In the wake of the Lynx’s first-round elimination in the 2018 WNBA playoffs, there’s been a lot of talk about what didn’t work this season. It makes sense. The expectations from the outside were high, and the players’ expectations of themselves were even higher. Unfortunately, those expectations didn’t pan out.
Coach Cheryl Reeve said after the season that she thinks she might have expected too much, but the work her players put in made her believe in them.
“So maybe I wasn’t realistic, but they made me believe,” she said. “That’s what I tell them. At times they make things look easy, and that sets them up for these expectations.”
The problem with expectations is that when the goal is to win a championship, anything short of that goal feels shallow. However, despite the lack of a storybook ending for this franchise’s remarkable run over the better part of the last decade, a lot went well this season. The Lynx showed flashes of being an excellent squad, and did so in a different way than they have before.
The Lynx took the bad with the good this season, so that’s what we’re going to do now. Some things worked well in 2018. Other things did not. Let’s break it down.
Worked: Sylvia Fowles
Sylvia Fowles set a new WNBA record for rebounding, set career highs in multiple stat categories and performed at an elite level night in and night out for the Lynx while playing half the season with an elbow injury. Yet, for some reason, it still feels like she is underappreciated.
Last year Fowles won the WNBA MVP award. This year she didn’t receive any top-three votes despite essentially matching her production.
Fowles grew immensely as a facilitator over the course of the season. She was double or triple teamed on almost every single possession and made the most of the additional pressure that put on defenses. Fowles averaged 2.2 assists per game this season, a career high. If basketball scored assists like hockey, with the player who made the second pass before the shot getting an assist as well, that number would be a lot higher.
While the league may have overlooked Fowles this year, her teammates and coaches did not. She changes the game for the Lynx, and there’s no reason to think she can’t do the same thing next year.
Didn’t Work: Stretching the Floor
What makes Fowles’ performance this season especially impressive is that she was forced to work in an offense that didn’t space the floor particularly well. The WNBA is shooting more three-pointers than ever before, but the Lynx weren’t able to follow that trend all that well this year. Their best three-point shooter Cecilia Zandalasini didn’t even shoot that many threes before this year, Alexis Jones had trouble staying on the floor and Rebekkah Brunson’s attempts to expand her game beyond the arc had mixed results.
While the Lynx certainly had players that were capable of hitting the three, they didn’t have anyone outside of Zandalasini who represented a credible enough threat that their defender couldn’t sag off them to double Fowles or collapse on dribble drives.
So much of running an offense is keeping the defense moving and making it hard for them to set—working them in and out of position. The Lynx collapsed the floor well with Fowles in the post and players like Danielle Robinson driving inside, but they couldn’t convert on kick outs or stretch the floor back out to allow their post players more space to operate. That will need to change next season.
Worked: The Defense… Mostly
For most of the season the Lynx were one of the best defensive units in the league. Before the All-Star break, Minnesota had the second-best defensive rating in the league—an excellent 97.5. However, after the break that number jumped to 105.0.
A huge reason behind the defensive slip was the loss of Rebekkah Brunson, whose heady and persistent defending and excellent rebounding helped the Lynx a ton on that end of the floor. The squad wasn’t able to adjust to her absence as well as they would have liked.
Still, the bones of an excellent defense are in place, and Reeve’s system is battle-tested and effective. The Lynx have made being difficult to play against a core part of their identity, and they’ve found players who take that mission seriously. The Lynx offense needs work, but they’ll be bringing back one of the best defensive units in the league next year. A few offseason tweaks and Minnesota is well on its way to giving their competition fits.
Didn’t Work: Sharing The Load
The Lynx struggled all season to get consistent production from the players around Maya Moore and Fowles. When Moore and Fowles were having good games, the team around them produced, but Minnesota never found a way to get consistent production from the rest of the team when their stars were struggling.
It’s a tough thing for any team—of course you’re going to play better when your best players are producing—but it’s also important for stars to have the ability to be carried by their teammates on occasion. The Lynx were full of complimentary talent, but they need to think about finding a player (or developing on internally) who is capable of being a third scorer every night. This year that role was shared, which worked sometimes but also made it harder for players to know what to expect on the court every night. Sometimes Seimone Augustus stepped up, sometimes Robinson, sometimes Lindsay Whalen and late in the season Tanisha Wright was key. However, the Lynx will probably be better off if they can clearly delineate that role going forward. That way everyone knows what their job is and can focus completely on getting it done instead of spending parts of games trying to figure out where the ball should go.
Worked: Unexpected Development
Quite often the best things that happen in life aren’t part of the plan.
While the Lynx would certainly have rather had Brunson stay healthy for the entire season, her absence allowed Zandalasini and Temi Fagbenle to get more meaningful minutes than they might have otherwise, and the results were encouraging.
Zandalasini is already the best three-point shooter on the team, and her ability to get to the rim only improved as the season wore on. She still needs to develop the speed at which she processes the game and work on her first step, but she has a killer crossover and her pull-up game is a problem for defenders. When Brunson went down, Zandalasini became the Lynx’s starting small forward with Moore sliding to the four. Her play was up and down, but that experience will pay off. Zandalasini is also still only 22—if she was from the U.S. she would have only just graduated from college. She’ll return to overseas play as someone that is expected to help carry a team in international competition, that experience of being a go-to player will only help the young Italian.
Fagbenle didn’t play much at the beginning of the season—that’s what happens when your main job is backing up the reigning MVP. However, as the season progressed she started seeing more time at the four playing alongside Fowles. After Brunson’s injury, that was an even more frequent occurrence. We saw in the Lynx’s playoff game what Fagbenle can bring to the table when she’s at her best. She’s extraordinarily athletic, runs the floor, outworks her opposition and brings a hustle and fire to her play that really ignited the team. The main issue with Fagbenle is consistency, but her increased workload towards the end of the Lynx’s season has her well positioned to go into the offseason with some positive feedback and some things she can work to improve upon.
Say what you will about the Lynx’s potential this season if everyone had stayed healthy, but those few extra minutes for their young players will pay off down the line.