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Minnesota Lynx Open WNBA Title Defense

The Lynx open their season tonight against the Phoenix Mercury in a match up of the last two WNBA champions. What does the season hold in store for the Lynx?

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If it feels like the WNBA season has arrived more quickly than usual, that's because it has.

The Lynx begin their title defense this evening at home against the Phoenix Mercury (6:30 pm CDT, ESPN), roughly three weeks earlier than usual because the league will take a month long break for the Olympics beginning in late July.  A sign of how full of star power the Lynx are is that four of their players--Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, and Sylvia Fowles--have been named to the U.S. Olympic roster.

The Lynx, led by head coach Cheryl Reeve, have won three of the last five WNBA championships, including last season's victory over the Indiana Fever in the Finals, and will be looking to go back to back for the first time in franchise history. They certainly have the talent, on paper, to make another run for a title, but it's never easy and, like all teams, there are questions.

Can They Stay Healthy?

This is a veteran team. Three of their projected starting five (Whalen, Augustus, and Rebekkah Brunson) are more than 10 years into their WNBA careers, and we've seen signs of the physical toll it takes on these players who often play year round in multiple leagues.  Last season both Whalen and Augustus missed games due to injury, and both players had their struggles in the post-season due to physical issues. Whalen took the winter off from playing competitive basketball in order to be as rested and ready as possible for this season and the Olympics, but the reality is this is an aging team.

In addition to those three, Sylvia Fowles turned 30 last fall, and two of their key off-season additions--guard Jia Perkins and center Janel McCarville--are long-time veterans as well.  It's not merely a matter of health, as it will be incumbent on Reeve, the rest of the coaching staff,and the training staff to keep these players functioning at a high level throughout the season and the playoffs.

The Lynx are an experienced squad that has won and are rightly trying to win again right now and for as long as their window remains open.  There is no reason why they shouldn't ride their talent and experience to another excellent season, but whether they will be able to maintain that level throughout the post-season is the question.

Is There Enough Three Point Shooting?

The Lynx had the 4th best offensive rating in the league last season, but one of their weaknesses was a lack of three point shooting, as they finished 11th (of 12) in the league in three point attempts. They return only one player who averaged over one three a game, the incomparable Maya Moore.  One of their newcomers, Jia Perkins, acquired in a draft night trade from the San Antonio Stars, has been a strong shooter in the past, but fell off badly last season, shooting only 27% from three. Hopefully she is able to return to something like her career norm of 36% and be a range weapon off the bench.

Their lack of three point shooting was mitigated by the strong mid-range games of Whalen and Augustus, the addition of Fowles in the post, and most especially by their strong three point defense (teams only shot 31% against them beyond the arc, though they allowed the 2nd most attempts in the league), but the three is a big part of the WNBA game, and the Lynx can't afford to fall too far behind in this category.

Will the Lynx Get Production Off the Bench?

One of the main differences between the 2014 team that lost in the Conference Finals, and the 2015 champions was that last season's team got some timely bench contributions, something I thought the 2014 squad lacked. Last season the Lynx added two key back court pieces--Renee Montgomery and Anna Cruz--who both had significant impact especially in the post-season. Only Montgomery returns, as Cruz will be in Europe trying to help her Spanish National Team  qualify for the Olympics. To replace Cruz, the Lynx traded for Jia Perkins, who will hopefully provide capable back up minutes.

The Lynx also lost one of their key back up bigs when they traded restricted free agent Devereau Peters to the Indiana Fever for forward Natasha Howard. Howard is a third year player who played only 11 minutes per game last season and struggles offensively (42% shooting over her two seasons). She is a stronger rebounder and shot blocker, and should be able to contribute defensively.

The Lynx have also brought back veteran center Janel McCarville, who took last WNBA season off though she played in Turkey over the winter. When last seen, McCarville was the starting center for the Lynx, but will return to back up Syl Fowles this year. McCarville is not much of a scorer at this point, but hopefully her high post passing chops and her interior physicality and toughness will bring something to the 2nd unit.

In their 2011 title run, the starters missed a total of one game. In 2013, they missed six games. As we saw last season, they cannot count on that level of health and availability, and certainly cannot expect to get 900+ minutes from 4/5ths of their starting lineup as they did in 2013, or all five of them as they did in 2011.

That didn't happen last season, and it won't happen this season. They will need positive contributions off the bench if they want to repeat as champions.

Who Else is New?

I've been writing about the veteran nature of this club, but the Lynx do have two rookies on the roster. Keisha Hampton, a 6'-1" forward was drafted out of DePaul in the 2nd round of the 2012 WNBA draft by the Seattle Storm. She missed the entirety of that season rehabbing a knee injury, and was waived the following spring. She was in training camp with the Connecticut Sun in 2014, but failed to make the squad. She played over the winter in the Israeli League, where she led her team in scoring (17.8 ppg) and added 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per. She can make three pointers, which might get her on the floor at times this season.

Bashaara Graves was the Lynx second round draft pick this year, out of Tennessee. She's a 6'-2" power forward who is a beast (her nickname at Tennessee) on the glass. Unlikely to develop into a major offensive threat, she is more in the Rebekkah Brunson mold--a tough, energetic rebounder and defender who will get her points off the glass and with her physicality. Of course if she has a career anything close to Brunson's, that will be a huge coup, but there could be minutes available to her if she shows that her rebounding abilities can translate to the pro level.

So Why Will the Lynx Win Another Title?

The Lynx have among the best front-line talent in the WNBA. Their four Olympians remain standout players in the league, and of course Maya Moore is a perennial MVP candidate. They are hugely experienced, with multiple playoff runs under their belts. Nine of their players have won at least one WNBA championship.  The players know each other and know their roles, and are wonderfully coached.  They will have the advantage of having Syl Fowles with them for the entire season after she was acquired last year in a mid-season trade, which should make them better able to take advantage of her abilities.

They know the value of defense, and should be among the top defensive teams in the league again this season. Just how good the defense is might tell the tale this year: In their three championship seasons they have had the 2nd best defensive rating in the league each time, while they were 4th in 2012 (when the lost in the Finals) and 6th in 2014 (when they lost in the Conference Finals).

Who Is the Competition?

There will be several competitive teams this season, at least one no doubt a surprise. The Indiana Fever should be strong again in the East, the New York Liberty had the league's best regular season record last year on the strength of their league best defense and should be strong on that side of the ball again under Bill Laimbeer, and the Los Angeles Sparks should have Candace Parker for the entire season after an injury derailed the first half of last season.  Elena Delle Donne is the reigning MVP for the Chicago Sky who will look to advance in the playoffs this season.

It's the Phoenix Mercury who are the favorites to win this season's championship however. Seven of the league's 12 GMs picked the Mercury to win the title, with the Lynx being second choice with two votes. The Mercury are the only team in the league that can match the Lynx in star power. Diana Taurasi returns after taking last season off from the WNBA to rest her body, Brittney Griner has emerged as the top center in the league, wing Penny Taylor returns from missing last season with an injury, and oh yeah, DeWanna Bonner who was only first team All-WNBA last season.

The last time Taurasi played for the Mercury, they beat the Lynx in the Western Conference Finals in 2014 and went on to win the championship.  They should be a huge factor in the title race again this season.

We'll get an immediate look at this match up when these teams tip-off tonight.

I can't wait.

League Notes

  • There are major changes to the schedule this season. Teams will play 18 inter-conference games (3 against each opponent) and 16 intra-conference games (4 against one opponent, 3 each against the other 4 opponents), as opposed to playing only home-and-home against the other conference.
  • This is to allow for the change in playoff format: The top eight teams in the league will be seeded in the playoffs regardless of conference. The bottom four teams will play single elimination games among themselves in the first round. Those winners will move on to face the 3rd and 4th seeds in single elimination second round games. The top two teams get byes all the way to the five game semifinal series' to face the 2nd round winners. The Finals will remain best of five. All schedule changes to both regular season and playoffs are detailed here.
  • Be on the lookout for one significant rules change: The shot clock will reset to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound, not the full 24.  This should increase the number of possessions, but what kind of overall effect it has remains to be seen.
  • There is one franchise re-location this season, as the Tulsa Shock moved to Dallas and are now the Dallas Wings.
  • You can buy WNBA League Pass for $16.99 for all teams (there are also single team and single game options). These are subject to blackout, but are a real bargain. I'm thrilled being out of market, since it means I can watch the Lynx all season (though I think there are at least a few games that won't have any television coverage).
  • Prior to tonight's game the Lynx will have their ring ceremony to celebrate last season's championship, so if you are going, be there early for that.
  • The Lynx schedule is available here. I heartily recommend going to a game if you have the chance. I'll be coming to town in June specifically to catch a Lynx game. I can't wait.
Enjoy the season everyone. I know I will.