Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010-2011 Season Preview, Part 1: Still Golden?

In the book, Stu and I called the present era from 1997 forward "the second golden age of Minnesota basketball." People's first instinct was to say, oh, yeah, because we're in the NBA again.

Well, it's true that the first golden age coincided with the reign of George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers as the best player and best basketball team in the history of the world to that time. But it was the first golden age more because of the sheer numbers of Minnesota kids who were good enough to play ball professionally and at the college level. The success of the Hamline Pipers and Minnesota Gophers, etc., was a consequence of this great local talent, and the Lakers prominently featured Minnesota natives Vern Mikkelson and Whitey Skoog, among other. Minnesota high school ball was assumed to be played at a fairly high level--at least in certain parts of the state, Minneapolis mostly--because of the kids who went on to success at higher levels.

So it is in the second golden age. Minnesota, in fact, has more kids per capita playing youth basketball than almost any state in the union. Minnesota summer AAU teams teams are enjoying great success nationwide as a result. The Mankato State women and Winona State men (twice) won NCAA D2 national championships, and the Gopher men and women each made it all the way to the Final Four in 1997 and 2004, respectively . And, yeah, we're in the NBA again.

Still, I wonder if the second golden era isn't coming to an end, or already has. If Minnesota youth ball is so good, shouldn't the Minnesota Gophers--both men and women--continue to enjoy some success? It's been 14 years, now, since the men went to the Final Four, and 7 years for the women. The latter, in fact, slumped into last place in the Big Ten last year despite a seasoned, senior-dominated lineup.

And, while this golden age talk never depended on the Timberwolves--or the Lynx, certainly--you've got to admit that the two of them have become more of a liability than an asset as far as Minnesota's hoops reputation is concerned.

So how about it? Is the golden age really over? What do Minnesota basketball teams have to accomplish in order to keep the golden age going?

The Pros

As noted, the Timberwolves and Lynx have done little to boost Minnesota's reputation. Ten years with arguably one of the best players in the world in his prime, and the Wolves could manage to win a playoff series in only one of those years. The Lynx have now stockpiled a total of 5 WNBA all-stars, and they won one less game than the previous year.

A worthy contribution to golden status would be for one or both of them to not only make the playoffs, but to win a playoff series or two as well. The Lynx still seem poised to make some noise, but clearly they're going to have to harness all of that talent and get it pulling in one direction. It is utterly unclear that the management, all the way from owner Glen Taylor to coach Cheryl Reeves, has the smarts to do that. If 2011 is another lost year, then I seriously believe the franchise will be lost, perhaps immediately. I mean, attendance failed to increase despite the acquisition of Lindsay Whalen. They've already prolonged the agony about as far as it can go, they've got to win and, probably, win now, or they're lost.

As for the Wolves, either Ricky Rubio is going to save the franchise or, like the Lynx, it can't be saved.

So here's the early line. David Kahn says the Wolves are improved, but I don't see it. Maybe they win 20 this year, but not much more, and the playoffs are out of the question. But, next spring, the Lynx turn it around, going from 13-21 to 21-13 and home ice advantage in August. Lindsay Whalen is the toast of Minnesota once again.

The Gophers

You've got to admit it doesn't look good. Tubby still has a solid starting 5 for 2010-2011, but beyond that the cupboard is damn near bare--including the bench now, and future prospects beyond 2011 and maybe 2012. A run at the Big Ten title would probably fix everything but a vastly better recruiting class in 2011 than this year's bunch is even more essential. It's just that that's not going to happen unless the kids who are already wearing the M create some excitement first.

As for the women, it must be admitted that coach Borton is deep into rebuilding mode. It's just as well that last year's senior class has moved on, having closed out their checkered careers with an utterly unexpected last place finish. There's some experience back and that's a good thing. But for everything the juniors and seniors have shown, it is going to have to be the sophomores and freshmen who create a renaissance in Gopher women's hoops. And this year's freshman class, though large, is not highly touted. Yes, Rachel Banham is coming in 2011-2012 but who among the current roster is going to be able to keep up with her?

Once again, here's the early line. The Gopher men finish one win above .500 in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, and they make some noise in the conference tournament. They make the NCAA and win one game. That's as optimistic as I can get. Sorry.

But the women will struggle again. 6-and-12 is about as good as I can imagine in the conference, and the NCAA tournament is not in the realm of possibility. But Katie Loberg emerges as a player to be reckoned with in the Banham era.

Small College

Minnesota colleges have over-achieved at the D2 level (Northern Sun), while the D3 schools (MIAC) have faded from national prominence. That's about to turn around. The reason I say that is 1) the center of power in the NSIC is about to shift south and west, to places like Wayne State and Augustana and Northern State, though I do believe that the Concordia (St. Paul) women will continue to be strong contenders. And 2) the St. Thomas women are putting together a powerhouse that will soon begin to enjoy success at the national level like MIAC women did back in the good old days.

The High Schools

Let's admit that Hopkins' domination of boys basketball is getting to be a serious annoyance. And let's note that the Hopkins girls have stockpiled an awesome amount of talent, though they're probably a year away from another state title.

In other words, kids shopping themselves like NBA free agents is a problem if you're a fan who's not attached to a particular group of kids, you just like watching high school ball. Specifically, at the state tournament level. I mean, I'm thinkin' maybe I'll go see a bunch of regular season games and then just skip the damn state tournament. I don't know.

The point is that the transfer rule that was initiated a couple-three years ago can now pretty clearly be understood to have been a bust. Kids can no longer transfer after the first day of 9th grade without missing a year of eligibility--well, except that kids transfer all the time. T.T. Starks, who as a 7th grader at Mpls. North last year looked like the second coming of Janet Karvonen, will henceforth be playing for Hopkins. And kids can transfer after 9th grade if they change their place of residence.

But anyway, the main point is that once upon a time, kids waited until after 9th or even 10th grade to assess their talent. Then, if they thought they could play for Hopkins or some other, more elite program, they would transfer. But relatively few of them would do so. Most would look at their abilities and say, I probably belong where I am today. But, now, they've got to decide when they're in 8th grade, and they all think, Hey, I can play with the big boys or girls. So Hopkins actually ends up with more talent than if there were no transfer (or anti-transfer) rule.

Now, don'[t get me wrong. Hopkins hasn't done anything wrong--not the boys, and not the girls--and neither have the kids who transfer there or anywhere else. It's a free market out there, and kids and their families rightfully get to choose the path that's right for them. I'm just saying this is one of those cases where a truly free market would probably work better than one that is constrained by this particular heavy-handed transfer rule.

Now, maybe all of this is just by way of an aside. The question before us is, Is Minnesota basketball still golden? And it will depend, ultimately, on the kinds of college careers Rachel Banham and Joe Coleman and the next 50 top players have, and whether 1 or 2 of them doesn't squeeze through the meat grinder to make it to the NBA and WNBA. It's not that the success of Hopkins and the other truly elite programs actually prevents anybody from doing that. But it is that the increasingly lopsided distribution of talent at the high school level doesn't seem to be promoting that sort of success, either.

So I'm gonna keep asking the question, Is Minnesota Hoops still golden? And I'm going to give it to 2012-2013 to really try to answer the question. But right now we seem to be experiencing a bit of a decline. I'm hoping it's only temporary.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lynx Eliminated from Playoff Contention

The Seattle Storm beat the L.A. Sparks last night, 76-75. Not only did the Storm thus finish an the WNBA's first-ever undefeated home schedule and tie for the most wins (28) in the league's history. The Storm also put the Minnesota Lynx out of their misery, as their win clinched a playoff spot for the San Antonio Silver Stars and eliminated the Lynx from playoff contention.

With the loss, the Sparks finish 13-21. San Antonio also has 13 wins, while the Lynx have 12, and each has one more game to go. The Lynx' last playoff scenario was to beat Indiana tonight while San Antone lost to Phoenix. Each would thus finish 13-21 and the Lynx have the tie-breaker over the Silver Stars by virtue of a 3-2 lead head-to-head. But now, with the Sparks' loss to Seattle, they too finish 13-21 and the head-to-head tie-break with San Antone no longer pertains. It's now a 3-way tie-breaker, in which the Lynx come in 3rd.

The next to last nail in the Lynx' coffin was a pair of losses on a west coast road trip--68-64 at Seattle, and 98-91 at L.A. Characteristic of the Lynx' late-season fade, Minnesota coughed up the lead in the 4th quarter in both games. The story of the Lynx' season is they blew a total of 9--count 'em, 9--double digit leads (in just a 34 game schedule).

At Seattle, the Lynx led by as much as 28-12 early on, and still led 56-54 at the 3rd quarter break. Seattle finally caught up at 58, and took their first lead since 2-0 at 61-60. The Lynx took their final lead at 62-61, then were out-scored 7-2 down the stretch. They hit just 3-of-13 shots in the 4th quarter, and missed all 7 3-point attempts. They also gave up 5 Seattle offensive boards in the 4th.

At L.A., the Lynx led 59-49 at 4:31 of the 3rd quarter, and got out-scored 49-32 the rest of the way. L.A. made a remarkable 20-of-28 shots in the 2nd half, including 14-of-17 2-point attempts. The Sparks took their first lead since 16-15 at 77-74 and quickly built it to 88-78, meaning they had a 39-19 edge after trailing by 10 in the 3rd quarter.

You will recall the pattern. On August 12 and 13, the Lynx lost a pair of games to L.A. and Washington. Against the Sparks, again, the Lynx led early and late--27-10 in the 1st, 59-53 after 3, and 72-68 late in the 4th quarter before losing. Against Washington, it was 40-29 Lynx at the half, and Minnesota led 58-54 inside of 2 minutes.

Ten days earlier came the biggest collapse of all, though it was one that the Lynx were able to recover from. Midway through the 2nd period, the Lynx had a seemingly insurmountable lead of 51-21, but a buzzer-beating 3-pointer forced OT. Fortunately, the Lynx pulled that one out 111-103, or they woulda/coulda/shoulda blown 10 double digit leads. You'd almost want to suggest that they need a point guard who can control the tempo in such games, but they just brought in hometown hero Lindsay Whalen as their long-term solution at the positioin. Or, you might suggest that they need a scorer who can get that big bucket down the stretch, but they've already got one of the league's best scorers in Seimone Augustus. Too bad she disappeared down the stretch.

Or, you might say they need to get a defensive stop in the clutch now and then. Or, how about a defensive stop any time. This has been a terrible defensive team all year long, for which the players and coach all share the blame. When you get down too it, that is the reason this team missed missed the playoffs for the 10th time in 12 seasons.

So, three items of business for the off-season: Replace coach Cheryl Reeves with somebody who won't get out-coached in the 4th quarter time and again, and who can devise a defensive scheme that our offensive minded roster can get their heads around. Get everybody healthy: It is true that the Lynx would have made the playoffs but for injuries to superstar Augustus and young all-star Candice Wiggins. And three, hope like hell to get Maya Moore in the 2011 WNBA draft. In addition to their own draft pick, the Lynx also own that of the Connecticut Sun and so own two of the four lottery draft picks (and an estimated 37 of 100 chances to win the #1 pick).

And as a corollary, if you get Moore, move whomever occupies her position in favor of an experienced center with a passion for defense and defensive boards.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mbakwe Agrees to Play for Gophers

There's been a fair bit of doom and gloom surrounding Gopher Nation of late, and we're not even talking about men's football. The honeymoon is apparently over for Tubby Smith, who has come in for some criticism for the disappointing performance of his 2009-2010 men's basketball team and particularly for a lackluster 2010 recruiting class.

So, finally, a breath of fresh air, which is Trevor Mbakwe's announcement that--no hard feelings--he will play for Tubby and the Gopher men.

As you know, Mbakwe had been suspended by Gopher AD Joel Maturi last year due to his legal problems in Florida, where he had played junior college ball. But said legal problems having been resolved, he had been cleared to join the Gophers for the 2010-2011 season. This was followed, however, by reports that Mbakwe himself was uncertain that he would accept the offer. But, yesterday, Mbakwe reportedly posted on his Facebook page that he would indeed play for Tubby this coming year.

Of course, he'll have 2 years of eligibility here at Minnesota. If he had decided to play somewhere else, it would represent yet another transfer, he would sit out another year, and have only one more year of eligibility left. So the decision to stay doesn't smack of an unqualified and enthusiastic endorsement of the Gopher program. Pragmatically, it was Mbakwe's only realistic choice.

There's been much hype surrounding Mbakwe's ability, and how much he'll contribute to the team. Former Gopher coach Jim Dutcher says he'll help a lot because he's an aggressive rebounder, and that's something the Gophers lack. Another source is quoted in the PiPress saying he was the "best player on the court" in last year's pre-season public scrimmage.

Well, it's been a long time since I've seen Trevor Mbakwe play basketball, so I am probably completely out to lunch here. I hope so. But I never saw Mbakwe as a player of obvious Big Ten caliber. I mean, sure he was a good high school player but as a senior he played a weak, Minnesota Class A schedule and his most recent experience is at a junior college in Florida. In one year of major college play, he contributed 1.5 points and 2 rebounds per game at Marquette.

In summary, the hype seems to me to be less in proportion to Mbakwe's ability than to the lack of anything else to get excited about in the Gopher men's program right now.

To wit:

• Unlike Mbakwe, Royce White bore some hard feelings (and had some options) after he, too, was suspended last year due to legal difficulties, and so he transferred last month to Iowa State.

• The newest Gophers, both walk-ons, like most of the 2010 recruiting class, underwhelm. I mean, no offense. But Chris Halvorsen has transferred in from Valpo, where as a freshman his numbers were 1 point and 0.7 boards in 4 minutes. And Halvorsen will be sitting out 2010-2011 after transferring, anyway. Then there's Eric Stark, a true freshman from Grand Rapids. Now, Stark will be a player some day, which is to say, a contributor off the bench. But even if he makes the active roster this year, he'll be lucky to match Halvorsen's numbers from Valpo.

• The Gophers' last scholarship offer went to guard Maverick Ahanmisi. In addition to Minnesota, he had scholarship offers from Chicago Loyola and California-Santa Barbara.

Still, there is this. The Gophers' starting line-up for 2010-2011 looks pretty solid: Colt Iverson, Ralph Sampson, Rod Williams, Devoe Joseph and Blake Hoffarber. Mbakwe, if he's the player people say, off the bench. Al Nolen, if he can regain his academic eligibility, off the bench.

But, then, if you need more bench strength than that--and we don't know that Nolen will be eligible--you're talking true freshman Ahanmisi, Elliott Eliason, Austin Hollins, Oto Osenieks and Mo Walker. Not a top 100 recruit among 'em. Or a walk-on: Bryant Allen, Dominique Dawson or Stark. Royce White would look like a Tim Duncan among this bunch.

And, still, there's the fellow who says Mbakwe is the Gopher's best player, better than Hoffarber, better than Iverson, better than Sampson. And there's the newspaper columnist and Gopher cheerleader who says that Tubby's crew would finish 5th or 6th without Mbakwe, but can contend for the Big Ten title with him in the lineup. Hey, it's August, Who wants more Kool-Aid? Let's just say, We hope so, and leave it at that.

Lynx' Roller Coaster Ride Continues

If the Lynx miss out on the 2010 WNBA play-offs, it will be because they've lost 6 of their last 8 games at home, including last night's heart-breaker, 78-77 to the L.A. Sparks.

No, wait. If the Lynx miss out on the 2010 WNBA play-offs, it will be because of an inability to close out games in which they've taken an early lead. That includes last night's loss to the Sparks, in which the Lynx led 23-10 after one period and 27-10 at 8:48 of the 2nd. They still led 59-53 after 3, only to get out-scored 25-18 in the 4th.

The lead was still 72-68 at 2:28 of the 4th, and ordinarily the Lynx would take their chances with a late 4 point lead and the ball in Lindsay Whalen's hands. But Whalen made 2 good plays and 2 bad down the stretch, and it wasn't enough, as the lead changed hands 5 times inside of 2 minutes.

First, Lindsay turned the ball over at 1:57, and 40 seconds later the Sparks took their first lead since 5-4 on a 3 by DeLisha Milton-Jones, who led the Sparks with 21 points. Whalen responded with a 2 at exactly 1:00 for a 75-74 Lynx lead. Minnesota got the ball back on a Charde Houston rebound, but Lindsay missed two FT attempts at 0:23, enabling L.A. to take the lead back at 0:04.3 on a Tina Thompson jumper. This time, Whalen responded by making to FT, making in 77-76 Minnesota at 0:01.1, for what looked like a Lynx win.

But the Sparks somehow got the ball all the way down to the Lynx baseline where Thompson hit another jumper with 0:00.0 on the clock.

While Whalen was turning the ball over and missing a pair of FT, the Sparks' point guard Tina Penichiero, was making a conventional 3 point play off a driving lay-up and notching 3 assists. Meanwhile the Lynx' leading scorer, Seimone Augustus, suffered through a 3-for-10 shooting night, scoring just 6 points. Houston came off the bench to lead the way with 24 points.

Up and Down

• The Lynx started out 2-11, playing much of the 1st month without stars Augustus, Rebekah Brunson and Candice Wiggins.

• Just when hope seemed lost, the Lynx won 5 of 7 to get back into the play-off picture.

• Misfortune struck again when Wiggins blew out her achilles tendon, and the Lynx lost 5 in a row, 4 of them at home. OK, now hope really was gone....

• But, no. A shocking 72-71 win over the league's best team, the Seattle Storm (now 25-4), was followed by 2 more wins, including a 111-103 thriller over Connecticut that we covered here at Minnesota Hoops. Of course, the Lynx blew a 51-21 lead before pulling away in OT in that game.

• In their last 4 games, the Lynx won at Chicago (in OT after blowing a 16 point half-time lead), lost to New York at home, won at San Antonio, then blew a 17 point lead in last night's home loss to the Sparks.

Predictions, Anyone?

So, now, with just 5 games remaining, predicting how the Lynx will finish is a fool's errand. Right now the race for the final 2 play-off spots in the West looks like this:

Minnesota 11-18
San Antonio 11-18
Los Angeles 11-19

The schedule does not seem to favor the Lynx, except that they've played better recently on the road than at the Target Center.

Minnesota: 1 home, 4 away, including San Antone at home and at L.A.
San Antonio: 4 at home and 1 on the road, including at Minnesota
Los Angeles: 2 home, 2 away, including Minnesota at home

If the home team wins the rest of the way, the final would look like this:

San Antonio 15-19
Los Angeles 13-21
Minnesota 12-22

It looks like it will come down to the Lynx' final home game against San Antone on Sunday, August 15 at 6 p.m.; and the game at L.A. on Friday, August 20. The Lynx have split against the Silver Stars, both at home and one the road, while they're winless against the Sparks in 3 tries. They may need to win both of these games to advance to the WNBA playoffs. A loss to San Antone would be especially harmful because the Lynx would lose the tie-breaker to the Silver Stars in that event as well.

The Final Analysis

If the Lynx miss out on the 2010 WNBA play-offs, it will be because they've lost 6 of their last 8 games at home, including last night's heart-breaker, 78-77 to the L.A. Sparks.

No, wait. If the Lynx miss out on the 2010 WNBA play-offs, it will be because of an inability to close out games in which they've taken an early lead.

No, that's not it either. If the Lynx miss out on the 2010 WNBA play-offs, it will be because of the injury and absence of key players. And if the Lynx miss out on the 2010 WNBA play-offs, Minnesota fans may be counting their blessings in a month or two. With the Suns seemingly out of the play-off picture in the East, the Lynx would then own 2 of 4 tickets to the draft lottery--aka the Maya Moore sweepstakes.

The fact is that if Augustus and Brunson and Whalen and Wiggins are all healthy and available, this is a WNBA championship contender. I know you wouldn't think it to have looked at them last night. But if the Lynx could add Moore, regarded by many as the top prospect of the past decade, to that nucleus, then 2011 might be the year that long-suffering Lynx fans have been waiting for.

And if the Lynx sneak into the 2010 play-offs, a quick exit against Seattle is likely. Worse yet, it's probably good-bye Maya Moore. The lesson in all of this would seem to be: be careful what you hope for.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lynx, Whalen Knock Off Sun 111-103

The Minnesota Lynx, behind a stellar effort by local favorite Lindsay Whalen, ran out to 10-0, 15-2 and ultimately (at 4:14 of the 2nd period) 51-21 leads over the Connecticut Sun.

The final score was 111-103.

In overtime.

The Sun regrouped, beginning with a 15-7 run to close the 1st half, and then dominated the Lynx in the 2nd half, 59-37. Sun back-up point guard Renee Montgomery, whom the Wolves traded to Connecticut to get Whalen during the off-season, hit a 3 at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.

This will be reported as the signature game (so far, at least) for Whalen in her 1st season with the Lynx, and rightfully so, as she scored a season-high 27 points and added 12 assists against her former teammates.

Whalen scored 7 points during the game's first 5 minutes as Minnesota jumped out to that 15-2 lead. Later, in the 2nd quarter, as the Lynx stretched their lead from 17-11 to 51-21, Lindsay contributed 7 assists. The Lynx offense was clicking on all cylinders, as 11-of-13 shots and all 6 3 point attempts found their way through the hoop through the 4:14 mark, when the Sun began their comeback.

It must be noted that as solid as Whalen was on offense, so was her opposite number, Montgomery, who led the Suns with 33 points. During the 2nd half, Whalen and the Lynx showed an all-too-familiar inability to defend the basket as Connecticut slowly but surely fought their way back into the game. From 58-36 at the half, they got within 75-68 on a 3 by Kara Lawson with :02 left in the 3rd.

They kept the pressure on in the 4th, getting within 77-70 at 8:57 and 81-75 at 5:36. A Tina Charles putback at 3:03 made it a 1-possession game (85-82). The Lynx fought back but 8 straight points by Montgomery kept it at 3 points (93-90) with exactly 1 minute remaining. Disaster nearly struck as the Lynx missed 4-of-6 FT inside of 1 minute and Montgomery's 3 tied it at the buzzer.

It was all Lindsay in the OT, however, as she scored 8 of the Lynx' 16 points and assisted on 2 more. A steal off of Montgomery by Nicky Anosike with the score tied at 103 and 1:09 remaining set up the FT shooting contest, and this time the Lynx hit 8-of-8 down the stretch to clinch the win.

The play-off ramifications are significant. The Lynx now lead L.A. by a full game for the 4th and final Western play-off slot, while the Suns dropped 2 full games out of the Eastern play-off picture. The Suns' fate is of extreme interest to the Lynx because Minnesota owns Connecticut's 1st round draft pick in 2011 (aka the Maya Moore Sweepstakes). If the Lynx should fall out of the Western play-offs, they would own 2 of the 4 lottery draft picks. I'm not convinced that's not the play. But either way, a win against the Sun at home was an imperative. The Lynx made it harder than it needed to be, but their play in the 1st half and OT was a thing of beauty and--defensive short-comings aside--reminded people why they love to watch Lindsay Whalen with a basketball in her hands.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Lynx' Future Is No Longer Now

Edit 8-2-10

Wow, the 2010 Lynx had spent the past 2 weeks making their mission crystal clear--lose some games, miss the play-offs, get into the draft lottery not once but twice (with the help of the Connecticut Suns), and get Maya Moore. Then, suddenly, they waffled.

I mean, last night, beating the heretofore invincible Seattle Storm, who came into the game at 22-2, 72-71 on a last second offensive board and free throw by Nikki Anosike, who didn't even start because of illness. With the win, the Lynx moved back into the play-off picture (in 4th place in the West) at 8-16. There's still 10 games left to go, but if the Lynx can make the play-offs, a 1st round match-up against the Storm seems likely and, last night's upset notwithstanding, the 1st series win in franchise history still seems like a long-shot.

So here's the drill. One more win would be nice, because it's the Suns who come to town on Tuesday night. And, the Lynx have the Suns' 1st round draft pick in the 2011 draft and, as of today, the Suns are 1 game out of 4th place and a play-off slot in the East. With the Lynx' lottery pick suddenly in doubt, it is imperative that the Suns stay below 4th place in their division and provide the Lynx with at least 1 pick in the draft lottery (the Maya Moore sweepstakes).

After the Suns, the Lynx will have 9 games left--4 against teams with winning records, but 6 against teams that currently are playoff-bound, and only 3 at home. 2 key games will be a home and home series against the L.A. Sparks, now one-half game behind the Lynx in the battle for the lottery draft, I mean, for the 4th and final Western Division play-off slot.

If the Whalen trades--one not made in 2004 and one made in 2010--are key events in the history of the Lynx--so, too, will be the team's 2010 finish. In the playoffs means a likely 1st round series loss and no shot at Maya Moore. Miss 'em and you've got a shot at possibly the best woman player in a decade. But, this, of course, presumes that the Lynx and the WNBA survive the 2010 season in which the acquisition of hometown heroine Whalen resulted in little or no improvement in the team's historically woeful attendance.

Stay tuned.

Original Post

At its inception, the WNBA tried to put its franchises on the backs of the NBA franchises that already existed in the same cities. In Minnesota, that meant that the T-Wolves of the NBA would be joined by another wild feline, the Lynx. Forget that the grey wolf is and always has been quite common in Minnesota while the lynx (properly, it's the Canada lynx) is a rare visitor to the land of 10,000 lakes generally only when its primary food source, the snowshoe hare, crashes in Canada.

Well, the analogy works. NBA fans are more common and WNBA fans in fact quite rare.

But not content only to feature dueling mascots, the Wolves and Lynx have much more in common. And there is perhaps no coincidence in the fact that this includes 1) the ownership of Glen Taylor, and 2) a history of bad luck exacerbated by management ineptitude. In the case of the Wolves, I suppose it's about two parts ineptitude to one part bad luck, whereas the Lynx are more rapidly piling up the bad luck though it can be argued that they haven't helped themselves a whole lot with their management decision-making.

The landmark event for the franchise was, of course, the failure to sign Lindsay Whalen out of the University of Minnesota in 2004, and that could be characterized as a bit of each--bad luck and bad management. Lindsay would not have come to the Wolves cheaply or easily, but management also showed a lack of courage and foresight in not going out and doing what needed to be done.

The second landmark was the acquisition of Whalen six years later before the 2010 season. For the first time in franchise history, hopes for real success on the floor soared. Adding a veteran, all-star ball handler to a lineup that already featured all-stars Seimone Augustus, Candace Wiggins and Rebekah Brunson sure looked like a contender. We now know, of course, that unless there's an immediate, dramatic turnaround, those hopes will have been disappointed. This, of course, is where the bad luck comes in.

The Lynx started the season without any of their three all-stars--Wiggins was injured, Augustus had had surgery for a non-sports-related matter, and Brunson was committed to play overseas for almost the first month. The Lynx started out 2-and-11 without their stars, and Whalen was unable to coax the remainder of the roster into a cohesive offensive unit. As its missing women returned to the team, however, the performance improved (5 wins in 7 games from June 18 to July 14). But then Wiggins was injured yet again and a four-game home losing streak quickly ensued. Missing the playoffs altogether suddenly became a possibility.

Now came the charges of management ineptitude. Well, the choice of Cheryl Reeves as coach had been widely criticized right from the beginning and it certainly can (and must) be said that Reeves has put a truly terrible defensive team on the court.

But more than the coach or the defense, now the focus shifted to the heretofore sainted Whalen. Ironically, the Lynx had said in 2004 that they would have had to give up too much to get Lindsay. Now, some fans are saying that the Lynx gave up too much to get her in 2010 and that, oh yes, by the way, her play has been less than inspirational.

To get Lindsay, the Lynx gave up point guard Renee Montgomery and the #1 pick in the 2010 draft, and along with Whalen they got the #5 pick in the draft, who turned out to be swingman Monica Wright from Virginia. (With the #1 pick Connecticut grabbed 6-5 UConn center Tina Charles who has been solid if not spectacular while Wright, by comparison, has played like a rookie.)

Oh, yeah, AND the Suns' #1 pick in the 2011 draft.

Well, we knew that Charles would be better than Wright, though we thought Wright would be a bit more consistent than she's been and not totally lost on defense. But we certainly didn't think that Montgomery would quickly evolve into as good a point guard, if not slightly better, than Whalen. I mean, someday, yes. Montgomery, after all, is 23 and just passing into her prime while Whalen is 28 years old and very likely passing out of hers. But the future was now for the Lynx, and we assumed that Whalen, for now, was the better player.

Well, first, let's set that record straight. Whalen is, now, a better player than Montgomery. Renee is outscoring Lindsay 11.7 ppg to 11. It's true that Whalen is having an off year shooting the ball: .371 as compared to a .439 career FG percent, and just .205 on 3 pointers versus a career .262. Montgomery is only shooting a bit better overall (.388) but a lot better (.379) from 3 point land. But the first job of the point guard is to distribute the ball and Whalen does that better with 5.4 assists per game (versus 2.2 turnovers) versus Montgomery's 3.6 assists and 1.9 turnovers. Whalen leads in steals 1.4 to 1.3. Of course, the final argument in Montgomery's favor is her team's, the Sun's, 13-11 record as compared to the Lynx' shocking 7-16.

The real question, however, is not whether Whalen is better than Montgomery, it's whether Whalen and Wright are better than Montgomery and Charles. Or maybe you like a comparison of Whalen and the Lynx' center, Nikki Anosike versus Montgomery and Charles. There the answer is that Charles, who is averaging 16 points and 12 boards and shooting 48 percent, was a big miss for the Lynx, whose post, Anosike, is averaging 10 points and 6 boards and shooting 40 percent. And whose top draft pick, Wright, is averaging 10 and 3 and shooting 31 percent.

Well, I supported the Whalen trade at the time. I thought she would be a bit better and the Lynx a lot better. I supported the trade then, so I can't complain about it now. The bottom line is, well, injuries--some that we knew about even then, and some we didn't (meaning Candice Wiggins going out again; she returned from her knee injury but lasted only 8 games before rupturing her left achilles tendon, putting her on the sidelines for the rest of 2010).

But in addition to that, there's the Maya Moore saga. The truth is that the success of this trade may end up being decided by the Lynx' luck--good or bad. Of course, if the luck that the Taylor management team has enjoyed with the Timberwolves over a 15 year period or more and, recently, with the Lynx is any indication, the Lynx sure will not enjoy good luck. In this case, that means that the Lynx won't get Maya Moore in the 2011 draft.

The WNBA draft lottery consists of just the 4 teams that miss the playoffs, and right now the Lynx have 2 of the 4 lottery picks--their own and the Suns'. If they win the lottery and get Maya Moore, widely considered to be the best woman to come out of college in the past decade, then this trade was a success. If not, then not. Some Lynx fans thought that was a risk worth taking, others, well not.

And that's even when it was assumed that the rebuilding Suns would miss the playoffs but that the Lynx were a lock to get into them for just the 3rd time in their checkered history. Now that the Lynx have a fine chance to miss, too, their chances of getting Moore look much, much better.

But, for the record, the Lynx could also get frozen out of the lottery altogether. Connecticut is tied with New York for the 4th and final playoff slot in the east, and trails only by a tie-breaker. The Lynx, meanwhile, trail 4th place Los Angeles only by a few percentage points. So at this point of the season, brave fans will say, Go, Lynx. I will say, to the contrary, there is no percentage whatsoever in the Lynx making the playoffs this year. If they do, it's not unlikely they'll draw the best team in women's basketball, the Seattle Storm (22-2) in the 1st round. Now is not the time to turn the tide and rip off a winning streak. Too little, too late. And as for the Suns, ditto. Now, how about a nice losing streak to close out the 2010 season?

This is not to say that all is lost without Moore. The fact is that when the Lynx' 4 all-stars were all available, the team went 5-and-2. When even one is missing, 2-and-14. Ouch. But maybe the nucleus is there, with or without Moore. But on the other hand, Whalen is 28, and Wiggins has proven to be injury prone. But if I were a betting man, I'd say the Lynx of 2011 look like a .500 team without Moore and a .600 team with her.So, here's where the Lynx can learn something from their big brothers, the T-Wolves. A late season losing streak can be a wonderful thing.