A Minnesota Lynx fan mantra is “The odds are in our favor,” referring to the string of WNBA championships won in odd years — 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017. Although the team did not take home the trophy in even-numbered years, the Lynx still had some remarkable seasons including two Finals appearances (2012, 2016).
Although 2019 is an “odd” year, the 2018 season and aftermath may reset expectations considerably. After winning an average of 26 games a season from 2011 through 2017, the team stumbled to a pedestrian 18–16 record in 2018. This was followed by an unprecedented first round playoff exit when they lost a single-elimination game as the #7 seed to the Los Angeles Sparks 75–68.
Lynx teams under head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve were built on a core group of players: Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore. All were captains that Reeve could rely on. By 2018, Augustus, Brunson and Whalen were all in their mid-thirties and the whispers about the team getting older were becoming more insistent, culminating in the Kelsey Plum Incident when Plum just flat-out said they were old!
2018 Season: Not Business As Usual
Before the 2018 season even started, came the announcement that Whalen would be the head coach of the women’s basketball team at her alma mater Minnesota, but would continue playing for the Lynx. It was the first sign that the team dynamics would be changing.
The Lynx, known for their fast starts, started the season 3–7, causing some alarm among fans. They were up and down the rest of the season with little consistency. Adding to the team’s woes, the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup compressed the usual WNBA schedule and left little time for recovery or practice time to improve their performance on the court.
The injury bug also hit the team in a big way. Brunson left a game on August 5 due to a blow to the head and didn’t play another game. Four days later, on August 9, Whalen’s heir apparent at point guard, Danielle Robinson, suffered a severe ankle injury and didn’t play another game. Sylvia Fowles played about half the season with a ruptured tendon in her left elbow.
Near the end of the season, Whalen announced what most had guessed — that she would retire at the end of the season. Her minutes were down in 2018, and in some of the last few games, she came off the bench for the first time since her rookie season.
There were some highlights, including Fowles setting a single-season rebounding record, Brunson becoming the all-time rebounding leader, and Minnesota hosting the All-Star Game which featured Moore (the game’s MVP) and three other Lynx players.
The Lynx have had a very busy first few days of February! On February 1, they announced the signing of veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly. That good news was followed the next day with the announcement that Augustus had re-signed for her 14th season with the team. One day after that, the team announced it had signed restricted free agent and former Lynx (2014–2015) Damiris Dantas to an offer sheet that Atlanta did not match which allows her to return to the Lynx.
There was a shadow hanging over the period, however. Shortly after the Lynx cored Moore in mid-January, (giving the team exclusive negotiating rights), a local newscast stated that Moore may not be playing for the Lynx in the 2019 season. That was followed by a one-sentence response from Reeve that left everyone wondering what was going on. On February 5, Moore announced that she would not be playing professional basketball in 2019, stating, “My focus in 2019 will not be on professional basketball, but will instead be on the people in my family, as well as on investing my time in some ministry dreams that have been stirring in my heart for many years.”
Looking to 2019
At this point, the Lynx are facing more uncertainty than any previous Reeve-led team. Moore and Whalen are rare talents and leaders who cannot be easily replaced. Brunson is planning to come back, but is still experiencing concussion symptoms and has had a busy off-season, becoming a first-time parent, announcing NBA games, and starting a waffle food truck business. Fowles has just recently been cleared to resume workouts and Robinson still has not yet been cleared — although she should be very shortly. There is also a coaching staff change as former assistant James Wade is now the head coach of the Chicago Sky.
Two young international players on the team that made great strides last season, Temi Fagbenle (Great Britain) and Cecilia Zandasalini (Italy), have both played well overseas and may miss time during the 2019 season playing for their national teams in an effort to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
On the plus side, for the first time in years, the Lynx have a high draft pick (#6) in what should be a fairly deep draft. Also, Whalen’s departure and Moore’s hiatus free up salary that the team can use to sign free agents.
Reeve must adapt to and devise a plan for a completely new team dynamic for the Lynx to have a successful 2019 season. An impactful draft, free agent signings, avoiding injuries and maybe just a bit of that odd-year luck will be keys for the upcoming Lynx season.