Cutting down on the mistakes is key
The Minnesota Lynx have been one of the early surprises of the 2019 WNBA season. Despite losing three stars in the offseason in Maya Moore (out for the season for personal reasons), Lindsay Whalen (retirement), and Rebekkah Brunson (concussion), the Lynx started the season 4-1. They are now 5-5 and tied for sixth place—one spot higher than they finished in 2018. Sylvia Fowles (14.8 points, 9.8 rebounds per game) and Odyssey Sims (14.2 points, 4.7 assists) rank in the top 15 in the league in scoring, and rookie Napheesa Collier is the team’s third double-figure scorer at 11.9 points per game.
However, much to the consternation of head coach Cheryl Reeve, not to mention many Lynx fans, the team’s offense has been plagued by turnovers. The Lynx rank last in the WNBA with 17.9 turnovers per game, which in part explains why they attempt the fewest shots per game of any team (64.8) despite playing at an average pace. They turn the ball over on 22.6% of their possessions, which also ranks last in the league by a large margin.
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At the same time, other observers are shrugging off the turnovers as something that happens early in the season to a team that has many new players. The Lynx’s roster includes nine players who weren’t on the team a season ago, and of the four returners, only two — Fowles and Danielle Robinson — are currently available to play. The hope is that the Lynx’s turnovers will naturally decrease as the players become more familiar with one another.
So, do Lynx fans have reason to worry, or will Minnesota soon cut the turnovers and climb in the WNBA standings? Let’s see what the numbers tell us. (All statistics are courtesy of WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com for games through June 24.)
Cause for concern
Obviously, the sheer volume of Minnesota’s turnovers is not ideal. The Lynx’s 17.9 turnovers per game would be the most by any team since the 2010 Tulsa Shock if sustained over the entire season. It would also be the most by any Lynx team in the past decade by a substantial margin: the previous worst in the Cheryl Reeve era (2010-present) was 15.2 turnovers per game in 2012.
In addition, the Lynx are not simply turning the ball over a lot because they play fast. First of all, they are playing faster than all but one other Lynx team under Reeve, but they rank only sixth in the WNBA this season in pace. Second, they have the league’s worst turnover rate (22.6%), which takes pace out of the equation by calculating the percentage of possessions that end in a turnover. To put that percentage in context, the New York Liberty currently rank fourth out of 12 teams with a 17.6% turnover rate and the Dallas Wings rank eleventh with a 20.2% turnover rate. So the gap between fourth and eleventh (2.6 percentage points) is almost the same as between eleventh and twelfth (2.4 points). That is a big handicap for the Lynx to overcome.
The Lynx’s turnover woes have had two important effects: they have hurt Minnesota’s offense and fueled their opponents’ offense. Minnesota ranks seventh in the WNBA with a 96.8 offensive rating, which is the worst for a Lynx team since Reeve’s first season in 2010. (That was also the last time Minnesota lost more games than it won or missed the playoffs.) The Lynx have had an offensive rating of over 100 in nearly every season since, including a 108.5 rating in 2017, when they won their most recent championship. Meanwhile, opponents have scored 16.1 points per game off Minnesota’s turnovers this season, which is the third-most for a Reeve team in the past decade. These extra points for opponents have contributed to three home losses already this season, which is one more than the Lynx lost at home in the entire 2017 season.
Signs that the Lynx may turn a corner
Although the turnovers have done the Lynx offense no favors, the team’s defense has come together quickly. The Lynx’s defensive rating is 95.1, fifth-best in the WNBA and fourth-best for a Lynx team under Reeve. It also represents a significant improvement from last season’s 99.3 rating, even though that team was filled with veterans from the 2017 championship team.
The Lynx are also partially compensating for their turnovers by forcing opponents into 16.5 turnovers per game, which ranks third in the WNBA. The Lynx have converted those turnovers into 18.6 points per game, which ranks second in the WNBA this season and is the most ever for a Lynx team under Reeve.
Looking at the Lynx roster, there is also a strong argument that all the team needs is more time playing together. Last season’s team was laden with veterans: the average age was 30 years old and five of the 11 players had at least ten years of WNBA experience. This year, with veteran Seimone Augustus injured, only one player with that much experience (Sylvia Fowles) has taken the court for the Lynx in the regular season. Among the players who have suited up this season, the average age is 26.5 years old and the average amount of WNBA experience is only 3.5 years.
Perhaps most importantly, nine of the 13 players on the 2019 roster did not play for the Lynx last season. The team has more rookies (three) than healthy and available returners (two). Individually, every non-rookie except guard Lexie Brown has a turnover percentage this season that exceeds their career average, with starting point guard Odyssey Sims (a difference of 5.5%) and starting wing Damiris Dantas (4.8%) having particularly large disparities. Just having those two players reduce their turnovers would make a huge difference for the Lynx and seems relatively likely as the season progresses. Getting Augustus back should also help, as she has a team-low 10.0% turnover rate in her career.
The Lynx’s 4-1 start was certainly impressive given the team’s youth and number of newcomers. And the five losses so far this season were by an average of just 5.2 points, suggesting that the Lynx were only a few possessions away from a win. On their own, the team’s turnover numbers are certainly worrisome, but in the broader context of who the Lynx are this season, they seem likely to decrease in July and August. However, assuming the Lynx make the playoffs, they will likely need to turn this weakness into a bona fide strength to have a chance at yet another trip to the WNBA Finals.
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