The Minnesota Lynx fell short in a decisive game three of their first-round series in the WNBA Playoffs. With a talented roster and options galore moving forward, the sky is the limit for this squad.
Sylvia Fowles’ Minnesota Lynx career saw her selected for five All-Star games, win two Defensive Player of the Year awards, one Most Valuable Player award and two championships, with two Finals MVPs to top it off. She was a stalwart of the WNBA and a stand-out player in a generation that boasts the likes of Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Lauren Jackson, to name a few. Her retirement was always going to be an adjustment.
The landscape of the WNBA had a cosmic shift when she and Bird retired after last season, a decision that saw Sue’s Seattle Storm pivot to a rebuild (…with the help of Breanna Stewart finding a new job in New York). Fowles was still firmly in her prime, retiring in a season she led the league in rebounds, was an All-Star and made the All-Defensive First Team. Heck, she even got up in her final All-Star appearance.
When basketball royalty leaves your organisation, it’s a shock to the system. Factor in Napheesa Collier’s absence last season and there was an air of uncertainty breezing through Minneapolis in 2022. It was hard to see what was around the corner for the Lynx.
After an 0-6 start to the regular season, Minnesota went 19-15 the rest of the way. That 55.9 winning percentage would have netted them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Head coach Cheryl Reeve is really good at her job. She understands how to coach great players and get the best out of them. Coaching Team USA at an international level is an extremely nuanced task that cannot be done by just anyone. Sure, it might be easy to coach great players, but getting great players to sacrifice, play for each other and play for a cause greater than them is a balance only the sharpest minds can find. It’s also not a job that is given out to just anyone. Longevity and results are commonalities when talking about who gets the whiteboard for the U.S. at international competitions.
Where Reeve has had limitations is with empowering role players and providing them with consistent opportunities. Bridget Carleton just finished her fifth season with the Lynx and it seems as though she has finally been afforded consistency in her features with the team. It’s strange though: her first full season in Minnesota saw her play in every game, starting in nearly 70 percent of them, shooting a blistering 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from three. This was all en route to a 14-8 record (due to a shortened season), good for fourth in the league.
Her previous two seasons saw less certainty in her role, with 12 starts in 68 games. This resulted in a downtick in efficiency. The inconsistent role even bled into this season, something Rachel Banham is also trying to make sense of. Once the playoffs came around, however, Carleton was one of her team’s most reliable players. She played 21, 22 and 29 minutes in each game, going four-of-six from deep in the last two battles. She was also trusted to guard one of Alyssa Thomas or DeWanna Bonner on any given possession and made them work for every basket. Game two might not have gone Minny’s way if it weren’t for a clutch three in the fourth from Carleton.
There’s no way this player who was lights out in the 2020 season and has been steady in the 2023 Playoffs would have benefitted from an unknown role in the seasons between.
Banham’s minutes per game have been random all season long. It’s hard to know what her role is or what’s expected of her on any given night. Staying ready for when the team calls upon you is a hard role to fulfil, and although Banham carries herself with professionalism in this role, there’s no way she’s finding a rhythm when she’s playing 25 minutes one game, 21 seconds the next, three and a half minutes to follow up and then back to 25 minutes the next.
Aerial Powers started in 31 of her 35 games in 2022, applying rim pressure, orchestrating chaos and leading the Lynx in visits to the free throw line. In 2023, she played in 20 games, missing time due to a sprained ankle, with a few DNP-CDs sprinkled in there.
Now Carleton, Banham and Powers sit at home while they watch the New York Liberty’s Marine Johannès, Connecticut Sun’s Tyasha Harris and the Las Vegas Aces Alysha Clark come off the bench and provide fearless, empowered minutes on a role that has been built on mutual trust between player and coach.
Overall, Reeve is a great basketball coach. She has been great at giving young players an opportunity, especially this season. This can be seen in rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász being trusted with starting roles in both the regular season and the playoffs. However, if this team is going to take the next step, and win a playoff series, that needs to be done with players 6-9 as well as 1-5.
The easiest elements of the Lynx’s progression – time and health – will take care of themselves. This team has a palpable vibe and a case for being the best locker room in the league. They’re quite young and need to get reps in individually and as a unit. The success they’ve had over the past few months has been built on that and it feels repeatable. It’s important not to lose sight of what has gotten them to this point.
Health can be a bit trickier to attain as some injuries are unavoidable. Still, if this team were to have Jessica Shepard, Lindsay Allen and Natalie Achonwa, that’s 60 minutes of reliable basketball available for distribution.
The big question is what are we doing we Aerial Powers? As I’ve laid out, she provides a basketball team with a valuable skillset. Is this something she realises with the Lynx or should they explore trade options? I’m in favour of the latter, as she would have nice value on the market, yet is surplus to requirements in Minnesota. This is a hard decision to make, but taking a step towards home court advantage will come with hard decisions. It’s a privilege as much as it is a curse.
As for the player to bring in, a big that can move well and hang with guards and wings on the perimeter would help: someone who would bolster their big depth and could share post duties with Napheesa. A player like Emma Meesseman would surely be atop every WNBA franchise’s priority list, and the fact that she’s a free agent helps tremendously. Only one team will be able to sign her for next season if she decides to play in the States, and the fit in Minnesota is symbiotic.
Other options to explore would be Aussies Ezi Magbegor and Alanna Smith. Shakira Austin would be a great addition too, although she would likely be a full-time five.
Finally, we need to be real. There’s an element of this that’s waiting out the Liberty and the Aces; the Lynx look like they’re next in line for that. Minny is primed to open their championship window in 2025, especially if they focus on building their foundation and taking steps that form their floor. Aiming to win a playoff series next year is a prescient goal that could be a launching pad for a charge towards a 2025 ring.
With two rounds of WNBA Playoffs remaining and a likely clash of the titans meeting between Las Vegas and New York, it’s hard not to look ahead at Minnesota’s 2024 prospects. I mean seriously, all season we’ve been waiting to watch this instant classic. It has the potential to be the greatest WNBA Finals of all time, and I’m sitting here in late September sneaking looks at May 2024 on Minnesota’s calendar.
The Lynx have put the league on watch, try not to miss out.