This was not a decision born of balky knees or a barking back.
For Maya Moore, it went much deeper.
Lynx teammate Seimone Augustus talked about dueling with Father Time when it came to not going overseas to play. In that particular one-on-one battle, Moore, 27, still has the upper hand.
Still, like Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, Moore spent the winter at home, opting not to travel to China. For the first time since leaving college she had an offseason.
But it had less to do with healing her body than it did easing her mind.
“The driving force behind me staying home was non-physical,” said Moore, who begins her seventh WNBA season on Sunday night. “I needed to press reset. I needed to recharge. This is a fast-paced world we live in, especially the sports and entertainment industry. There is a constant demand for performance, for something new, something excellent. That doesn’t just happen. You have to have enough inside to pour out.”
Ten years ago Moore arrived on the University of Connecticut campus. Since then, a blur: two NCAA titles, two Olympic gold medals, three WNBA titles, one MVP award.
And that’s just for starters. Every year, something excellent, something new for a star still ascending.
But Moore will tell you that last season was a little different. She was excellent, of course. She still dominated. But she also struggled — not to perform but, at times, to play.
Of course, the word is relative.
She was first-team All-WNBA for the fourth straight season. She averaged 19.3 points and a career-high 4.2 assists. If Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike hadn’t scored that heartbreaking put-back at the end of Game 5 of probably the best finals in league history, the dominant memory of that series would have been Moore draining a go-ahead jumper with 15.4 seconds left. In 2016 she ran hard, but might have been close to running on empty.
“I needed a break, to be around my church family, my close friends and family,” she said. “I needed to get filled up that way.”
Push to the finish
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve could see it. She was an assistant coach on the U.S. team that won gold in Rio de Janeiro last summer, working with head coach Geno Auriemma, Moore’s coach at Connecticut.
Reeve saw Moore struggle and wasn’t sure what to do.
“I told Geno my goal was to kind of get to a place where, post-Olympics, Maya would be able to hit the gas pedal. He told me, ‘She’ll be fine in the playoffs. She’ll be there for you.’ And she was. She mustered it up.”
But it wasn’t easy.
Engaging but sometimes guarded, Moore doesn’t often drill too deep when talking about her life. But it’s clear that six WNBA seasons chasing titles exacted a price.
“What we do here is hard,” she said. “We make it look easy sometimes, but it takes a toll, playing at the highest level you can year after year.”
It took a toll last year. For a team with high expectations, what is normal for the Lynx is a high bar. For all the Lynx talent on the court each night, no one is more important than Moore.
“There is not a simple answer, I can’t put my finger on any one certain thing,” she said. “But it was a challenge last season. I was able to figure my way through it. But then I needed to press pause.”
Moore did it with the hope that an absence from basketball — at least the in-game competition part of it — would renew her joy in the sport.
This is a big thing for Moore, who said she needs to find meaning in what she does on the court that goes beyond points, wins, losses or titles.
“You need to be able to find joy in something that requires so much of yourself,” she said. “I have to have that deeper meaning in my work and in my everyday life. It is important to remind ourselves why we do what we do.”
So Moore spent the months following the finals doing just that.
“It’s tough, but you can still find joy in the struggle,” she said. “Going through a season with a lot of struggles, I got a lot of practice. You have to set yourself up for joy, give yourself the best opportunity to have that going on inside.”
It appears she succeeded. Reeve said she can see it in Moore’s eyes.
“I see a fresher player. A player that feels, overall, better. It’s the mind. The mind affects how the body feels. And I like what I see.”
Moore’s game plan
All that said, Moore still devoted hours to the game over the winter. When you’ve done what she’s done, you might think there isn’t a whole lot of room for improvement, but there is. Always deadly moving without the ball to get shots, she worked on her ball-handling, which will allow her to create more shots on her own.
“She’s already difficult to guard,” Reeve said. “Now, if you have the ball in your hands, can you create an opportunity? She looks really good in that area.”
To Reeve, Moore’s continued development is the biggest key to the Lynx staying a step ahead of the league. So the coach keeps asking for more: better shot selection, more assists, higher rebounding totals. Even more three-pointers.
“I need ‘Prolific Maya,’ ” Reeve said.
What does Moore want from herself? She used to be pretty blunt about what she expected. Her standard always has been 50-40-90 — shooting 50 percent or better overall, 40 percent on three-pointers and 90 percent from the free-throw line. But these days, she approaches it differently.
“I take an approach of focusing on characteristics and qualities that I want to be as a teammate and the numbers will take care of themselves,” she said. “I found it was more healthy for my mind-set than focusing on numbers. I want to be efficient.”
More of Moore
That sounds like an even better Maya Moore.
“It’s scary to think of her rested, more focused than ever, coming off what could be described as a heartbreaking loss in the finals,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “If there is a new level to Maya’s game, watch out, WNBA, because she’s already an elite player. It seems like that is some of the verbiage we’ve heard from Minnesota. That from the coaching staff down, they feel there is another level the Minnesota Lynx have not yet reached. That’s scary in itself.”
Reeve has pushed center Sylvia Fowles to become more dominant. Both Augustus and Whalen are rested. The bench appears deeper.
But for the Lynx to stay ahead of the competition, nobody is more important than Moore. The adage is all great players add something during every offseason. To Moore, it’s most important to hone and improve what she’s already good at. She wants to be a more accurate shooter, get better at finishing in the paint and improve her ball-handling.
“Hopefully those things will be seen at a higher level,” she said.
It’s what the Lynx expect.
“She always surprises us with something when the season starts,” Augustus said. “So I’m on the lookout.”