Augustus, Lynx soaking up success
But what's next for 2011 champ and rest of league, and how will Olympics affect them?
Seimone Augustus suffered a torn ACL in June 2009. After rehab, she played well for most of the 2010 season for the Minnesota Lynx and then overseas in the winter of 2010-11. Deep down, though, she never felt completely like herself.
Something inside was still holding her back. Not much, just a little. But enough that Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve noticed.
"I talked to Coach Reeve about it," Augustus said. "She watched a couple of my [overseas] games on YouTube, and she said, 'You're still not attacking the basket the way I want you to. You're settling for a lot of jump shots.'"
Then Augustus arrived this spring for Lynx training camp, and at first she was still a little uncertain.
"I remember in rehab that the trainer said, 'At some point, you're going to have the identical play that you tore your ACL on,'" Augustus said. "'And when you do it and get through it, that's when it's going to click, 'Wow, I'm really back.'
"And I actually had that play at practice this spring -- drove to the basket the same way, same drive, got the bump and finished the layup. And it kind of snapped in me like, 'I'm ready! Let's play ball!'"
Which is exactly what Augustus and the Lynx did this season. Start to finish, they were the best team in the WNBA, just as Seattle was the year before. Concerns about the franchise's lack of playoff experience proved unnecessary. The Lynx lost one game in the postseason, to San Antonio in the first round, and exorcised whatever demons there were individually and collectively for this group.
Augustus felt like that moment in training camp convinced her that she was not just back to her old self, but actually better.
"Our [practice] guys were there, which is always a little scary at first because they're so fast and strong," she said. "But I attacked the basket, the guy hit me and I was OK. I had to stop for a moment; I missed getting back on defense for a second because I was in awe about the fact that I finished that play."
Finishing a WNBA season just as strong was something that Augustus very much wanted to accomplish. She'd become the face of the Lynx franchise in her first five years after being taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, but had not made a playoff appearance. She knew the addition of players like Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson for the 2010 season, along with Reeve as coach, were all big steps in helping the Lynx finally turn the corner.
Augustus wasn't overly discouraged last season, even though the Lynx still didn't make the playoffs, because she was sure they were headed at a high rate of speed in the right direction.
Once she knew the Lynx would pick first in the 2011 draft, she immediately began to think of ways she could help make Maya Moore's transition to the WNBA easier.
"When we landed No. 1 in the lottery, Seimone and all the players reached out to me," Reeve said. "I asked them who they would take, and they chuckled and said, 'Come on, Coach. That's a no-brainer.'
Players who are confident in who they are will encourage people around them. That's how you become MVP of the Finals: You make everybody better. Seimone is one of those players. Whether she had to score 36 or play lock-down defense or get someone else fired up. She was an emotional leader for us this year.” -- Maya Moore on teammate Seimone Augustus
"Seimone understood it actually made her life easier to have Maya. At no point in time was there ever any kind of jealousy. In fact, Seimone continued to be our go-to player despite what people thought."
Augustus averaged 16.2 points in the regular season, but 22.0 in the eight games of the playoffs. She also became a more committed defender, and that was particularly evident in how the Lynx wore down Atlanta in the decisive third game of the WNBA Finals last Friday, a 73-67 Minnesota victory.
"I wanted to take that [defensive] role because Maya was coming in, and it was obvious that she was going to be starting," Augustus said. "You don't want to put that kind of pressure on a rookie to have to guard the opposing team's best player. I had to take that challenge."
There are a lot of reasons why the Lynx became a championship team this season, and plenty of credit should go around. But one of the biggest factors was that Augustus did everything that a mature professional does to contribute to the overall success of her teammates.
Moore said, "Players who are confident in who they are will encourage people around them. That's how you become MVP of the Finals: You make everybody better. Seimone is one of those players.
"It was so rewarding for all of us to see her play so well, to see her humility and unselfishness in making sure our team got where it needed to go. Whether she had to score 36 or play lock-down defense or get someone else fired up. She was an emotional leader for us this year. That's something I wasn't necessarily expecting from her, but it was amazing to watch her do that."
The Lynx celebrated Tuesday with a parade in Minneapolis. They join Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles as other current Western Conference franchises that have won WNBA championships. San Antonio reached the WNBA Finals in 2008.
Tulsa, which is essentially a de facto expansion franchise, will have decisions to make on how it goes forward from a coach/general manager/philosophy standpoint after two difficult seasons in Oklahoma that bore no resemblance to the championship pedigree of the Shock when the team was in Detroit.
Will Tulsa coach Teresa Edwards, who took over on an interim basis when Nolan Richardson resigned, get the nod to keep her job? Will coach Joe Bryant be back in Los Angeles, a team that missed the playoffs and seems in need of better chemistry?
Meanwhile in the East, Atlanta was swept in the Finals for the second season in a row. But that should not erase the positives of making it that far twice for a franchise that is just four years old. There's tinkering to do for the Dream, but most of the right parts are there.
Connecticut, swept in the first round by the Dream, doesn't seem far off from championship contending, either. New York did better in coach John Whisenant's first season with the Liberty than many expected, but still needs more help for their superstar, Cappie Pondexter.
Indiana, which finished first in the East in the regular season, has to monitor the progress in the offseason for Tamika Catchings. She said the torn plantar fascia in her right foot -- which she suffered in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta -- might keep her away from playing overseas this winter.
Chicago has yet to make the playoffs in six seasons of the expansion franchise's existence. And it's up to coach/GM Pokey Chatman to figure out what has been missing that has kept the Sky falling short.
As for Washington, which at 6-28 finished last in the East after a first-place finish the year before, there are a lot of important decisions to be made. The first of which is whether the franchise is truly serious about competing in the league and respecting its fan base. Will Washington bring back coach/GM Trudi Lacey for another season, or change to their 13th different coach in franchise history?
Throughout the league, teams will also have to plan for and deal with the London Olympics, which will impact several players' availability for part or potentially all of the 2012 WNBA season.
For Minnesota, though, there is at least a little time to soak in the satisfaction of what the Lynx accomplished in 2011.
I've been very critical of the Lynx front office in the past when the team made trades that didn't help or seemed unable to put together enough talent to really be competitive. So now, GM Roger Griffith deserves credit for what has happened the past two years, especially, to make this season was it was.
"Obviously, it's meaningful to any team when they're in this position," Griffith said when the Lynx had wrapped up the title. "But for our fans and the people who've been around here a long time, like Seimone, you can't beat the feeling of how this year has gone."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.