Resolved: the evolution of Rebekkah Brunson, inspired by Cheryl Reeve, has fundamentally transformed the Minnesota Lynx into an unstoppable basketball force.
Okay, that headline might sound like hyperbole. I’ve been accused of such a thing on Twitter, too.
But bear with me here. Let’s look at what’s happened, and what it means for not only the Lynx, but the WNBA as a whole.
Last season, the Lynx came within a point of their fourth WNBA title in six seasons. But they did this, essentially, without the three-pointer as a major weapon. The team finished eleventh in both made threes and attempts. Among major contributors, only Maya Moore shot better than 33.3 percent from three in a league where 33.6 percent is average. And only Moore and Renee Montgomery averaged at least two three-point attempts per game.
Given that reality of spacing, it is fairly incredible that the Lynx still finished atop the WNBA in offensive rating, just ahead of Elena Delle Donne’s Sky and the champions, the Los Angeles Sparks.
Essentially, this came from a combination of factors: Moore’s most efficient season, the unstoppable Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen continuing their Hall of Fame careers, remarkable depth that limited the offensive output from the second unit.
But it also meant that when the WNBA Finals came around, the Sparks had a strategy to match up with the Lynx. With Fowles and Brunson locked inside, they could pack the lane with Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, while the versatile Candace Parker helped inside as necessary while defending Maya Moore. That also left the incredible defending of Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray’s size and Kristi Toliver’s peskiness to deal with Augustus and Whalen.
Add in that the Sparks shot 37.5 percent from three, the best mark in league history since the line moved to its current distance, and the matchup essentially became a tossup, which is why it was decided in the final seconds of the final game.
But if you take that same matchup, supersize the spacing and efficiency of the Lynx through more three-point attempts, then suddenly the balance shifts. Cheryl Reeve is not the coaching genius of our time by accident, and it isn’t any wonder she gave her resting stars marching orders to get better and more prolific from three this offseason. It was a primary focus of the team.
So what’s happened? Well, the team averaged just under 12 three-point attempts per game last season. So far this season? 17.4 per game.
It’s coming from everywhere, really. Seven different players have already taken double-digit threes. Nine players have attempted at least five threes. Whalen has attempted as many threes in nine games this season as she did in 32 games last year.
But the game-changer is truly Rebekkah Brunson. Entering the 2017 season, Brunson played 13 seasons in the WNBA. In those 13 years, she took 12 three-pointers, total, making two of them.
The logic is easy to understand: she’s one of the best rebounders in the history of the league. And at age 35, it would have been reasonable to assume that’s what to expect from her moving forward.
So this is really about two Hall of Famers acting beyond the limits of reasonable imagination: Cheryl Reeve, seeing a stretch four in her traditional power forward, and Rebekkah Brunson, who made it happen for herself.
The threes came down like raindrops in a thunderstorm all offseason long, in practice, into the regular season. Still, in her first seven games this year, she attempted one or two, something to keep defenses honest, nothing more.
Friday night in Washington represented something else entirely. After punishing Seattle with an offensive explosion once Storm coach Jenny Boucek decided to double Sylvia Fowles (only took a 26-point half from Fowles to make it happen), Brunson killed them from the perimeter, but mostly taking twos. Against the Mystics, though, she took five threes, making a pair of them.
For her part, Reeve said this wasn’t about running the offense through Brunson. Her team continued to run through Fowles, or Moore, and Brunson was simply a wide-open option as the Mystics cycled through their defensive choices.
But let’s break down what those choices are now.
Any frontcourt needs to match up with Fowles, Brunson and Moore. In Fowles, the Lynx have a player with the second-best offensive rating in the league among starters. Fowles is shooting better than 66 percent from the field, which would be her career-best mark, and well above last season’s 59.5 percent. Doubling her isn’t a surefire way to stop her, but it also isn’t optional anymore, as Seattle found out.
Well, that means bringing an opposing four to Fowles, in all likelihood, though there are assorted threes who can pressure her, such as Parker in Los Angeles. Generally, though, that means finding the more athletic of your team’s wings to strike a balance between Fowles pressure and leaving Brunson wide open from three. Fowles at 66 percent from two is your clear and present danger, but Brunson is at 40 percent from three so far this year, so both are issues. And expecting Brunson to regress if she continues getting wide-open looks isn’t a great wager, becoming less so with each game she keeps knocking down shots from deep.
The result? Fowles is second in the league in offensive rating—trailing only Brunson.
Of course, there’s always doubling Fowles and making sure you track Brunson with your most athletic wing. That leaves your lesser defensive wing to guard… Maya Moore. It’s worth noting that the Lynx managed to stay near the top of the league in offensive efficiency en route to a 7-0 start while Moore, an absurdly efficient scorer and the best player in the world at the moment, shot just 31.6 percent.
Over the past two games, Moore is 14-for-26 from the field, just under 54 percent. From three? She’s 8-for-11, or just under 73 percent.
Even with her slow start, Maya Moore is now third in the WNBA in offensive rating among starters.
Hypothetically, if you are a team with a big, talented defensive guard (think Alana Beard), you can bring that guard to Moore to check her. But that leaves all kinds of room for one of the best creators in the history of the game, Lindsay Whalen, and a supercharged iso killer in Seimone Augustus. These are not choices anybody wants to make.
There is a lot of season left to play. No, Los Angeles cannot use the 2016 playbook to counter Minnesota as the Lynx are now constructed, but Brian Agler is capable of great strategic alterations himself. No, the Mystics couldn’t stay with the Lynx on Friday night, but that was without Elena Delle Donne or Emma Meesseman, two players capable of creating mismatches of their own.
But all of these knock-on effects come from a very simple, yet ridiculously shrewd change. Somehow, Cheryl Reeve saw what Rebekkah Brunson could be. Brunson, somehow, made it so.
So as they now exist: in what game would Minnesota be an underdog right now? They went to Seattle and won by 23. They went to Washington and won by 25. They went to New York and won by 19.
Those teams, plus Los Angeles and Phoenix (each with significant issues to resolve right now), constitute the WNBA teams with a winning record. Sure, Minnesota probably will lose at some point—underdogs win all the time. But at no point this season, as constituted, can any team expect to beat the Lynx.
That’s a far cry from the toss-up Los Angeles vs. Minnesota was last year.
The balance of power has shifted. Minnesota looks like an unstoppable basketball force.
Hyperbole? No. Reality.