It’s been said that winning cures all ills. Apparently, it also can be a fountain of youth.
Well, that and a well-thought-out substitution strategy.
Amid all of the impressive numbers attached to the Lynx — championships and league records and milestones — there is one that just can’t be avoided: 29.
That’s the average age of the players on the Lynx roster, making Minnesota the oldest team in the league. And that number skews lower because of the non-starters, five of whom are in their mid-20s. The starters average an almost geriatric 31.4 years of age, with only Maya Moore (27) south of 30.
To top that off, four of the most experienced members of the team — Moore, Lindsay Whalen (34), Seimone Augustus (32) and Sylvia Fowles (30) — will play for Team USA in the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro while most other WNBA players get nearly a month to rest.
And that raises this question: Will the defending WNBA champs have enough left in the tank for the postseason?
The Lynx are once again looking very much like a championship contender. After a brief lull that saw them go 2-4, they have reeled off four consecutive victories.
The question of how to keep her starters fresh in this Olympic year is one Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has pondered frequently. Her answer? Having nearly equivalent experience on the bench.
“It’s two things: One, wanting to make sure that first group is able to play at a high level when they get their minutes and not gassing them and them trying to perform when they’re tired,” Reeve said. “And two, we attracted some really strong players as our second team and it’s giving them opportunities to play. It’s really trying to marry those two things.”
That has meant significant minutes for guards Jia Perkins (34) and Renee Montgomery (29) and center Janel McCarville (33). Montgomery was acquired midway through last season while Perkins played for San Antonio and McCarville sat out because of injury concerns.
“It’s beneficial for every game,” Reeve said, referring to her penchant for substituting freely with arguably the league’s best starting five. “Sometimes I do well, sometimes I don’t. We just think, in the long term, it’s beneficial to us.”
After 12 years in the league spent with three teams, Perkins, who came to the Lynx in a trade with San Antonio, knew her role with the Lynx would be supplementary. But it meant one last opportunity to achieve a personal goal.
“To come off the bench is really not that big of a deal,” Perkins said. “You have to work for minutes. It’s exciting, a new journey. I have a chance to reach my goal before I’m done playing and that’s win a championship. It’s very exciting.”
Of the Lynx’s first four players off the bench, only Natasha Howard (24) could be considered part of a youth movement. Guards Perkins and Montgomery are both averaging a smidge over seven points while playing about 20 minutes per game. McCarville has been effective in fewer minutes, averaging three points, three rebounds and nearly two assists per game. Most importantly, the Lynx have minimized drop-off when the reserves are in the game, allowing Reeve the luxury of resting her starters.
The stats bear witness to the plan: Not one Lynx player is in the top 20 in minutes played. Moore is 22nd, playing 29.8 minutes per game. Fowles is 28th, at 28.3 minutes.
It’s that balance, Reeve said, that has kept the team fresh and on track for another lengthy playoff run.
“If we’re tired — make that, exhausted — coach knows and she’ll get a sub in for us,” Fowles said. “She’s about the easiest coach I’ve ever played for when it comes to minutes.”
Besides, Fowles said, she and most of the Lynx players have been dealing with long, grueling schedules nearly their entire careers.
“I’ve played four years without having any time off,” said Fowles, a 6-6 center who plays in China in the offseason. “I’m so used to it now. It gets to the point where, that’s just what you do if you want to win.”