Lynx

Lynx Mailbag: Playoff Time, End of Year Awards and Fowles' Return

(image credit: screenshot from Storrs Central on Youtube)

After kicking off the 2020 WNBA season in the end of July, the seven-week regular season has come to a close for the Minnesota Lynx and the rest of the league, and the postseason is on the horizon.

The Lynx (14-8 overall) and seven other teams will begin the playoffs this week, beginning with the single-elimination first round on Tuesday between Connecticut-Chicago and Washington-Phoenix.

RELATED STORY: The Lynx Get Much-Needed Rest After Earning a First Round Bye

The winners of those games will advance to take on Los Angeles and Minnesota in the single-elimination second round on Thursday on ESPN2.

Below is a look at the full playoff bracket, with the broadcast schedule available here.

2020 WNBA Playoff picture (Screenshot from WNBA.com)

Before the Lynx kick off their 10th straight playoff appearance this week, let’s answer some questions readers submitted about Minnesota and the WNBA in general.

Nathan Hanson: How have the Lynx compared to your preseason expectations?

The short answer to this question: Better than I expected.

Admittedly, going into the 2020 season, I predicted that the Lynx would finish much like they did in the 2019 campaign, around the .500 mark while reaching the playoffs as a No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8 seed.

By the end of the 22-game regular season this summer, however, Minnesota surpassed many expectations and was able to get a top-four seed and a first-round bye in its 10th straight postseason appearance, grabbing an overall record of 14-8.

The reason that I initially thought that the Lynx wouldn’t improve a large amount this year compared to last was that Minnesota came into the season with some new faces in key roles in the rotation once again, on top of the team already being a young group. That mixed with the unusual season in the bubble at IMG Academy and a lack of time together during the offseason, my preseason expectations were that the Lynx would end up around the .500 mark once again.

If you go back to the preseason and look at the team before we saw their performance during the regular season, Minnesota was coming into the new year having lost Seimone Augustus and Danielle Robinson in free agency, and Odyssey Sims‘ status was in question after giving birth in April. With Sylvia Fowles as really the only seasoned veteran in the starting five and second-year forward Napheesa Collier relied upon to lead the team with Fowles, the Lynx had players like rookie point guard Crystal Dangerfield and other young players being inserted into the rotation, which resulted in a few different question marks on the team regarding how it would step up.

Now at the end of the regular season, I am admittedly surprised that the Lynx wound up with the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. That on top of playing most of the year without Fowles on the floor, Minnesota has surprised many and exceeded expectations already. Now, it hopes that continues during the postseason.

Deb: Do you think Crystal Dangerfield ends up winning ROY and Cheryl Reeve wins COTY?

When it comes to end of the year awards and specifically the Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year awards, rookie Crystal Dangerfield and head coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve are most deserving.

When the Lynx exited the 2020 WNBA Draft, if you would have had me pick a Rookie of the Year winner for the end of the year, I wouldn’t have picked Dangerfield. Personally, and I think this was the case for a lot of people around the league, my assumption was New York Liberty’s No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu would run away with that award.

When Ionescu went down with an ankle injury for what ended up being the rest of the season after playing three games, that race became wide open, and Dangerfield stepped up as the dark horse and eventually the favorite for the award.

Dangerfield would be the lowest draft pick to ever win the award, with No. 7 pick Tracy Reid previously holding that crown in 1998. Dangerfield, the No. 16 pick (fourth overall in the second round) of last year’s draft, would also be the second straight Lynx player to win the award, with Collier doing so in 2019.

After an early-season injury to Shenise Johnson, Dangerfield got an earlier than expected role as a starting point guard in her rookie campaign in Minnesota. From her first career start, she didn’t give up that role and went on to start in a total of 19 games.

In 21 appearances — she sat out the regular-season finale due to rest — Dangerfield averaged 16.2 points, 3.6 assists, 2.0 rebounds, 0.9 steals and shot 47.1% from the field and 33.3% from three in 30 minutes per game.

When it comes to the Coach of the Year, Reeve should be the frontrunner to claim that award for the third time as a coach (2011 and 2016).

Not only has Reeve the general manager brilliantly maneuvered through a transitional period in the organization following a dynasty run that resulted in four WNBA titles, but Reeve the coach has plugged in the necessary pieces and has made some great decisions with the players she brought into Minnesota to avoid taking too much of a step back as a franchise.

Look at some of the players and pieces that Reeve has brought to Minnesota and inserted into the rotation the last two years. From Damiris Dantas taking over a starting role, to Bridget Carleton emerging as a nice rotational piece and most recently a starter after playing in a handful of games in 2019, to trusting Dangerfield to take over the reins at point guard to lead the Lynx. Every move along the way by Reeve and her coaching staff has been impressive, and the 14-8 record and No. 4 seed is reflective of that.

For the 2020 Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year awards, give me Dangerfield and Reeve as choices to claim those titles.

JP: What player do you feel will adjust their style the most with Syl coming back? Can Phee and Dantas still perform with less touches or should Syl ease into offense?

Following the win over the Indiana Fever in the season finale last Saturday, Reeve mentioned that Fowles is close to returning to the team after missing a majority of the year with a calf injury.

Reeve added the first-round bye that Minnesota received will help in giving Fowles a few extra days to get herself ready for a potential return, and sounded optimistic that the All-Star and former MVP center will be able to return for their first playoff game.

If Fowles is able to return, it will be interesting to see her integrated back into the starting rotation and how that might impact the look of the rest of the team in the playoffs. If she is able to get back to the floor, I would anticipate the starting lineup of Dangerfield, Sims, Collier, Dantas and Fowles in the second-round playoff game.

As far as Fowles’ potential return resulting in other players adjusting their styles and games, I don’t think it will look much different. If anything, I think it will do nothing but help other Lynx players in opening things up for them on both ends of the floor.

Fowles’ presence in the paint both offensively and defensively helps Minnesota in multiple ways. Not only does her presence in the post boost the Lynx efforts defensively and with rebounding, but Fowles being on the floor will open things up offensively outside of the paint Collier, Dantas and others.

Anytime you get a veteran All-Star and MVP like Fowles back into the mix, it’s going to help your team. Minnesota hopes that’s exactly what happens as the postseason gets closer.

Linda Nelson: How do you think they will look next year?

Although it’s hard to look too far beyond this year given the fact that we’re still currently in-season, it’s also intriguing to think about what could be in 2021 for the Lynx as they continue to try and get back to an annual championship-contending squad.

The biggest question mark going into next year involves Maya Moore and her potential return to Minnesota in 2021. Moore, who has taken the last few years off to focus on criminal justice reform, hasn’t ruled out a return to the WNBA after successfully assisting in the release of her friend Jonathan Irons from prison in July.

If Moore does return to the Lynx next season, this team could be scary. When it comes to a potential starting five, that could feature Dangerfield, Sims, Moore, Collier and Fowles. The second unit could also consist of Rachel Banham, Lexie Brown, Karima Christmas-Kelly Jessica Shepard, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and possibly Cecilia Zandalasini.

That’s a hefty amount of depth and talent on a team that has already managed to grab the fourth spot in the league without Moore on the team.

When this season comes to a close and next year inches closer, the topic of Moore potentially returning will become much clearer. If that happens and players continue to progress, Minnesota could return to that championship-caliber team like it has been in past years.

That will do it for this week’s Lynx mailbag. As always, thanks for submitting your questions and for reading. Make sure to check back here at Zone Coverage for coverage throughout the 2020 WNBA Playoffs. Enjoy postseason basketball, y’all!

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