Q&A: ESPN’s LaChina Robinson Previews ‘Most Talented’ WNBA Finals

LaChina Robinson is a basketball analyst and host for ESPN’s ‘Around The Rim‘ Podcast. She also serves as the Atlanta Dream’s regular television analyst. Before the 2016 Finals tip-off Sunday at 3 PM ET on ABC, Robinson spoke with WNBA.com and others on a conference call about what to expect. 

What overlying storylines do you see in this series? Where is there some kind of advantage that each team has but no one is talking about?
LaChina Robinson: These teams are very evenly matched. I think if we are looking for a way to measure the advantages, I would start with the supporting cast for Minnesota. They were the deepest team in the league all season and I think they only got deeper with the addition of Ana Cruz coming off the Olympics. And just the way their second unit has come together; Renee Montgomery and Jia Perkins, and Natasha Howard has been fantastic in the Playoffs. I think if anything, that is the factor that L.A. has to be most concerned with because they don’t have as much depth.

On the L.A. side, just how fun to watch and extremely talented they are on the offense end. Obviously Nneka [Ogwumike] with her efficiency, the 3-point shooting of Kristi Toliver and Candace Parker, especially during the Playoffs has been a lot of fun to watch. I know they had that one lull against Chicago [Game 3 loss] but I just think the offensive power of L.A, how well they move the ball, how they share the ball, how they spread the floor, it’s something that’s going to be a challenge for Minnesota defensively.

How do you describe the buzz surrounding this Finals?
LR: I think it’s going to draw the fans, media. I’ve even talked to some players who aren’t participating in the Finals and they’re excited about it. These two teams gave us so much to talk about all season long, whether it’s the historical start or just the opportunity with the new playoff system to see the two best teams play each other despite the fact that they both come from the Western Conference, so I think there’s a ton of excitement. And I go back to the star power with two MVPs for L.A. Or the Maya Moore/Seimone Augustus MVP and Finals MVP. There’s a lot of talent on the floor. Two great coaches as well, respected coaches in Cheryl Reeve and Brian Agler.

GameTime: WNBA Finals Preview

If you were starting a franchise and you could only take players from the Sparks or the Lynx, who would be your first pick?
LR: I would have to go with Maya Moore. Really I don’t even have to think too hard about that. We’re talking about a player who’s elevated not only the Minnesota Lynx but the WNBA. I mean, what she does on both ends of the floor, having three championships in her first five years, five Finals appearances in the last six; that’s the mark of a champion. Maya has really elevated everyone’s game from her competitive spirit, to just the expectation to win and the excellence that she brings to the floor. And for those of us who have had the opportunity to see Maya in a practice environment as well, she’s just as competitive. So this is a player who brings it every day, in every aspect of what she does and who she is as a person.

And I won’t say Maya is overlooked but I would say she’s undervalued. She’s not the most demonstrative player, you’re not going to hear her yelling and screaming from a motivational standpoint in huddles. But I think there’s great value in leading by example, I think there’s great value in going all out on every possession, there’s value in just being, on and off the court, so consistent. You know what Maya is going to bring day in and day out and I think that’s sometimes overlooked as a form of leadership. The championships speak for themselves.

Lindsay Whalen didn’t play overseas during the offseason and made a conscious effort to be rested for this postseason. She played well in the Olympics and so far in the Playoffs. What kind of difference do you see in her between the Finals last year and Playoffs now?
LR: I can go back to every Finals appearance that Minnesota has had over this last six years and the number one factor for them is always the health of Lindsay Whalen. And I think she made a very smart decision to take some time off in the offseason. She did a lot of work even though she was not playing. She talks about the regiment she did at the Mayo Clinic, really working on different aspects of her body; speed, agility, just the little things that would help to give her that extra bounce this season, and also help her to make it through a longer season when you consider all the responsibilities she had at the Olympics as well. So what I see in Lindsay Whalen is a player that’s faster in transition. We saw that mid-range jump shot in Game 3 against Phoenix had a lot of lift on it. You see her overall energy on both ends of the floor and that is the motor that makes Minnesota go. I appreciate everything they bring off the bench but it’s really Lindsay Whalen, her fire, her determination, her competitive spirit, that is at the core of that team. The fact that she is in the best physical shape that we’ve seen her in heading into a Finals appearance bodes well for Minnesota.

They say it’s hard to get to the top but even harder to stay there. What is it about the Lynx these last six years that allows them to stay at the top of the league?
LR: I think it’s culture. First of all, the consistency, when you look at that starting unit and the chemistry that they’ve had, the fact that they’ve been playing together. Credit the front office decisions in Minnesota for keeping that roster together. And then also Cheryl Reeve. It’s interesting watching her when she’s coaching. She’s really a perfectionist. She demands the most from her team in every moment and every practice and every shootaround and every game. And because perfection is the bar, this team ends up in a space of excellence. It’s as much of a dynasty as I’ve ever seen in women’s basketball.

But it starts with the consistency of the roster, of the unselfishness of these players – they have each had to sacrifice with each other to keep the talent level where it is on this team, and that’s admirable. Cheryl Reeve and [her] coaching staff, what they’ve done preparing this team night in and night out, and creating a culture where: this is how we do things and there really isn’t any other way.

What affect if any has being left off the Olympic team had on Candace Parker’s season?
LR: I think it has affected Candace’s WNBA season. A lot of events have but it definitely starts with being left off the Olympic team. I think everyone expected Candace to make it, especially Candace, so I think it was a blow to her. Anyone in that situation, you have to go back and reflect on yourself; what could I have done better? How will this impact you moving forward? And I credit Candace, number one, in how professional she has been in all the conversation about it, but also using it as fuel. To me, Candace has played more motivated and more inspired than I’ve ever seen. But I think the other thing that we have to remember is that she lost her coach, her mentor, her friend in Pat Summit. The impact that that has had on Candace has even been greater, I feel. Pat was everything to Candace, and she’s dedicated her season to her and her efforts to her, and we’ve seen that in her play. But I do think where the Olympics also helped Candace was in the rest that she got during that time. Candace started off the WNBA playoff run more rested and with more spring and more hop than I have ever seen her. And a rested and healthy Candace Parker is a dangerous Candace Parker.

Candace Parker Celebrates First WNBA Finals Berth

What would it mean for the WNBA to see Candace Parker win a championship?
LR: The WNBA is made up of great stars and Candace Parker is as bright a star as we’ve seen in this league. She started off her career as an MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season, so when Candace is playing well I think fans are happy. She brings something to the game that we have not seen very often. She’s a 4, yet she has guard skills, she has a guard mindset, with her passing ability, her ability to score off the bounce. You don’t see that in a player her size, how multidimensional and how versatile she is. So it adds to the excitement of the game, it adds to the value of the play on the court. I think when Candace is playing the way she has been playing, it’s great for everyone.

With Minnesota making their fifth Finals in six years, and looking to win a record fourth title, is this Lynx team the best team in WNBA history?
LR: In my opinion they do go down as the best team in WNBA history if they’re able to win this fourth championship and I think that the Houston Comets would maybe understand my rationale. I talked to Sheryl Swoopes and I’ve heard from Tina Thompson about how talented they feel the league is now versus where it was, and that’s really what puts [Minnesota] over the top. Lots of respect for what Houston did but this is the most talented, most competitive we’ve ever seen the WNBA. So that is what makes what Minnesota has the opportunity to do so very special, in that it is probably harder than it has ever been.

After splitting the first two games of their season series, the Sparks and Lynx met when both were 24-5 on September 6th. Minnesota won by three on the road. What did you see in that game that will translate to the Finals?
LR: I saw Sylvia Fowles. I thought that she was the biggest difference in that “Game 3.” When you go back to “Game 1,” Sylvia had seven points. In “Game 2” she also had seven points, so very modest outings on the offensive end for Sylvia; wherein that “Game 3” she had 21 points! And if there is a weakness for the Los Angeles Sparks it’s that they don’t have a big, physical defensive presence at 5 and so when Sylvia can establish herself in that way – I mean that “Game 3” she played 36 minutes, she was 9-of-11 from the field, nine rebounds – it really opens everything else up for Minnesota and creates a matchup problem for L.A. The other thing was I didn’t think L.A. was at their best offensively, and you have to credit Minnesota’s defense. They did such a great job on that end of the floor, but L.A. has a tendency to get stuck in poor shot selection. The ball is not moving, it’s sticking, it can get stagnant and I thought that was one of their games where they did not make the best decisions with the basketball, so with that mindset they definitely have to be crisp at the offensive end, limiting their turnovers to have a good showing.

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Approaching her first Finals, how has Commissioner Lisa Borders done this season? And reflect on the 20-year career of Chief of Basketball Operations and Player Relations Renee Brown, who will work her last Finals.
LR: Wow. It’s hard to put into words everything that Renee Brown has meant to the WNBA. She’s been here from the very beginning, and there was no blueprint for this league and so she was a part of creating that blueprint, of creating that identity, a vision of what that league would one day be, and 20 years later for it to still be standing, a lot of credit goes to Renee and the work that she has done. You also have to look at her involvement on every level of women’s basketball, not just the WNBA but also USA Basketball. She’s been a backbone to the game and has really been an integral part of the league’s success.

As far as Lisa, I knew Lisa from her days in Atlanta. I’ve been covering the Dream since their first season and Lisa was one of the founding members. I’ve really been impressed with what Lisa has done this year, and you can look at the numbers that speak for themselves; from the viewership up and the traffic numbers are concerned, that was where [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver really wanted to have an immediate impact, and I feel like on paper Lisa has definitely done that. I really appreciate the relationship between Lisa and Adam, and I think that’s another place where Lisa has good footing, but will continue to grow. I think the WNBA does need full buy-in from the NBA to be all that they can be, and Adam was the first to admit that we can do more to help this league grow. So I think the fact that there’s a trusted relationship there, is really going to help the league. Obviously there was a bit of a rough spot this season with the athlete activism and all the fines and things but, I feel like both Lisa and the players were able to navigate those rough waters. I know there are conversations that are still happening, the Olympic break allowed some time for good dialogue but, there are going to be those moments, where the league and the players are not on the same page, and how do you have impactful dialogue coming off those situations to make the necessary changes moving forward.

With the two best teams by record meeting in the Finals despite coming from the same Western Conference, and some upsets in the single-elimination rounds, what’s your impression of the new playoff format?
LR: From the standpoint that we have the best two teams meeting in the Finals, I love that. I think that is what should happen and I am very excited that everyone has embraced the changes and we ended up with the two best teams. As far as the early rounds, I think there were a couple things that I didn’t anticipate that I think were kind of rough on the teams. For example, Phoenix, granted they finished 8th, they were on the road for their first four games in the Playoffs and that’s not easy. That’s a tough hill to climb. So I think the odds are definitely against them and I’m sure the Phoenix fans would have loved to see their team a little earlier on in the Playoffs. But it’s been exciting! And I know I’m not a current player or coach but from a media standpoint and a fan standpoint – single-elimination games, I mean that’s why we love the NCAA tournament. It’s do or die. I understand that some of the fans may say ‘Oh, we don’t like the format,’ after their team got eliminated and they knew that they weren’t going to get to see them again, but I think for the most part its created some excitement and overall it’s been a fun thing for the fans to watch.

Click here to read who Robinson says is the one player we’ll never forget after these Finals.