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Atlanta Dream 2018: So crazy, this just might work!
Another WNBA season at the Thillerdome is about to unfold, and this edition of the Atlanta Dream is certain to have a better “look” than the crew that entered 2017. But will a better “look” equal better end-of-season results?
What’s different? Well, literally for starters, thanks to their efforts to take last season seriously, Layshia Clarendon, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams each have a shiny new All-Star credential in their quivers. Not that she often really looked the part, but Brittney Sykes is no longer a rookie. There’s also a new Dream management and coaching team, one taking much more than the semi-serious approach to the WNBA offseason we’ve grown accustomed to around these parts.
Oh, and there’s this: Angel McCoughtry is finally back!
The march to May 2018 began in January of 2017, when Atlanta’s franchise star announced a WNBA sabbatical to grant her body, and her focus, a well-deserved respite. That decision set the team’s clock ticking, first for coach Michael Cooper and now for his replacements, to provide the building blocks for a team ready to contend not only after McCoughtry returns to WNBA action, but in time for the team to return to a renovated Highlight Factory in the spring of 2019.
If new GM Chris Sienko and the new coaching staff, led by first-timer Nicki Collen, can get this team to gel quickly, contention might not have to wait until next year.
After issuing Cooper his walking papers, team owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler essentially knew what they were looking for in a head coach – and, more specifically, who. They got plenty of intel from Sienko, the consultant they would later hire to be the new GM. So, by the time Collen arrived for an interview from Sienko’s former employer, the Connecticut Sun, the Dream owners were already planning to hand over the head coach job.
Don’t expect a vast departure from the high-paced “Run With The Dream” philosophy of seasons past. Collen has repeatedly noted a desire to get her new team to “play fast.” Yet, she wishes to depart from her predecessors by demanding quick decisions and efficient ball movement to extend to the halfcourt offense, where Atlanta historically bogs down.
Swift decisions with the rock, when Angel gets double-teamed, when Layshia attacks inside off pick-and-roll action, when Brittney beats her assignment, when Tip drives, when Libby snags an offensive rebound… Collen wants the Dream offensive players to know how to execute, precisely, and find open scoring opportunities for teammates when opposing defenses find themselves imbalanced.
With Sienko in charge, Atlanta made potentially the most momentous veteran free agent signings in franchise history, at least the biggest early-offseason additions since acquiring Sancho Lyttle via the 2008 Comets dispersal draft.
Guard depth was immensely advanced with the acquisition of Renee Montgomery, a former All-Star and Sixth Woman of the Year who is now a two-time WNBA champion, after going all the way with the Minnesota Lynx last season. Those individual accolades for Montgomery, who was already living in Atlanta during her offseasons, came while she was playing with Sienko’s Sun from 2010-2014.
Back with the Lynx for the past two-and-a-half seasons, Renee shot a career-best 42.4 percent from the field in 2017, and also spelled future Hall of Fame guard Lindsay Whalen, the player Montgomery was traded for following her 2009 rookie season in Minnesota. Montgomery filled in capably for Whalen in 12 starts last season, while the latter was sidelined with a hand injury. She averaged a 2.0 assist/TO ratio last season, dishing out the most per-36 assists since her 2011 All-Star season in Connecticut.
Renee provides the Dream not only steady ballhandling but a legitimate perimeter shooting threat (8th all-time in 3FGs made), especially when the stakes increase. In Minnesota, Montgomery shot 39.3 3FG% (11-for-28) in the 2017 playoffs, boosting her career postseason accuracy to 38.2 3FG%. That included sinking half of her 14 attempts along the way to the WNBA Finals. Her being a decent free throw shooter (83.7 career FT%) is an additional plus for Atlanta. Even so much as a modest regression from her recent play with the reigning champs would still be a welcome development for a Dream team that has struggled with quality guard depth for years.
Sienko and the Dream were not done, bolstering the frontcourt by wooing another former All-Star honoree, Jessica Breland of the Chicago Sky. The power forward also played with Mongtomery, briefly, with the 2011 Sun, and provides an experienced yet younger alternative to longtime Dream star Sancho Lyttle, who signed as a free agent with Phoenix.
Returning full-time to a starter role in 2017, Jessica compiled her best numbers since her 2014 All-Star season with the Sky. She has ranked top-five in block percentage in four of her past five seasons, and she matched her career-best with 12 rebounds (11 defensive) during an early-season win in Atlanta last year. Her overall on-court efficiency took a dive in recent seasons, as it would for anyone no longer paired alongside Sylvia Fowles and/or Elena Delle Donne. But Breland should have no problems blending into frontcourt lineups featuring McCoughtry and Williams.
In search of a frontcourt player who could serve as a stretch-four, Atlanta brought free agent Damiris Dantas back into the fold. In addition to the likelihood of more pick-and-pop action for Williams, Collen has expressed further excitement over the possibility of using Breland more in this specific role. Jessica flashed some of that perimeter potential at the outset of 2017 (7-for-17 3FGs in first ten games). But Chicago started out 2-8 and shied away from her outside shooting as the season wore on (just 1-for-4 3FGs in her final 24 Sky appearances). Potentially boosting the team depth would be rookie second-rounder Monique Billings, a 6-foot-4 forward who is hoping to expand on her newfound mid-range jumpshot.
This team is not stacked with 1-through-12 depth, but Collen’s club is endowed with a positional versatility that is unprecedented for this particular franchise. While I would prefer to start Montgomery for the sake of spreading the floor, she can relieve either of Clarendon or Hayes at the guard spots. Sykes may become a sixth-woman award contender, too, filling in at either wing position and, as demonstrated late last season, as a third option at the point.
Atlanta’s biggest wild card is their trade-deadline acquisition from 2017. Imani McGee-Stafford has only scratched the surface of her potential. The 6-foot-7, third-season center has averaged a double-double per-36 in each of her first two WNBA campaigns, plus she established a playoff rookie record with six blocks in her 2016 postseason debut. Yet, Imani found herself underutilized in 2017, first by Sky coach Amber Stocks and then by Cooper during Atlanta’s failed playoff push.
Getting McGee-Stafford active in the frontcourt rotation, ideally as a starter that allows Williams to shift to power forward, is a critical measure for the Dream’s on-court growth over the next two seasons. The Dream demonstrated their commitment to Williams by extending her contract for a couple more seasons.
An improved McGee-Stafford and Breland would help the Dream better contend in a league loaded with extraordinary talents at center. With McGee-Stafford, Williams, and Breland (all top-30 WNBA in per-game blocks) teaming up with McCoughtry (3rd all-time in per-game steals), Atlanta should prove capable of getting plenty of stops when opponents shift their offensive attack to the interior.
Hayes, Clarendon and Sykes were instrumental, meanwhile, in Dream opponents shooting just 31.4 3FG% last season (3rd-best in WNBA, virtually tied for best with Minnesota and Phoenix). If that development holds this season, and if Atlanta keeps opponents off the free throw line (4th-most personal fouls, 2nd-most opponent FTAs in 2017) while limiting live-ball turnovers themselves (16.2 opponent TO% in 2017, 3rd-best in WNBA), they will satisfactorily suppress foes with their defense while giving themselves ample room to sort out their own offensive flow.
The final X-Factor is the re-enmeshing of McCoughtry into the team gameplans. Angel has already played with Clarendon, Dantas, and Williams in prior seasons, and Hayes for much longer. Just last week, she got an opportunity to bond further with Layshia, Brittney, Tip, and Elizabeth during Team USA training camp, where Collen serves as an assistant.
The likelihood that a rested McCoughtry returns to All-WNBA prominence isn’t in question. But how much more hardware she can collect will depend on her ability to guide the execution of Collen’s offense, not merely her own. Collen, in turn, will also have to entrust the league’s premier two-way non-center to help orchestrate the team defense whenever her star is on the floor.
The blend of talent, experience and potential is as sound as it has been in any of Angel’s prior eight WNBA seasons in Atlanta. But when the team runs into adversity, which is coming for every competitive team at some points this season, McCoughtry cannot turn a tin ear toward her teammates and staff and just party like it’s 2013.
This is a squad loaded with players with huge off-court aspirations, from sports media to advocacy to modeling to retail and even medicine. A Finals-competitive squad only enhances those individual endeavors further, and McCoughtry is just the tide that, when she rises rather than capsizes, can lift all boats. If this team finishes strong, and Angel’s play makes several teammates better at both ends of the court, her MVP candidacy can’t be obscured.
Vying for final spots on the Dream roster include: Maggie Lucas, a veteran jumpshooting wing eager to make a comeback after tearing two ACLs since May 2016 (supported throughout by Kyle Korver’s off-season strength and conditioning coach); Adaora Elonu, a 2011 college-champ swing player with Texas A&M who has played in EuroLeague and was in camp with the Sun last season; Blake Dietrick, a star collegiate guard who led Princeton to an undefeated regular season in 2015, and; 2018 third-round pick Mackenzie Engram, who shined at forward for Georgia under coach Joni Taylor (spouse of new Dream assistant coach Darius Taylor). If they can impress in camp, there is enough room for at least one, if not two, of them to outlast the final roster cuts.
Cooper made the cardinal error of touting his 2017 Angel-free unit as championship-contender material. Collen and Sienko won’t make the same mistake, but they also know they'll have no time to get acclimated, not in this rough-and-ready WNBA, and not in Atlanta’s once-sleepy but now superheated summertime sports market. Whether they’re longtime diehards or on-the-fence wannabes, Dream fans deserve a team that’s worthy of a grand return to Philips Arena in 2019, not one relegable to whatever rink the Hawks construct down in College Park. In the meantime, this is shaping up to be one crew that can bring the Thrill back to the Thrillerdome.
As noted on RebKell and elsewhere, the Dream's newest coach was an assistant at Louisville back when Angel Mac was a recruit.
Collen has lots of collegiate ties (her husband, Tom, coached Arkansas until 2014, where she was an assistant), but also a couple years of experience as an assistant under reigning WNBA Coach of the Year Curt Miller at Connecticut. She seems to check off plenty of boxes for the current ownership. Good luck!
Let's Go Dream!
...but not for long, in Texas!
Sucks every time a franchise moves, but the league has been avoiding outright folding teams for some time now, which is good.
So... Frisco? Vegas? HOUSTON? #BringBackTheComets
With their WNBA season tipping off this Saturday, the Atlanta Dream hope to spread their wings in 2017. But how far can they truly fly without Angel McCoughtry around?
Entering its tenth season, the WNBA franchise was dealt two blows affecting their appeal to sports fans this year. One was inevitable, as forthcoming summertime renovations to Philips Arena meant the Dream needed a new home for the next two WNBA seasons. Fortunately, Georgia Tech has long been accommodating to the Dream (and the Hawks, back in the day). Last year’s playoff home of McCamish Pavilion, the since-renovated “Thrillerdome” on 10th Street, will be the site of Dream games through at least 2018.
Atlantans have an affinity for driving right up to the doors of desirable establishments, and the limited campus-area parking even during the summer sessions tend to be a drag on attendance. The Tech Trolleys will likely be re-routed to accommodate gameday traffic, while the newly extended schedule for Atlanta United at nearby Bobby Dodd Stadium will require even more campus coordination, shuttling pro sports fans around from MARTA and Atlantic Station. But while soccer fans don’t question whether it will be worth the trouble, current and prospective basketball fans will.
And that’s where the other blow landed. Fans become more attuned to the WNBA game if there is the likelihood a star talent suits up for the team they root for. The one billboard-worthy talent the Dream has had, almost since their inception, has been perennial All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Angel McCoughtry. Unfortunately, she has been wearing down from year-round globetrotting and basket weaving.
It’s the same deal for many WNBA players, regardless of starpower. The salaries they command here pale in comparison to the dollars and rubles and drachmae they pull overseas, their reputations here serving mostly to fuel their international demand.
This plus the routine demands of national team commitments take its toll, and it becomes tough for young women to keep up hooping obligations and other life interests, like schooling, running a business, or planning a family. (Side note: Angel’s new venture, “McCoughtry’s Ice Cream”, should be opening in June, around the corner from Philips Arena in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood.)
Angel is among the few players fortunate enough to be constantly in demand for her basketball talent, and she keeps herself in peak athletic condition. But, at age 30, she has also joined the elder stateswomen in the W, and deserves some serious respite after having carried a WNBA franchise on her back for eight seasons.
Angel Mac is nowhere near broken down, as she most recently displayed in April by guiding Dynamo Kursk to the Euroleague Women’s championship and Russian League finals (the latter won by Sancho Lyttle’s UMMC Ekaterinburg team). With her WNBA suspension in ink, McCoughtry plans to spend this month playing for a team in suburban Beirut for the Lebanese League playoffs, before returning to the ATL for the start of her new dessert shop. But she’s not going to wait until her body cannot go for 30 minutes per night before taking personally productive time away from the league.
McCoughtry’s season-long absence, announced back in January, scuttled any serious hopes of contending for a WNBA title this year. But this Angel-free season can serve as a prime opportunity for new talents to step into the limelight. The Dream, already among the lowest-attended WNBA outfits, truly needs this to transpire.
But who might that rising player, or those players, be? One could look in any number of directions.
McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes’ late-season suspensions for excessive technical fouls in 2016 opened the door for the emergence of rookie Bria Holmes. Her scoring and activity helped salvage a 17-17 season for a Dream team that wasn’t projected as a playoff team at the outset. Teaming with Angel in the playoffs, the rookie shined as an offensive option during the few times the opponent managed to contain McCoughtry.
No one person should be expected to completely compensate for Angel’s lost production, but Holmes can certainly fill the bill to an extent. If she has used her time overseas (in Israel) to expand her range and hone her defensive chops, Bria could become Atlanta’s go-to performer at least in the interim, until McCoughtry returns.
One could also look to the interior, where the reigning WNBA Most Improved Player award winner resides. Head coach Michael Cooper entrusted Elizabeth Williams with a WNBA-high 34.7 minutes per game, and the second-year center delivered in spades. Williams finished 2016 second in the league in per-game blocks, and fifth in rebounds, including first on the offensive end.
Demonstrative of her fullcourt capacities, only Williams and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles finished in the top-five of the WNBA in O-Rebs and blocked shots, while reigning MVP Nneka Ogwumike was the only other player to finish the season among the top ten in both categories.
Williams struggled to finish attempts around the rim with the ball in her hands, but if Williams can stay healthy and round out her offensive game while cutting down on fouls, the former Duke star (jersey retired in the offseason, first Blue Devil men’s or women’s number retired since 2008) could turn even more heads in 2017.
A wildcard for a breakout could be arriving off the bench. Damiris Dantas stayed home for her native Olympic host Brazil in 2016, but is back in training camp. It has been over a year-and-a-half since she last suited up for Atlanta, starting 16 games in 2015 after the Erika DeSouza trade. In the interim, Dantas has spent a lot of time in Brazil creating mismatches at the forward spots, expanding her range to the three-point line so she could apply her 6-foot-3 frame advantageously.
As a notoriously poor jump-shooting team, Atlanta has never had a legitimate stretch-four (or-stretch-five), so Dantas could become a tool Cooper employs liberally in his rotations. If things work out well, Dantas’ return could be just in time for a gradual transition from defensively savvy starter Sancho Lyttle.
Atlanta’s struggles to limit opponents’ paint points and force turnovers in 2016 could be tied to its continued in-and-out relationship with Lyttle. Sancho departed from the team in June to help Spain with its Olympic bid. Then, the Dream lost her for the season in mid-July with a broken bone in her foot.
For as long as she’s here (she is likely to take another trip in June, to participate in the Eurobasket Women Olympic qualifying tournament), Sancho serves as the predominant veteran voice on and off the floor, in Angel’s stead. She’s not outspoken, but she won’t rail on her teammates in displeasure when mistakes get made. Her Millsap-style ability to get steals and deflections while also securing rebounds could keep Atlanta in the running to lead the league in fastbreak points once again, even without McCoughtry around to finish those plays.
Of course, we cannot forget about Hayes, Atlanta’s top returning scorer (15.0 PPG) who returned from a playoff-game suspension to lead the way with 30 points in the Dream’s 2016 postseason denouement. Tip enjoyed career-best marks in minutes, scoring, and steals last season, and her hard-charging attitude makes her the prevailing option to score or get fouled on drives to the hoop. But the shooting guard has not been a steady perimeter shooter during her career, and improvement in this area will be crucial for the Dream to contend for a playoff spot in 2017.
Another area of improvement for Hayes needs to come in the composure department. Opponents know Tiffany’s temper can get the best of her, either through overzealous fouling or griping to the referees. McCoughtry’s absence only increases the likelihood of physical opponents putting the screws to Hayes in anticipation that she’ll react detrimentally. If she can curb her emotions, or at least channel them toward productive team-oriented basketball, Hayes might not only lead the Dream to victories, but earn herself a mid-season trip to Seattle for the All-Star Game.
Angel was the league’s highest-usage player, so that ball will now reside in the hands of lots of other players, no one more than point guard Layshia Clarendon. She returns on a new multi-year contract after a successful first year as a WNBA starter (career-high 10.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.5 APG). While her 34.6 3FG% was a regression for her, it was easily the best on the team that ranked last (as usual) in the league in three-pointers made and three-point percentage, McCoughtry the only other Dreammate shooting (barely) above 30 percent on the year.
There is no significant depth behind Clarendon on the roster. Hoping she can remain healthy, Cooper will rely on his outspoken floor leader to transition his team out of the iso-heavy and oft-sloppy offense that relied on McCoughtry for nearly a decade. Despite finally cutting down on turnovers in 2016, Atlanta ranked last in the WNBA for assists produced (15.0 team APG), their failures to hit threes contributing greatly to that ranking.
Cooper and the Dream management elected to improve on backcourt depth through the draft, reaching a bit to select shooting guard Brittney Sykes out of Syracuse. “She reminds me of me,” Coach Coop said to Syracuse.com after the draft. I’m sure we have heard that before. “It’s a match made in heaven… I do think we got the steal of the draft.” We shall see.
After suffering two season-ending ACL injuries in college, Sykes bounced back to help lead the Orange to the 2016 national championship game. She continued to team with point guard Alexis Peterson through 2017 to form college basketball’s highest-scoring backcourt tandem.
Cooper estimates that the first-round pick’s perimeter shooting (a low-volume but team-high 39.3 3FG% as a redshirt senior) and defense will translate well to the WNBA level. The elevated pace and frequency of games and the limited time for acclimation and off-court development are always tough on WNBA rookies, to say nothing of the adjustment to opposing pro talent.
Sykes rounds out the seven surefire guarantees for spots on Atlanta’s 11-player minimum (12-player maximum) roster. Considering the limited depth, the most likely addition among the remaining women in training camp is point guard Brianna Kiesel, an unrestricted free agent signee previously with the Dallas Wings.
Kiesel’s 2016 campaign in Dallas proved to be a washout, waived midway through the year after 48 appearances with the Wings/Shock franchise over the past two seasons. But she filled in admirably as a replacement starter for the 2015 Shock, first filling in the gap formed by Odyssey Sims’ injury as Tulsa raced to an 8-1 season start, then again with an injury to Skylar Diggins. Kiesel’s career game came during that summer in Atlanta, where her career-best 16 points helped visiting Tulsa upend the Dream.
Competitors for the remaining roster spots include several Dream returnees. Second-year pivot Rachel Hollivay will vie for a backup role behind Williams. Atlanta also re-acquired longtime reserve Aneika Morello via trade, after a lackluster season in Connecticut.
Meighan Simmons showed flashes on occasion during her delayed rookie season in 2016, but will be challenged to reveal new facets to her game and better consistency if she intends to stick with this roster. Veteran Matee Ajavon, who regressed after a surprising 2015, journeywoman point guard Darxia Morris, and former Georgia Tech star Ty Marshall round out the hopefuls.
Although the Dream played without several key frontcourt players, last Friday’s 113-67 washout loss in Minnesota confirmed that this team has plenty of work cut out for it, a rotation that is likely struggling to gel at the outset of this WNBA season. More than ever before, this team will have the undivided attention of Michael Cooper and his coaching staff, which includes Michael’s son, Miles, as the player development director.
The 2018 Draft will be deep with future WNBA stars, but Atlanta sports fans are not keeping track in any case, and will not be rewarding attempts to tank by purchasing gameday tickets at Georgia Tech. The Dream are competing for attention in a heightened local summertime sports market with a wildly popular MLS outfit, a reigning NFC champion, and a team in a shiny new MLB baseball park.
It will be Coach Coop’s challenge to hold this team together through this season, without Angel, and through next season in their temporary home. Regardless of their record or their playoff prospects, Cooper must make the 2017 Atlanta Dream competitive enough to keep hoop fans entertained through the summer.
Let's Go Dream!