Minnesota Lynx: Overhaul complete

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May 10, 2010
By: Stephen Litel
Stephen Litel

The Minnesota Lynx have gone through a dramatic makeover since the summer of 2009. Last year, many believed the team would take the next step in their development and acquire a berth in the playoffs, but a knee injury to team star, Seimone Augustus, sent the team into a tailspin. Although the team fought hard without their leader, they eventually missed the playoffs by two games.

Insert Lindsay Whalen, the hometown hero. After years of fans pleading for the team to trade for her, the Lynx finally brought Whalen back to the Twin Cities. Along with Whalen came much higher expectations for the team and she sees the promise of the squad.

“I think just the talent that’s on the team and from watching the team by playing against them for a bunch of years now, they have this core group that’s come up,” Whalen said. “They’ve gotten off to great starts each season and then the last couple of years it’s been unfortunate injuries where they’ve just tailed off. You know they have a great amount of talent.”

New leadership

In the blink of an eye, the Minnesota Lynx became relevant in both the WNBA and in the Twin Cities. Ticket sales for both season tickets and single game seats flew off the shelves by WNBA standards, therefore placing more eyes on the team. Another important addition to the team is new head coach Cheryl Reeve, who brings a winning resume to Minnesota from Detroit, where she was an assistant coach under Bill Laimbeer. With her championship level experience, Reeve knows how to maintain focus and get the best out of talented teams.

“In 2003, the Detroit Shock went from worst to first and they wrote a book about them,” Reeve said. “I don’t have the history of every professional sport, but this would not be the first time that a team went from the lottery to a championship contender. In professional sports, when you have free agency and the ability to trade, those things can absolutely happen.”

Even with the talent already on the team plus the addition of Whalen, the Lynx may still have been on the line of the label of “championship caliber.” As the Sacramento Monarchs folded, the league held a dispersal draft of their players with Minnesota holding the second pick. When the New York Liberty took Nicole Powell, the Lynx choice was made for them. Rebekkah Brunson will make her way to Minnesota, along with teammate in Sacramento, Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, who chose to join the Lynx as a free agent. Both won a championship with the Monarchs and will provide more of a veteran presence on the team.

“In one move with the addition of Lindsay Whalen, we went from a lottery team to a championship team,” said Seimone Augustus. “Then, add in Brunson and Maiga-Ba and the expectations go through the roof. People are expecting us to contend for that title.”

While the excitement over the new additions is understandable, it is important for those beginning to pay attention to the team due to Whalen’s presence to understand this was a already a squad on the way up. The 2008 Draft may go down as the best ever by the franchise and it is difficult to find one that compares from any other team. Whalen knows this all too well as a former opponent of Nicky Anosike, Charde Houston and Candice Wiggins.

“From playing against Anosike, she’s a tough player, an All-Star and she’s in the league for a reason,” said Whalen. “She’s done what she needed to do in order to improve, so I look forward to getting to know her a lot better this summer. Candice is a great guard, a great shooter, has a great work ethic and she is definitely a feisty player. I’m looking forward to playing with her and having a good chemistry on the court and off the court all summer.”

Promising newcomer

With the veterans coming into Minnesota, as well as the talent already on the team, it is easy to overlook the player the Lynx took in the WNBA draft. The team selected Monica Wright from Virginia, who will receive more playing time than she might have expected to start the year with Augustus (benign tumor surgery) and Wiggins (arthroscopic knee surgery) out to begin the season.

“I think it works out well because she gets to get in there and she’s thrown in the fire and she has to try to figure out everything,” said Augustus. “She’s been doing great with things she doesn’t understand. She’s good about asking questions and the fact that we have Lindsay here, she’s kind of been that big sister to kind of help her through things.”

The transition is complete and the expectations are high, even with the early season absence of Augustus and Wiggins. The team now has enough high quality players to “hold the fort” while they are out and their reemergence in the roster will only make the team more deadly. Even with the remarkable upgrade of both talent and experience, the question remains how the team will develop the chemistry needed of a basketball team with championship aspirations.

“With the length of training camp and with people coming in late from overseas, it’s one of the challenges that we have,” Whalen said. “It takes time to get to know each other on the court. It takes time to get to know the system. It takes time to get to know what is expected of you on any given night.”

The 2010 Minnesota Lynx are a confident team. Even with a shortened training camp, inexperience playing together as a team and dealing with the heightened expectations of the fans that follow them, the team is confident. From the headliners like Whalen and Augustus, down through Anosike, Houston, Wiggins and Wright, they know that if they continue to focus on the task at hand, they can accomplish great things.

“In every season, I remind myself you can’t look ‘out there’ at a month from now,” said Reeve. “You can’t do that. It’s playing a game possession by possession and living your WNBA life one day at a time. Having short-term memory is one of the critical things for players to have and certainly for coaches, in terms of maintaining a composure throughout the season.”

If the excitement over the summer of 2010 is not enough, the beauty of the team’s overhaul is that the team is primed for a very successful 5-7 year run. The players are still young as a whole and those who are older still have many good years in them, barring injury.

“We don’t really have any players that are on their way out, so it’s not like we have to think about how to replace this player or that player,” said Anosike. 
“I know over in Los Angeles, they’re probably dealing with how they’re going to replace Lisa Leslie. We don’t have that issue, so if we can start this string of success it’s going to continue for a long time.”

Staying focused

Although the optimism is present from both the fans and the team, the players already heed the advice of their new coach. The objective is to keep that focus and take it each game at a time, even a quarter at a time. They are well aware of the hopes and expectations, they want the same things and plan to work to achieve them.

“You just come in with this set of players, look at the players you have to beat and focus on that,” said Whalen. “Lots of people are excited about our team and we’re excited, so I think anything can happen. Teams are making moves and look how much the league has changed this year with player movement and everything, so it’s going to be a really fun year and going to be interesting to see how all of the new players fit into their new places.”

The long wait is almost over for Lynx and WNBA fans. Lynx rookie Monica Wright has waited for the moment she can step onto the court as a professional athlete for most of her life and the time is almost here.

“I am pretty excited about it,” said Wright. “I’m excited to get on the court with these girls, get the season started and to win games.”

Lynx fans agree with you, Monica.

Stephen Litel covers the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx for Downtown Journal’s blog, The Exchange. He also covers the NBA and WNBA on his blog “Year Round Hoops” on SLAM Online. He can be reached at stephenlitel@yahoo.com, on Facebook or you can follow him on Twitter.com/stephenlitel.