Coach Cheryl Reeve has strategy to prolong run for aging Minnesota Lynx
MINNEAPOLIS — Their memories are fuzzy for something so important. Pinpointing exactly when Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve told Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson they would never be traded escapes them. Two years ago, maybe? Three?
The main thing is Reeve promised the trio of iconic Lynx players they never had to worry about wearing another WNBA uniform. Whenever they chose to retire, it would be as Lynx. The conversations were private, and the Lynx never discussed them publicly. Until now.
“We’re going to ride it until the wheels fall off,” said Reeve, also the club’s general manager, in a conference room at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Square practice facility before training camp opened. “When I say ride it until the wheels come off, I want to sprint to the finish line, not limp to the finish line.
“It’s been communicated to Glen [owner Glen Taylor], that’s what I want. They will never be traded. If they ever came to me and said they wanted to be traded, that’s a different story. But as far as our organization’s commitment to them, they don’t have to worry about that.”
Seems obvious, right? But athletic denouements rarely go as they should. Think Johnny Unitas as a Charger, Willie Mays as a Met, Kevin Garnett in his final go-round with the Timberwolves.
So this is particularly meaningful to Augustus, the overall No. 1 pick in 2006 who never left Minnesota, enduring the lean years before Reeve, Brunson, Whalen and Maya Moore arrived. A record-tying four WNBA titles followed. Sunday, the Lynx host the Los Angeles Sparks (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET) in their season opener at the Target Center, beginning pursuit of the only milestone eluding this group: back-to-back championships, last done by the Sparks in 2001-02.
“It’s exciting to know that I’ll finish out my career where I started,” Augustus said last week after the Lynx routed Chicago 87-58 in their final exhibition game. “I’m thankful. It was kind of a tough decision, especially the way I started with the Lynx. It wasn’t the happiest decision to stay here, because you never knew what was going to happen.”
Reeve’s promise mirrors what the Boston Celtics did in the early 1990s, when president Red Auerbach and CEO Dave Gavitt made a similar pledge to future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Bird and McHale retired as Celtics, the only team they ever played for, while Parish moved on to Charlotte and Chicago at his request. All three saw their numbers retired and raised to rafters, honors that await Augustus, Whalen and Brunson.
There’s a risk to committing to superstars in decline: riding them into irrelevance. The Celtics fell with their original Big Three, in part from bad luck. The deaths of Len Bias from a cocaine-induced heart arrhythmia in 1986, two days after he was drafted second overall, and budding superstar Reggie Lewis in 1993 from a heart ailment left the Celtics without a transformational player.
Bird retired in 1992 and McHale in ’93; Boston made the playoffs once the next eight seasons.
But Minnesota avoided that by retooling around center Sylvia Fowles and forward Maya Moore, who have each won regular-season MVP honors and have three WNBA Finals MVP awards between them. With Fowles, 32, and the soon-to-be-29 Moore in their prime, the Lynx need only fill in around them.
“You’re not rebuilding when you have a Maya and Syl on your team,” Reeve said. That allows Brunson, Whalen and Augustus to contribute in complementary roles for as long as they can.
“I know the focus is on the age of our team — I get that. But the two best teams in the league were the two oldest teams the last two years. … If that’s the only knock on our team, that’s OK.”
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve
Reeve and former GM Roger Griffith weren’t smarter than Auerbach and Gavitt, just luckier. The Lynx managed to be awful in the right year (2010, Reeve’s first season) to draft Moore No. 1 overall, and in 2015 benefited from Fowles’ forcing Chicago to trade her to Minnesota.
Building through the WNBA draft isn’t viable for Reeve, who refuses to absorb a bad season to land a top-six pick. The draft, she says, usually isn’t deep enough to land a starter later than that. (She hopes Alexis Jones, Minnesota’s first-rounder in 2017 and No. 12 overall, is an exception.)
Reeve’s strategy: acquire American veterans like Tanisha Wright and Danielle Robinson for supporting roles. And peruse the international market for up-and-comers, relying on her USA Basketball experience and assistant coach James Wade’s European connections.
“It remains a veteran league in our opinion,” Reeve said. “Talent and experience are two very important things that give you a chance to be successful. We’ve had that. I know the focus is on the age of our team — I get that. But the two best teams in the league were the two oldest teams the past two years. We think there’s something to that. If that’s the only knock on our team, that’s OK.”
The Lynx first dabbled in the international market in 2011, acquiring Australian guard Rachel Jarry in a draft-day trade. The next year, Minnesota drafted forward Damiris Dantas of Brazil. She signed in 2014 and contributed in a limited role before being dealt in the three-team trade for Fowles.
In 2017, the Lynx drafted Lisa Berkani of France and Australia’s Tahlia Tupaea (whose rights they retain), invited star Chinese center Shao Ting to training camp, and added free-agent Italian forward Cecilia Zandalasini late in the season. In the past few months, the Lynx signed free agent Endy Miyem, the French national team captain, and drafted South Korean center Ji-Su Park in before trading her to Las Vegas.
“It makes sense to maybe take an [international] player to hang on to who isn’t going to come right now,” Reeve said. “I don’t know how many are going to pan out. But is it better than taking an American player you’re just going to cut? You know they can’t make the team because they just aren’t good enough. The other ones, you take a flier.”
As for Augustus, Whalen and Brunson, they skipped the overseas season again to focus on the Lynx. Reeve continues to urge Augustus, 34, and Whalen, 36, to shoot more 3-pointers to save wear and tear on their bodies.
Last season, Augustus — Minnesota’s career scoring leader — averaged the fewest points of her career (10.9) but contributed a career-high 127 assists, mainly feeding Fowles in the post. Her scoring average jumped to 13.9 in the playoffs. Brunson, 36, expanded her range — connecting on 23 3-pointers — and made her first All-Star Game since 2013. And Whalen, limited to a career-low 22 games by a broken bone in her left hand, excelled in the last two games of the WNBA Finals.
“In professional sports, you usually don’t get to be on a team as long as you want to be on a team,” Brunson said. “But we really care about each other. We respect each other. And we will continue to go to bat for each other. I don’t think any of us would want it any other way.”