second only to Phoenix. So if Phoenix can win as a high scoring team that gives up a lot of points, why didn’t Minnesota?
According to Swanny’s stats, the Mercury scored 108.5 points per possession while giving up 104.1 while the Lynx scored 100.0 while giving up 103.4. The simple explanation is that the Mercury had an effective field goal percentage of 51.20% last season compared to a 47.52% eFg% for the Lynx.
In other words, the Mercury were fast and allowed opponents to score but just consistently outscored their opponents whereas the Lynx were less efficient and gave up more.
Nevertheless, they had a rather potent lineup:
All-Star Charde Houston is a valuable “mixed” player, meaning she added a little bit of everything, although she’s less perimeter oriented (assists and steals). As a stronger player who scores with a lot of mid-range shots and drives to the basket from the perimeter, she’s a player that can be depended on to create her own scoring opportunities rather than relying on others to set her up.
Augustus, a pure scorer in terms of tendencies, was another player able to create her own scoring opportunities. Prior to her injury last season, she was putting up MVP-level numbers. While she will be a major asset this season, we probably should not expect her to snap back into form right away.
"Seimone's knee rehabilitation is on schedule," wrote Reeve. "Seimone was playing some of the best basketball of her career when she was injured so I don't know if we should expect her to pick up where she left off. I only know that she is eager to return to the court."
Anosike flies under the radar
However, epitomizing the team’s versatility is athletic center Nicky Anosike, who was in the top 30% of WNBA players in 2009 as both a perimeter and interior player due to her ability to block, rebound, and steal the ball. And even after an All-Star selection in 2009, Anosike is still among the league's most underrated players.
“Nicky has such solid guard play around her that her presence in the post flies under the radar,” wrote Reeve, when asked to identify a player who gets less fan attention than she deserves.
And unfortunately, for all the hype about Whalen and Augustus' return, Anosike might continue flying under the radar despite being one of the most intriguing players in all of basketball. The best way to understand what makes Anosike so intriguing is to place her in the context of basketball history.
After watching the Sun, Shoals suggested that the WNBA is "the new frontier" of basketball. Although he was referring to Whalen and Lauren Jackson, in truth, Anosike might even better represent the notion that the WNBA is not just different, but in some cases actually illuminating basketball possibilities we might never have imagined.
In the basketball universe, it’s almost unheard of to see a defensive player like Anosike able to both patrol the paint and even pester guards into turnovers. She looks as comfortable defensively on the wing as she is in the post.
To put her ability in statistical perspective, over the past two seasons, Anosike has had the best two year run of steals of any center in WNBA history since Yolanda Griffith between 1999-2000 (they each had 156, but Griffith had the edge in steals per game). Griffith actually led the league in steals per game in 1999 and 2004. If you're a long-time WNBA fan, perhaps this isn't that remarkable since it's happened twice in league history. But it's never happened in the NBA, even among power forwards, who are generally shorter and quicker.
That Anosike -- who was second in the league in steals per game last year -- has a chance to repeat that feat is therefore quite astounding in the context of basketball history. While Griffith was a much more well rounded player -- she led the league in rebounding, steals, and free throw attempts in 1999 and was second in scoring and field goal percentage -- we must also remember that Griffith was 29 in 1999. Anosike will enter this season at 24. It's not entirely far fetched to say that she could develop into a similarly dominant player.
It's just another aspect of the game that makes this team so fascinating to watch for people who enjoy thinking about the game of basketball.
However, although Anosike is getting better in that regard, one thing the Lynx lacked in terms of tendencies is a strong post scorer – someone who they could depend upon to work in the paint for easy baskets. Certainly Anosike should get better in that regard, but it is another hole to fill.
So how does Whalen fit into a team that struggles defensively despite having a standout defender?
Looking at a brief factoid from the Hartford Courant, the real question might be what kind of team wouldn’t Whalen fit on?
Keys To The Sun-Lynx Deal - Courant.com
>> Lindsay Whalen: On pace to become just the third WNBA player with 2,500 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists (joining Vickie Johnson and Shannon Johnson).
Looking at her playing style profile, she is definitely the most versatile point guard in the league – if you define versatile as in the top 2/3 of WNBA players in interior orientation, perimeter orientation, and scoring.
Perhaps most importantly for the Lynx, Whalen is not exactly a slouch on defense. While she’s not known for blazing speed, she’s a very good team defender and as Sun coach Tom Thibault has said, she has the ability to guard more than one position.
Storm – Sun Reflections: Bird the Facilitator vs Whalen the Combo Guard - Swish Appeal
During the halftime interview last night, Thibault discussed the strengths of Bird and Whalen. To paraphrase, he said that although they are about equal defensively, Whalen’s physicality allows her to sometimes guard 2’s and 3’s.
I don’t think that she’s a defensive stalwart by any means, but it certainly gives a team more options when trying to find winning combinations to put on the floor.
For Reeve, it’s not just about Whalen’s versatile skillset, but also her ability to assume responsibility for moment-to-moment decision making.
“Lindsay's court awareness in transition and decision-making in the half court should translate into easy offense for those around her,” wrote Reeve. “As a coach, my job is easier when you can hand the ball to a veteran like Lindsay and say go to it.”
With the number of players already able to create scoring opportunities for themselves, Whalen adds a wrinkle of someone who can set up others – three point shooters and cutters going to he basket. It makes an already dynamic scoring offense even more dynamic when a player who tends to focus on passing more than scoring shows up.
While Whalen adds leadership in terms of running the offense from the perimeter, the addition of forward Rebekkah Brunson through the dispersal draft adds a different kind of leadership: modeling what it means to have a steady focus on the little, less glamorous aspects of the game that contribute to wins.
“Brunson's veteran leadership in the areas of defense and rebounding will have an immediate impact on our team,” said Reeve about what Brunson might bring. “Defense and rebounding wins games. Brunson's focus in this area will help us win the close ones.”
So the Lynx have not just added talent for talent’s sake, but have also become much, much more flexible while also addressing some of their major needs: defense and rebounding. In Whalen and Brunson – strong rebounders at their respective positions – the Lynx stand to be a grittier, team in 2010.
“We will continue to be a team that pushes the tempo and likes to score the ball, however, the 2010 Lynx will be focused on playing off of our defense,” said Reeve. “Fans should notice a marked decrease in our opponent's field goal percentage as compared to previous seasons.”
With an increased focus on defense and the flexibility of the roster, a prospective rotation for the Lynx could look something like what Kevin Pelton has already suggested:
Whalen (D), Wiggins (S), Augustus (S), Brunson (PP), Anosike (U)
Having a well-rounded offensive player like Houston come off a bench would a huge asset – she can still get minutes, but it allows the team to exploit mismatches bringing her in at either the 3 or 4 spots. McCants and Hollingsworth would bring their total roster count to 8.
Assuming the Lynx go with that core, add two rookies, and do not offer Humphrey a reserve contract, they would have one remaining spot to fill either through the later rounds of the draft or free agency.
However, there are two potential holes in the lineup: a backup point guard for Whalen and a consistent interior scorer.
Free agent outlook
A major debate among Minnesota fans especially during Wiggins’ rookie year was whether she could play the point guard. There are pros and cons to that, but Reeve is confident in Wiggins’ ability to play point.
“I believe Wiggins can play the 1 and play it well,” wrote Reeve, when asked if point guard was an area for concern. “The key to maximizing 11-man rosters in the WNBA is versatility. Having a player like Candice able to play two positions is a big plus for us.”
With that and the flexibility of other players on the roster, it appears that point guard is not necessarily a position they will look to fill and that makes free agent Kelly Miller expendable.
Their other potential area of improvement is adding a scorer in the post.
As for interior scorers, although there might not be a free agent that fits that need, they might be able to fill it through the draft…and then some.
“We are evaluating a number of players for our 1st round draft picks,” wrote Reeve. “Tina Charles, Epiphanny Prince, Jayne Appel and Monica Wright are widely considered to be the top draft choices so we are considering those players and a few more.”
So do the Lynx even need to add a free agent?
Reeve wrote that that the Lynx will, “look at free agency as an opportunity to sign a player or two that will complement our core group.” In saying that, it’s clear that a core group is in place and they will probably make only minor moves in free agency.
Re-signing Hodges -- a three point scorer -- might be worthwhile. Hodges shot the most threes on the team while having a tru shooting % of 56.45. Other than that, it's hard to say what more they would want to complement their core.
When you consider the totality of what the Lynx have and what they could possibly get through the draft, there’s not a whole lot of reason that they should aggressively pursue any free agent. Any free agents they add would only marginally help the team -- they have so much talent coming into begin with that free agency might not be a very high priority for this team. Moreover, only making minor moves would allow them to maintain their financial flexibility.
“Roger Griffith has done such a great job managing the Lynx salary cap that we are one of the few teams with flexibility in this area,” said Reeve.
What that means is that as good as this team should be in 2010, they also have the financial flexibility in the future that will allow them to keep the core in tact even if they find the need to add complementary players.
With this year’s salary cap allowing up to five max contracts, the Lynx have room to add two more once Augustus signs her extension. With the rest of their roster still younger players on cheaper contracts, they’ll have cap room available to pursue free agents in the future or re-sign their younger players once they become eligible for raises.
It’s financial flexibility combined with a flexibly skilled roster. It’s hard to beat that in terms of building a contender.
By filling some big holes from last year and adding a point guard that should make their offense even more efficient, it’s still hard to get over just how balanced and potent this young, talented, Minnesota Lynx could be this year.
The Lynx are the perfect team to introduce someone to the WNBA with
Quite simply, anybody who loves basketball – as a sport, not just another form of commodified entertainment – should be able to appreciate the Lynx. This is not just a team that has potential to win a lot of games (they might) or a team that exhibits an expert command of basketball’s core principles as they systematically execute their offense (at times, they will).
The mental image this talent-laden roster conjures up is one of a beautifully constructed roster with a near-perfect balance of players who complement one another well while simultaneously possessing the ability to impose their will upon the game at any moment. The have MVP-level players in Augustus and Whalen and one of the most intriguing players in all of basketball in Anosike. Plus, they're likely to fill remaining holes through the draft.
It’s a team that’s engrossing even while only imagining the multiple combinations they could use and many different ways they could beat teams. If you see only one game all year, this is probably the team to see. Basketball teams this fascinating don’t come around often.
- Late edit: the original story said the Lynx would have "two remaining spots" after selecting their #2 and #3 picks. It has been corrected to read "one remaining spot".
- It took a while to get over the geeky basketball giddiness and overwhelming intrigue about point guard Lindsay Whalen before writing about it. But after much quiet contemplation, indulging in Whalen poetry, and euphorically ranting about the existential significance of the Minnesota Lynx to the basketball universe, it was finally possible to gather some thoughts and write them down.