Commentary

Can Lynx go from worst to first?

Five years after "worst" day in team history, Minnesota hopes 2011 ends with "best"

Originally Published: September 13, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

If hindsight is 20/20, how do you rate most folks' vision when it comes to retrospect?

It's all over the place, isn't it, depending in part on what we're remembering? People are often accused of seeing things through the phenomenon of "Kodachrome" that the Paul Simon song suggested: as better than they actually were.

But on the other hand, there are certain things we now know were even bleaker than we thought them to be at the time. That might be the case with what I'll subjectively call the worst day in Minnesota Lynx history: July 23, 2006.

The 2011 Lynx are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, so there really was light at the end of the tunnel five years ago. But it was a looooooooong, dang tunnel.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty ImagesNo matter what happens in the playoffs, Maya Moore looks like a lock for WNBA rookie of the year honors.

That Sunday in July 2006, Minnesota coach Suzie McConnell Serio resigned after a humiliating 86-59 loss to Sacramento at Target Center the day before. Taking over the reigns on an interim basis was Carolyn Jenkins, whose previous head-coaching experience consisted of three years at Sacramento State.

Katie Smith, who'd been dealt to Detroit almost exactly a year before -- July 30, 2005 -- was having a great season with the Shock and would go on to win a WNBA title in 2006.

The Lynx, meanwhile, were on their way to the first of two consecutive 10-win seasons. Ugggh. The best thing Minnesota had going for it was Seimone Augustus, the No. 1 draft pick who would win 2006 rookie of the year honors. She'd made three consecutive Final Four appearances with LSU. But was she going to ever see team success with the Lynx?

You might wonder why we're focusing on such a "downer" day from the past during an "up" week in the Twin Cities. The Lynx had the best record during 2011 WNBA regular season, 27-7, and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. At least one major award -- rookie of the year for Maya Moore -- is sure to pass through Minnesota.

But Lynx fans actually might enjoy all this even more by comparing it to where they were in 2006.

McConnell Serio had led the Lynx to their two postseason appearances in franchise history: 2003 and '04. For the latter season, she was named WNBA coach of the year. But by mid-2006, the Lynx seemed to be spinning their wheels.

The trade that sent future Hall of Famer Smith to the Shock had done nothing to help the Lynx. Minnesota got Chandi Jones; a promising player out of the University of Houston who never panned out, Stacey Thomas; and a 2006 draft pick, which ended up being Shona Thorburn of Utah.

And we should go back a little further, actually, to see the pathway to the "worst day." The Lynx franchise debuted in 1999 with Brian Agler -- who'd coached Columbus to two titles in the short-lived ABL -- in charge.

He was let go after starting his fourth season with a 6-13 record. For his time with the Lynx, Agler was 47-67. It probably seemed to the Minnesota brass that they had stuck with him long enough. But had they?

Agler has since won a championship in Seattle, while Minnesota has never even won a playoff series.

Sure, being 20 games below .500 in your fourth year at the helm is hardly a position of strength. But consider that the year Agler was fired, 2002, there were 16 WNBA teams. (We know now the league expanded too quickly, and into some places that weren't great bets for sustainability.) The talent pool of pro-level players was smaller nine years ago, and those players were more spread out in a league that was four teams larger than it is now.

[+] EnlargeLindsay Whalen
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesGetting Lindsay Whalen back in her native state came at a steep price, but some things are worth paying top dollar for.

Staying the course with Agler -- in retrospect -- might have been a smarter move for Minnesota. Instead, assistant Heidi VanDerveer took over for the rest of 2002. Then McConnell Serio, a former WNBA player, came aboard as head coach for 2003.

The Lynx made the playoffs that season, losing in the conference semifinals to Los Angeles. The next year, they were eliminated in the first round of the postseason by eventual champion Seattle.

Minnesota was 14-20 in 2005. Then McConnel Serio resigned after an 8-15 start to 2006. Why do I call this the "worst day"? Because to me, it symbolizes -- again in restrospect -- the Lynx as a wandering franchise without a clear sense of direction.

You could say that about any number of franchises in different pro sports, including others in the WNBA. (We won't even get started here about the Washington Mystics.)

It's hard to be a long-term, consistent success. Even the best franchises have down seasons. Even the best front-office leadership can make mistakes with personnel. Players' injuries and the failure of certain prospects to ever reach their projected potential are variables that are nearly impossible to predict.

But the most successful franchises generally maintain stability through the toughest times. They prepare well for both the best and the worst happening. Yes, it's much easier said than done. But if the Lynx really had a long-term plan, it wasn't evident.

They kept fielding teams that consistently had an overall top-level talent deficit compared to the best squads in the WNBA. It was no wonder that Augustus felt the weight of the franchise on her shoulders.

In 2007, Minneapolis native Don Zierden became the Lynx's head coach. His previous experience was in the NBA and the CBA. He said when he was hired by the Lynx that he was looking forward to learning more about women's basketball.

Of course, Zierden was hardly the first person to coach in the WNBA who previously knew little or nothing about women's basketball. Nor would he be the last. That's just been a frustrating reality of the league.

Did "Z" really learn much about the game on the women's side? Well, a little. Minnesota went 10-24 his first season. In 2008, the Lynx seemed to show some improvement, finishing 16-18.

Then came yet another coaching change. Just prior to the 2009 season -- as in, four days before the opener -- Zierden resigned and took a job with the NBA's Wizards. He said he had really wanted to stay with the Lynx, but wasn't able to secure a long-term contract. Thus, he took the security and higher salary provided by the NBA. Some Lynx fans believed that, others thought he just bailed when a better offer came along.

At that point, another former WNBA player, Jennifer Gillom, moved up from her assistant's role and took over. The Lynx went 14-20, and Gillom left to coach in Los Angeles in 2010. She was relieved of her duties there earlier this season.

So if you were a Lynx fan at the end of the 2009 season, you might have looked back on that day -- July 23, 2006 -- and thought, "Good grief. We have essentially gone nowhere since then."

But … things were in the works. The Shock moved from Detroit to Tulsa after the 2009 season, and Shock assistant Cheryl Reeve was hired as head coach for the Lynx.

Point guard Lindsay Whalen would soon be headed back to her native state of Minnesota. And even if the price was quite steep -- Connecticut got Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery out of that deal -- some things are worth paying top dollar for. Having Whalen back home is one of them.

Reeve and her staff actually were very confident going into 2010. But injuries, and the general mediocrity of all the Western Conference teams save Seattle last season, sunk the Lynx again.

The silver lining after a 13-21 season -- and if a franchise deserved such a thing, it was the Lynx -- was ending up with 2011 No. 1 draft pick Maya Moore. That and the signing of Taj McWilliams-Franklin were the two pieces needed to finally get the Lynx's engine running strong. And it has been purring along pretty well all summer.

If you're a Lynx follower -- especially one who has been faithful since 1999 -- you might agree that July 23, 2006, was the "worst day." Or you might feel it was another day. Or that no single day should be designated because there were plenty of lousy ones over the past decade-plus, when it seemed the Lynx were destined to be a franchise that was always in "almost … not quite … nope" mode, season after season.

Whatever the case, you happily can say this: The 2011 season at least has the potential to end with the best day in Lynx history.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.