The Minnesota Lynx seemed set to stumble after stars Lindsay Whalen retired and Maya Moore chose to take a year off. But the team's offseason rebuild has been surprisingly solid, and with the new season tipping off Saturday, there's reason for optimism.
Whalen and Moore anchored a team that dominated the WNBA, winning six conference titles and four championships from 2011 to 2017. The Lynx then limped through 2018, finishing 18-16, barely clinching a playoff berth before falling 75-68 in a first-round elimination game to the Los Angeles Sparks.
Whalen left to become the University of Minnesota women's basketball coach. Moore stepped away from the WNBA, saying she wanted to focus on her ministry dreams.
Now, with its biggest stars gone, can the Lynx compete with the rising talent across the WNBA? Oh, yes.
Head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve appears to have built a more-than-competent team for 2019 — an intriguing blend of newbies and veterans. Here's what to watch.
Augustus to the hoop
Entering the 2019 season, head coach Cheryl Reeve still has 2018 all-stars Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson, who's expected to return from a concussion.
Fowles is only two years removed from her MVP campaign in 2017 that helped deliver the Lynx's fourth championship. Last year, she anchored the team's defense while averaging nearly 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. With Maya Moore gone, she'll be relied even more to lead this team on a nightly basis.
Augustus, though, will be key.
The Lynx franchise player, the No. 1 draft pick in 2006 coming out Louisiana State University, averaged a smooth and efficient 20 points per game early in her career. She was electrifying and among one of the most feared players in the WNBA.
When Moore joined the team in 2011, Augustus, selflessly gave up touches to the younger guard. While it helped deliver championships, her game has steadily declined in each of the last eight seasons. Last year, she averaged a career low 10.9 points per game. With Moore out of the picture, the Lynx will need Augustus to rediscover her scorer's mentality.
At point guard, Danielle Robinson has the challenge of replacing Whalen. When healthy, Robinson helped the Lynx play at a faster pace, leading to quick transition baskets and more offensive possessions.
When she suffered a season-ending foot injury last year, the Lynx never quite recovered. Now healthy and one of the team's captains along with Augustus and Fowles, Robinson will be charged with leading the Lynx into a new era of basketball.
The Lynx's biggest move this offseason was the acquisition of guard Odyssey Sims from the Los Angeles Sparks, who they received in exchange for third-year guard Alexis Jones. Fans will remember Sims as a dogged competitor, who unrelentingly took it to the Lynx in each of their heated battles. Sims is expected to help with the scoring load.
Ahead of Thursday's trade deadline, Minnesota continued to tinker with the roster. They picked up second overall pick of the 2017 WNBA draft center Alaina Coates from the Chicago Sky.
Coates was a double-double machine throughout her four years at the University of South Carolina, though she didn't average many points in her WNBA rookie season. With the Lynx, she'll be fighting for minutes with Fowles, Temi Fagbenle and Brunson when she comes back from injury.
In free agency, the Lynx signed Dallas Wings' forward, Karima Christmas-Kelly, a career 32 percent three-point shooter.
They later traded a pick in the 2018 draft for guard Lexie Brown, who just finished her rookie season with the Connecticut Sun. The former Duke University player didn't get many minutes in Connecticut, but Reeve believes she can get the best out the 5-foot 9-inch guard.
The Lynx also brought back their 2012 No. 12 pick, Damiris Dantas, who had spent the last few seasons with the Atlanta Fever.
The final move the Lynx made ahead of the trade deadline was a trade Phoenix Mercury forward Stephanie Talbot. Entering her third season, Talbot boasts a career 38 percent three-point shooting and has established herself as a sharpshooter.
The Lynx have a thing for former University of Connecticut basketball stars.
After drafting Maya Moore No. 1 overall in 2011, the Lynx may have found another promising Husky in 6-foot 2-inch forward, Napheesa Collier. The sixth pick in this year's WNBA draft, Collier finished third all-time in career points with UConn, fourth in rebounds and seventh in scoring, average at 17 points per game.
Collier should be a huge part of the Lynx success. Reeve has been very vocal about how special a talent she is. In college, she was a force on the low block and a sniper from midrange, but questions surged about her ability to lead her team in critical moments.
Collier won't be asked to anchor the offense right away. But if she finds her rhythm early, she could be a major disrupter in the WNBA.
A YouTube video of her playing Sparks' forward Candace Parker one-on-one reveals Collier's high potential and reason Lynx fans should be excited to see her on the court.
With the 16th pick, the Lynx selected another interesting prospect, University of Notre Dame guard Jessica Shepard. As a junior, Shepard was a first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference player and a member of the All-Final Four team.
X-factor: the coach
This WNBA season may be the least predictable. The league's reigning champion, the Seattle Storm, won't have their biggest stars. Guard Sue Bird is out indefinitely with a knee injury and forward Breanna Stewart is gone for the season following an Achilles injury overseas.
So, the competition is wide open.
In Las Vegas, the WNBA's youngest team got a whole lot better after drafting top rookie prospect, Jackie Young, and trading for all-star center, Liz Cambage.
They both join the 2018 rookie of the year, A'ja Wilson, who took the league by storm averaging eight rebounds and nearly 21 points a game last season. Coached by Detroit Pistons legend Bill Laimbeer, many expect the aces to be the team to beat in this upcoming season.
The Sparks retooled for the season as well. The team hired former Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher as head coach, resigned key players and landed Chiney Ogwumike from the Connecticut Suns. The Sparks now have two out of the three Ogwumike sisters on their roster. The rest of the WNBA is on notice.
All that makes it harder for the Lynx, no doubt. But the team has an intangible asset that tends to get overlooked: the competitive spirit and basketball smarts of Reeve.
In the Lynx offseason moves — shifting low risk draft picks for misused talent — the coach affirmed her team is reloading for a deep postseason run.
She's built competition at every position, with veterans — WNBA champions — and young players looking to prove themselves. She's emphasized the need to play faster, shoot more threes and be disciplined on defense.
Need a little extra reason for hope? How about a little numerology. The year is 2019, an odd number season, and the Lynx have won it all in every odd year since 2011.
It's hard to project how all the numerous changes will take effect, but winning a championship is not out of reach for the Lynx. The road to the WNBA Finals begin this Saturday against the Chicago Sky.