The San Antonio Spurs are the model that other NBA teams have been trying to emulate for decades. That's remarkable enough in itself. More remarkable is that, for the most part, none of those franchises have been able to do it. Yes, other teams won multiple titles during the Spurs' run of nearly 20 years, and some have even been seen as institutions on their own. But no NBA team has really been able to mimic what Gregg Popovich, RC Buford, and Tim Duncan have been able to do in West Texas—build a dynasty that's both stable and self-replicating, grounded but flexible.
In the WNBA, however, there are the Minnesota Lynx.
Perfectly emulating another franchise's route to success is impossible, and the Lynx almost certainly wouldn't claim to be copying San Antonio's model. Still, their resemblance to the Spurs is uncanny in several areas, and they've come closer than any team has to building a steady dynasty in a sport where change is the only real constant.
The Lynx are in the middle of a historic run of success: three titles since 2011, and a good bet to compete for another this year. They've been able to keep their core together through this stretch, and the additions they've made the past two years have helped them stay ahead of the league. As is the case with Popovich in San Antonio, Minnesota's most profound influence and essential cornerstone may be the its coach.
It only took Cheryl Reeve two years to bring the Lynx a title. She runs an offense that involves getting the team into sets early and moving the ball often. Her staff actively embraces modern basketball principles on both ends, especially defensively. "We've been in the analytics phase on the Lynx side for a long time," Lynx assistant coach and Timberwolves color commentator Jim Peterson said in 2015. "We've been talking about defending the three, and defending the rim and the paint, and giving up non-paint twos. That's what we want."
Both Popovich and Reeve are affiliated with Team USA and have won multiple titles, but Reeve's most Pop-like quality is her quick, smart answers to the media. While she's much more willing to give a long, detailed answer than Pop—most people are—she's equally as gifted at the art of the quick-witted sarcastic reply. Take this one, from a press conference from the team's last game this season before the Olympic break:
Reporter: You looked stern, a bit concerned coming off the court at halftime. Were you concerned then and what things did you address at halftime?
Reeve: At what point did you see me, when I looked stern? Was I standing at halfcourt, or was I walking into the tunnel at the time?
Reporter: Walking. For a good portion of the quarter, though, I thought.
Reeve: I was mostly thinking about the $250. You know, my son is really enjoying Thomas the Train, and I was thinking about how I wasn't going to be able to add Percy right now. I don't know how I'm going to break it to him.
When you hear the San Antonio Spurs comps. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Of course, wry comedy at the expense of thirsty reporters only goes so far. Popovich would never have been Popovich without Tim Duncan. The Lynx have four players going to the Olympics this summer, but the player that makes the Lynx the Lynx, and has kept them there, is Maya Moore.
Now a three-time WNBA champion, Moore won her first title in her rookie season; she also won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team. The Lynx were on the cusp before Moore showed up, but no player has upheld the culture better, or done more to define it. The Spurs have had several All-Stars and Hall of Famers, but Duncan has always been their face. The same stands for Moore in Minnesota. She has only one Finals MVP, but she has been the team's best player on a series of supremely talented teams since the moment she first put on the uniform.
In point guard Lindsay Whalen, the Lynx have their version of the Spurs' Tony Parker. Whalen changed basketball in Minnesota long before her time with the Lynx began in 2010, the same year Reeve arrived. Along with future Lynx teammate Janel McCarville, Whalen led the Minnesota Golden Gophers to the Final Four in 2004, and her legacy is secure as one of the greatest players in the history of that program. She's the Gophers all-time leader in points and points-per-game, games in double figures, free throws made, and free throw percentage, and is top ten in field goals made, field goal attempts, field goal percentage, three-pointers made, three-pointers attempted, three-point field goal percentage, free throws attempted, assists, and steals. She's been just as good in the WNBA, and is a five-time All Star and two-time Olympian—she's one of those four Lynx players in Rio—and has led the WNBA in assists three times.
Both Whalen and Parker show a preference and knack for getting to the basket, absorbing contact, and making tough layups. Both have scoring point guard tendencies but plenty of ability to step back and be a floor general when the situation calls for it. Most importantly, both are willing to defer when the situation calls for it.
If there's a David Robinson analogue on the Lynx—that is, a veteran whose presence bridges both the first and second phases of the dynasty—it's Seimone Augustus, who has been a monster scorer for the team since 2006, and has seen all the highs and the lows along the way. The future Hall of Famer was the first overall pick out of LSU a decade ago and an instant WNBA success, but the Lynx weren't always good with her on the roster; it took the arrival of Whalen, Moore, and coach Reeve five years later for the Lynx's collective dominance to begin in earnest.
Lindsay Whalen is not Tony Parker, but honestly it would be really weird if she was. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
What defines the Spurs dynasty, as much as anything, is the way in which the team has reloaded on the fly. The core remained the core, but as San Antonio's franchise players slowed and grayed, the franchise developed stars like Kawhi Leonard and add perfect fits from the outside, like LaMarcus Aldridge. The Lynx have their Aldridge—that is, a big frontcourt player with ace footwork and star-level scoring chops—in three-time All-Star center Sylvia Fowles, who was acquired last year and quickly established herself; she was last year's Finals MVP, and joins Moore, Whalen and Augustus in Rio.
Do the Lynx have a Leonard? Probably not, although most teams don't. But Rebekkah Brunson is known for being able to effectively shut down anyone in the WNBA, and has been doing it for several years. If we're looking at Leonard through the "young future of the franchise" lens, look out for 24-year-old Team USA select squad member Natasha Howard, who is showing massive promise off the bench for Minnesota in her third season.
The parallels aren't perfect, but given that the Spurs are a totally sui generis dynasty, that's to be expected. The similarity that stands out most, and which means the most, has to do with the culture each team has built. With all due respect to the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs remain the gold standard for an NBA team building from the ground up, and no great team has been able to stay stronger longer, or proved more adaptable in the face of age and attrition.
The Lynx, right now, are doing the same thing. Lindsay Whalen is 34. Seimone Augustus is 32. Rebekkah Brunson is 34. Yet going into this summer's Olympic break from WNBA action, the Lynx are still 21-4 on the season and strong contenders for their fourth title in six years.
Both franchises have figured out how to develop their talent, get everyone involved, and adapt to change and changes in the way front offices think about basketball. They've figured out how to preserve their talent, and picked complementary players that make their centerpiece stars shine brighter. Most of all, both franchise are populated with players and coaches who are just really good at their jobs. It's a simple formula, if you can manage it. It's far too early to assume that the Lynx will be able to keep winning for nearly two decades. Few teams ever have. But they've done such a brilliantly Spurs-ian job in getting to their current peak that it's hard to bet against them.
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