Shortly after news broke last weekend about the potential "breakup" of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, Minnesota forward Maya Moore talked about the connection that makes the Lynx a WNBA success.
"The culture that has been set, from leadership on down, of being good to each other," Moore said, repeating a phrase she claims coach Cheryl Reeve uses a lot. "Because it's not going to be everything it can be, and it's not going to feel as good as it can, if we don't approach our journey that way.
"Having done that season after season, especially the four of us who've been together so long -- and adding players who also have that mindset as well -- we win. When we have that commitment of looking out for each other, we can get through things. When the tough parts of the season or lulls come, we can overcome those quicker because we have that chemistry."
Moore addressed the subject from the West team's locker room at last Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game in Seattle. She was there with Lynx teammates Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson, as well as Reeve, who coached the West team. Augustus, Brunson, Moore and point guard Lindsay Whalen make up the Lynx's "core four" and have played together since 2011. Fowles forced a deal to Minnesota from Chicago in 2015. In all, the Lynx have won three championships and reached the WNBA Finals in five of the past six years. And they're currently first in the league at 17-2.
They've accomplished all this because every player has successfully submerged her own ego for the greater good of the team. The best recent NBA comparisons to the Lynx include Golden State, San Antonio and even Miami for its zenith seasons.
"It's really about what your goals are, what you prioritize, what you value. ... If your goal is to earn as much money as possible -- and you have the opportunity to do that -- it's going to influence your decisions."Minnesota's Maya Moore
But strife seems to inevitably pop up in the NBA when a player wants a team to be "his" team, making that player the undisputed superstar and focal point of attention.
It's hard to draw direct parallels, however, given WNBA salaries pale in comparison to NBA contracts, endorsement opportunities are scarce and player movement is much more restricted.
Yet Moore pragmatically evaluates it as such: There's simplicity in focus in the WNBA that might be harder to achieve in the NBA. With a hard salary cap and max salaries, it's impossible to stand out in the WNBA simply by commanding the biggest bucks. There aren't the same multiple national endorsement deals, either, nor can a player's fame on the court seamlessly transfer to other endeavors (apparel, music, acting, etc.)
"It's really about what your goals are, what you prioritize, what you value," Moore said. "When a championship becomes one of many things that you want, your values can change. If your goal is to earn as much money as possible -- and you have the opportunity to do that -- it's going to influence your decisions.
"If you want your legacy to be about championships, then you make certain choices. But there's no doubt that the more money involved, the more pressure you feel to sort of compromise some of those things that don't directly give you more money. I get it: There are different challenges with different levels of income."
If more money were at stake, would the WNBA have some of the same issues as the NBA, namely keeping teams together and maintaining chemistry? Of course.
"Because a lot of us are essentially making the same salary, there's only so much we can make," Moore said regarding WNBA compensation. "Which in a way makes it easier to have more of a mindset on the team.
"I don't think it's impossible in the NBA, because obviously, there are some players and teams who've done that -- where everyone values whatever makes the team culture come first."
Even if you discount the income/player movement differences, however, it's hard to find direct comparisons between the Cavaliers' current turmoil and any similar situations in the WNBA. In essence: a young star who might become dissatisfied playing in the shadow of an older star.
After winning two titles over her first four years in the WNBA with Phoenix, Cappie Pondexter requested a trade to New York before the 2010 season. Admittedly, Diana Taurasi -- two years older and the 2009 league MVP -- was the biggest star in Phoenix. But Pondexter's move seemed more about changing location: She was interested in fashion design and considered New York a better place to pursue her hobby. Plus, she'd gone to college at Rutgers. (She's now playing for Chicago, her hometown.)
Brittney Griner, picked No. 1 in 2013, won a title alongside Taurasi in 2014. Griner does not feel overshadowed by Taurasi; in fact, she said if she hadn't been drafted by Phoenix, she would have tried to figure out how to get there in order to play with the former MVP.
"Without Dee, I don't think I'd be where am right now," Griner said earlier this season.
"I knew what had to happen in order for us to win: I needed great players around me. Young players have to understand that if you don't have the right mindset, if you aren't willing to sacrifice for what makes the team work, it's not going to work."Minnesota's Seimone Augustus
That doesn't mean that every standout combo in the WNBA has coexisted without friction. Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes weren't necessarily the best of friends when they helped lead Houston to the WNBA's first four championships (1997-2000). Consecutive No. 1 picks Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird (2001, '02) had to adjust to one another's different personalities when playing in Seattle, even though they clicked almost immediately on court (and eventually became close friends off the court, too).
One superstar pairing that many predicted might be rocky has instead progressed pretty smoothly: Nneka Ogwumike was the top pick in 2012, joining former No. 1 selection Candace Parker (2008) in Los Angeles. It was Parker's team, yet she and fellow post player Ogwumike have meshed well. Last year, when Ogwumike was league MVP, nobody seemed more supportive than Parker, who has won that award twice.
Parker and Ogwumike then led the Sparks to their first WNBA title since 2002. Los Angeles is back contending this year, too, sitting in second place at 15-6.
The top spot, though, is occupied by Minnesota, and no star-studded WNBA franchise has embodied the "team first" motto better than the Lynx. It's a big part of why they've been serious title contenders for an unprecedented seven straight years.
Augustus, drafted No. 1 in 2006, was the first building block. The Lynx got Brunson as the No. 2 pick in the Sacramento dispersal draft after the 2009 season, and also traded to get home-state hero Whalen, a Minnesota grad. The Lynx got the 2011 No. 1 pick, which was hitting the jackpot: It brought them Moore, who just won her second All-Star MVP (and was the 2014 regular-season MVP).
"Without Dee, I don't think I'd be where am right now."Phoenix's Brittney Griner, on wanting to play with and be mentored by teammate Diana Taurasi
Those four won the 2011 and '13 WNBA titles. Then Fowles -- who was drafted No. 2 by Chicago in 2008, and led the Sky to the 2014 WNBA Finals alongside Elena Delle Donne -- wanted out.
The Sky were swept by Phoenix that year, and Fowles decided she wanted to be in Minnesota. She felt it was a stronger organization, and she was already close friends with many of the Lynx players. Fowles' hands had been tied to a degree by the WNBA's core designation, which essentially blocked her free agency. So she played the only card she had: She was willing to sit out the first part of the 2015 season -- and would have done so for the whole season if necessary -- in order to force the trade.
Fowles' decision might be best compared to the free-agency moves of James to Miami or Kevin Durant to Golden State: great players who felt their best chance of winning a championship involved joining a group of established players.
It worked for Fowles, who joined the Lynx around mid-season and won the 2015 title. The Lynx were seconds away from repeating last year, but lost Game 5 on Ogwumike's putback.
So when Dallas' Skylar Diggins-Smith asked Augustus at the All-Star Game how Minnesota had put together such a dominant team, the Lynx veteran mapped it out in detail. She explained it was a combination over several years of smart decisions (including hiring Reeve), fortuitous timing and even good luck. But it also required patience, as well as some concessions -- particularly for a star player like Augustus.
"You may have to sacrifice some of your game to win," Augustus said. "With me, I had to be more of a defensive-minded player. I wasn't going to score as many points as I did earlier in my career, but I didn't care. I was at a point where I was tired of losing.
"I knew what had to happen in order for us to win: I needed great players around me. Young players have to understand that if you don't have the right mindset, if you aren't willing to sacrifice for what makes the team work, it's not going to work."