2012 review and offseason summary
It wasn’t so long ago when the Minnesota Lynx were all the rage in the WNBA.
They stormed through the league in 2011 putting together an historic season on their way to the franchise’s first WNBA title. They were the best defensive rebounding team in the history of the league, led by the will of Rebekkah Brunson. It might seem like ancient history now, but they also had some rookie who was being called the best women’s basketball player ever by some and might have been worth seeing too – guess she didn’t pan out.
2012 was supposed to be a continuation of their march toward dynasty status.
With three Olympians in Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen – and a fourth Olympic caliber player in Brunson – the Lynx entered the season as unquestionably the team to beat. And held that status really all the way to the playoffs when the Seattle Storm unexpectedly gave them a challenge in the first round before the Indiana Fever shocked everyone by beating the Lynx in the Finals.
Still, as explained in our offseason primer for the Lynx, it’s not as if they had a whole lot of things to tweak this offseason: a little internal development and addressing the turnover issue figured to have them right back on top of the league.
2012 Four Factors statistics for the Minnesota Lynx.
And after a few personnel moves and a solid draft, the Lynx might be right back on track to continue their regular season success this season.
2013 WNBA Draft: Lindsey Moore and Sugar Rodgers
We’ve already been through what made Moore a great point guard prospect elsewhere, but to summarize: she was the most efficient point guard in one of the better point guard classes in recent years, her style of play at Nebraska was reminiscent of Whalen though she was not nearly the volume scorer, and her three point shooting improved to 38.2% in her senior year. A player with those numbers figures to find a niche for themselves in the league and starting out learning from a player like Whalen in a system like Minnesota’s should only help her along in her development.
Sugar Rodgers, however, was one of the more difficult prospects to project.
On the one hand, Rodgers was this year’s classic example of the low-efficiency volume shooter that just hasn’t lasted in the WNBA in recent years aside from Riquna Williams, who was not only an elite athlete but also a solid 3-point shooter at 36.6%. Rodgers was a 30.8% 3-point shooter in her senior year, which wasn’t too far behind her 36% shooting from the field overall. She was the lead ball handler for Georgetown, but wasn’t efficient on that front either as a player with a -5.34 pure point rating.
On the other hand, Rodgers has an excuse for all those numbers: she was Georgetown’s offense this past season and everybody in the gym knew that the ball had to be in her hands in order for her team to score. In a non-conference game against Cal State – Fullerton this season in Berkeley, even Fullerton was able to stifle Rodgers in the second half by forcing her into jumpers going left. But obviously, that won’t be the case in the pros: she won’t be the focal point, won’t have to be so single-minded on the offensive end, and her ability to create shots could actually become an asset as she works more off the ball at 5’11”. Her steal rate of 4.9% was among the top 40 in the nation during the 2012-13 NCAA season and bodes well for her to make an impact on that end with a combination of size and quickness.
Rodgers could fill the role of scorer off the bench and a commitment to the defensive end could make her a valuable contributor to a WNBA rotation, but she’ll definitely be among one of the more interesting rookies to watch in terms of learning a little more about draft prospects from her transition to the league.
2012 Four Factors statistics for Minnesota Lynx returners and veterans.
Minnesota’s balance was part of what helped them win the 2011 WNBA Finals. That year, they didn’t really have any major weaknesses as they stormed through the league.
Last season, that wasn’t quite true: turnovers were a major Achilles heel for the team.
But that makes their offseason departures particularly significant: with Jessica Adair being released, Taj McWilliams-Franklin retiring, Erin Thorn signing with Phoenix and Candice Wiggins being traded the Lynx have lost four of their five most turnover prone players. That’s obviously a narrow way to look at the impact of those players, but it’s fair to say that they have a chance to improve on that one negative differential they had last year.
And improvement from that fifth turnover prone player could make a major difference for the team.
Peters actually had the highest turnover ratio on the team last season, which was mildly surprising because she was relatively efficient with the ball at Notre Dame. And looking at this team’s potential, it’s difficult not to start there.
Although Peters was an efficient scorer and strong offensive rebounder, her turnover rate and fouls (6.3 per 36 mins) limited her effectiveness on the floor. But she showed flashes of being a great fit in this system with the tools to be a very effective contributor.
If Peters just improves on those two things as part of the standard course of her development, the Lynx could have a solid frontcourt rotation.
Part of that depends on what Janel McCarville brings after being away from the league since 2010. On paper, it’s reasonable to think that she could post numbers similar to McWilliams-Franklin: McCarville’s numbers in 2010 with the Liberty weren’t too far off from McWilliams-Franklin’s over the last two years (turnovers included in 2012). But obviously, McWilliams-Franklin brought more than what shows up in the stats in terms of defense and leadership and that will be a loss. But between McCarville and Peters they should have two solid, albeit not the tallest, players to fill their post rotation.
On the perimeter, their depth will depend on what they get from the 2013 draft selections as well as Rachel Jarry. Along the lines of that turnover issue from last season, Wiggins was essentially the backup point guard last season and had a pure point rating of -2.20. Moore’s college numbers suggest that she will be more efficient than that, setting aside questions about whether she can keep up with the speed of the game.
Even without major production from any of the rookies, when you have three Olympians and Monica Wright returning to the perimeter rotation you can find a way to make things work.
X-Factor: Amber Harris’ development
Amber Harris could be a major factor in the team’s depth this season if she can get back to rebounding the way she did in 2011 (10.4% offensive rebounding percentage) while becoming a more efficient scorer and maintaining the impressive shot blocking rate she had last season (4.5%).
Most of us will agree that Harris has a versatile skillset at 6’4″, which creates visions of upside to dance around fans’ heads – as an example from last season, Harris shot 38.9% from the 3-point line. Sure it was only 18 attempts, but it’s just one more thing that you begin to believe that maybe she can do. The problem has just been bringing it all together into a productive package on the court.
As for her scoring efficiency, her shot attempts were distributed across close and mid-range but it’s not like her low efficiency could be attributed entirely to drifting away from the basket – she shot just 5-for-18 from 6-10 feet, which is probably an area she’d have to improve more than anywhere in order to become an above average efficiency interior player.
There was plenty expected of Harris when she was drafted by the Lynx in the 2011 lottery and she hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty expectations. But she’s also shown some signs that she might be able to bring it all together. With the Lynx losing McWilliams-Franklin and there being some uncertainty about what exactly McCarville and Peters can contribute this season, Harris still has an opportunity to become a valuable contributor.
Versatility: Question marks & upside
What’s always been fascinating about the Lynx is that as good as their starting lineup has been for the last two years, they’ve also had plenty of upside.
And that’s no different this season.
Beyond Harris, the Lynx have a number of question marks that could be the difference between them being just a very good team and a great one.
Harris and Peters could very easily improve, which would could give the team some different looks on the offensive end. Monica Wright has steadily improved over the course of her career and is well prepared to step into a bigger role this season. If any of the rookies can produce, they’ll be deeper around the perimeter.
That potential upside gives them the potential to go with bigger, defensive lineups, smaller, quicker lineups with shooters spread around the court or the more “traditional” double post, two wing, and a point guard style.
The one place they could run into trouble is with teams that have bigger post players – McWilliams-Franklin wasn’t tall, but she was an expert defender. Whether they can match that with the group of posts they have this season remains to be seen.
One of the things that really struck me about the Lynx in 2011 was that their most efficient players were also their highest usage players, which is something I really haven’t seen from any other team in my time watching the WNBA.
The Lynx weren’t quite there last season, but their shot distribution was still arguably the closest to optimal of any team in the league: their most efficient group of players still had the ball in their hands most often, which is a large part of what makes this team work.
Along those lines, while they have a number of players who had above average usage rates for their position last year they also didn’t have any extremely high usage players and they were balanced across the roster. And relative to other teams around the league, they have a number of efficient ball handlers (Moore and Whalen are both extremely efficient for their position, Augustus is well above average).
It would be going too far to say that the Lynx were lacking a clear MVP – statistically last season, it was Maya Moore by margin wider than most other teams in the Western Conference (excluding the injury ravaged Mercury) – but to have five players accounting for between 12-20% of the team’s statistical contributions is still remarkable.
And if you’re looking for an advantage that the Lynx have over almost any team in the league it’s that chemistry in terms of how the players complement each other: they have skillsets that allow the type of give and take that it requires to be a successful basketball team.
Key question: Have WNBA fans underestimated the Minnesota Lynx?
There’s currently a San Francisco Giants themed AAA radio ad running in the Bay Area that opens with the narrator saying, “What’s better than winning two titles in three years? WOOOOOOOOOOOO! Nothing!”
But the Lynx actually do have a chance to do the Giants one better: they have a legitimate chance to make their third championship series in three years, making them among the most dominant teams in all of U.S. professional sports right now. If in fact they do make it three years in a row, they’d be the first team since the Los Angeles Sparks to do so.
In other words, the Lynx are not just contenders – they’re still on dynasty watch right now.
We’ve discussed this elsewhere on the site, but of the things overshadowed by the #3tosee campaign, the Lynx are probably the biggest: yes, the top of the Western Conference has improved to the point that the Lynx probably won’t match that 27-7 record they’ve put up the past two years. But there isn’t another team in the conference (and really the league) with their kind of depth at each position, assuming a few things work out in their favor.
Even if neither Harris, McCarville, nor Peters work out to perform to their most optimistic projections, no frontcourt can be considered “bad” with Brunson at the power forward spot. Similarly, you can’t call their perimeter rotation “bad” with three Olympians, each of whom some would argue are the best at their position in the conference.
Setting the hype for the 2013 season aside, you can’t look at the WNBA over the past two years and not think that this is the team to beat – they have the potential to have five productive players on the floor for all 40 minutes of a game. That’s a luxury most teams don’t have.