Is this the dawning of a new Minnesota Lynx dynasty?
New Lynx Natalie Achonwa seems to think so. On media day, she emphasized:
When you have a mind like (Coach Reeve’s), there’s no such thing as a rebuild. It’s just a reload. Yeah you lost the legacy of these great players and the careers they had, but you have to see who’s coming in too. And Coach Reeve is bringing in players that have a similar mindset, a similar approach, a similar sacrifice for the team. She’s built a culture here.
Sylvia Fowles is the only player standing from the days when it seemed like a title was inevitable for the Lynx.
Now, she not only is flanked by back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners in Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield but also three splashy free agency additions in Achonwa, Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers.
A number of high-quality returning role players — Damiris Dantas, Rachel Banham, Bridget Carleton and Jessica Shepard — round out head coach Cheryl Reeve’s rotation.
Even with first-round draft selection — No. 9 pick Rennia Davis — slated to miss much of the season with a foot injury, Minnesota has enough talent to secure a top playoff seed and contend for a championship. As Fowles asserted at media day:
It is go-time and I think we do have all the pieces we need to get back to the place where we were the past couple years and that’s competing for a championship.
Here are two reasons to be concerned about Minnesota’s ability to get back to the top and two reasons to be confident in their quest for another championship.
Northern exposed: Two reasons to be concerned about the Minnesota Lynx
1. Can Sylvia Fowles stay healthy?
Last season, the Lynx proved that they can win without Sylvia Fowles. At least in the regular season.
Even with Fowles sidelined by a calf injury for much of the 2020 season, Minnesota finished fourth in the standings and advanced to the Semifinals. However, the Lynx were swept by the Seattle Storm in that Semifinals series, as they clearly missed Fowles’ presence, especially as a defensive anchor.
While this season’s Lynx will be boosted by Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa, it is still hard to imagine Minnesota advancing to the Finals without Fowles. Her defensive abilities and acumen will be essential in prospective playoff matchups against the intimidating bigs in Vegas and Chicago and the do-it-all wings in Washington and Seattle.
Fowles may no longer be Minnesota’s best player, but, in terms of their championship upside, she is their most important player. Her health, particularly come playoff time, is thus the key variable for Lynx’s title ambitions.
Luckily for Lynx fans, Fowles insists she will be ready to roll, sharing at media day:
Yes I am healthy this year. I think the biggest challenge for me is learning how to wind back. I’m that player who wants to go every rep in practice. I want to do every defensive drill. ... And I am getting a little older and my body hasn’t been holding up like it has in the past. So (it’s) making sure you dial back a little bit but at the same time still be present.
Center Stage pic.twitter.com/5EosOANLzl— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) May 6, 2021
2. Will a lack of point guard depth cause trouble?
In order to sign free agents McBride, Powers and Achonwa to protected contracts, Minnesota had to part ways with Odyssey Sims, leaving the Lynx without a backup point guard.
Even though they had the opportunity to do so, Minnesota opted not to fill this need through the draft, passing on Dana Evans in favor of Rennia Davis. As part of additional offseason roster machinations, the Lynx also waived Lexie Brown, who could have assumed primary ball-handling duties in short stints.
Instead, of the players likely to make the final roster, only Rachel Banham profiles as a potential backup point, although she has spent much of her WNBA career playing shooting guard.
.@rachelbanham_1 can you pass tho? pic.twitter.com/xANv4FZqu7— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) April 30, 2021
While starting point guard Crystal Dangerfield exceeded expectations as a rookie, it seems unwise to place a heavier burden on her. In addition to not wanting to overextend her, Dangerfield’s small size also could limit her effectiveness in certain matchups, especially on the defensive end.
It will be interesting to see how Cheryl Reeve solves this potential problem.
North stars: Two reasons to be confident in the Minnesota Lynx
1. McBuckets gettin’ more buckets
After averaging 5.1 trey attempts per game during her first four seasons in the WNBA, McBride has averaged 3.8 the past three seasons, with Las Vegas Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer choosing not to prioritize the 3-ball in his offensive system.
As expressed by ESPN’s LaChina Robinson and others, “Kayla McBride was underutilized in Vegas.”
"Kayla McBride was underutilized in Vegas" Let Them Know @LaChinaRobinson— Devereaux *casual fan* Peters (@MsPeters14) April 15, 2021
It is expected that Cheryl Reeve will not similarly fail to maximize McBride.
Over the last three seasons, the Lynx steadily have increased their 3-point attempts per game, going from 15.6 in 2018 to 17.5 in 2019 to 21.5 in 2020. This trend suggests Reeve will be ready to take advantage of McBride’s 3-point shooting.
Weaponizing McBride from deep likewise can make her more dangerous when she puts the ball on the floor, whether to dribble into a midrange pull-up jumper, drive to the basket or dish it to a teammate.
An expanded, elevated role seems to have motivated McBride’s decision to sign with Minnesota, as she told WSlam:
After talking with Coach Reeve and the Minnesota staff, I know this is where I’m going to take my game to the next level. And I know a lot of people are counting me out or doubting me...and I cannot f’in wait.
@kaymac_2123’s nickname isn’t McBuckets for nothin’ https://t.co/0UFZCGPfL9— WNBA (@WNBA) March 19, 2021
Napheesa Collier followed up a fantastic rookie year with a spectacular sophomore season, increasing her numbers across the board.
She raised her field goal percentage from 49 percent to 52.3 percent on nearly two more attempts per game. Her 3-point percentage jumped from 36.1 percent to 40.8 percent. Her activity on the glass also increased, as she grabbed 2.4 more rebounds per game. Collier likewise maintained her prowess for “stocks” (steals + blocks), totaling 3.1 per game. Finally, she also flashed more playmaking chops, with 3.3 assists per game.
These efforts earned Collier Second-Team All-WNBA and All-Defensive honors. She also finished fifth on the MVP ballot.
With a similar level of improvement in her third season, Collier should be in the middle of the MVP conversation, if not the favorite. As her podcast partner A’ja Wilson just won the MVP in her third season, such a leap from Collier is far from unreasonable.
If so, Phee’s Lynx might surpass A’ja’s Aces as the best team in the WNBA, and claim the 2021 championship.