Column: The Challenge of Repeating, New-Look Lynx, Taking Care of the Basketball

Welcome to my weekly column! Every week I’ll be taking a deep dive on a Lynx-related story or topic, breaking down themes from the Lynx’s week, bringing you some of the best quotes and highlights, and previewing the week ahead. This week I’m starting off with an examination of winning back to back championships, one of the few victories these Lynx have yet to claim.

Running it Back:

The Lynx have an impressive resume since 2011—four championships, two league MVPs, seven winning seasons—but one thing has eluded them: a back-to-back championship. Repeating is one of the most difficult tasks in pro sports. It’s a high-water mark for a dominant franchise, and an undeniable statement not only about a team’s talent, but about their mental fortitude and staying power. Nobody can say that the Lynx haven’t found sustained success, but there’s no doubt that a championship repeat is a feather they’d love to have in their cap. However, defending a championship presents an entirely new set of hurdles for this team to adjust to.

Winning a championship requires an incredible amount of focus and mental energy. Every player gets the motivation to reach that level of success in a different way, but there’s one place where it’s easy to source that inner strength—losing. Losing hurts. Professional athletes are by nature highly competitive people, and the Lynx players are no different—whether it’s a drill, scrimmage, preseason game, or Game 5 of the playoffs, every single player wants to win badly. When they come up short, they remember the feeling. The Lynx haven’t forgotten the feeling of their loss in the 2016 WNBA Finals, and that memory fueled them in 2017. It wasn’t the only thing, but having that bitter memory helps.

When you’re defending a championship, you don’t get the benefit of demons to exhume. The WNBA Championship is the peak of the sport, and the Lynx have reached it—four times.

The thing about being the defending champs is you get every team’s best every night. Everyone wants to beat the best, and the defending champions are a key barometer by which every other team measures their skill. When every single game you play has a chance to become a statement win for your opposition, nobody can afford to take a night off. We saw that on Sunday against the Sparks. Yes, the Sparks are a talented team, but you can’t tell me they didn’t have a chip on their shoulder. Beating the team that beat them in last year’s Finals? That’s catharsis. Now it’s the Lynx’s turn to get angry.

“[A] dominant feeling is to get complacent when you’ve done something, you’ve achieved something, which makes winning for sure harder just in our human nature of being comfortable after we’ve done something great,” Maya Moore said at Lynx media day. “But once you’ve tasted it you want to keep doing it and see how good you can get, and maximize what you have. So, I pull from several different motivations but that’s definitely one—how good can we get?”

There’s more to the mental challenge of repeating than simply not having a revenge story though. Winning a title requires athletes to perform at their absolute peak longer than any of their peers. It’s incredibly difficult to stay focused in every single minute of every game, and walk away thinking of things to improve upon every single night. It’s an all-consuming, exhausting task. Performing at your best takes a toll—at some point it’ll catch up to you.

Besides the mental and emotional elements of a title defense, there are very real physical challenges. Championship contenders play more WNBA games than anyone else, and still typically play overseas during the off-season. Unlike other sports, there isn’t a months-long grace period for them to rest and recover before returning to the sport.

In the WNBA, defending a title is getting even harder because of the constant increase in the quality of the league. It’s hard to build through the draft with the late picks that come with wins, and cap space can be an issue as well in putting together a team of stars. The league is designed for parity, and when you have young stars entering the WNBA, and free agents getting deals to play against their former teams, it’s not difficult for teams that might have offered an easy win in years past to present a real challenge.

The odds are certainly stacked against teams trying to repeat, but aren’t they always? The defining characteristic of winning teams is their ability to fight through adversity—and the Lynx have showed that they undeniably have that ability. It’s easy to look back and think of their championship runs as destined, but at the time, Minnesota had to scratch and claw for every point.

So, what’s the key? How do the Lynx repeat?

A huge part of maintaining championship success is making offseason additions that don’t require a massive amount of shuffling to work into the system already in place. In short, the pieces you bring in have to fit. It’s important to shore up weaknesses, but also to build on strengths—the addition of an excellent defender to an already good defensive team will make the team that much better, another three-point shooter to a gifted offensive unit? Great.

The Lynx are an exceptionally well-run organization, and one with experience building on success. The pieces they brought in this summer all fit the organization both culturally and on the court. Danielle Robinson (as I’ve said in every piece I’ve written—I’m a huge DRob fan), brings the Lynx a speed they haven’t had before. She can get the Lynx into their offense incredibly quickly, and she’s experienced running the break. Her quickness puts such pressure on opposing defenses, that even when she isn’t scoring, the threat of her cutting to the basket creates opportunities for the Lynx. It might take a few games for her teammates to adjust to her pace—there were a few times on Sunday where Lynx players weren’t ready for Robinson’s passes—but once they do, look out.

Tanisha Wright is a defensive stopper and a reliable shooter who the Lynx can trust to anchor their defense when their bench is in the game. She’s not only a good defender herself, but she’s very vocal in helping her teammates find their spots. Having a leader like Wright coming off the bench is crucial to both winning games and providing a safety net of sorts for younger players like Alexis Jones and Temi Fagbenle who are developing well, but still need coaching on the court to continue to become players the Lynx can trust in any situation.

The last key Lynx acquisition is forward Lynetta Kizer. Kizer is a unique player in that she is both a bruiser and shooter. She’s very strong, and uses that strength to back down her defenders in the post, but she also has a reliable three-point shot. Put a smaller defender on her and she’ll bully them, put a larger defender on her and she’ll switch to a stretch-forward type of game and pull them out of the paint. Reeve has said in practice that she’s been surprised by Kizer’s defensive versatility as well—if Kizer can guard both the four and five positions for the Lynx, she won’t have any trouble staying on the floor.

All of these new faces fill holes for the Lynx. They’ve gotten better defensively, more versatile offensively, and most importantly, they haven’t sacrificed any of their winning culture. But there’s more to repeating than just bringing in new people, the players already on the roster need to adjust as well.

It’s so important in a repeat attempt to avoid the trap of thinking the same things that worked last year will work this year. You don’t want to let your opposition use the same playbook. Several Lynx players have added facets to their game that will throw new looks at their opponents, but I’d like to focus on two key ones.

The first is Rebekkah Brunson’s shooting. It’s no surprise to Lynx fans who have been watching Brunson over the last eight years (14 if you kept an eye on her in Sacramento), that she hasn’t lost a step this year. The 36-year-old forward looked incredibly sharp in Sunday’s game versus the Sparks. She finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, but perhaps more impressive were her percentages and the range of shots she hit. Brunson has been working on her three-point shot a lot lately—staying after practice and shooting hundreds of them. That work seems to have paid off: she connected on her only three-point attempt and hit several long twos as well. She shot 83.3-percent on the night, and was perfect at the line. It’s great to see a veteran like Brunson continuing to develop her game instead of just sticking with what worked for her in the past. If Brunson can keep that shooting up she’ll be able to play a key role in stretching out opposing defenses.

It doesn’t seem like Moore could get any better, but lo and behold, she’s looking for ways to do just that. A key development for Moore this offseason was the work she put in improving her ability in ball screen situations. The Lynx would like to be able to go small at times this year, playing Moore at the power forward position. With defenders like Wright and Seimone Augustus on the team, they can do that without giving up any defense. With Moore able to act as either a screener or a ball handler in the pick and roll, the Lynx have the ability to construct some absolutely devastating offensive sets.

All this is to say the Lynx are not sitting idly by and hoping to capture the same magic as they did in previous championship runs—in fact there’s no magic involved at all. Nothing that I’ve written here is new to the team, they know exactly what they need to do to repeat. That doesn’t diminish the challenge though. This team has their work cut out for them. No game will be easy, and with Reeve on the sidelines, not many practices will either. However, the Lynx have a lot on their side: a core that knows how to win, a front office that understands roster construction, and a culture that supports their quest for championships. Now they just need to get out there and play the game.

Highlight Reel:

Lindsay Whalen treated us to a vintage performance on Sunday, including this herky-jerky reverse late in the game. You can’t always tell what Whalen is about to do, but somehow she always finds a way to put the ball in the basket.

Theme of the Week:

It’s not the most positive way to start the season, but this week’s theme has to be ball security. The Lynx were rather turnover-prone during the preseason and that trend unfortunately continued on Sunday. Minnesota turned the ball over 24 times against the Sparks. Some of that was plays breaking down as the Lynx work in new players and adjust to new or altered offensive sets, that’s to be expected. But the Lynx also need to focus and make sure they’re not giving away anything due to sloppiness. The Lynx allowed the Sparks to take 17 more shots than them, and still lost only by one point. A loss is a loss, but clean up some of those turnovers and the Lynx look dangerous.

Quote Corner:

“We had a great conversation about just wanting to draft her, why we wanted to draft her, it was not because she was a Golden Gopher, it was because we thought she would add value to our training camp. Obviously I watched her for four years, spent some time with her, everything that we hoped she would be she was. Obviously a quality individual which is important to us, plays really hard, fights every possession. I told her she overcame kind of the stigma of a player that comes out of a zone system. She did well, and she kind of revealed why she did well. We talked about the areas of improvement, this is not the end it’s the beginning of her professional career, and like a lot of players that we like we keep an eye on them and see if there’s an opportunity down the road.” –Cheryl Reeve on Carlie Wagner.

“I think that All-Star caliber player is back and the way I fit here, how hard we work together. The games, when it’s my time to go, it’ll be a good rotation for me, so I’m excited about what they have me doing, how they’re letting me play my game completely” –Danielle Robinson on her potential with the team.

“There is a natural hunger that you see in those younger teams or teams that have never been there that want to get it for the first time that you have to be ready for. You have to have whatever you need inside to match those teams who are talented enough, who haven’t been there, and want to take it from you.” –Maya Moore on defending the 2017 title.

“I remember we were playing a Sacramento team that had a bunch of likable players and we had to find ways to kind of make them not like Sacramento. You don’t have to do that with some of the teams. There’s a couple teams in the league that we have to be creative in creating that dislike, that very, very healthy dislike. Respect, but you got to want to want to beat them badly. If you like them too much it takes the edge off a bit, and you don’t want that.” –Reeve on looking for ways to stay motivated.

What’s Next:

They Lynx play at home versus Dallas on Wednesday before heading out on the road to take on the Liberty, Mystics, and Dream. No rest for the weary in this shortened season. We’ll keep you updated on the stories and results this week, and I’ll see you next Tuesday for another edition of this column!