The Minnesota Lynx’s 2021 season came to a disappointing end this past weekend as they were ousted in the single-elimination WNBA quarterfinals by a suddenly hot and powerful Chicago Sky team, 89-76. But for head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve and the rest of the Lynx’s front office, there is no time for rest as they have already turned their sight to an offseason that could be a critical inflection point for the franchise.
“I think you know pretty much throughout the season some areas that [obviously need to be addressed],” Reeve told various members of the media during her exit interview availability this past Tuesday. “You literally turn the page the next day. You have conversations with players, but then you also move into your thought processes about the draft, about free agency. You do that immediately.”
The Lynx enter the offseason in an interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable, spot. Franchise cornerstone and 2021 Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles will be an unrestricted free agent and is currently undecided as to whether or not she will continue playing basketball next summer, whether with the Lynx or elsewhere.
Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles says the biggest things for her to consider this offseason is parenthood — does she want to have kids now or wait a few more years?— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) September 28, 2021
"A lot for me is just parenthood at this point. That's basically the main thing for me right now."
Joining Fowles in unrestricted free agency will be guards Rachel Banham and Layshia Clarendon, while forward Bridget Carleton will be a reserved player, meaning she can only negotiate a contract with Minnesota unless she is released. While it remains unclear how many of the Lynx’s four free agents will return next season, Reeve made it abundantly clear that the 2022 Minnesota Lynx will not look the same as their 2021 iteration.
“We know that the group that we [had] isn’t going to be fully intact again next year,” Reeve said.
According to Her Hoops Stats, the Lynx will enter the offseason with eight athletes under contract and $432,000 in cap space. Additionally, the team will have only two protected veteran slots — otherwise known as fully-guaranteed contracts — open to fill.
Minnesota was one of the more aggressive teams last winter and drew acclaim from within and outside of the WNBA for their signings of Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, and Natalie Achonwa as well as their selection of Rennia Davis with the ninth overall pick in the 2021 draft. Their early-season acquisition of Layshia Clarendon after she was let go by the New York Liberty was also widely praised.
However, Reeve believes that her team is in a much different place entering this offseason compared to the last.
“We’re in a lot different place this year than what we were at the end of the bubble season. In the bubble season, it was a great success. We won the single-elimination game and were in the semifinals and lost to the eventual champions in Seattle. But we knew that it was probably a group that overachieved and we had some real obvious targets for what we thought would improve our team that would be available and that would be interested in moving,” Reeve said. “So, we thought the timing was right. We came out of that season feeling very aggressive. I would say that we’re in a little bit different place in 2021. Any time you don’t win a championship, you have room for improvement … We do need some help. In the areas that we think we need help, we’ll be aggressive, but it’s a different tone. We’ve got four picks, we’ve got decent draft capital. We’ve got some trade assets. We’ll see what’s available and we’ll take a look at the free agency class and see what we can find what we’re looking for. We don’t feel the need to jump. Last year I felt the need to jump.”
One of the areas in which Reeve dropped hints about a need for improvement is at the point guard position. Crystal Dangerfield, the 2020 Rookie of the Year, had an overall disappointing sophomore campaign as she transitioned from a starting role to coming off the bench and as teams around the league adjusted to her style of play. Clarendon’s arrival provided stability at the lead guard and her stellar play was one of the factors that propelled the Lynx to a 22-10 record after beginning the season 0-4. However, a stress injury in her lower leg limited her impact during the season’s waning moments, and her lack of availability greatly hindered Minnesota during their loss to the Sky.
Clarendon expressed a desire to return to the Lynx next season during her media availability on Tuesday and it would be difficult to imagine that Reeve wouldn’t be equally interested. However, it seems logical to believe that Clarendon would seek a fully guaranteed deal while it is unclear if the Lynx are of the same mindset.
Reeve admitted that she and the front office thought more highly of the 2021 free agency class compared to the 2022 class, which is primarily headlined by high-caliber wing and frontcourt players, neither of which are a need for the Lynx. While potential point guard targets may include Briann January and former Lynx Odyssey Sims, there isn’t a clear free agent who would be a better fit than Clarendon.
Should the Lynx re-sign Fowles, Clarendon, and one of Carleton or Banham — of which the more likely of the two is Carleton — they will be left with essentially one roster spot left to fill; they will still have four draft picks and virtually no cap space remaining, making the trade market the only viable option left for upgrading the roster.
Could someone like Dangerfield or Jessica Shepard be packaged with a few draft picks to net a bigger fish? Or what about moving Davis, who missed the entirety of the 2021 season with a foot fracture? While the Lynx may not ultimately be the aggressors in trade conversations, truly nothing should be considered off the table for a team that seems to be a piece or two away from WNBA title contention.
Regardless, we’re still at least four months away from knowing how this pivotal offseason will play out.