Three Lynx Additions Immediately Turned Their Defense Around

Photo Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

After a breakout game against the Dallas Wings, 30-year-old rookie guard Olivia Epoupa said the Lynx are “just here for each other. We have great chemistry. … On the bench, on the court, I’m just supporting them. We are all here for each other and support each other.”

Epoupa broke out because of her defensive intensity that helped the Minnesota Lynx salt away the Wings (87-76) to improve to 6-2 on the season. She had four steals in 14 minutes. Epoupa’s shocking breakout is part of a larger theme of Minnesota’s season. They have become a defensive juggernaut in 2024.

Defense was at the top of the Lynx’s list coming into the 2024 season. In an offseason that saw the Lynx add two starters and a top-of-the-rotation backup guard, they felt they added impact players, especially defensively.

In 2023, the Lynx gave up 85.0 points per game on defense, making them the second-worst (11th) defensive team based on points per game. By traditional stats, the Lynx were toward the bottom of the league everywhere in 2023, ranking last (12th) in blocks and tenth in steals. Advanced statistics didn’t do the Lynx any favors. They featured a 107.5 defensive rating, good for 10th in the league, to go along with a -6.1 net rating that also ranked 10th in the league.

Individually, the Lynx weren’t much better, with only two players registering 1.0 win shares: Napheesa Collier with 1.9 and Dorka Juhasz with 1.2. Win shares attempt to measure an individual’s impact in winning a game and are fairly accurate. However, the fact that no player on the Lynx had a sub-100 defensive rating supports that even on the individual side, the Lynx struggled defensively.

In the offseason, the Lynx seemed to believe this was due to personnel. They replaced three of their top eight players in their rotation with guards Courtney Williams, Natisha Hiedeman, and center Alanna Smith, who replaced Jessica Shepard, Lindsay Allen, and Tiffany Mitchell’s minutes.

The swap’s impact theoretically makes sense. The three outgoing Lynx players had a combined 0.7 defensive win share, whereas the three incoming players were at 4.6, with none of them ranking lower than 1.0 individually. Below is an example of the impact Williams can have during a steal.

That leap of defensive win shares would suggest Williams, Hiedeman, and Smith would be better for the Lynx. However, it should be noted that the teams they came from had significantly more wins than the Lynx, which could artificially inflate the players’ win shares.

The relatively small sample size of the 2024 season still proves Minnesota’s defense has improved drastically, largely due to the new additions. Through eight games, the Lynx are a defensive powerhouse. They rank second in defensive rating (93.9), third in opponents’ points per game (77.4), first in steals (11.0), and second in blocks (6.0).

That all complements their excellent shooting defense. The Lynx rank second in opponents’ field goal percentage (41.4%) and second in opponents’ three-point percentage (29.9%). The defensive improvement has had a large impact, leading to the Lynx’s third-best net rating (+10.9).

The improvement has been staggering. Minnesota’s jump from the bottom of the league to a top-three defense has been remarkable. Defense was a sticking point in training camp, and their improvement is a testament to the work the Lynx put in and a change in philosophy due to their new personnel. Minnesota has developed into a blitz-heavy switch defense that values ball pressure. Below is an example of the Lynx switching in the initial screen before scrambling back into rotations.

This philosophical change means a couple of things. On off-ball screens, the Lynx typically switch on every opportunity and then communicate with each other to switch back. Due to their physicality and the flexibility of their roster, Minnesota is able to negate the off-ball screens. However, it has occasionally led to mismatches in the post. With Smith and Juhasz’s ability to recognize when to get back and help on the switches, the Lynx tend to either get a steal on these post switches or force the pass out.

Blitzing on pick-and-rolls is the other major change in their philosophy. When the opposing guard calls for a pick, the Lynx have their big attack on the opposing guard while their guard is fighting through the screen. While this is effective, it allows teams to attack them inside if the opposing big slips the screen and drives to the rim.

The Lynx have found a couple of interesting ways to combat the slip screen potentials. First, their bigs have an innate ability to recognize this and stay back during these slip screens if the bug doesn’t recognize it. However, Minnesota has displayed tight rotations where Collier or the other forward will slide over to stop the diving big. As a result, another Lynx player slides to Collier’s matchup, and a scramble ensues until every player is covered.

Below is an example of this blitz. At the beginning of the play, the nonprimary defender switches and blitzes the first and second pick-and-roll to shut them down.

Fortunately for the Lynx, most teams have one non-three-point shooter. Therefore, during the scramble, they inevitably leave that player open until they can complete those rotations. The Lynx also use this to their advantage to attack the ball-handler. The Lynx will frequently send a double team at the pick-and-roll or ball-handler from that weak shooter, which has caused countless steals.

“Our energy is just so good,” Collier said after Minnesota’s May 31 win over the Phoenix Mercury It’s been that way since day one in training camp. I think we are just so locked in on defense.”

Minnesota’s defense had made a remarkable jump eight games into the season. With 32 games remaining, there is a lot of ball to be played. However, the Lynx have already proven their impressive play will be sustainable, even if they occasionally need the energy of breakout rookies.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

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