How Cheryl Reeve transformed the Lynx with one smart draft pick and a distinctive formula

When Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve talks about crafting her team for the 2017 season, it sounds like she’s putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle: Players must match up against other players, weaknesses should be shaped into strengths and all the pieces must fit together to form one cohesive unit.  And for Reeve, the WNBA Draft, held this Thursday in New York City, will determine “the final piece” for her three-time championship winning team, she told Excelle Sports.

“The WNBA is a tough league so it’s always interesting to see whose game translates from college to pro,” Reeve said. “I’m looking forward to see who can come in and carve out a spot.”

“Carving out a spot” on Reeve’s starting line is no easy task, however: The two-time WNBA Coach of the Year is known for transforming the Lynx into one of the most winningest squads on the court, meaning every single player on her team has to prove her prowess or they will see the bench.

At the same time, after 17 years of experience in the league, Reeve knows how one college player could change the tone of the team.

Seven years ago, the Lynx were ranked fifth out of the six teams in the WNBA’s Western Conference. The team was so far off the competition that it couldn’t even sniff the playoffs—that is, until Reeve drafted a rookie who became the catalyst to turn things around. That player was two-time Naismith College Player of the Year and 2011 No. 1 draft pick, Maya Moore.

“We felt really fortunate and unfortunate at the same time,” Reeve said of winning the first selection in the 2011 draft. “We missed the playoffs in 2010, but it put us in the lottery where we got lucky at the right time.”

No. 1 overall pick Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx poses for a photo during the 2011 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Michael LeBrecht/NBAE/Getty Images)

At the time, Minnesota’s offense was “one of the worst in the league,” as Reeve told the Star Tribune. But after Moore’s first year with the Lynx, the team had one of the best. In 2011, the former UConn standout started in all 34 games of the regular season and averaged 13.2 points per game as a small forward. By the end of the year, the Lynx had won their first championship with one of the best records in league history (27–7), and Moore was named WNBA Rookie of the Year. Six years later, the forward is still one of the league’s best players: during last year’s championship game series, she scored the most amount of points in WNBA history (262), and in honor of WNBA’s 20th anniversary, Moore was named as one of the top 20 players since the league was founded in 1996.

“Maya is known for her ability to shoot the ball long range and just score,” Reeve said. “Maya is an active cutter, knows the game, plays the game at a high level. I think the most important thing that was really vital to our group was that she’s incredibly selfless. We got the absolute superstar.”

Still, Moore wasn’t able to cure the team of all its failures. For the Lynx to become five-time conference champions, it took a combination of the right players who could live up to Reeve’s high expectations.

“It was everything converging at the same time that made us work,” Reeve said. “Some of that was changing the mentality a bit. When I arrived [in 2010], [the team’s] goal was just to make the playoffs. But with eight out of 12 teams making the playoffs, there also needs to be a bigger expectation. So the goal became to win a championship, and that subtle twist of the dial raised the bar.”

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For the 2011 season, 2008 Olympian Seimone Augustus had healed from a series of injuries to reunite with All-Stars Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson on court. The Minnesota Lynx always had talent—after Moore, the difference was the way the players treated each other. Every player started to adopt Moore’s sense of selflessness, which Reeve made standard for the team.

Seimone Augustus #33 and Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx look on before the game against the Seattle Storm on Sept. 8, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

“That’s a trait we put a premium on,” said Reeve of what she looks for when recruiting players. “There are not many [people] who are truly selfless. But [my players] don’t really care about who gets credit—they think of their teammates no matter what.”

The Lynx are not only selfless, they are also accountable, Reeve adds.

“Anyone’s that’s been a part of a successful team will tell you that accountability ranks very high on their characteristics of a championship team,” she said. “You need people who won’t take things personally [and] who allow their teammates to be their full selves.”

According to Reeves, former Lynx power forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin was a player who embodied accountability. “Mama Taj,” whom the team acquired as a free agent acquisition in 2011, had played 10 seasons in the WNBA before joining Minnesota and used her wisdom of the game to teach her teammates the importance of precision until she retired in 2013.

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“Taj gave our team voice,” said Reeve. “[She] understood how to win games. There’s a fine line between winning and losing. Taj wasn’t afraid to say, ‘No. Not like that. You have to do it like this to be successful.’”

In addition to valuing selflessness and accountability, Reeve has also created a strong sense of leadership and duty among her players.

“We have tremendous buy-in from our four captains, Lindsay, Seimone, Maya and Rebekkah,” said Reeve. ”We kind of go as they go. We don’t do anything as a franchise without those four knowing. They’ll do anything for us. This team has been successful because of their stability and strength to lead.”

ROSEMONT, IL- MAY 18: Lindsay Whalen #13 of the Minnesota Lynx talks with head coach Cheryl Reeve during the game against the Chicago Sky. (Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

Reeve’s formula for success created an environment in which the Lynx could thrive but also have fun along the way. The head coach says she’ll never forget the feeling of watching the team’s first training camp: It was as if the Lynx were resurrected.

“It was incredible to see how quickly this group had chemistry and the competitive desire to do well,” Reeve said. “They celebrated the small successes in practice. That’s when our identity was born.”

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Today, the Lynx have not only become one of the WNBA teams to beat—they have also become stalwarts of social change, particularly with a Black Lives Matter protest that spread league-wide last year.

On the night of July 9, for their matchup with the Dallas Wings, the Lynx wore black warm up T-shirts that said “Change Starts With Us” and “Justice and Accountability” to help spread awareness about police brutality in the wake of the shooting deaths of two African-American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by cops earlier that month. The next day, the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury had all followed suit, wearing similar T-shirts during their games to support the cause. The movement gained attention nationwide.

“Just when you think you couldn’t be more proud of a group, they make me more proud,” Reeve said of the moment. “This is a group that’s not just basketball players—they are tremendous people who understand their role in society and using their voice as a platform.”

Last season, the Lynx were close to winning their fourth WNBA championship before the Los Angeles Sparks stripped them of the title in the last game of the season by handing Minnesota a heart-wrenching 77-76 loss.

Now that the 2017 season is only weeks away, Reeve is focusing on looking forward, not back.

“What we did in 2016 doesn’t matter, what we did in 2015 doesn’t matter,” she said. “We have an understanding of what it takes to win games. It’s just a matter of whether we do it in 2017. We just really want to focus on who we are [now.]”

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Who they are now will likely be affected by Thursday’s WNBA Draft, although perhaps not as much as in years past. Minnesota has the last pick—12 out of the 12 teams— in the selection order for all three rounds.

“That certainly poses some challenges [in] finding somebody who can help us,” said Reeve.

While the recent WNBA powerhouse doesn’t necessarily need “help” per se, look for Reeve to make strong decisions for players who can have that trifecta of standards—selflessness,  accountability and duty. Just because the next draft picks may not be a Maya Moore on paper, it doesn’t mean they can’t become one under strong leadership.

*Main image courtesy of David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images.

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