2020 WNBA Preview: Minnesota Lynx

WNBA teams have cut down their teams to their official roster, should a new season happen. From now forward we at least will have some clarity on who teams are going to be carrying into a season.

Minnesota played well last year, given the talent they lost from their championship winning team. Lindsey Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson retired. Seimone Augustus played much less because of injury. Augustus has now signed with the Los Angeles Sparks, which will take some getting used to.

Maya Moore also sat out, and will sit out this year as well, as she focuses on fighting mass incarceration and successfully freeing Jonathan Irons. While I would love to see Moore play basketball again, as one of my favorite players of all time, her advocacy off court has been impressive, on an issue very important to me. Particularly in a pandemic, bringing attention to unjust prison sentences is more important than basketball.

Back to this year’s Lynx, this is a team that has question marks at the guard spot to be answered, though their front court is among the strongest in the league. Napheesa Collier had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent history, Sylvia Fowles is still very effective.

The defense should once again be good, as the team had the second best defensive rating in the league last year and returns the key components of the defense. The offense was ok, but was a bit hit or miss, given the lack of shooting from guard, with Danielle Robinson starting at point guard much of the year.

This is a team that was hurt by the league’s use of single elimination games in the playoffs. They had a better net rating than a Seattle Storm team that had a great game to knock them out, and would have had a chance to win a series. Single elimination games are a terrible way to run a playoffs in the WNBA. They should at least be given a best of 3, if not a best of 5.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions:

Rachel Banham, Shenise Johnson

Notable Losses:

Seimone Augustus, Stephanie Talbot, Jessica Shepherd (suspended for season, still rehabbing a knee injury)

Draft Picks:

1st round: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan

2nd round: Crystal Dangerfield

Guards: Odyssey Sims*, Crystal Dangerfield, Lexi Brown, Rachel Banham

Wings: Napheesa Collier, Cecilia Zandalasini, Bridget Carleton, Karima Christmas-Kelly, Shenise Johnson

Bigs: Sylvia Fowles, Damiras Dantas, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Kayla Alexander.

*Odyssey Sims is returning from pregnancy, and starts the season on the inactive list.

Playing Time Breakdown:

Sylvia Fowles is still one of the most effective centers in the league, so center is taken care of.. While she was down a bit from her incredible peak a few seasons ago, she is still very effective, scoring .995 per post up per which was in the 74th percentile on a healthy number of attempts per Synergy .

I am curious to see is whether the team incorporates more pick and rolls using Fowles as screener, given that a play in which Fowles finished in the pick and roll was worth 1.093 points per possession, though on a smaller number of attempts. They may lack guards who are particularly adept at running them, for as long as Sims sits out, but it still may be a better option than asking Fowles to do the shot creation herself.

Napheesa Collier had one of the more impressive rookie years one will see. Especially given that she was moving from the 4 in college to the 3 for Minnesot. Her shooting, 38% from 3, and ball handling, were better than I expected moving out on the perimeter. That she would eventually get there was believable, but not right from the first game. Those shooting numbers may not hold up this year, which would reduce her effectiveness, but even without it, she still has the chance to be the best player from the 2019 draft, an incredible get for the Lynx with the sixth pick. 

I would like to see more of Collier at the 4 more this year, to see if the Lynx can improve their offense. But Damiras Danta played well at the 4 last year, and does provide spacing from there. She just is much less of a threat off the dribble than Collier, and is not much of an upgrade on defense. Another interesting wrinkle would be Dantas at the 5 and Collier at the 4, and go five out, when Sylvia Fowles has to sit. Dantas is big enough to defend most backup 5s, and would be a tough cover at the other end. Could stagger Dantas and Fowles, to make up for the lack of a backup center that is particularly effective.

Guard is the big question mark for this team. Odyssey Sims had a decent 2019 season, though she had the bad luck of her worst game of the year coming in their playoff game against Seattle. Sims was very good in transition. The Lynx hope she can be more efficient in the half court. She is now out, and it is unclear if she will be back this year. 

Lexie Brown played back up point last year, but seems like she might be overmatched in that role as a starter. Rookie point guard is a tough position to play, and Crystal Dangerfield will need to overcome doubts about her size on defense at only 5’5”, but she has shown the ability to be a quality point guard in her time at UCONN. Dangerfield in particular can play off ball and shoot off screens, a wrinkle the Lynx did no really have last year, except sometimes with Lexi Brown.

Rachel Banham was also brought in, but she is more of a theoretical shooter at this point, compared to Brown. Brown has shot better for her career, at 37% compared to 32% for Banham, and Brown was at 40% last year, her first where she played real minutes. Neither player got to the basket much nor shot particularly well there, with Brown at 39% on shots in the half court at the rim, and Banham at 40%, but Brown did get there nearly 4 times as often. 

Shooting guard should go to Cecilia Zandalasini. At 6’2” she would be the tallest shooting guard in the league. Defensively she might struggle with the quickness of opponents in the wrong matchup, but given her shooting combined with her size, would be a tough cover at the other end. She, after Collier, is the player with the upside to help this team over perform expectations.

Minnesota is going to live and die by their guard play this year. My prediction is for an 8th place finish and to squeak into the playoffs, but Cheryl Reeve is a Hall of Fame coach and may be able to maximize this roster. Also, it is possible that Collier is able to shoot as well or better than last year, and takes a step forward as many second year players do, in which case she could drive this team to win even more games, as a big wing with her skill is the biggest driver of winning.