The Players Who Can Help The Minnesota Lynx Salvage Their Season

After a loss last week to the New York Liberty, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve lamented her team’s offensive production — just 32.8 percent from the field overall and 3-for-22 from 3-point range. She noted that, in a game just days earlier, Minnesota had beaten the Liberty by shooting 49.2 percent.

So I asked her: Is that the pathway to relevance for this Lynx team?

“Outscore people? Yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” Reeve replied with her signature bluntness. “That’s not gonna happen. I’ve had teams where you could go, ‘You know what? Let’s go and outscore people and probably could win. But this is not that team.”

And therein lies the two-fold challenge to solve for Reeve and the Lynx, now at 3-11 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. There are offensive questions to answer, but they cannot come at the expense of a defense that is underperforming every team in the Reeve era.

We should start by pointing out the obvious: The Lynx are trying to win this year without Napheesa Collier, who recently gave birth to 2044 WNBA lottery pick Mila Sarah Bazzell. Collier is a huge loss for the Lynx. We wouldn’t ask why the Aces were struggling if A’ja Wilson missed time, and few wondered why the 2020 Sun did not perform well in the regular season without Jonquel Jones. Somehow, the conversation in the WNBA still doesn’t fully recognize the level Collier has reached, but win shares sure does — Collier is fourth among all WNBA players in the value stat from 2019-21, and almost half of that value was accumulated on the defensive front. Missing her has exposed huge holes on both ends of the floor for Minnesota.

And the Lynx suffered a huge blow last week when Sylvia Fowles — the best five in the history of the game — was declared out indefinitely with a cartilage injury in her right knee. Fowles is retiring after this season, so it’s possible that we’ve seen the last of the career rebounding leader and franchise linchpin. Kayla McBride, the team’s starting shooting guard and best perimeter defender, also missed Sunday’s game due to injury. A shorthand way of thinking about this: The Lynx had three of the top 11 WNBA players in win shares last season, and none is currently available.

So where do the Lynx go from here? Their solutions have been a combination of in-house improvements, reversion to the norm and some savvy pickups.

Let’s start with the team’s point guard solution, Rachel Banham. The Minnesota native and Golden Gopher legend actually played quite a bit of point in college, with an assist percentage as high as 32.4 in a season, but her pro career with the Connecticut Sun and now the Lynx has typically been spent off the ball. That changed this offseason when the Lynx re-signed Banham with the intention of making her primarily a point guard, a challenge she embraced.

“Just trying to play confident, trying to be really assertive,” Banham said of her approach, standing next to the Barclays Center court prior to the June 7 game. “And just make decisions. Don’t overthink it, because that’s when I started to turn it over.”

Banham is doing just that, with an assist percentage this season so far of 27.3, easily a career high, and a turnover rate down to 13.4. To put that level of playmaking efficiency into context: There are 17 guards in the league (plus Candace Parker and Alyssa Thomas, because of course) with 100 minutes played and an assist percentage of 25 or higher. Banham’s turnover rate is the best of those 19. 

Banham’s close friend and teammate Bridget Carleton said the two had discussed this transition quite a bit. “She just adds that progression to our offense of scoring at the point guard,” Carleton said of Banham. “And she likes it when she’s locked into a position. She knows she’s gonna play point guard, she’s comfortable with it, and she can handle it.”

What’s likely to change on Banham’s part isn’t the ability to find people and limit mistakes — she’s actually getting better at that as the season goes on, with a 9-to-4 assist-to-turnover ratio in the first six games, 26-to-9 over the last eight — but rather her shooting percentages. Banham is at just 34.6 percent from the field overall, 29.8 from three. It is her shooting that got her into the league in the first place, of course. I’ll just leave you with this highlight video of Banham shooting and let you decide if you think those numbers will find a course correction. 

Notably, Banham is also the player with the best defensive net rating among Minnesota rotation regulars, something that also cuts against her reputation. Close behind her is Carleton, whose course correction is less about shooting better than shooting more often.

“I would like more scoring,” Reeve said of Carleton, chuckling. “Yes. We’d like more scoring. BC’s a smart player, so she’s not going to play outside of herself, which we appreciate. I would like her to be aggressive.”

Notably, in the June 5 win over the Liberty, Carleton managed the second-highest plus-minus rating of any Lynx player, behind only Banham, despite playing just 13 minutes and without taking a shot. Three rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot will do that for you.

“There’s different ways to impact a game besides scoring, and I will take value in that,” Carleton said. “I take pride in that. I take care of the ball as much as I can and I play good defense. And being able to be versatile and guard multiple positions — I think that adds value on the court, and I’m glad Cheryl recognizes that.”

It’s not as if Carleton cannot score, either — she shot 52 percent from the field, and north of 45 percent from three, back in 2020. So it’s just a question of opportunity.

Then there’s the pickup of Moriah Jefferson, waived by the Dallas Wings but now taking full advantage of a full workload she’s sought since entering the league back in 2016. Injuries played a part, no question, but the Wings had been hesitant to use her the way Reeve has. In Minnesota, Jefferson is averaging 30 minutes per game while maintaining her shooting efficiency — a 48.7 effective field-goal percentage — and an assist percentage at nearly 30, giving the Lynx multiple looks in the backcourt and numerous two-point guard sets with Banham.

“For me, it’s just about getting into the inside — I get into the paint,” Jefferson said of her impact on the offensive end. “I kick it after that happens. Everything else opens up my teammates.”

Between these three, the dramatic improvement from Jessica Shepard finishing at the rim and Aerial Powers’s return to form — 24.6 percent from the field and 8 points per game in her first five games, 38.6 percent from the field and 15.9 points per game in her nine since — the offense is rounding into form.

It is that defense that needs to get better. Just last year, the Lynx were fourth in the WNBA in defensive rating. The last time they were lower than sixth was 2010 — the last time they missed the playoffs. Right now, they sit in 10th.

“It takes a level of mental toughness, physical toughness,” Reeve said. “You know, [the Liberty] were beating us to loose balls. That’s always a story. You know, they beat us, the first-half deflections, they had 16. We had just nine. That tells the story.”

The Lynx have two-thirds of a season to change that story — perhaps even with Collier, who wants to play in 2022. And if they don’t? Well, last time Reeve and the Lynx missed the playoffs, the lottery odds went their way and they got the top pick, selecting Maya Moore in the 2011 WNBA draft.

This time around? As one WNBA talent evaluator put it, “It would be just like Minnesota to miss the playoffs and get Aliyah Boston to replace Sylvia Fowles.” Boston, of course, was the best defensive player (and best overall player) in women’s college basketball last season.

Check out our latest WNBA predictions.

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