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.

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