Expectations can be as relentless as a Lindsay Whalen drive to the basket.
Just ask Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. Her team has had back-to-back 27-7 seasons, winning the WNBA title in 2011 and losing to Indiana in the finals a year ago. And yet, constantly, she gets the question.
What happened last year?
The Lynx begin training camp Sunday, and Reeve will have nearly a month — the Lynx doesn’t start the regular season until June 1, more than a week after the league opener — to get a team whose roster has been tweaked ready to try for a second championship in three years.
Reeve, with her characteristic frankness, acknowledges last year’s shortcomings while also defending the job her team did.
She allows that the WNBA is entering a new era with 6-8 Brittney Griner entering the league while at the same time she pushes back hard on any notion the window of opportunity is closing on her team. After the draft ended April 15, ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo suggested the balance of power in the Western Conference had shifted, ranking Phoenix (with Griner) and Los Angeles ahead of the Lynx.
This is just the chip Reeve’s shoulder needs.
“We’re kind of old news; we don’t have one of the ‘Three to See,’ ” she said, sarcasm dripping, about top draft picks Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. “We’re not part of that wave, that whole platform for ESPN. We’re the old champion. … Frankly, when you average 27 wins and you have the second-best two-year run in the history of the league and you have the same three Olympians back? I’m not sure why we wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
Reeve has a talented roster and a little extra motivation. With camp about to open, we talked with her about the prospects for the upcoming season. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.
Q You’ve been to the finals two years in a row, won once. When you look at last season, what happened that prevented a repeat?
A I would say — and I was saying this to Seimone Augustus the other day — in general, that what you do in training camp determines how your season goes. And as we walked through the training camps we’d had together, it’s been very obvious. Now, we had a very solid training camp in 2012. But it was nowhere near the training camp we had in 2011. Now, what are the reasons for that? The choppy nature of our league sometimes, with the international commitments, either overseas teams or Olympics. It feel like that contributed to our inability to kind of get that relentlessness, that tenacity together. I thought individually we had some really good summers, really good times, we had a really good team. We had back-to-back 27-win seasons, but this one was really hard.
Q You did create high expectations.
A I know, that’s what we created. And so that’s a great thing. At the same time, it was almost unrealistic, some of the expectations. Because this league is really hard. There are only 12 teams, so your ability to have parity — the difference between one and 12 — often times is not that great. … I would have liked to have seen us go for a repeat in a non-Olympic year. Because that was, while I thought we handled it great, it really did tug at even the strongest of mentally focused people — Lindsay, Seimone, Maya [Moore].
Q This year you’ll have a new starter at center in Janel McCarville, while Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Candice Wiggins and Erin Thorn are gone. You said at the draft that an influx of new people might be a good thing. Do you still feel that way?
A Yes, absolutely. I still feel very strongly about the core group we have, that establishes our chemistry. But I do think it was time. … Some things had run [their] course. … There is no doubt in my mind this group that we have is going to be hungry again. Something was, in our minds, taken from us by a team in Indiana that was … when I say hungrier, that does not mean we were not hungry. They just had a little bit more than we did, and were extremely physical. And they were able to get it done.
Q What are your biggest questions as a coach heading into camp?
A Well, as I mentioned, training camp for me is golden. So how are we going to look in training camp, because I know that’s going to shape the season. Couple late arrivals, quirky schedule, in that we start a week later than everyone else. Maybe that’s a good thing, ’cause I’ll have those three new players that will need a little time. We’ll throw some people into the fire that have been reserve players in Amber Harris and Dev Peters. Janel McCarville is new.
Q How will the offense change with McCarville at center?
A Taj … was a very good passer. But having been with Janel the past few weeks, in a minimal X’s and O’s setting … Janel has a gift. I watched it when I followed her at the U. Drafted her in Charlotte, I’ve seen her along the way. We’re going to be even better at — as good as Taj was — Janel is going to be even better in terms of the flow.
Q Will not having the Olympics this year help your team?
A That interruption is a challenge. Yes. The very simple answer is yes.
Q Will having Lindsay and Janel come back from Europe early and with Moore’s season in China ending early help them be fresh for the season?
A If you talk to [Lindsay] there is a silver lining in that this is the most fresh she’s felt in a while. She has needed this time. So, same thing with Maya, all those guys. I wish Seimone would have had a little more time.
Q Is this the time when Moore steps up and becomes more the face of the team?
A The nice thing for me is that I don’t see one face of the franchise. I think that’s what makes us so good. It will never not be Lindsay and Seimone’s team. … Now, does Maya increase her role on the team? Absolutely. I think Maya will take a huge step forward, and that can only be good for us.