Jim Souhan: Winless start to season is indicative of a Lynx rebuild

Tribune Content Agency

The Twin Cities’ winningest professional sports franchise is finally rebuilding. Excuse the Lynx if they don’t want to use that word.

The Lynx are 0-4 and in last place in the WNBA this season, and 14-26 since the beginning of last season, prompting conversations about “tanking.”

Are they tanking? Should they be tanking? Is tanking — the intentional sabotaging of a season to yield high draft picks — an ethical or effective strategy?

If they are tanking, should they admit it, or just wink three times in succession before every game, to confirm that we know that they know that we know?

In this case, their intentions don’t matter much. The Lynx are obviously expending maximum effort in every game, and still can’t win, so they might be able to earn the benefits of tanking without, you know, having Mark Madsen heave 38 three-pointers in a game while giggling uncontrollably. (Look it up.)

Another firm truth: The Lynx have three avenues of improvement, but only one is likely to succeed.

Improvement Avenue No. 1: free agency. The Lynx have signed two “name” free agents since the WNBA implemented true free agency — Aerial Powers and Kayla McBride. Powers is coming off the bench for a losing team. McBride is a useful complementary player. Neither transformed the franchise.

This winter, the Lynx went after Breanna Stewart, the best player in the world, and Courtney Vandersloot, who would have become the Lynx’s best point guard since Lindsay Whalen. They missed on both. Free agency is not likely to cure their ills.

Improvement Avenue No. 2: trades. The Lynx don’t exactly have excess quality players, so they would have to trade draft picks to acquire stars, and because those draft picks could be near the top of upcoming drafts, they would be foolish to trade them.

That leaves Improvement Avenue No. 3: the draft. This year’s No. 2 pick, Diamond Miller, should grow into a quality, versatile wing. The Lynx are still looking for a true franchise-leading star. Napheesa Collier is a quality player, but the Lynx will become competitive again when Collier is their second-best player and Miller their third-best player. They need to land their true star in next year’s draft. Or the one after that.

The Lynx’s dynasty was built with two key trades (for Whalen and Sylvia Fowles) and some luck in the expansion draft (in which they landed Rebekkah Brunson). But Fowles would not have wanted to force a trade to Minnesota if the Lynx hadn’t built a winner around two No. 1 overall draft picks — Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore.

The Lynx’s ability to lose just enough in 2010 to land the first pick in the 2011 and take Moore was the turning point for the franchise.

The Lynx need that kind of luck again, and if luck is the residue of design, the Lynx need to design a very bad season.

They are on their way, and this is a logical year to tank. The championship will be won by one of the league’s two super teams, Las Vegas or New York, which landed Stewart and Vandersloot. Connecticut is good again. A slew of other teams could contend for the No. 3 seed.

The Lynx went 14-22 last year while trying to win, and with Fowles in the starting lineup. This year’s team is playing a five-out — or perimeter-based — offense because it doesn’t have a true, starting-caliber center. Jessica Shepard is 6-4 but plays more like a forward. She’s a quality player but isn’t likely to be a dominant inside force so the Lynx, who redesigned their offense to capitalize on Fowles during their championship run, have adopted an entirely new offense and philosophy.

That approach might require time and patience even if they possessed a roster full of All-Stars.

Rebuilding via tanking is a natural move for a Minnesota franchise. The Twins tanked in the late 1990s and wound up with a good team and a new ballpark in the 2000s. The Lynx accidentally tanked in 2010 and got Moore. The Vikings rebuilt in Leslie Frazier’s last season and Mike Zimmer’s first season and became perennial playoff contenders.

The Lynx rebuild will require time and patience, and we should never underestimate the importance of good luck.