Lindsay Whalen, that 31-year-old sage, has seen it before. ¶ When she first came into the league with Connecticut, it was Diana Taurasi. A few years later, Seimone Augustus. Then Maya Moore. ¶ Every year the WNBA publicity machine needs a new hook, a new face, a new big thing. And that’s OK. ¶ “Great for the league,” said Whalen, the Lynx star point guard. “Great for the game.’’
So this year we have rookies Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins — the ESPN-driven “Three to See,” part of the marketing arm of the six-year extension the league signed with the network that’s worth a reported $12 million a year, or about $1 million per team.
And you have the network’s national TV schedule for the upcoming season, which makes sure fans can see Griner play for Phoenix six times, watch defending champion Indiana four times, an improved Los Angeles team and Diggins’ Tulsa squad three times each.
The Lynx? Twice. And so, with the Lynx about to start their season against Connecticut on Saturday night at Target Center, the question is: Are the Lynx, with three Olympians on the roster, with two consecutive 27-7 seasons that ended in the WNBA Finals and one championship, operating under the radar?
“I guess it’s possible,’’ said Moore, the youngest of those three Olympians, who came to camp leaner and quicker and appears poised to take the next step in her career. “But we have to wait for the games to get started and, hopefully, we’ll give people a reminder of the veterans in this league and why they are who they are.”
Sense the edge?
Professional athletes cast a wide net looking for motivation. They look inside, they set goals, they aspire to meet them. And they read. And don’t think that a perceived slight isn’t the perfect fodder for a chip to form on their shoulders. So when so-called experts started talking about Phoenix and L.A. leading the deep Western Conference?
“It seems like, every year, you have to remind people of who you are,’’ Moore continued. “And that’s what we’re going to do this year.”
It is with that idea that the Lynx, still smarting from last year’s loss in the WNBA Finals after winning the title in 2011, embark on their season. The team’s own Three to See — Whalen, Moore and Augustus — is still intact, along with bruising rebounder Rebekkah Brunson.
But center Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a veteran center whose impact went far beyond her statistics, has retired. Janel McCarville, acquired during an offseason trade, will look to take her place.
There are three rookies and coach Cheryl Reeve admits that it has taken a little longer for the team to establish its identity than in seasons past.
“So I’m not sure the predictors aren’t correct in what they’re saying,” Reeve said. “But none of that matters. What matters is what happens on the court.”
How wide is the window?
And then there is the question of opportunity. The Lynx are the second-youngest team in the league (26.07 years) thanks to three rookies making the final roster.
Moore still hasn’t reached her prime. But Whalen and Brunson are 31, McCarville is 30 and Augustus 29. Players, coaches and management believe the team’s window to win a championship is still wide open, propped up by talent and experience.
“Our team is still set up to be good for a long period of time before our players start to age or show their age,” said Roger Griffith, the team’s executive vice president.
But for this group, there is no time like the present.
“We are three years from when we started this thing [with Moore, Whalen and Augustus as the team’s core],” Reeve said. “We have a few legs that are a little older. Whalen’s feeling things, Brunson is feeling things.”
Like, perhaps, a sense of urgency?
“We always have a sense of urgency,” Whalen said.
“You can’t look too far into the future. But, at the same time, you want to get down what you want to get done, and do it this season.”
Said Augustus: “I can’t say if the window will be five years or however long. But we are going to take advantage of the opportunity we have here, this year. We came in, we’re healthy. So let’s take advantage of it.”
A new path
No matter what happens, this season will look different, Reeve said.
Last season, coming off a title, it seemed a surprise every time the Lynx lost. This year the competition will be more fierce. There is a reason everyone is picking Phoenix to win it all, with Griner joined by a healthy Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree. There is L.A.’s trio of Candace Parker, Kristi Toliver and Lindsey Harding.
As recently as this week the Lynx were trying to find what Reeve called “their identity.” And part of the problem has been McWilliams-Franklin’s absence.
“Last year, we were able to kind of seamlessly move into the season because she was so steady,” Reeve said. “The little things got done. If they didn’t come off a screen right she was going to tell ’em. … Right now [what] I’ve learned is that has to come from me.’’
Add to that McCarville, whose assimilation into the Lynx system was slowed by injury, and a schedule that includes two games against both L.A. and Phoenix and another two against improved Tulsa in the first month. A run for the championship is still expected, but …
“We’ve had the second-best two-year run in league history — 27 [victories] each year,” Reeve said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re grounded and understand that 27 wins is not our barometer. L.A. is better. Phoenix is better. Tulsa is better. This is a new year, a new time. But the goal remains the same.”
Even if they won’t be atop the league marquee — at least to start.
“Last year, going into the season, they were the clear-cut favorites to repeat from Day 1,” said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, who admitted to hearing from Reeve after predicting a Phoenix-L.A.-Minnesota finish in the West the night of the draft.
“This year they can kind of embrace the underdog role because a lot of people are picking Phoenix to win the West and maybe the championship. But, if they can stay healthy, [the Lynx] have championship experience, they’ve got a great coach and they’ll be in the hunt.”