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A Conversation with Cheryl Reeve

The head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx was kind enough to chat with Canis Hoopus recently to discuss the 2021 season, the upcoming offseason, and much more. The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

WNBA: Phoenix Mercury at Minnesota Lynx Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Lucas Seehafer: You’ve had some time to digest this past season. With that clarity, how would you assess the 2021 campaign?

Cheryl Reeve: I would say, very simply, that us not — and I think I’ve said this before — us not coming to training camp with everybody physically ready to play, being in great shape that’s necessary to compete in this league, that stood in the way of us possibly being a top-two team as things played out. As we knew, the playoff format for a top-two team, it looks a hell of a lot different than in your single-elimination game as a three-seed. I think that not being ready, our players not being ready, stood in the way of our ability to be highly successful and compete for a championship.

LS: Do you think, you know, with a bunch of athletes that go overseas during the offseason to continue their playing career, do you think an introduction like the Athlete’s Unlimited league, that will potentially keep more athletes in the United States versus having to go overseas? Do you think that would have any impact on with what you’re saying?

CR: It’s only a month, or five weeks, whatever it is. So, it’s not enough. It’s in February. There is time between February and the start of camp. So, I mean, will it be helpful to those that don’t go overseas? Yes. Where it’s at right now, it’s got a small footprint. Managing your offseason as a WNBA player if you don’t go overseas is one that takes a lot of thought. It takes resources to prepare yourself to be ready and I think that’s been one of our bigger challenges in this league because the offseason is long. I say it to players all the time, that the mindset is, “I have time. I have time. I have time. It’s only November. It’s only December. It’s January. I still have a couple more months.” Next thing you know, it’s the start of April and they’re saying, “Oh, shit. I’m not ready.” [laughs]

But having things like a USA Basketball camp or National Team camps in the offseason as well as this league, Athlete’s Unlimited, it’s something to prepare for and that’s important if they’re not playing overseas. I know it was helpful to Lindsay Whalen when we had a couple of USAB windows. There was one in November, there was one in February. Lindsay always wanted to be ready for those. It gave you a target. Without that target, you’re kind of left with, “I don’t have anything to prepare for.” I think it’s hard to stay focused.

LS: Yeah, just like anything, where it’s kind of human nature, if there’s no deadline, it’s tough to get motivated.

CR: That’s exactly right [laughs]. That’s exactly right. Now, it’s not — You know, the great ones, they do it. Sylvia Fowles never comes in out of shape. Ever. The great ones do it. So, if you want to be great, then that’s the path that you follow. And a lot of younger players just don’t know it. They don’t quite know how to do it, so they need help. I don’t have a problem with that. But I think, in general, I think teams around the league would tell you that’s always a focus. If you’re not playing overseas, what are you doing to get better? Not only is it skills training, because they all love to have their skill coaches — well, that ain’t enough [laughs]. Skill coaches don’t get you in shape. And that’s great you work on a part of your game, but you’ve got to couple that with being a well-conditioned athlete to be successful.

If not, then you’re going to face injuries. And that’s why you see so many injuries oftentimes. Go back and look at the preparation. You can’t not perform in a way that you’re going to perform in a training camp and expect that when you try to do something in training camp, that you’re not going to come up with an injury. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. The ones that come in and try to act like they’re in shape, they get hurt in the first three days because they’re not in shape. It’s all the soft tissue stuff.

LS: Absolutely. You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a part-time journalist and full-time physical therapist and, what exactly your saying, it’s backed up in the research and science. The injuries occur when you go 0-to-60.

CR: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. You can say, “Oh, bad luck.” Well — Damiris Dantas’s injury was bad luck. That being said Damiris Dantas was not in great shape when she returned to us. And that’s — you know, there are all individual situations. Damiris was dealing with a lot this offseason. You know, COVID and her country. There just was a lot going on. So, sometimes you go through things in life where your motivation wanes. That’s a little different. I can understand it. But we just have too many players that just, kind of, weren’t ready. And it leads to soft tissue injuries.

You can deal with, you know, Layshia Clarendon ended up with a stress fracture. Rennia Davis, she didn’t do anything wrong. Those are some things that it’s just, okay, shit happens. You’re going to deal with some injuries. But the ones that you can control, we’ve got to make sure that we can control.

LS: Speaking of Rennia. I was covering a Wolves game about a month ago now and you were there with Rennia courtside. How is her rehabilitation and recovery going?

CR: It’s going really well. She’s worked her butt off. It’s going well. She’s on the court doing basketball things, which is great. She’ll be able to, probably by the new year, go play overseas. That’s important to us that she does that. And I think, just in terms of getting rid of — I don’t want her doing nothing until the start of training camp. We’ve communicated that to her. And she wants to play, which is good. I think she’s working on the opportunity and where it is because there will be a lot of turnover at the December break over in Europe. As the New Year turns, players that signed short-term contracts, et cetera — she’ll get a chance. I don’t know where it is just yet, but she’ll play and with the news of announcing [Napheesa Collier’s] pregnancy, there’s opportunity for Rennia. So, we’ll find out what she’s about, right?

LS: Absolutely. What’s her potential? What can she bring to the table from your perspective?

CR: You know, I really don’t know. And I say that to say, you know, what you do in college — you tend to think, okay, if Rennia Davis is within the same company as Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker and Chamique Holdsclaw, those are some, obviously, awfully good players. Statistically, she’s in the company of those players just like Napheesa was in the company of Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore, et cetera. But not to say that those players — Phee is Maya or that Rennia is Tamika Catchings or anybody else. But it’s saying you’ve done some things well in your career.

The translatables for me [are] if she will rebound, if she will score efficiently, those things can be really helpful. If she plays with energy. Really helpful. I think she learned a lot through the course of sitting and watching and being at practices and getting a feel for me and the things that I value, that I find important, that I hold players accountable to. Her length — she has an ability to score the ball. I think that she will, just like most young players, the physicality of our league, the ability for these players in this league to close opening very quickly, those are all things she’s going to have to get used to.

But the little bit that we saw, it was only three days, but the little bit that we saw, we think she’s got some really good instincts. But I don’t know. It’s just one of those things that’s really hard to say. I don’t know. I’d like to get a little more workouts with her in some pick-up games, then I can tell you more. But right now, I’m only going on what we saw in college and I thought that she was one of the best players in the draft from a physical gifts standpoint. Also, her numbers, her efficiency, were not through the roof, but good. She was good. We didn’t get, like, a franchise player, but if you get a serviceable player that you want in your franchise for multiple years, then that’ll be a good thing.

LS: Kind of backtracking a little bit, you had mentioned Napheesa’s announcement. Obviously, from a life perspective, everyone is happy for her and Alex, but from a purely basketball perspective, do you think her announcement will impact how you attack the offseason?

CR: Well, no in that I think, if you look at it in terms of a position, I’m not saying replacing Phee because Phee’s one of the best players in the league, but positionally, with Aerial Powers, Bridget Carleton, Rennia Davis, I feel like that position we’ve got a pretty good hold on. If something turns up in the draft that’s unexpected, okay, but I don’t think that that announcement per se impacts our offseason. Sylvia Fowles is an unrestricted free agent. Layshia Clarendon is an unrestricted free agent. Re-signing our own players is a priority that’s not impacted by Phee. The CBA has the money stay on the cap. That’s money that, obviously, we can replace the roster spot, which is good news, but that money is on the cap. So, now I have to add another player [and] if it’s a minimum player, you’re still talking $60,000.

So, it doesn’t impact in terms of, we’ve known for a while, so just as we’d look at the offseason, there isn’t anything that makes us say, “Okay, this happened, so now we’ve got to do this instead.” There wasn’t anything that I think triggered anything.

LS: I was looking at some Synergy stats when researching for this interview. Obviously, in the paint, you guys are pretty dominant on both sides of the ball, largely due to Syl’s presence. However, last season your team struggled to play efficiently in transition and jump shooting situations. How much of that is due to the small sample nature of the WNBA season? How much is due to your scheme and fitting the scheme to your available personnel?

CR: It was something that we talked a lot about as a staff and throughout the season. We were a good defensive team and we didn’t score many easy baskets. When I think about the 2019 team with Danielle Robinson and Odyssey Sims in the backcourt, we scored a lot in transition. We were fast up the floor and we could get in transition. They played off their defense well. For whatever reason, this group didn’t and it was something we talked a lot about. We wanted headman passes, you know, we drilled the hell out of it. It just didn’t come naturally for this group. We definitely will take a look at that and find ways to score earlier in the offense. That was something that bothered me throughout the season. And I don’t think we took full advantage of our good defense.

LS: Do you think that’s something that can be addressed simply by more repetition or more familiarity with each other’s play styles?

CR: You know, some of it is personnel. There’s a very stark contrast in our point guard play in terms of advancing the ball up the floor. I think someone like Layshia Clarendon who wasn’t in training camp with us and just kind of jumped in, we all just kind of went with the flow. We were so week-by-week as our identity was evolving [laughs]. Our identity wasn’t very good early in the season, so we were changing our identity midseason. Just an ongoing evolution.

I’d like to think that when we get everybody in training camp to start and it’s a focus, I’ve got a good leader like Layshia and a more evolved player like [Crystal Dangerfield], I think that we can bring that out a little more. But you’ve got to have wings that are going to run. [Kayla McBride] is going to run, but she’s not somebody you’re going to headman to. Now, if I ask her to and we really emphasize it, but that’s another player who was not in training camp, or where we headman pass and she attacks — She’s a lot like [Seimone Augustus]. They run the floor with their head turned, their back to the ball. That’s a habit and that’s probably not going to change a whole lot. It didn’t change with Seimone [laughs]. They do other things well, that’s just not one of them. I think Aerial Powers could be a recipient of headman passes and do something meaningful early in the offense. Hopefully, a healthy, in-shape Aerial Powers means, from jump, that we’re able to establish that as an identity. We’ll definitely look at that. I think Carleton actually started to do that pretty well. I don’t know on Rennia what that looks like.

But some of it’s personnel. It's just not what they do. I think Layshia played slower more execution-style. Crystal could play more open. Crystal advances the ball quickly. She’s much faster than Lay, but just because you play fast doesn’t mean it’s efficient. I look at the NBA all the time. The things they worry about, the pace of play is one of the most overrated things. Like, look at some of the bad teams. They’re, oftentimes, some of your higher-paced teams. Well, that doesn’t translate to winning all the time. If you’re playing at a fast pace and it leads to efficiency, great! But it may not be what your style should be. I think for us, we became pretty darn execution-oriented. Not because we didn’t ever want to score easy [laughs]. There were many times I talked to [Wolves head coach Chris Finch] about it like, “God damn, we don’t score easy!” Everything’s like, “Okay, now we’ve got to pound it, pound it. What are we in? Now it’s easier to guard.” We’re working on it. Hopefully, we can get to that space where we have some players that we can advance the ball.

LS: I think Finch could probably commiserate with you a bit through the first third of their season here.

CR: Yep [laughs]! Things don’t come easy.