Without Whalen, Life Goes On for Lynx

No WNBA franchise has ever faced a more difficult scenario than the Minnesota Lynx did this off-season, through no fault of its own. The Lynx was trapped by the success of University of Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen, who helped lead the Golden Gophers on a magical ride through the NCAA Tournament, all the way to the Final Four before losing to Connecticut, which captured both the attention and the hearts of the state of Minnesota.

The Sun was unwilling to move Whalen without getting "four starters" in return.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
Lo and behold, less than a month after completing her run, Whalen entered the WNBA Draft. Minnesota fans didn’t just expect the Lynx to get Whalen, they essentially demanded her, a reaction which did not surprise Lynx Coach Suzie McConnell Serio, and one that she understood.

"It was to be expected,” she said before Minnesota took on Seattle in last night’s season opener. “We lived it in Minnesota. That's all we heard the whole off-season. I would go to the games, we had season tickets, and any fans that we saw there, it was, 'Hey coach, are you going to get Lindsay Whalen? We're in, we're going to buy tickets, so she'll sell tickets.' All these people that were big Lindsay Whalen fans thought we needed to do everything to get her - media in Minnesota, everyone thought we needed to trade the franchise away to get her.

"Well, the bottom line is, (owner) Glen Taylor wanted to put a winning product on the floor and would not allow us to trade away the franchise."

From the position of an objective outsider, however, the reaction was surprising. When Whalen’s draft status skyrocketed, the Lynx was unable to make a move to get into the top four picks to acquire her, despite picking up the sixth pick from the Seattle Storm and offering to package it with the Lynx’s own seventh pick and at least one other player. The team was blasted in the media and by some fans for its unwillingness to move heaven and earth to get Whalen.

“Ordinarily, it doesn't [make sense to make such a lopsided trade],” wrote St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere. “But it does if it draws fans and promotes women's basketball, which having Whalen would do. The Lynx are misguided, thinking they should operate their draft the way the NFL, NBA, NHL and major league baseball teams do. The goal of this team should be, above all, to promote women's basketball, and getting Lindsay Whalen in a Lynx uniform sure would have helped.”

There was even a Web site devoted to getting Whalen on the Lynx.

The unfortunate side effect is that the players Minnesota did end up acquiring in the first round of the draft, Kansas State’s Nicole Ohlde with the sixth pick and Florida center Vanessa Hayden with the seventh, were introduced to their new hometown not as college stars themselves - both Hayden and Whalen were second-team AP All-Americans, while Ohlde was a first-team selection - but as players who weren’t Whalen. That was unfair.

At the same time as it was getting beaten up in the media, the Lynx had to enter the 2004 season with a dramatically revamped roster. By opening night, only four holdovers remained from the Minnesota team that made its first playoff appearance in 2003. The Lynx had lost three of its top six players - forward Sheri Sam and center Janell Burse, dealt to the Storm in the deal for the sixth pick, and forward Svetlana Abrosimova, who is not expected to return to Minnesota this season because of her commitments to the Russian National Team.

Replacing that veteran talent with a host of rookies isn’t easy. As a result, most analysts have the Lynx dropping out of the playoffs. This site even picked Minnesota to finish last in the Western Conference. McConnell Serio doesn’t mind, embracing the underdog position she and her team have been put in.

“I'm enjoying the underdog role right now,” McConnell Serio said. “I look at where people predict us to be, and every single person has picked us six out of seven, so I'll enjoy the underdog role as long as we can (maintain it).”

Quietly, with little fanfare outside of the Twin Cities, the Lynx has looked in the early going like it could dramatically exceed those expectations. Despite integrating all the new players into the lineup, Minnesota went 3-0 during the preseason. On opening night, the Lynx fought a Storm team expected to make the playoffs down to the wire, falling short only when veteran point guard Teresa Edwards was stripped on a drive to the hoop where she believed she was fouled and second-round pick Tasha Butts missed a tying three attempt with seconds remaining.

Ohlde has flashed incredible offensive skills thus far.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty
When Ohlde punctuated a 15-2 Minnesota run during the early second half with a turnaround jumper over MVP Lauren Jackson in the post and Lynx All-Star Katie Smith celebrated her team’s newfound 53-48 advantage by screaming as she headed back to play defense, it was clear that this Lynx squad was not to be taken lightly, regardless of the outcome.

After achieving metronomic consistency during the preseason, scoring 12 points all three games, Ohlde had 16 against the Storm. After working out some early-game jitters that saw her miss a layup on the first play of her career, Ohlde was phenomenal during the second half, showing the shot-making prowess she displayed at Kansas State. More impressively, Ohlde pulled down 10 rebounds, a nice opening salvo towards those who have questioned her toughness, and held her own defensively despite Jackson scoring 31 points (most of them down the stretch, when Ohlde was in foul trouble).

All in all, Ohlde looked on this evening like a young Jackson, which Storm Coach Anne Donovan has repeatedly called her.

“I hope I have a young Lauren Jackson in Nicole Ohlde,” said McConnell Serio about the comparison. “I would to love to see her have the impact that Lauren Jackson has had here in Seattle. I believe she will be a great player in the league, and I believe if she continues to progress and be the impact player we assume she will be, then I think she could be a candidate for Rookie of the Year.”

Ohlde was hardly the only impressive Lynx player on opening night. Despite relative off nights for Minnesota’s top two returning players, Smith and power forward Tamika Williams, who combined for 23 points on 10-for-23 shooting, the Lynx was still impressive because of its balance.

Butts may have missed the last shot, but that she was willing to attempt it at all spoke to a fearlessness instilled by countless big games during her career at Tennessee. Butts played 23 minutes in her debut, replacing Amanda Lassiter as Minnesota’s small forward down the stretch, and canned three three-pointers, finishing with 13 points.

The Lynx will also be asking for more scoring from Edwards, the athletic marvel who continues going strong as she nears age 40. Edwards flashed scoring touch that hadn’t been seen since her ABL days last night, firing up seven three-pointers and making four of them. Both marks were WNBA career highs, as were her 17 points - still far short of the ABL-record 46 she once managed as a player/coach for the Atlanta Glory (against the Seattle Reign, no less).

It was a special night for fans who’ve longed to see the Edwards of old, including one on the opposite bench.

“Teresa is one of my dearest friends,” said Donovan, who coached Edwards briefly in the ABL and also has a lengthy Olympic history with her, before the game “She's somebody that I've tried very hard to get into the WNBA before this point in her career, because I thought people should see what her talent level was. She played in obscurity for the better part of her career.”

More good news is on the way for Minnesota. Hayden started the season on the injured list as she continues to recover from a broken ankle, but McConnell Serio said it was a difficult choice to disable Hayden, as she’s begun practicing with the team (doing everything but full-court drills) and is close to returning to action.

The Lynx may not have Lindsay Whalen, but if the month since the draft is any indication, life goes on without her. A repeat playoff berth will be a difficult task in a loaded Western Conference, but the Lynx is playing an exciting brand of basketball. Here's hoping the state of Minnesota takes notice.