Editor’s Note: Our Kyle Ratke was able to chat with Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve leading up to Thursday’s WNBA Draft. This is part one of the interview. Part two will run on Monday, April 11.
KR: First off, this office is awesome. I’ve never been back here. Living in luxury. How has the offseason been? What have you been up to? Now we’re in crunch time, but after the season ends, what’s your schedule like?
CR: It was busy for us. It was atypical after a championship as compared to the other two championships in that in those seasons we were in a different place from a roster standpoint and so we knew we would have nine players back and we only had to maybe change out a couple, whatever the situation was. This offseason presented us with some real challenges in trying to build the team that is going to defend our championship.
The Olympic year creates a problem as it pertains to Anna Cruz, Rachel Jarry, who has interest in coming back, in addition to our own players who will be competing in Rio that we’re trying to plan and prepare for how long the season is going to be which is one of the reasons why Lindsay Whalen decided not to go play in Europe so she can prepare herself for the long season ahead. We were impacted by free agency. We had some goals of resigning Renee (Montgomery) and Dev (Peters), and then going out in the market and attract the top free agents that might be available and financially that was a challenge for us.
We have a starting five that we’re invested in, so trying to attract those players and kind of say, ‘hey, come here and play for the Lynx, we can’t give you as much money, we can’t give you a whole lot of playing time because you’re playing behind these Olympians,’ and so that was kind of a tough sell.
KR: But you sell the winning, right? That’s what Sylvia Fowles said last year. She wanted to come to Minnesota because she wanted to win.
CR: Winning and I think how we do it, like our group, I think it’s really fun, they’re great teammates, people see that when they watch our group interact. Then our fan base, we’re a place now that people say, ‘hey, I want to come play in front of 10,000 fans and the environment and passion that our group has.
We were able to re-sign Renee which I thought was important to us and I told Renee this, we don’t win a WNBA championship without Renee Montgomery last year who came through big for us when both Lindsay and Seimone (Augustus) were out, her and Anna were a tremendous backcourt for us, and even when we got to the playoffs and Lindsay and Seimone were back, Renee’s opportunities went down, some of it was matchups, LA was awfully big, Phoenix had big guards, and so I just kept asking Renee to stay ready.
I thought the Phoenix series had more opportunities than say the Los Angeles series and then certainly the Indiana series and so Renee was a pro, and I appreciate the heck out of that and she didn’t whine and moan that it wasn’t working out for her personally the way she wanted it to. She just stayed ready and then in the Finals series she was terrific and she is somebody that really connects well with Sylvia Fowles. I think made Syl’s opportunities to score easier in terms of her timing of delivery and so we felt like Renee was very important to our team going forward and thankfully she decided she wanted to be here and we were able to get that done. And Devereaux it didn’t work out as well. Eventually it got to the point with Dev where a little bit of finances, a little bit of opportunity that maybe posed her in a situation where she as happy as she was playing here and playing with her teammates, maybe saw something bigger and better for her down in Indiana. We tried to make lemonade out of those lemons and brought in Natasha Howard under contract, a player who we think has some upside but we’ll have to get her in the trenches and figure out exactly what we have there.
Sylvia Fowles signing was also part of free agency and we were able to get her to resign. We’ve worked really, really hard this offseason, Kyle, trying to get a handle on the college game. We’ve got a terrific handle on the draft prospects, we have a terrific handle on free agents, we signed a couple of free agents for training camp: Keisha Hampton, Courtney Clements, who was in the league the last few years that we think are going to have opportunities. This is a time with the Lynx that there’s opportunity to make our team and people think you win a championship and you’ll have everything or you don’t need anything, and that’s certainly not the case. So I’m looking forward to this year’s training camp.
KR: Everything you mentioned was work. It was like the Rihanna song. “Work, Work, Work, Work.” Were you able to take anytime off for yourself and take a little bit of a break?
CR: I did. I cannot complain when it comes to the opportunities that we have in the offseason. I was able to spend a little over a two week jaunt over the holidays where I did planes, trains and automobiles visiting family which was amazing and with our son Oliver. Everybody wanted to see Oli for Christmas so we were able to make rounds. We also went to Disney, so Oliver’s first Disney experience, had so much fun doing that and joined some family down there. Took a vacation. I did San Diego when the season first ended and then recently was down in St. Martin for a short stay and squeezing the scouting in between all of that, so it was hectic. I felt like, this offseason more than any other offseason since I’ve been in the league, was one that I thought just flew and the next thing you know the draft is here shortly.
KR: I was just talking about that. We’re putting content plans together and it’s like ‘oh my goodness, the draft is on Thursday!’ So, let’s talk about the draft without getting me fired because can’t talk too in-depth on the site, something we’ve gotten in trouble with a little bit before.
CR: Push the envelope. Live on the edge.
KR: It’s such a weird spot because you guys have been so good. You had the Maya (Moore) pick, No. 1, and that was in 2011 and then Dev the next year was No. 3. But besides that, you’ve had picks at the end of the first round or this year, no first-round picks. That’s got to be so challenging because you’re looking at players that aren’t going to be in the top five. Chances are a player in the top-five isn’t going to fall to the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round. How do you scout? Are you looking from the second to the fourth round, players that might fit the team? How tough is that?
CR: Really hard and that’s why I said Shelley Patterson and I worked our tails off in terms of the breath of the scouting that you have to do when you’re not picking until the second round.
It means you have to see a ton of players… We had to cover a lot, I thought this year’s draft class presented challenges in that there were so many that were kind of the same, maybe a different skill set or a different strength, but in the end they were the same, like I could see us liking this about her, I could see us liking this over here, and it was like it was a hard time kind of going like which one?
Then we get into cultural type of things where the program that they come from, we dive into backgrounds, individuals, their history, how they do in school, how their teammates view them, all of that that we find important.
For us talent is one thing but we hardly ever go down the road of talent without being a great teammate at the core of who they are and a really good person. It was hard because it required seeing a lot of games and I think draft day will be really, really interesting to see how it goes. You have to be nimble when you’re picking 14, but Natasha Howard, we don’t want to have high draft picks unless we trade for it, so it was kind of a unique opportunity in the Devereaux deal that you could peel off a piece like Dev and get a player that we couldn’t have touched because Natasha was the No. 5 pick in the draft. That was an opportunity to get a higher draft pick and you have to be creative that way, but in the meantime since we don’t have a first round pick, Sylvia Fowles was really important to us, we thought that was well worth it, and we ended up dropping just three places to 14 in the Monica Wright deal.
I’m really confident that at 14 we’re going to get a player that’s going to be a part of this team for a couple of years that will be serviceable and that’s the exciting part.
KR: And you’ve done that. You look back at the roster and especially with the smaller roster sizes. People say ‘well it’s a 34-game schedule,’ but all these players are playing overseas so it’s not a 34-game schedule. It’s the wear and tear. You look at players like Tricia (Liston) who has helped out. Last year, Shae (Kelly), Asia Taylor and she was a third-round pick. You’re not even supposed to make the team. These players have all played in the season even if they aren’t big pieces to the puzzle.
Overseas, Whalen decided not to play this year. I think she played half a season last year if I remember right. I saw Whalen after the last game of the Finals and she’s limping around and I just saw her 10 minutes ago and she looks great. It’s not going to get the publicity that Diana Taurasi got last year where she decided not to play in the WNBA and Whalen did the exact opposite. Are people around the league taking notice of that?
CR: I think you’ll see more of it and that’s for two reasons, one for everything you just said, how good they feel as they get older and the second part of it is, is the money is not as good as everyone thinks it is. Money is really, really good if you’re Diana Taurasi and then maybe 10 other players, and it’s really good and really hard to turn down. Lindsay is one of those players in that she’s compensated very, very well.
Then you get to a point where you say, ‘I have a choice here. I can lengthen my career, play longer if I take time to take care of myself.’ And that revelation doesn’t happen until they’re over 30 where they start thinking this cycle year around for 10 years, your body starts yelling at you, saying it needs a break.
We’re really fortunate that we have players that the break comes when they take off of Europe because they’re committed to this WNBA franchise, to the Lynx, to their teammates. I’m really thankful that we have that type of group. It’s a hard decision, you’re talking a minimum of half a million dollars, how many people that would hear that would go, what are they crazy? Go make the half-million dollars. But there’s this competitive way about Lindsay that she just carries a lot on her shoulders when it comes to this franchise, what she wants it to be and Lindsay walks the walk when it comes to that. I do think you’ll see more of that. Sue Bird, Sue Bird hasn’t played overseas in some time and will never go back and she looked great, last year she looked tremendous after being off and so I think words getting out about that so I do think you’ll see a bit more of that.
Todd Barin contributed to this interview.