Believe it or not, the Minnesota Lynx weren’t always this good. Before the dawn of the dynasty featuring Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, and Maya Moore earned the franchise four titles in seven years, the Lynx had made the playoffs only twice in their 12-year existence.
Minnesota looks a lot different than it did in 2006, when it drafted Augustus first overall. That season, coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, 2004 WNBA Coach of the Year, resigned in the middle of the year and the team finished with a 10-24 record.
“Everyone right now is like, ‘They got a superstar team,’ and I’m like, well, we had to take a lot of [losses] for us to get this team, but then a lot of other things had to happen as well,” Augustus said.
She remembers how tough that situation was to come into, especially after she won back-to-back National Player of the Year Awards at LSU, and how frustrating it was to not make the playoffs for the first five seasons of her professional career. She also suffered an ACL injury during the 2009 season that relegated her to the bench.
“It took some time. [It] was just a very tough situation,” Augustus said. “[But in 2009] we were able to get Rebekkah [Brunson] in the dispersal draft after Sacramento folded, and then we made a trade [with the Connecticut Sun] to get Lindsay [Whalen] back home. After that, you could see that all the pieces were coming together.”
Then Maya Moore, a once-in-a-generation type of player, fell right into the Lynx’s lap with the first pick in the 2011 draft. After all those seasons spent at the bottom of the WNBA food chain, the Lynx had one of the best cores in the league: Moore, Augustus, Brunson, and Whalen. It’s hard not to wonder if the basketball gods were smiling down on them; four players with this much talent don’t usually end up on the same team.
Like the NBA, the WNBA has a free-agency period. But given the WNBA’s various player distinctions and the teams’ abilities to designate a “core” player, which functions like a franchise tag in the NFL, it’s a lot harder for WNBA players to switch teams of their own accord. They don’t exactly have the same luxury as LeBron James and Kevin Durant to pick and choose where they’d like to go. The fact the Lynx were able to get Augustus, Brunson, Moore, and Whalen on one roster is a WNBA miracle. And over the past eight years, it has made the Lynx one of the most successful franchises in league history.
As soon as Moore joined the team, a switch flipped. She was the youngest of the group, but after her four years with the University of Connecticut Huskies—during which she won two Naismith College Player of the Year awards, three Wade Trophies, and back-to-back NCAA championships in 2009 and 2010—you’d have never known it on the court.
The then-22-year-old was ready to take her game to the next level, and the Lynx as a whole seemed to be on the cusp of something great.
“I was excited to get here because of who we had already,” Moore said. “[Augustus] was healthy. Whay and Brunson. And I got to come in as an energetic rookie ready to compete and just be competitive.”
Whalen and Augustus could sense the same thing. “[Moore] came in as a rookie, but she was different than other rookies,” Augustus said. “I mean, she was in the gym early, stayed late, got shots up, worked really hard. I think she knew the expectations that were placed upon her, but then she also knew that the team she was drafted on was ready to win. She was a rookie, but she was already a superstar.”
“When we got the no. 1 pick, it was just like—wow, we’re going to get Maya Moore,” Whalen said. “We’re going to get this once-in-a-generation player, along with Seimone and Rebekkah and ... it all kind of just happened the right way for us.”
The season before Moore’s arrival, the Lynx finished with just 13 wins. In Moore’s rookie season, they more than doubled that total, finished atop the league standings, and won the franchise’s first WNBA title.
Part of what makes this Lynx core work so well together is how their individual skill sets complement each other. They each possess a unique superpower, and when they get into a group, they become their own basketball Avengers. Whalen serves as the floor general and can get to the rim; Brunson is a remarkable rebounder—the best in WNBA history, in fact—and a consistent defender; Augustus has one of the best midrange jumpers in the league and can score from anywhere; and Moore is, well, Moore. But even after eight years together, there are still moments when one of them does something on the court that makes the other three pause and say, “Wow.”
For Augustus, it was a block that Brunson had last year against Stefanie Dolson of the Chicago Sky. Dolson was driving hard to the basket and it looked as though she was about to lay it in. “You know, [Brunson] just took one step—it wasn’t like a running start or nothing—one step, got up, and blocked the shot. I thought she was too old to get up that high.”
“Brunson just plays with more heart than anybody I’ve ever played with or against,” Whalen added. “She just leaves it all out there. She just refuses to get outworked.”
For Whalen, it was a playoff game against the Atlanta Dream back in 2011 that Augustus completely dominated. “I think it was Game 2 at home [in the WNBA Finals],” she said. “She had [36 points]. And she made a couple of crossovers in that game that I had never seen someone do before.” Brunson echoed a similar sentiment about Augustus, calling her a “highlight reel just waiting to happen.”
And about Whalen: Brunson says the sly point guard amazes her all the time. “I mean, just the way [she] would take over games, get in the paint, get an and-1, make amazing passes, and see things that I don’t think anybody can see—to get the ball in the right place for us to be successful. There have been so many situations where I’ve had to remind myself that I wasn’t a fan ... that I had to be a part of what was going on.”
Augustus, who played with Whalen on the U-21 U.S. national team in 2003, was a fan of hers long before they became WNBA teammates. “Whalen is just a fiery competitor. [She] has this little fist pump, this downward fist pump that she does when she gets fired up. And it’s just, I don’t know, like a jolt of energy that the team gets when we see it—kind of like a raging bull when it gets going. She’s more like the spark plug, I guess, as far as emotion goes.”
And when it comes to describing Moore’s attributes, Brunson, Augustus, and Whalen can’t help but shake their heads in awe.
“Maya does stuff every day. It’s amazing,” Augustus said. “We’ve seen her do some stuff in practice where I’m like, yo. ... [She] has this attitude. It’s both good and bad, like she gets in trouble sometimes. She’ll take a shot and it wasn’t maybe the best shot, but her confidence level is so high. Coach [Cheryl Reeve] will be like, ‘You know, that was a questionable shot. You probably could have done something else with that.’ And in Maya’s mind, she’s like, ‘I can make that shot.’ And you best believe she’s going to go back and take that same shot and make it. So that confidence that she has is contagious. Because then we feel the same way. Like, shit. We can go out and do that too.”
“Maya just raises everybody’s bar a little bit because she is the hardest worker in practice and she never stops moving on offense,” Whalen said. “[She] will take shots and make shots that not many people in our league would think of taking. She doesn’t play with any fear.”
When asked how they’ve been able to use each other’s talents and sustain such a high level of competition year after year, Augustus attributed it to the team’s selflessness. “Any one of us could go out there and score 20 points or whatever,” Augustus said. “But to make the next pass or make the next play, to give up yourself—like some games, Whalen doesn’t score points, but she gives a great defensive effort and that goes unnoticed sometimes. In this day and age, all people focus on is points. Brunson is probably the most underrated person on this team because she plays defense and rebounds. She goes out there and selflessly gives up herself every game, regardless of her scoring 10 points, two points, or no points. It takes that kind of mentality to do something great. And then ultimately, we just want to win.”
A winning mentality is definitely something that all four players have in common. They were each individual stars in both college and the pros, but melding together on one team not only required a competitive spirit, but also a willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. That’s what Reeve, who joined the Lynx along with Whalen and Brunson in 2010, said is the key to how it all came together.
“These four players love competing with and for one another and would do anything for the other,” Reeve said. “They embrace their differences and allow one another to be themselves, knowing it is their differences that make them strong.
“They each had a thirst for winning that was contagious. This drive, coupled with a willingness to continually improve and push for new heights, gave [our team] an unbreakable core. Specifically: Lindsay grew as a leader; Seimone was willing to sacrifice her game for a more balanced attack and embraced the call for a more committed defensive effort; Maya embraced the value of efficiency; and Rebekkah worked to expand her game.”
Those changes didn’t occur overnight. As the four found their rhythm together on the court, they continued to evolve their individual games. Whalen remarked how last season, Brunson, in her 14th year in the league, started knocking down so many 3s that Whalen felt she had to up her own 3-point game. And when Whalen first got to the Lynx in 2010 and saw how savage Augustus’s midrange game was, she worked to improve that part of her own game. If she could, she’d also inject some of Moore’s infectious confidence right into her veins.
“I wish people got to see our practices and stuff,” Augustus said. “Me and Maya go at it—3-point contest, shooting contest, one-on-one. We compete. And it’s just contagious when we all get out on the court. We have the same mind-set, that same competitive fire together. But ... it takes a lot of sacrifice to be able to let each other shine. It’s hard, but once you figure out how to, it’s easy to be able to perform and play under the lights and do great things.”
Of course, it’s a lot easier to do great things on the court when you have a good relationship off the court as well. Augustus, Brunson, Moore, and Whalen haven’t just shared the ball over the past eight years, they’ve shared their lives. Their time together has allowed them to develop the kind of deep bond that many WNBA squads don’t get the chance to cultivate because of fluctuating rosters, injuries, folding franchises, and constant change.
“Before they got here, I could have left and gone back closer to home when my contract was up,” said Augustus, who’s from Louisiana. “But I stayed. Obviously after you win one or two championships, some people are like, ‘That’s all they set out to do, and they want to do that with a [different team] or somewhere closer to their home.’ But we all felt like we could do something special, be as successful as the Houston Comets, and the only way that we could do that was if we made the commitment to stay together and stick around. For whatever reason, we just kept coming back.”
Brunson, in her calm and cool voice, explained why she felt they all wanted to stay together as long as possible. “When you care about a group as a whole, you want to go out and work for them,” Brunson said. “You want them to give them your best because you know that they are giving you their best. That’s one of the things that has helped us continue to be great—we really care about each other. … I can knock on any of their doors at any moment and just hang out and not be in an uncomfortable situation. Just being able to enjoy all of their companies—we’re just a really special group in that sense.”
Much like their unique on-court skill sets, their individual personalities also fit together. Augustus is the storyteller and joker. Brunson is the calm and steady one. Whalen is the one who makes everyone feel welcome and accepted. And Moore has a little bit of everything.
“Maya likes to sing and play her guitar. She likes to tell jokes and stories,” Whalen started to explain, then laughed. “She has this bag—if you ever have any problem on the road, like if you spill something on your shirt, she has that little Tide thingy, if you have an upset stomach she’ll probably have some Pepto-Bismol, and if you have a headache she has Advil. She is the most prepared person for every situation.”
But even Moore probably wasn’t prepared for this core’s time together to come to an end—something that will happen at the end of this season.
Last week, Whalen—who in April was hired as the University of Minnesota’s women’s basketball coach—announced her retirement from the WNBA, signaling the end of an era. The fantastic four is breaking up, and no matter what happens in the playoffs, things will look and feel different next year. We might never see a core group with so much individual talent on one team ever again.
“We have so many stories,” Whalen said with a sigh during a phone call before the All-Star break. “We’ve been through all of it together, all of the ups and downs. And I think there’s something to be said when you’ve been in so many battles with them that you know what you’re going to get from them. This core has been together [eight] years now, and there are definitely some battle scars, and they’ve all been worth it.”
When we spoke in July, Whalen didn’t give any hint that she was contemplating retirement. Though the 36-year-old has logged an immense amount of basketball mileage, she still has a lot of spunk and competitive fire in her. But this season has been a grind for the Lynx, one of the toughest this core has ever faced. And even though they made it back to the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year, they finished the season with an 18-16 record—their lowest win total since first joining forces in 2011.
In their defense, this has been one of the most competitive seasons the WNBA has ever had. The Eastern Conference has had a resurgent season, with the Dream, Mystics, and Sun earning the second, third, and fourth playoff seeds, respectively. The top eight teams have also switched spots numerous times—the playoff seeding wasn’t set until the last day of the regular season. With 12 teams and only 12 roster spots per team, the talent pool has never been better, and that has led to more parity throughout the league.
Augustus, Brunson, Moore, and Whalen know they have a long road ahead of them to get back to the WNBA Finals. Fittingly enough, it starts with a first-round elimination game against their biggest foe, the Los Angeles Sparks, on Tuesday. There’s history there: lots of respect and a little bad blood—everything a good, solid sports rivalry should have. Having played against them in the Finals for the past two years, the four Lynx mainstays know what they are up against. But they also remember how they came together to rise to the occasion last season and pull out the win.
“In 2016, [the Sparks] ripped our hearts out with a buzzer-beater and that was the worst loss I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Whalen said. “So to be able to come back and win in 2017 after that, that’s pretty special. That showed our resiliency.”
“Every journey is different, and this journey just so happened to be way different from some of the other experiences we’ve had,” Augustus said about the 2018 season. “But the end result could possibly be the same as last year if we stay the course.”
Brunson sees last year’s championship win against the Sparks as the pinnacle of what the Lynx are all about—working hard, pushing through, and accomplishing something special together. “It was a grind every minute,” Brunson said. “I mean, we were exhausted. We left everything we had on the floor with each other throughout that season and throughout that title run. I just think knowing how much it took and knowing how much we had to sacrifice—it wasn’t like we were young and we were just good—we had to make sure that we left everything we had out there all the time and that makes it special.”
“Last year, it was just so hard,” Moore added. “Just the grind of the season. It was extremely dramatic, just like 2016. But just being able to win it with all of the challenges ... was really sweet.”
As Whalen said, they have so many stories—about the championships they’ve won and lost, about each other, about the challenges they’ve faced on and off the court, and everything in between. They’ve compiled an entire book of stories together, and the last chapter is still being written.
“Everyone has the experience when you have your group of high school friends that you’re really close with, and when you get back with them it’s kind of like you’re in high school again,” Brunson said. “You have those same jokes and the same things you can laugh at. I think that’s going to be the same situation for us. In 20 years, we’ll get back together and it’s going to be like 2018 again. We’ll laugh at the same jokes and enjoy each other’s company just like we used to.”
And maybe they’ll win one last championship together before they close the book. It would be a fitting a way for one of the most accomplished cores in WNBA history to go out.