Column: Asking And Answering Your Pressing Lynx Questions

What a week! There’s quite a lot going on with the Lynx right now, so instead of focusing on one topic I thought I’d eschew my usual format and hit you all with a mailbag to answer some key questions about the team’s progress, where they stand and what’s coming up for them.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t plan to do this so nobody sent me questions. I have no mail in the bag. So, I’ll be wearing both hats—asking the questions and providing the answers, basically having an extended conversation with myself. If that doesn’t perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to be a writer then I don’t know what does. I tried to come up with a catchy title for a fake mailbag, but the best I could come up with was “failbag” and that’s depressing. So, the catchy title is still in the works. Suggestions welcome.

If a particular question is one you’ve been thinking about, just pretend you asked it! It’s a fan participation column today.

The Lynx won their last two games and three of their last four! Is the team back on track? Is it fair to say that their early-season struggles are behind them?

Yes and no. The team has shown definite, concrete progress in some really important areas over the last week and that is 100 percent a reason for optimism. Notably, they’ve done a way better job of taking care of the ball. Against the Wings on Tuesday, they turned the ball over only 12 times, but the vast majority of those came in a sloppy second half that was more reminiscent of their play earlier in the season than earlier in that game. Additionally, Danielle Robinson has grown more and more comfortable running the offense and that has had a real impact on the team. Coach Cheryl Reeve had praise for Robinson following Tuesday’s victory, and she’s averaging 4.5 assists and just 1.75 turnovers over the last four games. That’s pretty darn good. Take out the loss to Connecticut and that assist number jumps to 5.6. Robinson scored 15 against the Wings, including perfect shooting on 11 trips to the line. Small sample size, I know, but it’s good stuff.

Additionally, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles are finally starting to click. Fowles had some good games early in the season, but the Lynx hadn’t really gotten strong performances from both their stars in the same game until last Saturday’s win over the Liberty. It happened again versus the Wings. While Moore didn’t end up with a great shooting percentage—largely due to a stalled fourth-quarter offense—she led the team in both points and assists. What we’re seeing from Moore over the last few games is super encouraging. She’s calling her shots, getting her teammates involved, and just generally imposing her will on the opposition. It’s obvious she decided somewhere down the line that she was done losing and is ready to take over.

What happened in the last week here? Why are the Lynx good again? Were they ever bad?

The story with the Lynx was always that they had stretches in games where they looked like the best team in the league and stretches that were just mind-bogglingly sloppy. Reeve will be the first to tell you that. A huge key in getting the team moving in the right direction again was the week of practice between June 10 and June 16. I wrote in my notebook on the 13th, “If the Lynx turn things around, this is the day that did it.” That’s looking like a pretty solid prediction.

That June 13 practice was huge. Reeve challenged her veterans to step up and recommit themselves fully to the team. It had been a rocky start to the season with a lot of distractions and Reeve had had enough of it.

“They’re all being pulled in so many different directions before they got here that I don’t believe they turned off all those things,” Reeve said that day. “It’s not Minnesota Lynx No. 1A. There’s a B and a C. That can’t happen. I think for this group it’s always been Minnesota Lynx No. 1. And we didn’t share that No. 1 spot with anything. Maybe it’s the process of some success, opportunities to do things outside of playing, and I think it’s kind of tugged at us. I think there was maybe an assumption that we would all come back here and it would just happen.”

That’s a very upfront and raw thing to hear from a coach, and I think Reeve’s players respected that level of honesty. There’s no doubt that things have seemed more cohesive and focused since then. Were the Lynx ever bad? No. Were they inconsistent? Yes. Is the struggle over? No. Are they moving in the right direction? Absolutely.

You must be feeling pretty good about your prediction last week that Cecilia Zandalasini would play a big role for the team, do you enjoy being right?

I sure do! It’s always wonderful when you realize the bandwagon you’re riding on (and helping drive) is headed in the right direction. Zandalasini played very well against the Sun before having a bit of a breakout game against the Liberty. She was held in check against the Wings, mostly because she got in some foul trouble and she got hit in the face pretty hard in the fourth quarter and had to go to the bench, but she’s looking like someone who is going to stick around for a while.

Anyone who watches Zandalasini’s form knows she can shoot, but what’s really helped her stay on the floor is her defense. Reeve said that a key to Zandalasini’s playing time was the growing realization that she can guard shooting guards. Zandalasini is fast enough to stay with guards, and long and strong enough to take on forwards. On such a stacked roster, having the flexibility to play multiple positions is crucial to earning minutes.

Zandalasini has also shown flashes of high-level passing ability. She moves well on the court, and while having a full training camp would undeniably have helped her reach the point she’s at now more quickly, it’s a testament to her hard work that she’s been able to learn so well on the fly. She’s been forcing her way into more playing time and that’s unlikely to end anytime soon.

Before the season everyone was talking about how condensed the season was going to be and how little practice time the team was going to have, but you just said that they had almost a week off? What gives? Were the schedule concerns overblown?

Great question. It was certainly nice to get that week of practice time, but the other shoe is about to drop. Between now and the All-Star break, the Lynx play three or four games every week. Coming up, they play Friday in Phoenix and Sunday at Las Vegas before hosting the Storm and Dream next Tuesday and Friday. Let’s not forget, WNBA teams don’t have private jets, this travel takes a toll and playing games so close together isn’t easy. It’s good that the Lynx got the opportunity to practice when they did, because they’re going to really be squeezing them in going forward.

They’ll need to be careful to manage the energy of their veterans as well. Rebekkah Brunson played 33 minutes against the Wings after Fowles got into foul trouble. That’s going to be hard to sustain every night even though I’m certain Brunson would love to play every minute every night. 

The Lynx seem like they’re improving but I’m worried about their place in the standings. It’s too early to start worrying they won’t make the playoffs, right?  

Yes.

Seriously, though, can you answer the question?

Fine. It’s true the WNBA season is fairly short so there’s not a ton of room for error, but the Lynx have so much time. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played. The top eight teams in the league make the playoffs, and if the postseason started today the Lynx would be in that eighth spot. What is more likely than Minnesota falling out of the playoffs entirely is that they will find themselves in at least one single-elimination playoff game, so they’ll have to perform in the clutch without the benefit of playing a full series. However, if you can’t perform in the clutch, you’re not going win a championship anyway. The Lynx have not done anything to indicate they don’t deserve our trust, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt until the very end. I’m more than willing to die on that hill.

Cheryl Reeve earned her 200th career win as a head coach on Tuesday, why is that such a big deal? Haven’t lots of coaches done that?

No, they certainly have not. Only seven other coaches in league history have achieved this level of success. Not only has Reeve joined an elite list of WNBA coaches who have earned 200 wins, but among those coaches she has the highest winning percentage of .706. That’s ridiculous.

Reeve has certainly had the benefit of coaching some all-time great players, and when I asked her about the achievement on Tuesday night she was quick to deflect credit to her players, but it’s undeniable that Reeve brings something to her team that helps the pieces fit together. Even with elite-level talent, winning is not guaranteed. With many teams across all of pro sports that boast multiple superstars, we’ve seen the clashing of egos and personalities drive many talented teams out of contention. A strong coach at the helm is key in making sure this doesn’t happen.

Let’s also not forget that Reeve is the GM for the Lynx as well. She’s not only a talented motivator and brilliant basketball mind, but she’s gifted at scouting and roster construction as well. Playing for Reeve has become a big draw for free agents, and she’s shown the right combination of patience and persistence in allowing young players to see the court but prioritizing her team’s ability to win games. Reeve is special, and the Lynx would not be where they are without her. Reeve will be the first one to tell you that’s not the case, but don’t listen to her! This is actually the only time you should not listen to Reeve.

Man, it seems like Reeve’s players really enjoy working for her. She’s so animated on the sidelines and sometimes seems really mad at her players, but they all still love her. How does she pull this off?

I’ve had the pleasure of sitting fairly close to the Lynx’s bench during home games this season, and let me tell you, it is intense! Reeve is constantly pacing up and down the sidelines, yelling things to her players on the court, talking to her bench about what is going on, and occasionally exchanging a few respectful words with the referees. One would think by watching the games that Reeve might be a little difficult to play for. She doesn’t miss much, and she doesn’t let her players get away with many mistakes. But somehow, she does this without her players resenting her or resisting her coaching. It’s truly remarkable.

There are many factors that go into Reeve’s relationship with her players—they’re humans, and human relationships are complicated—but there are two factors that stand out to me: honesty and perspective. Reeve tells the truth all the time. She does it with the media, she does it with her staff, and she does it with her players. Reeve will tell her players when they’re doing well, and tell them when they need to step up. This gives her a credibility that can only come with complete trust.

But it’s not enough to be honest, you also have to care about your players as people, and differentiate your relationship with them on the court from your relationship off of it. You need to keep things in perspective. Reeve puts her team first, but there’s no question that she cares about her players’ well-being more than she cares about them winning games. If a Lynx player had, say, a family emergency and had to miss time, Reeve would support that player without question. When she’s not giving them a hard time on the court, she’s supporting her players in life off of it. This makes it easier to take that honest criticism players so often receive from Reeve, and makes it more enjoyable to play for her. Reeve’s players want to please her because they respect her intellect, and know that if they screw up on the court, she’ll be mad at them, but they also know she will still love and support them as people.

There were a couple Lynx legends in town this week—Katie Smith as the head coach of the Liberty, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin as an assistant coach with the Wings. Both could not say enough about how Reeve has kept in touch with them, and how she’s become a key mentor to them years after they played on her teams. It’s that type of dedication that can make teams great.

This was fun, would you ever consider doing a mailbag with, you know, real mail?

Yes, absolutely!! If you have Lynx questions or things you’d like me to address hit me up on Twitter @julian_andrews_ and I’ll try to get to them in a future column! Have a good week everyone, go Lynx!