The Lynx keep proving they can win without stars.
Although a compliment, that’s not what Cheryl Reeve wants inscribed on her business cards.
The Lynx rose to dominance in the past decade in part because of an embarrassment of riches. Maya Moore. Rebekkah Brunson. Lindsay Whalen. Seimone Augustus. Sylvia Fowles. They won four titles in seven years and came within a bucket of a fifth.
Moore left basketball to dedicate herself, admirably and with dramatic success, to social justice. Brunson and Whalen retired. Augustus left, surprisingly, for Los Angeles.
The rapid loss of four future Hall of Famers would send most franchises into rebuilding mode, but last year the Lynx finished 18-16 and sent three players to the All-Star Game — Odyssey Sims and Fowles.
Sims and Fowles could have provided hope for 2020, but they haven’t actually played together this season. Sims had a baby in the offseason, decided belatedly to play and entered her first game on Thursday only after Fowles had waved for a trainer.
Fowles had missed two games as the Lynx tried to ease her through a calf strain, but she lasted only 93 seconds on Thursday and is out indefinitely.
The Lynx also lost Karima Christmas-Kelly, a key rotation player, earlier this season to a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, and had rotation forward Jess Shepard and top three-point shooter Ceci Zandalasini opt out of the season.
The players who aren’t on the court for the Lynx might beat the players who are on the court for the Lynx. Yet the team remains near the top of the league.
How are they doing it?
Coaching? Of course. Reeve will wind up in the Hall of Fame along with a handful of her players. But her work as a general manager the past two years has allowed her to survive as a coach in the post-Moore franchise mode.
The Lynx traded for guard Lexie Brown, who has emerged in the past two weeks as not only a quality shooter but a dynamic end-to-end player, defensively and offensively.
They traded for Sims, who was getting squeezed out of playing time in Los Angeles, and she became their second-best player last year.
Drafting sixth out of 12 teams in each of the past two drafts, they landed last year’s rookie of the year, Napheesa Collier, and Shepard in 2019. In 2020, they drafted forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, then landed point guard Crystal Dangerfield in the second round.
Dangerfield has a chance to give the Lynx two straight long-shot rookies of the year from UConn.
A lineup of Dangerfield, Sims, Collier, Damiris Dantas and Fowles, with a bench of Christmas-Kelly, Herbert Harrigan, Brown, Bridget Carleton, Rachel Banham, Shenise Johnson and Shepard would give the Lynx a chance to compete with any WNBA team with the possible exception of Seattle, which with the return of Breanna Stewart is currently the class of the league.
But will we see Fowles at full strength again this season? Will Sims return to All-Star-caliber play? Can Dangerfield, Brown and Collier carry a team without a healthy Fowles or a primed Sims?
Perhaps the better question is whether Dangerfield and Collier, and perhaps Shepard and Herbert Harrigan, can form the basis of a future championship team.
Reeve chose not to rebuild when she could have, after Whalen retired and Moore left. She wanted to maintain the Lynx’s status as a model WNBA franchise in terms of both competitiveness and business success. So she chose the harder road — trying to win while turning over almost her entire roster, while picking in the middle of the pack and having to hope that the right players would fall to her.
At this point, it looks like the right players fell. After beating New York on Saturday, the Lynx are 7-3 despite their injuries and opt-outs. This should become their 10th straight winning season, a milestone that will not get as much attention as the Lynx’s championships, but perhaps should.