Lynx take aim at history, fourth WNBA title

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Friday, October 7, 2016

When the Houston Comets won the last of their four WNBA titles in 2000, Maya Moore was an 11-year-old who already had big plans. She wanted to play in the Final Four someday. And the WNBA? Yeah, that too.

Perhaps even as ambitious a goal-setter as Moore might not have been aiming for matching the Comets. Yet 16 years later, Moore and the Minnesota Lynx are in position to do just that.

"It's out there, and we know it," said Moore, whose Lynx host Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against Los Angeles on Sunday (ABC, 3 p.m. ET). "We use it as excitement. We have an opportunity, and it makes our appreciation of this even greater.

"It's pushing us forward, giving us 'good' pressure. But we also know we have to just lock in and do all those other things it takes to win a championship."

The Lynx are in a stretch of WNBA success that's the closest thing the league has had to the Comets. Minnesota has made the WNBA Finals five of the last six years, winning titles in 2011, '13 and '15.

A championship this year will not just tie the Comets but also be the first time a WNBA team has won back-to-back titles since Los Angeles in 2001-02. Phoenix is the only other franchise with three championships (2007, '09 and '14).

The Comets won the first four titles in the league's existence, but they never made it back to the WNBA Finals after 2000. The franchise was one of the casualties of the economic crisis of the last decade, folding after the 2008 season. The WNBA has lost other teams, including another champion in the Sacramento Monarchs. But no loss hurt more than the Comets, because they were the first standard-bearers for the WNBA.

Now that role goes to the Lynx, an expansion franchise that began play in 1999 and made the playoffs just twice in its first 12 years. But once the organization figured things out, it has been able to do something that's even harder than reaching a peak: stay there.

"If you know the history of the league, we take pride in representing things right," said Seimone Augustus, the longest-tenured Lynx player. "[The Comets] set the precedent for us to be where we're at. We understand what we're doing is helping the league grow."

Turning the tide

The Lynx drafted Augustus No. 1 in 2006. The WNBA draft that year was held in Boston, the same city as the Women's Final Four, and Augustus smiled for the cameras holding up her Lynx jersey just a few days after her LSU team had lost in the national semifinals to Duke.

Augustus had spent her life in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and now was headed all the way up to Minneapolis to start her pro career. The previous season, the Lynx dealt star Katie Smith in a trade that really got them nothing. Augustus was to be the new building block, but the construction was going to take awhile.

The Lynx had losing records in Augustus' first five seasons, going a combined 63-107 and not making the playoffs. By 2010, Augustus was playing for her fifth coach, Cheryl Reeve. But that was the year, Augustus said, she could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Native Minnesotan Lindsay Whalen, who'd starred collegiately for the Minnesota Gophers, was obtained in a trade. Rebekkah Brunson was picked in the dispersal draft after Sacramento folded. With them, the Lynx finished 2010 at 13-21, but they knew they were on the verge. And they had the No. 1 pick for 2011, which was a fabulous year to be in that spot.

It meant that Moore, who won two championships and was part of a record 90-game winning streak at UConn, was coming to Minnesota. With her, the Lynx then had a Core Four -- Augustus, Brunson, Moore and Whalen -- similar to the Big Four that had powered the Comets: Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Janeth Arcain.

In Reeve, the Lynx had a coach with championship experience as an assistant with Detroit, and they had a general manager in Roger Griffith who had found his stride in putting together the right pieces for the organization.

It paid off with a 2011 championship, as Minnesota swept Atlanta. The Lynx haven't had a lapse since. They ran into a "team of destiny" situation in falling to Indiana in the 2012 WNBA Finals, and a red-hot Phoenix team beat Minnesota in the 2014 Western Conference finals. But the Lynx swept Atlanta to win the 2013 title and beat Indiana in a tough five-game championship series in 2015.

"We've had a lot of the same people, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's just going to automatically happen," Moore said. "We don't always get it right. But at the end of the day, we just want to win, and we're convinced about how we do that. We've had to evolve and make adjustments, though."

In 2015, Monica Wright was traded to Seattle for Renee Montgomery. The Lynx also obtained Spanish player Anna Cruz, and she and Montgomery gave Minnesota a different look at guard than Whalen and Augustus.

But the biggest change of all came in late July with the trade to bring in center Sylvia Fowles, who had sat out the season to that point to force a deal.

Adding another Olympian was a great thing, of course, but the Lynx went through some difficulties incorporating her into the mix. They finished 22-12 yet by playoff time were ready for another championship run. Fowles was the WNBA Finals MVP.

"We had more movement on the roster than we'd had since I got here," Moore said. "But still, that culture remained because we brought in people that want to win. We're very picky, I think. Very selective."

Winning mentality

But they're not haughty, or arrogant, or cocky. To the contrary, the collective personality of the team reflects that of the individuals themselves: The Lynx remain blue-collar and humble, despite all the success and accolades.

"Lindsay Whalen is the emotional leader of this team," Moore said of the rock-steady point guard. "Seimone is as well, just in a little different way. It's a special, special group.

"You have people like Rebekkah Brunson, who is one of the most unbelievable players to have played the game. Players like Syl, who sacrificed and sat out, because she wanted to be here. Some international players have come in and helped us. And everybody just falls in line with the culture, because we appreciate each other and push each other, too."

Then there's the coaching staff: Reeve, former NBA player Jim Petersen and Shelley Patterson, who like Reeve has spent decades coaching women's hoops. Petersen was hired in 2009 by previous coach Don Zierden, stayed when Jennifer Gillom took over and then was retained by Reeve. She understood the value he brought as a mentor to post players, along with his tactical acumen.

The Lynx coaching brain trust has embraced analytics and has the flexibility to be creative with what the team does offensively and defensively. The organization has kept the talent it has, plus brought in more.

"It comes from the people from the top down, including our owner," Moore said of Glen Taylor. "We have a team dinner at his house every spring, and it starts there. And Cheryl does such a great job of holding a high standard but investing just as much herself as she wants from us."

Reeve does not spend much time on history lessons, in part because she has such a mature team. But ...

"We had some dialogue early in the season. Just that we have the chance to be the best Lynx team ever," Reeve said. "But we understood that means you have to have a championship that season. That was not necessarily a carrot, but a statement of our potential. So it was, 'How are we going to do it?'

"Then we had to get to work and define roles. I've enjoyed the heck out of this group; it's been so rewarding."

Minnesota became the best Lynx team ever as far as the regular season, with a 28-6 record.

Now, though, the Lynx will try to take another step to a fourth title. And Moore fully appreciates that Houston is still the benchmark for WNBA success.

"You're trying to soak up every opportunity and take advantage of what comes your way," Moore said. "Cheryl and our coaching staff do a great job of giving us perspective so we don't lose the joy and appreciation of what we're doing, because it's hard.

"I think we have a great balance of not taking anything for granted. Enjoying the ride, but working our tails off. And hoping for the best."