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Lynx aim to prevent former coach from claiming championship

LOS ANGELES -- The coach standing between the Minnesota Lynx and their third championship in four seasons is the same coach who guided the Lynx during their earliest years in the WNBA. That coach also owns the most victories in the history of Ame...

Oct 14, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler in the second half of game three of the WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx at Galen Center. Sparks won 92-75. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 14, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler in the second half of game three of the WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx at Galen Center. Sparks won 92-75. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES - The coach standing between the Minnesota Lynx and their third championship in four seasons is the same coach who guided the Lynx during their earliest years in the WNBA.

That coach also owns the most victories in the history of American women's professional basketball.

Brian Agler, in his second season with the Los Angeles Sparks, would secure his fourth championship with a victory Sunday, Oct. 16, in the fourth game of the WNBA Finals at the Staples Center. Agler, 58, guided the Seattle Storm to the 2010 WNBA title and led the Columbus Quest to the only two championships in the now-defunct American Basketball League.

"He's a great coach," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "If you look at the last however many years of L.A. basketball, he's been able to get a level of buy-in to the things that win basketball games at a high level. That's obviously really, really impressive to do so quickly in just his second year."

Agler moved to the pros in 1996, when he resigned as Kansas State's head coach to join the Quest. Under Agler's guidance, Columbus won two Eastern Conference championships as well as both ABL titles while going 77-21 in the regular season and playoffs.

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As Agler was coaching the Quest, the WNBA began its existence. Both leagues emerged from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where the United States won the gold medal in women's basketball.

"Of that Olympic team, nine of those 12 players came to the ABL," Agler said. "Only three went to the WNBA. The competition was much stronger in the ABL than in the WNBA."

Yet the WNBA, the NBA's subsidiary, held overwhelming advantages in financing, sponsorship and television exposure. After the first six games of the ABL's 1998-99 season, Agler left the Quest to join the expansion Lynx as the coach and general manager. The Quest would play just eight more times before the ABL folded.

Agler brought three of his players from Columbus - Katie Smith, Tonya Edwards and Andrea Lloyd Curry - to the Twin Cities. The Lynx began their first season 10-6 but finished 15-17 and shared last place in the Western Conference.

In 2000, Smith averaged 20.2 points as the Lynx forged a 10-5 record before losing 12 of their final 17 games. Smith then led the WNBA with a career-best 23.1 points in 2001, but the Lynx went 12-20. After a 6-13 start in 2002, the Lynx fired Agler.

"Unless things go perfectly for expansion teams, it's hard to have a high level of success," Agler said. "It was difficult from the standpoint of winning and losing games there because there was no free agency and trades were hard to make. But I've always felt like there was some pretty good support there."

Agler spent four seasons as a WNBA assistant before becoming the Storm's head coach in 2008. During his seven years in Seattle, the Storm made the playoffs six times and won 149 games in the regular season and playoffs.

Agler joined the Sparks in 2015 and had to watch them compile a 3-13 record without Candace Parker, who rested for half the season after playing in Russia. Once Parker returned following the all-star break, Los Angeles went 11-7 and reached the playoffs before losing to the Lynx in the first round.

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"Coach is a basketball mind," Parker said about Agler. "He's very X's and O's, a lot about defense. We have rules for everything and when you have rules, you know who's messing up and who's not."

Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA's most valuable player, revealed a different aspect of Agler's personality.

"He really thinks about something before he says it, and I really respect that," Ogwumike said. "Sometimes, you look for an immediate response from a coach and sometimes, it's not really what you want. He makes informed decisions and he listens to us. He asks us questions. He's incredibility interactive when it comes to his coaching approach, and I think that contributes a lot to the chemistry of the team."

Agler's approach reflects the growing trend of WNBA players competing overseas during the offseason.

"The elite players play year round," he said. "You can't overwork them in practice. You have to mold them in different ways, through a lot of walk-throughs, a lot of conversation, film work. Then you really have to know how to communicate with them to have them stay engaged and be positive."

Agler's approach resulted in a camaraderie that matches the Sparks' talent.

"I think we've got a very good, close-knit group," Agler said. "Even players outside of our core have known each other by being on the same teams in Europe. It's just one of those special situations where things have jelled."

At the same time, the Lynx's first coach recognizes how the franchise's early struggles led to its current excellence.

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"All the teams that get to that point have always had to go through a tough period because that's how you accumulate talent," Agler said. "I just appreciate (owner) Glen Taylor sticking with it. Now, they've created an environment on their home court where it's just so energized, so positive and just so supportive. It's a great thing to be a part of, even if you're an opponent."

This year, Agler believes the Lynx's fans have a unique reason to be enthusiastic.

"This is their best team," he said. "This is the best team they've had there. It's better because of their bench and because their second unit complements their first. So you have to make adjustments defensively when they start subbing."

One member of that second unit, Janel McCarville, likely will not play Sunday night because of back spasms, Reeve said. McCarville left Friday night's game with 45 seconds left in the third quarter after the Sparks' Jantel Lavender fouled her from behind.

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