We can probably fast-forward to a winner-take-all Game 5 of the WNBA Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, if we want to. There was one two years ago, with the teams swapping leads four times in the final minute and a half before Nneka Ogwumike’s game-winning shot for Los Angeles. There was one last year, with Sylvia Fowles scoring 17 points and grabbing 20 rebounds to power the Lynx to a championship. With the WNBA season starting Friday, I can’t tell you who will win the hypothetical championship-deciding Game 5 that will almost certainly take place. A poll of WNBA GMs said the Sparks are the likely champions, but Minnesota’s Maya Moore is the league’s likely MVP. I can tell you who I’m rooting for, though.
Our instinct is to root against teams that have already won a lot, so typically we’d pull against the defending-champion Lynx, who have won four championships in seven years—every other year this decade. But there’s something beautiful about what this Minnesota team is trying to accomplish: The Lynx are perhaps the greatest assemblage of women’s basketball talent ever on one pro team, and with four of their five All-Star starters at least 10 years deep into their WNBA careers, they don’t have much time left. But Minnesota’s starters have raged against the dying of their dynasty, somehow improving with age.
Since drafting Moore first overall in 2011, the Lynx are a combined 182-56 in regular-season play, good for a winning percentage of 76.5. Their worst record in any single season since came in 2015, when they finished 22-12, their only season with 10 or more losses during their dynastic run. And they still finished in first place in the Western Conference that year and won the championship—the team’s third—over the Indiana Fever.
Their starting five is a wrecking crew:
1. At point guard, Lindsay Whalen, the prototypical floor general. Whalen is a certified mixologist off the dribble and has a preposterous combination of creativity and vision with her passes.
2. At shooting guard, Seimone Augustus, a gracefully aging superstar, once capable of dropping 20 points a night and dropping defenders with her crossovers. And when I say “dropping,” I mean dropping:
3. At small forward, Moore, one of the game’s greatest active players. I could list the ways in which Moore can score, but it’s basically all of them, so that wouldn’t be very fun for any of you to read. Instead, here’s a highlight video:
4. At power forward, Rebekkah Brunson, a star wearing a role player’s clothes. It’s sort of like when Spider-Man hangs out with the Avengers—every other superhero there can, like, take down entire armies single-handedly, and all he can do is swing from building to building with the strings he shoots out of his wrists. Brunson is formidable, a four-time All-Star, but everybody else here is an all-timer.
5. At center, Sylvia Fowles, the most dominant player in the WNBA right now, and perhaps the best offensive and defensive player in the league. A three-time defensive player of the year, Fowles averaged 18.9 points per game last year while shooting 65.5 percent from the field, the fourth-highest mark in league history. She led the league in field goal percentage, was second in rebounds per game, tied for second in blocks per game, and fifth in scoring. She’s the second-tallest player in the league, but also agile and nimble and skilled. She’s like if Dwight Howard weren’t a huge disappointment in every way.
This Sylvia Fowles block is disrespectful pic.twitter.com/0mj8oZFoQm— Born Salty (@cjzero) May 28, 2017
The Lynx led the league last year in offensive rating (109.3 points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (95.1 points per 100 possessions). They were almost as likely to win by 20-plus points (something they did six times last season, stunning stuff in a league where scores are typically in the high 70s or low 80s) as they were to lose (something they did just seven times in 34 games). They swept their semifinal series against the Elena Delle Donne–led Washington Mystics, with three double-digit wins, and beat their archrival Sparks 3-2 in the finals.
Minnesota is a superteam. All five starters have been All-Stars, with four (Augustus, Moore, Brunson, and Fowles) making last year’s game. Moore and Fowles have both been named league MVP; Augustus has been Finals MVP. Whalen, Augustus, Moore, and Fowles were named to each of the past two Olympic teams, winning gold in both London and Rio, and Augustus and Fowles also won gold at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Only one other WNBA team had even two members of the 2016 Olympic squad—the Phoenix Mercury, who sent Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner to Rio.
While dynasties often form in college hoops because of the way recruiting works—if you’re an elite women’s basketball prospect, why wouldn’t you go to UConn?—the WNBA has adopted a variety of measures to distribute talent roughly equally across the league. There’s the draft (with a lottery), a salary cap, and the “core player” designation, which allows a team to lock any player on its roster into a one-year contract, even if that player is set to be an unrestricted free agent. (Sort of like the franchise tag in the NFL, but in a sport where one player is significantly more meaningful to a team, and with no significant penalty for re-applying the tag year after year.)
But the Lynx had the good fortune to have the no. 1 pick in the draft in both 2006 (when they took Augustus) and in 2011 (when they took Moore), and the great luck to have Whalen and Fowles both actively interested in coming to the Lynx. Whalen, who was drafted by the Connecticut Sun in 2004, wanted to go to Minnesota for sentimental reasons—she played college hoops at the University of Minnesota—and WNBA teams often covet players who played college basketball locally, especially those with Whalen’s talent level. The Lynx were able to get her in a deal with the Sun that gave Connecticut an opportunity to draft UConn star Tina Charles. Fowles wanted to come for basketball reasons—the Chicago Sky made her a “core player,” but in 2015, Fowles demanded a trade, and only wanted to be dealt to the Lynx.
One of the reasons we can recite so many career accomplishments for the Lynx’s core is that they’ve had very long careers. Whalen and Brunson are 36, Augustus is 34, and Fowles is 32.
Augustus’s age shows in the fact she has ditched her offseason work—while almost all WNBA players supplement their income with significantly more lucrative jobs playing in Europe in the winter, the one-time Eurocup MVP has opted not to play overseas for the past two seasons, choosing to keep her body fresh and focus full-time on her work with the Lynx. Whalen’s age shows in the fact she has taken on more offseason work: She accepted a job as head coach of her alma mater this year, beginning her preparations for a life after her playing career ends. (Luckily, the commute isn’t particularly long.)
But even as the players have aged, they have somehow grown. Fowles has had a stunning run the past few years, going from an All-Star to a superstar, putting together her most dominant season to date last year and winning MVP in her 10th campaign. Augustus averaged career lows in shots and points last year, but she improved her passing and shooting, leading the Lynx in both assists and 3-point shooting percentage. Brunson spent most of her career as a rebound hound, averaging a double-double in 2010 while finishing second in the league in rebounds per game. But with Fowles dominating in the post, she no longer needs to, and as a result began to shoot 3-pointers regularly for the first time in her career last year. And Whalen isn’t quite as spry as she used to be, but was still voted the toughest player in the league by general managers before last season.
The Lynx have the feel of one of those movies in which an aging squad gets back together for one last job. With more money available in side gigs than their WNBA salaries, their motivation to win these titles is more about prestige than cash. And so, in the twilight of their careers, these exceptional players are finding new ways to succeed to keep one of the greatest active dynasties in sports alive.