Moore or less: Why this offseason is so critical for the Lynx

MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Maya Moore apparently isn’t certain she wants to play this season.

Don’t expect to hear much from Cheryl Reeve the next couple of weeks. WNBA free agency began Tuesday, and Reeve, the Lynx general manager and coach, shut down her sports radio, podcast and social media presence to concentrate on the most significant off-season of her Lynx career.

It’s no revelation that age and injuries caught up with the four-time WNBA champions last season. For the first time since 2010, the Lynx (18-16) failed to win 20-plus games or finish in the top two in the Western Conference. Lindsay Whalen announced her retirement, the first of the Lynx Core Four to depart, and the Los Angeles Sparks ousted the Lynx in the single-elimination first round of the playoffs.

And Reeve’s first year as general manager, succeeding Roger Griffith, was not great. Trading valuable reserve forward Natasha Howard to Seattle in a contract dispute was the worst of it, as Howard won the league’s Most Improved Player Award while starring for the eventual WNBA champions. Veteran guard Tanisha Wright, signed as a free agent after a year out of the league, never regained her form. Danielle Robinson, the three-time All-Star acquired from Phoenix, struggled at point guard but was coming around when a serious left leg injury ended her season. Veteran forward Lynetta Kizer was such a non-factor that Reeve cut her in July.

Too often the Lynx were a two-woman team, with center Sylvia Fowles and forward Maya Moore the only consistent scorers. Fowles gutted through the final month of the season with a ruptured ligament in her left (non-shooting) elbow that Reeve said has healed without surgery. Moore won the All-Star Game MVP and averaged a team-leading 18 points per game, but posted the worst player efficiency and defensive ratings of her career. One year after winning their fourth title in a thrilling Game 5 at Williams Arena, the Lynx looked slow and declining.

Moore’s drop-off in the prime of her career — she’s 29 — was particularly worrisome. So is this: Moore apparently isn’t certain she wants to play this season. WCCO-TV’s Mike Max, citing an anonymous Timberwolves/Lynx source, reported Wednesday night that Moore is considering sitting out 2019 or even retiring. Moore’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, did not respond to an email, but Thursday the Lynx gave credence to the report with this cryptic statement from Reeve: “We have been in close contact with Maya Moore and together, are deciding the best way to approach next season.”

In an interview with MinnPost before that development, Reeve vowed to be active and aggressive in free agency to restore the Lynx to championship contention. It won’t be easy, and losing Moore would make the task that much harder.

Is Brunson back?

WNBA free agency isn’t like NBA or Major League Baseball free agency, with rumors flying daily and dozens of players switching teams. A salary cap and a salary scale tied to experience limits what teams can offer. Teams can also designate one of their unrestricted free agents a “core player,” essentially a franchise tag that takes them off the market. Moore, Tina Charles of New York, Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner, Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot, Glory Johnson of Dallas and Jasmine Thomas of Connecticut were all “cored,” in clumsy league parlance, giving their teams exclusive negotiating rights.

Rebekkah Brunson
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Rebekkah Brunson, the WNBA’s career rebounding leader who missed the final six games and the playoff with a broken nose and a concussion, hasn’t decided whether to keep playing.
That leaves 31 unrestricted and 12 restricted free agents. With Whalen’s near-max salary off the books, and lightly-used veterans Erlana Larkins and Sydney Colson jettisoned to maximize cap room, the Lynx could add two or three prominent free agents. They also hold five picks in a deep college draft, the No. 6 overall plus three second-rounders.

First, Reeve must deal with her unrestricted free agents. Seimone Augustus will be back; she spent much of the off-season working out in Minneapolis. But Rebekkah Brunson, the WNBA’s career rebounding leader who missed the final six games and the playoff with a broken nose and a concussion, hasn’t decided whether to keep playing.

Brunson had a busy fall and winter. She and her wife welcomed a newborn in late September while starting a food-truck business, and Brunson also fills in as a Timberwolves analyst for Fox Sports North. Reeve said Brunson asked for time to think about it. The Lynx probably need an answer by Feb. 1, the first day players can sign contracts.

“We’re going to try to build a team, and as we get closer see where we are,” Reeve said.

CBA complicates deal-making

One other factor unique to this off-season: With the players opting out of the collective bargaining agreement after this year, agents may be reluctant to commit clients to multi-year deals in case the salary structure changes dramatically. As it is, no current Lynx are under contract for 2020.

“We’re taking more of a two-year approach,” Reeve said. “We suspect there might be some big changes, depending on what happens with the CBA. A lot of players have expiring contracts, and we want to be ready. We want to be a player financially.”

For now the Lynx need scorers, not facilitators. Reeve said Robinson will succeed Whalen at point guard, presuming she recovers from an injury much more serious than the Lynx let on. (Seems like I’ve written that before.)

Initially described as a high left ankle sprain, Reeve said Robinson actually tore a ligament above the ankle, between the tibia and fibula in her lower left leg. Following Aug. 13 surgery, Robinson spent more than two months in a walking boot. She was still in it Oct. 20 when she hobbled on crutches into a Gophers women’s basketball scrimmage at Williams Arena. Reeve expects Robinson will be cleared to play next month and remain in Minneapolis to train, instead of joining a team overseas.

“She looks great,” Reeve said. “She gained 15 pounds of muscle with all the time off the leg.”

Reeve would not say who the Lynx might pursue in free agency, but here are some that make sense.

CHELSEA GRAY, Los Angeles: This wouldn’t be the first time a team sought a player that repeatedly killed them. A two-time All-Star guard, Gray twice beat the Lynx with last-second baskets the last two years, in Game 1 of 2017 Finals and again in last year’s season opener. Then she poured in a season high-tying 26 points against the Lynx in the playoffs. Gray can get to the rim and hits 40 percent of her 3-pointers. What’s not to like? One problem: She’s a restricted free agent, meaning L.A. can keep her by matching any offer.

ALLIE QUIGLEY, Chicago: The two-time All-Star 3-Point Shootout champion fills a glaring Lynx need. But Quigley married Vandersloot in the off-season, which probably means she’s not going anywhere. Still, worth a phone call.

LaTOYA SANDERS, Washington: A Lynx in 2009, the 6-3 Sanders is coming off her best season as a pro, averaging 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds while finishing second the league in shooting percentage (.607) and first in offensive rating (130.05). The latter was third-best in WNBA history. The Lynx need another rugged body whether Brunson retires or not, and Sanders can help multiple ways.

ESSENCE CARSON, Los Angeles: A 2011 All-Star with New York, Carson hasn’t been the same since wrecking her left knee in 2013. But she can play small forward or big guard, has plenty of playoff experience, limits her turnovers, and last year hit 36.1% of her 3-pointers. All good.

BRIANN JANUARY, Phoenix: A 5-8 guard, January led the league in 3-point percentage at 47 percent, the third time in her career she exceeded 40 percent. She’s not much of a defender but could be a serviceable backup for Robinson.

ALANA BEARD, Los Angeles: She’s 36, and no longer a scorer. But the 2017 and ’18 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year regularly gave Moore fits, and the Lynx badly need a shutdown defender, a role Augustus filled with excellence until age and knee problems intervened. And Beard could be a defensive mentor to young Alexis Jones and Cecilia Zandalasini.

One last thing: With assistant coach James Wade taking the head coaching job in Chicago, Reeve promoted assistant Walt Hopkins to the No. 2 role behind Shelley Patterson and plans to hire a third coach. Reeve said former assistant Jim Petersen isn’t interested in returning, while former Lynx Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who finished last season as interim head coach in Dallas, took a job in NBA operations. Reeve seeks a recently-retired WNBA player. She offered no names, but Plenette Pierson, a first-year assistant at Wayne State, is one of several who fit the profile.

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