Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Lynx Go for 2 Out of 3

Winning is tough. I mean, winning consistently, over the long term. Just about the time somebody is pronouncing somebody as a dynasty, poof. "Now that you've found it, it's gone. Now that you feel it, you don't. So don't get any big ideas. They're not gonna happen."

So it is with the Minnesota Lynx, I fear. They had their moment, or moments. An unexpected WNBA title in 2011. An unexpected loss in the 2012 finals. "Now that you've found it, it's gone."

And so for 2013. "Don't get any big ideas. They're not gonna happen."

Unless I'm taking the wrong lesson. Now that another title is unexpected, maybe now's the time. But here's the deal. 2 years ago, Lindsay Whalen was the Lynx' MVP. Last year it was Seimone Augustus. If the Lynx are going to contend for, much less win another WNBA title, it will be because it's Maya Moore's turn.

Maya Moore has more skills and more ability and more potential than Whalen or Augustus. Until that potential is realized, the Lynx are not going to repeat. Until all those skills coalesce into production, they'll be a good team, maybe a very good team, but not a great one. And if she waits too long, well, her supporting cast won't be there for her. This is the year, maybe next, for Maya to be the WNBA MVP that she once seemed destined to be--after that it will be Brittney Griner. This is the year for her to stop deferring and take charge.

That is the game plan for another title. Last year's game plan, even 2011's game plan, well, "Now that you've found it, it's gone."

The 1

It all starts with the 1--point guard--Lindsey Whalen. Don't get me wrong, Lindsey is still pretty indispensable to the Lynx' success. Ya gotta have a 1 these days. And Lindsey will certainly remain among top half of WNBA 1's, meaning she's 1 of the top 6, maybe still 1 of the top 4. I mean, last year she was 1 of just 4 1s with better than a 2-to-1 ratio of assists to turnovers.

Lindsey Whalen, MN 5.4 assists/2.1 turnovers = 2. 6 assists/turnover
Sue Bird, SEA 5.3/2.2 = 2.4
Kara Lawson, CT 4/1.8 = 2.2
Lindsey Harding, ATL 4.5/2.1 = 2.1

Only Lawson from this list returns. Bird is out with a knee. Harding has moved to L.A. where Kristi Toliver officially moves over to the 2.

And Becky Hamann (5.3 assists/3.2 turnovers) is out (injured) at San Antone. In the West you've also got Sam Prahalis (4.5/3.0) back in Phoenix and Skylar Diggins newly ensconced in Tulsa.

In the East, Jasmine Thomas (2.8/2/2) moves from Washington to Atlanta, Courtney Vandersloot (4.6/3.3) is back in Chicago, Briann January (3.9/2.4) is back in Indiana, and Cappie Pondexter (4.3/3.1) is back in New York.

And along with leading the 1s in assist/turnover ratio, the fact is that Lindsey is also the only 1 who shot 50 percent from the floor last year. Lawson shot 49 percent, Toliver 49, Bird 46, Hamann 44, Pondexter 43, Harding 42.... All-Star or not, Lindsey has to be the most underrated player in the WNBA.

And yet here I am, trying to underrate her. But the fact is she's 31 years old. Her scoring came down from 14 ppg to 12 last year, her assists from 6 to 5, her shooting percentage from 51 to 50.5. OK, that's splitting hairs. And even if Lindsey continues those trends, scoring 10 points with 4 assists, she'll still be 1 of the top 4 1s in the league.

And most importantly, how does she stack up against key opponents who they're likely to meet in the playoffs? That would be Harding, Prahalis, January and Lawson. And, frankly, while she didn't match up so well with January last August, I see that as a bit of a fluke. Lawson is the only 1 playing for a championship contender who has the potential to outplay Whalen this coming playoff season.

And, yet, overall, a bit of a decline seems inevitable to me.

The 2

Like Whalen, Seimone Augustus is a veteran, which is a double-edged sword. The question is whether she's a veteran in her prime or a veteran entering into a decline phase. Seimone increased her scoring last year from 16 points per game in 2011 to 17, but her shooting dropped from 50 percent to 48. You might infer that she's hit her peak, but it's tough from those numbers to infer that there will be a dropoff. Unlike Whalen, she's on the low side of 30, though at 29 years she's pretty close.

The bigger question would seem to be whether she's got the fire. The Indiana Fever doused her fire a little bit in last year's final, frustrating Seimone to the point that the effort didn't seem to be there the last game or 2. The fact is that Shavonte Zellous, who was only starting because Katie Douglas was hurt, ran rings around Seimone and her teammates.

How will she match up in the West--with, say, Alana Beard or Kristi Toliver of L.A? DeWanna Bonner or Diana Taurasi of Phoenix? Well, we'll have to see how Taurasi comes off of pretty much a lost injury year, and how Toliver does at a (somewhat) new position. Toliver's quickness (like Zellous') and/or Bonner's size figure to give Seimone a workout, while Beard and even Taurasi would seem to be better match-ups.

Here is a position, however, (unlike the 1) where the best of the West are at their best, so Seimone holding form would seem to be a pretty crucial requirement for the Lynx' continued success.

The 3

OK, here she is, Maya Moore, the key to continued success by the Minnesota Lynx. Sure, she's got a great supporting cast. But she's the young 'un of the group, just approaching her 24th birthday. She's the one who is still on the rise. Her scoring jumped from 13 as a rookie in 2011 to 16 last year. Her rebounds and assists each went up 1 and her shooting percentage went from 44 percent to 46. A similar increase this year would get her to 19 ppg, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 48 percent shooting. Nothing less will be needed to get the Lynx back to the winner's circle, in my opinion.

In the 21st century, she along with Taurasi, Augustus and Brittney Griner have won 2 college player of the year awards, and Connecticut teammates Sue Bird and Tina Charles did the same. Candace Parker probably had the greatest season any of them has had, however, winning college PoY honors and then WNBA MVP honors in the same year (2008). Taurasi and Charles have also won WNBA MVP awards. Maya is next in line, the next player regarded as having that sort of ability. But she's best make it happen now before Brittney Griner passes her by.

But of course she won't match up head-to-head with Griner or Taurasi or Tina Charles or Candace Parker. It seems that most of the top players are guards and centers. All the more reason why Maya should dominate most every night. Is Maya Moore going to be the best forward in the West, maybe in the WNBA, or isn't she? A title hinges on the answer to that question.

The 4

Rebekah Brunson is 31.5 years old. Her scoring the past 3 years was 11 points, then 10, then 11. Her rebounds were 10, then 9, and 9, and her shooting percentage was just 43, then 51, and 50.5 percent. In 2 pre-season games so far this year, she is at 10 and 8 and 47 percent in 5 fewer minutes than she played during the 2013 season. Can she keep it up? I think yes, but I also think that Devereaux Peters will be taking a few more minutes. Last year Brunson got 27, Peters 14. This year it will be more like 24 and 17. Peters shot 56 percent (5.5 percent better than Brunson, but Brunson had a rebound every 3 minutes versus Peters' 3.7 minutes). Still, here is 1 position where the next generation is pretty much ready to go.

For whatever reason, it looks like Brunson will match up with much tougher opponents than Maya Moore at the smaller forward position. In the West, Nneka Ogwumike of L.A. is the defending Rookie of the Year. As a rookie she scored 14 ppg on 53.5 percent shooting, compared with Moore's 13 and 44 as Rookie of the Year the previous year. Elsewhere there's Tamika Catchings of Indiana, playoff MVP a year ago, who lit up the Lynx with 22 ppg in the finals.

While Moore should dominate, Brunson will be successful if she holds her own against some of the other WNBA title contenders.

Then There's the 5 Spot

Taj has moved on and Shaq McCarville is back! Great things are expected of McCarville, who is after all a local legend after her time at the U of M with Lindsey Whalen during the glory years. But the fact is McCarville is just 6 months younger than Whalen--31.5 years old--and carrying around 215 pounds on her 6-2 frame can't have been an easy thing all these years. The fact is that Janel has taken the past 2 years off from WNBA play, though it's true that she played overseas in the winter. So what should one expect of Janel McCarville in 2013?

All we've really got to go by is 1 pre-season game. She played 1 and sat 1. She played 21 minutes, scored 4 points on 33 percent shooting, and had 1 (count 'em, 1) rebound, 1 assist and 2 steals.

If Janel doesn't work out? Amber Harris has scored 3.4 ppg on 40 percent shooting with 2 rebounds in 10 minutes of play over 2 years. Deveraux Peters scored 5.3 ppg on 56 percent shooting with 4 rebounds in 14 minutes as a rookie, but she is only 6-foot-2. Well, that's the same as Taj and Shaq, but of course she is 50 pounds lighter than Shaq. Brunson, 6-2 and 20 pounds heavier than Peters, could be a better back-up in the post with Peters moving in at the 4.

Frankly, this looks like a problem.

The Bench

We've already talked about Peters, who will be a solid WNBA player some day...maybe sooner than later.

Then there's Monica Wright, who is now a solid WNBA player. A 5-10 swing player, Monica has scored 8.5 ppg on 40 percent shooting over 3 years with the Lynx. Last year she scored 8.6 ppg on 46 percent shooting in 19 minutes per game. She is ready and will now take over the Candace Wiggins role as the #1 perimeter sub.

Amber Harris will get some minutes.

Then there are the rookies Rachel Jarry, Lindsay Moore and Sugar Rodgers. Jarry, a 21-year old, 6-1, forward from Down Under, can play. She scored 15 points in 2 pre-season games on 4-of-7 shooting including 1-of-2 3s and 6-of-7 FT. She had 8 rebounds and 3 assists, but 5 turnovers. Moore and/or Rodgers will play as much as needed, and no more, but some minutes will be needed.

Two years ago the Lynx were considered to have a great bench as the 2nd 5 scored 22.5 ppg in 60 minutes. Last year depth became an issue as Wiggins, in particular, struggled. Now the Lynx are not a deep team, having just 2 proven producers off the bench. Harris and/or Jarry are going to get a shot at making a contribution and, if they're not ready, again, that's a problem.

The Sum of the Parts

A basketball team is, of course, not just 5 individuals like a golf or gymnastics team. Chemistry, teamwork, whatever you want to call it, it is vital. And over the past 2 years, the Indiana series to the contrary notwithstanding, the Lynx have had it. Coach Cheryl Reeve gets a lot of the credit for that, but so does Lindsay Whalen. And I think that Augustus and Brunson and Taj and Maya have all proven themselves to be good teammates and good team players.

Can they keep it up as people's roles change a little bit. This year's team will by necessity be more Maya and more Monica and a little bit less of everybody else. Can it make the transition?

So that's what's needed--a transition. The fact is they don't actually have to improve to contend for and even to win the WNBA title. They were 27-7 2 years ago when they won the WNBA title. They were 27-7 last year when they finished 2nd. 27-7 would probably get 'em the home court advantage throughout, again. Heck, 22 wins would have gotten 'em the home court advantage throughout in 2011. Last year 25 and 26 would have gotten 'em the home court in the division and in the finals. As a generalization, 20 wins will get you into the finals.

So improvement is not needed. Just a smooth transition to the Maya Moore era. Say, 24-10, which might get the home court throughout, certainly in the 1st round. But a little bit of a fall-off should be expected while transitioning, and because the competition is going to be better.

The Competition

In the West, that would be L.A. and Phoenix. San Antonio and Seattle will be down, with Becky Hammon and Sue Bird out. Tulsa will be competitive for a change, but nowhere near a contender.

In L.A. the frontcourt of Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike is intimidating enough, but now there's Lindsay Harding in the backcourt and Kristi Toliver running free at the 2. The question is whether Parker will be an MVP candidate again or merely an All-Star. As a rookie she scored 18.5 ppg on 52 percent shooting, and made 42 percent of her 3s. She scored 21 ppg 2 years later, but she has never shot as well as her rookie year since. Last year she scored her 2nd lowest total (17.4 ppg) on her worst shooting percentage (.481). The Sparks need more from a player with her jaw-dropping athleticism.

In Phoenix, it's just a question of when it all jells. Griner in the post. Taurasi back from injury, 6-4 DeWana Bonner, 6-2 Candace Dupree, 6-1 Penny Taylor.... But it certainly didn't jell in time for the opener, a 102-80 loss to Chicago as Sky rookie Elena Della Donna outplayed Griner by a wide margin, Griner's 2 dunks to the contrary. But Phoenix seems a little weak at the all-important 1 with 2nd year Sam Prahalis. I mean, I love Sam Prahalis but she's going to get better than 4.5 assists and 3 turnovers, and 35 percent shooting, it's just a question of when.

In the East, Connecticut and Indiana are the teams to beat. Connecticut has the WNBA's other great post in Tina Charles, the 2012 MVP, plus Kara Lawson, but they don't have a lot of help. Indiana has the WNBA playoff MVP Tamika Catchings but, frankly, I consider their title to be a fluke, one that will not be repeated.

In short, whoever makes it out of the West will win it all. Of course, I would have said--I did say--the same thing last year.

The Prediction--Who's in the Playoffs


Los Angeles 25-9
Minnesota 24-10
Phoenix 23-11
San Antonio 14-20


Connecticut 23-11
Indiana 21-13
Chicago 20-14
Atlanta 15-19


L.A. 2 San Antonio 0
Minnesota 2 Phoenix 1
Connecticut 2 Atlanta 1
Chicago 2 Indiana 1

L.A. 2 Minnesota 1
Chicago 2 Connecticut 1

L.A. 3 Chicago 0

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