Coming off a down year, Minnesota Lynx President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve is returning for her 14th season in 2023 not only with a new five-year contract and new title, but also with the competitive fire that has helped fuel the league’s model franchise.
“I’m energized by a team that we could put together to be back in contention. I want that to be clear,” Reeve told Canis Hoopus during a press conference announcing her extension on Thursday afternoon. “The expectations are high for the Minnesota Lynx and this franchise. We’ve been the gold standard in this league and we’re on a mission to get back to that.”
Reeve and her front office have quite the opportunity in front of them this winter.
Minnesota is one of the four teams involved in the WNBA Draft Lottery on Friday night; the Lynx hold a 10.4% chance of securing the No. 1 overall pick, widely expected to be University of South Carolina superstar Aliyah Boston, the 2022 Naismith National Player of the Year and NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Boston led her Gamecocks squad to the 2022 NCAA Championship and, ironically, cut down the nets at Target Center.
Beyond their shot at the No. 1 pick, the Lynx have approximately $539,278 in cap space to spend on their 2023 roster, which includes only five players currently under contract, according to Her Hoop Stats. Additionally, Minnesota has the No. 12 (via LVA) and No. 16 picks in next April’s draft. Those assets, especially when combined with a player on the roster, could net the Lynx back a positive return if they choose to go that route — one that wouldn’t surprise me.
The chance to improve the team in any of those three ways affords Reeve and Co. the flexibility to be one of the most aggressive teams in the league.
“We’re going to be really open-minded. I think that you’re going to see a fair amount of movement,” Reeve said in an interview over the weekend. “Not all teams have that three-level ability, and we do. So, that’s going to be an advantage and that’s how we’re going to be positioning ourselves to be able to do what we’re saying, which is to be in a space that we’re accustomed to being in.”
That space, of course, is returning to the playoffs; Minnesota missed the postseason this past summer, ending a streak of 11 straight appearances, due in part to key absences. Two-time All-Star Napheesa Collier gave birth to her daughter Mila on May 25. She missed most of the season before making a heroic return just 74 days after giving birth. The team also missed incumbent point guard Layshia Clarendon, who was a big part of Minnesota’s plans in 2022, but was waived prior to the start of the regular season as a result of a lingering injury.
Certainly it’s easier to begin another streak when you can build around one of the most versatile and impactful two-way players in the entire WNBA.
“The ability to move Phee left and right positionally is definitely helpful in terms of keeping your options open in every way. Phee is very interested in developing her skill set,” Reeve said with excitement. “[Collier is] gonna be super excited to return. Not return as she was, but return even better. Ball-handling and perimeter shooting, whether she’s playing the 3 or the 4, those skill sets would be really valuable for her.”
Collier spent most of her first four seasons as the 3 playing alongside Damiris Dantas and the legendary Sylvia Fowles, but could slot in to play the 4 in 2023 depending on how free agency and trades play out. Front-court players Natalie Achonwa and Jess Shepard are both under contract for 2022, but are 4/5 combos. While each would thrive as a 4 or 5 in the inverted offensive system Reeve ran when Fowles missed time with injuries, each player’s season-long defensive fit at the 5 is uncertain.
The best case scenario is that Collier slides down to the 3 and welcomes in her former UCONN teammate Breanna Stewart, who is the crown jewel of this year’s free agent class. Beyond that connection, Reeve has long coached Stewart through USA Basketball, and did so again this fall. Reeve led the National Team to gold in Sydney last month at the FIBA Women’s World Cup, her first major international competition as Head Coach. Stewart is also set to team up with Minnesota wing Kayla McBride on Fenerbahçe overseas in the EuroLeague.
But in the meantime, all eyes will be on the lottery ping pong balls on Friday night. Once the Lynx know where they will be selecting — and other franchises finalize their Head Coach and General Manager vacancies — Reeve expects trade talks with other teams to heat up.
“Once we get that word Friday night of where we landed, then you really get aggressive. Teams are going to want to talk a lot more than we have been to this point.”
A key part of Reeve’s extension is not only long-term security, but an improved relationship with Lynx minority owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, who are on track to become majority owners late next year. Given that Reeve is set to work in lockstep with the ownership pairing for four of the five years on her new deal, she sought to learn more about them through the contract extension process.
“What we didn’t see [this past season] and this was sort of what led to conversations on my end of saying, ‘I need to get a vision.’ This is what I’ve communicated to Marc and to Alex: ‘What’s [your] vision for the WNBA?’ And so those were great conversations,” Reeve said in a complementary manner.
One of the important takeaways from those conversions is that Reeve learned all three parties share a crucial personality trait: competitiveness.
“I wanted more than anything, to bring them closer to this and share with them what our needs are, as our desire is to be the gold standard in the WNBA in terms of a free agent destination. ‘What are free agents looking for?’ and that sort of thing,” Reeve added. “We had some really productive conversations around that.”
With the flexibility to improve the Lynx in a major way this offseason, that alignment —combined with the team’s first class culture and top flight WNBA facilities — should create a compelling pitch during free agency negotiations in January.
Reeve is grateful that Minnesota’s ownership triumvirate of Lore, Rodriguez and governor Glen Taylor share a collective interest beyond just moving the Lynx forward.
“That’s what I think is really meaningful. I talked with [Marc], Alex and Glen about the league, where we are, and when we talk about the top ownership in the WNBA, where we fall in that,” she explained. “We are a part of the group that is very interested in the league taking these next steps from an economical standpoint, from an investment standpoint.”
“I’m very encouraged by that and that our ability to remain as a gold standard in the league. That’s going to be because your ownership allows you to do that.”
Taylor has been a driving force behind that success for nearly a quarter century.
“His commitment from 1999 to see it all the way through, and to see it go into this next phase economically, that’s awfully exciting and that gives me a great sense of pride that we’ve done this, he’s stuck with us,” Reeve said in a proud tone. “He’s invested in us. And to see his investment that will be able to turn into what I think it could turn into over the next five-to-10 years, that’s pretty exciting.”
The league’s evolving financial landscape also enabled Reeve to negotiate her contract with a unique ask: unlock more job growth for those who helped her build the Lynx into the league’s greatest dynasty.
Reeve received a promotion to President of Basketball Operations as part of her extension, opening up the General Manager position. During her press conference, she hinted it may be a destination for internal promotion.
That type of servant leadership has helped Reeve build such close relationships with Lynx players, coaches and executives over her 13 years in Minnesota.
“I just know that the people that have been a part of this just have been incredibly committed, not just to our team, but to me personally,” Reeve said. “What we’ve tried to do is have this partnership of, ‘What are [your] goals?’... You sit down with players and say, ‘Hey, how do you want this to go for you?’ and you map it out, and you work your butt off trying to [help] them (achieve) their goals. And you do the same thing with your staff. It just creates investment in that we’re in this together.”
“I can be really happy when there are stated goals and people can reach them. That’s fulfilling as as a leader, and that’s what everybody should be doing in our leadership positions, is [asking], ‘How do we elevate those around us?’ Professionally, that’s one of my greatest goals. [I’m] looking at ways to do that, continue to grow, and just value people. That’s what it’s all about, is people. If you don’t have good people or you don’t value your people, you’re not going to get very good results.”
Relationships are everything to the four-time WNBA champion coach. She knows it’s not just about the moments during practice or games that forge connections. It’s the time spent off the floor, and the opportunities to connect with the community and the organization that keep her former players coming back.
“It’s a source of pride, I think, for all of us that are doing this, that you have an organization, you have a fan base that just values the heck out of them. And the feeling that they have when they reflect on their time here, and that they still want to be involved, that’s all part of those things that you go, ‘That’s why we do what we do,’ Reeve said. “It’s not the wins or losses. It’s the overall feeling that you’re giving somebody in their life; again, that you’re valuing them (to a point where) they are now going to want to give back.”
They say that the journey is always greater than the destination. That’s true for Reeve, because of who she has met along this incredible ride.
“The journey of surrounding yourself with good people, that’s all a part of that, because it doesn’t end when their playing career ends. You get lifelong relationships if you do it right.”
Between Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore and Rebekkah Lamar Brunson with the Minnesota Lynx, and the countless legends through USA Basketball, Reeve has coached some of the sport’s all-time greatest players.
She’s a historian at heart who takes great pride in being part of things that have been so successful for such a long time. Reeve built a championship culture here in Minnesota while deepening the dynastic impact that USA Basketball has had on players from all four corners of the country.
The task for Reeve now, both with the Lynx and USAB, is to uphold championship cultures through transitional periods. A key part of that is telling stories.
“I think’s what I’m always on a mission to do,” Reeve said. With [Lynx players], when (the 50th anniversary of) Title IX comes around, and we start talking about that, I want to bring people in that were a part of it that were told no, they couldn’t play basketball. Just where the players go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’”
Reeve and the USAB selection committee fielded a relatively young team for this year’s FIBA Women’s World Cup, so she wanted to connect them with pillars of the USA Basketball culture. Dawn Staley, Seimone Augustus and DeLisha Milton-Jones — a trio that earned nine Olympic golds collectively — all shared their stories with the team to help the players understand the magnitude of playing for USAB and how to get the most out of the experience.
“People that live it, walk it, being able to share that with them, I think was that was a big part for me,” she said, keenly aware of how important her role leading the National Team is. “I can’t speak for the players, but it was one of the most impactful things we did in that month together.”
“The number of times that I’ve talked to a player that said, ‘I just love being a part of USA Basketball,’ like those all kind of went into this experience where we want to make sure that we continue to capture that enjoyment, and then work in a way that’s representative of all those teams through all those years,” Reeve said.
“And so not to see it as pressure to try to do what they’ve done, but a little bit more embracing that enjoyment of the journey and how it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be this level of commitment, that you’re making sacrifices. That’s what so many before you have done, and just how meaningful that is, and then to stand together on a podium accomplishing the ultimate goal and winning a gold medal.”
Reeve wants the reward of those representing the United States of America on the international stage to not only be golden, but also be a feeling that they successfully built upon the culture that was established in 1996 when the USA won gold in Atlanta.
The longest tenured coach in WNBA history holds the same hope for her Minnesota Lynx. You can bet she’ll reinforce that message with her revamped squad in 2023, especially considering a down year in 2022 that wasn’t representative of the franchise’s championship culture.
“When I don’t think it’s happening, and when I think that the culture is not being represented, they hear about it, because there’s a lot of hard work to build a culture that the 2022 team was standing on,” Reeve explained. “When it doesn’t happen, it’s really obvious why and what it is. So it’s really easy for all of us that have been a part of it to identify what’s missing. And so we try to we bring attention to those things that we are doing, because you have to have those qualities.”
Finding players that are cultural fits in aim of fielding a team that will collectively bring those championship qualities will be front of mind for Reeve and her staff this winter, because she doesn’t want to relive last season.
“I’m not gonna lie, 2022 was agonizing because, like I said, we fell short of an expectation (to make the playoffs),” Reeve said. “That’s just unacceptable, and it was unacceptable for everyone that we just couldn’t figure out how to make that happen.”
Expect the 2019 WNBA Executive of the Year and her front office will be aggressive in overhauling the team’s roster.
“There was great effort in trying to put Syl in the position that we all wanted her to be in. Obviously, we don’t have a Syl now,” Reeve said. “But we have great opportunity to improve our team. So I don’t think anyone should expect that they’re going to see the same team minus Syl. That likely isn’t happening.”
With a renovated roster built around one of the brightest young stars in the W hopefully on the way, Reeve expects more for her 2023 team.
“The expectation is to be a playoff team. ... We missed the playoffs for the first time in however long, ending a long run of playoff experiences. Now, that’s unacceptable,” Reeve reiterated. “It’s difficult for me without knowing my roster at this point to be able to say to you that I think we’re a contender. I can tell you that’s our goal in putting our team together.”
With long-term security, the team-building flexibility to make some serious noise this offseason, great relationships with an aggressive ownership team, and a sour taste in her mouth after the 2022 season, Cheryl Reeve is coming back highly motivated in 2023 to bring her team back to that gold standard.
And when the league lets the ping pong balls start flying on Friday night, they’ll let the games officially begin.