Dispatches from the W: The Augustus Theory

Jul 18, 2013
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Famous guy and Grantland founder Bill Simmons invented a theory 1 in 2001 about superstar center Patrick Ewing‘s teams playing better when he was hurt. The “Ewing Theory” has since become the name of a garage rock band from Chicago, and also been used to explain every NBA happening from the Houston Rockets’ 2008 22-game win streak to a team playing well the game after their best player gets hurt. The theory is mostly spouted by people willing to read all of this on the theory again in 2013 when Rajon Rondo got hurt. Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx was was the WNBA Finals MVP in 2011, and she recently sprained her ankle early in a game against the Phoenix Mercury on July 7. The Lynx were at the time recovering from a blowout loss to the rising Los Angeles Sparks the game before, and have since won four in a row, including the game against Phoenix. Because it is fun to jump to conclusions and make fun of Bill Simmons, Bro Jackson presents The Augustus Theory.

Coming into the Mercury game, the Lynx had a 7-3 record, but two of those losses can be explained away by the overriding bipolar play by the LA Sparks. Minnesota’s sole other loss was a nail biter to the Washington Mystics in which Augustus shot an eye-popping 9-27 from the field, but also hit two clutch baskets with less than 20 seconds left in the game. Augustus is a bit of an inefficient scorer who hasn’t been able to get to the foul line like she did before she tore her ACL in 2009, and despite having the best field-goal percentage of her career this year, she was shooting a career low from three before she went down with injury. No one actually thinks the Lynx will be better off missing the heart of their team and their leading scorer in the last two WNBA Finals (Rudy Gay or Carmelo Anthony she is not). However, this short stretch of games without Augustus could be good for Minnesota’s talented young wing players, Maya Moore and Monica Wright.

Moore was drafted first overall in 2011, and became an All-Star in addition to winning Rookie of the Year and the WNBA Finals trophy all in one year. Last year there was no All-Star Game due to the Summer Olympics, but even though Moore and the Lynx returned to the Finals, losing to the Indiana Fever has put a spotlight on her development. Moore has responded to Augustus’s injury by leading the team in plus/minus while averaging almost 35 minutes a game over the last four games. Wright was drafted second overall the year prior to Moore, after the Lynx swapped their first overall pick for former University of Minnesota star Lindsay Whalen. Wright has been able to develop more slowly by coming off the bench behind Moore and Augustus, but this past week she’s been shoved into the spotlight. In addition to announcing an engagement to NBA daddy long legs Kevin Durant, she’s put up three straight 17-plus point games. Wright’s previous season high was 16.

However, with both Moore and Wright increasing their scoring without Augustus, it has been Whalen who’s been given the biggest burden. While Moore can occasionally handle point forward responsibilities to create for others, Wright is much better off the ball unless she’s streaking up the court in transition. Moore is also at her best running through a maze of screens before spotting up with one of the sweetest strokes in the league. That has left most of the ball-handling duties with Whalen. She has exceeded expectations and is the main reason the team is coming off a four-game winning streak. A three-time All-Star, Whalen has played at an elite level ever since she joined the Lynx. Since the Augustus injury though, she’s had to facilitate pretty much the entire offense, and she’s been pulling it off. Resembling either Vinny Del Negro-era Chris Paul or Jarrett Jack God Mode for entire games, Whalen has been pushing and moving the ball, orchestrating her teammates and shooting enough enough fallaway midrange jumpers to grab her team an average of 85 points the last four games. The Lynx have also only given up only 67 per game in that same span, and that starts with Whalen as well. Whalen uses her solid frame, veteran knowledge of angles, and quick hands to wreak havoc on opposing ball handlers. For example, she caused a deflection and then a steal from Diana Taurasi, all in the opening defensive possession against the Mercury.

The offense has been impressive, but for the Lynx to return to the Finals, it will be because of their defense, and the Lynx have actually improved on that side of the ball sans Augustus. The numbers are skewed from the blowout Mercury game where Augustus went down, but they can’t all be chalked up to an off-game for Phoenix. Minnesota came out like gangbusters and didn’t let up even when Augustus was carried to the locker room. The Lynx brought that same intensity to their following game against top-seeded Atlanta to snap the Dream’s six-game winning streak.

Minnesota’s second full game without Augustus saw their offense dip with Moore struggling from the field, but the Lynx held the Indiana Fever’s reigning Finals MVP Tamika Catchings to only two field goals on 10 shots. With Whalen hounding guards, it was up to the Minnesota bigs Rebekkah Brunson and Janel McCarville to prevent inside scoring and secure rebounds. With their immense versatility, they have shown why Brunson is a three-time WNBA All-Star and why McCarville is in the all-time top-5 of every major statistical category at the University of Minnesota. There was one play during the Fever game in particular where Brunson and McCarville blitzed their pick-and-roll coverage of the 2011 MVP Catchings. Catchings had nowhere to go and backpedaled toward half court before leaping into a desperation pass over the top of the taller two Lynx. They moved their feet expertly to cut off all breathing room for Catchings. So with Catchings, Brunson, and McCarville all out of the play, three small Lynx players had to stop four Fever players with the shot clock winding down.

”Any time one of our teammates goes down, we take it upon ourselves to do more,” Monica Wright said after the Atlanta game. She was proven right when they forced an Indiana miss and grabbed the rebound en route to winning last year’s Finals rematch. By doing more, the Lynx are finding what they do best, as well as what will be better done by Seimone Augustus. Luckily, Minnesota has been able to replace her missing production while testing the limits of its younger players. This four-game stretch may help the Lynx going forward, but it can’t last with a short rotation on an already small roster. Recent injuries to Augustus, Brittney Griner, Sancho Lyttle and Becky Hammon have tested their respective teams. The sprained ankle is worse than was originally thought, but Augustus is due back in the lineup in a few days.

Notes:

  1. As Simmons explains in the article, the theory was made up by his friend Dave Cirilli in the ’90s, but would Bill really object to getting credit for something?

Clyde Lovellette is a contributor to Bro Jackson. He is a white guy who likes rap music. He lives in Sacramento and Kobe Bryant is all he'll ever know of childhood.