lethalweapon3

2018 Atlanta Dream and WNBA Previews

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It's a Finals Gameday! Sure, there's no Dream in the mix, but we've got two awfully good teams ready to go at it for the championship, beginning tonight with Game 1 from Key Arena in Seattle (9 PM Eastern, ESPNNews), between the Storm and the Washington Mystics.

Rookie Ariel Atkins will be quite an X-Factor, and Elena Delle Donne will continue to need big plays out of Kristi Toliver as the former engages in a titanic matchup with the Storm's Breanna Stewart. Yet with Sue Bird sinking big buckets and sound defensive pressure on the Mystics' wings, I will be surprised if this series comes back to Seattle for the full five games.

PREDICTION: Storm in 4!

~lw3

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Hey, now, you're an All-League First-Teamer!

Wait, that's not how the song goes! In any case, congrats to Tiffany!

~lw3

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Issa wrap! The Junk Yard Dawg's been watching!

As was this Seatown baller!

Congrats to the Storm on a fine championship season. It's been great Watching Them All Work! Final words on the Dream and the league, to close out this here thread, coming soon!

~lw3

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Screen-Shot-2018-08-25-at-4.35.06-PM-e15

California Dreamin’? How about, San Francisco Treat?

The luster from the 2018 season has hardly waned for the Atlanta Dream. Best regular season in its history, its greatest-ever league-wide finish, a Coach of the Year guiding All-WNBA and All-Star efforts on the court, and one complete half of basketball shy of a trip to the WNBA Finals, even without their All-Star available for the playoff series.

That’s all well above even the rosiest prognostications from just two months ago. Yet, there remain bigger-picture issues beyond the hardwood on the horizon, for this franchise and the league in which they play.

 

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The first big hurdle arrives on November 1 or, perhaps, sometime before that date. Either the WNBA, or the WNBPA players’ union, can opt out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that extends past the 2019 season, through 2021.

There has been much ado in recent seasons, most vociferously this one, in which players and their union leaders have expressed concerns about the revenue share for player compensation. The meager salaries they collect here have long been offset by offseason, oft-overseas basketball, and/or related pursuits to help establish a comfortable year-round living.

But when juxtaposed with the lavishness of both players and owners in the big-brother league, WNBA players may find reason to scrap the current agreement, insisting upon a bigger slice of their league’s relatively miniscule pie… a tart, if you will.

If either side opts out of the CBA by November 1, then the clock begins ticking toward the conclusion of the 2019 season, one in which the Dream are likely to present a stable, playoff-steeled roster on the hunt for their first WNBA championship.

For this collection of players, 2019 may represent their last, best shot to win together, and not merely because of the veterans’ advancing ages. A contentious, highly-publicized lockout or strike during the Olympic season of 2020, or even beyond, could jeopardize the long-term viability of the WNBA. That’s particularly probable in the league’s most fragile markets, like Atlanta.

 

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Where the Dream plays in Atlanta going forward may be up for debate as well. A lot of moolah has been spent to spiffy up what was already a better-than-average Philips Arena. There will be new sight lines, new screens and lighting, new fancy-schmancy fan amenities, even a new sponsor name.

 

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All arena improvements, subsidized by Hawks ownership and your local tax dollars (enjoy your banner, Kasim), are being furnished predominately with the sustainability of the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club in mind. What we have yet to formally hear is, once the lights come back on in the springtime in State Farm Arena, that like a good neighbor, the Dream will be there.

As is the situation in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and eventually Washington, WNBA clubs are increasingly compelled to scamper about in search for a permanent local venue, away from the one that hosts tens of thousands of NBA fans. These circumstances continue trending, regardless of whether the women’s team is co-owned by the men’s team ownership.

 

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There is no need to rush, in September, with some confirmation for the tenuous handful of season-ticket holders about where they should plan on traveling and how they’ll be seated. But the Dream needs to avoid, with all due speed, the public relations disaster that befell the New York franchise.

Liberty fans, who patiently endured annual trips to Newark while MSG was being renovated, were dragged along for months in 2018 without a decision as to where WNBA games would be held, or whether ownership would even field a team, only to find themselves scrambling to find means to reach a G-League venue in remote Westchester County. For 2015 through 2017’s best Eastern Conference club, the malaise of relentless uncertainty seeped out onto the suburban court.

Comparatively, South Fulton County isn’t nearly as far-flung, as anyone living in Atlanta knows how to get to the Airport and leave themselves ample time to maintain their itinerary, and sanity.  Should Dream fans be competing for spots in expressway lanes, and for spaces on both MARTA rail and the Airport’s outdoor people-mover, with these frequent fliers? It’s within the realm of possibility, but thankfully (dependent upon one’s perspective) not for 2019.

 

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“Gateway Center @ College Park” is scheduled to open its eventual doors in the fall of next year, precluding its availability for at least the Dream’s 2019 regular season slate. The arena will seat up to 5,000, and you can bet some folks at Hawks Inc. (and the fledgling town in our south metro) are being asked to soft-sell their $45 million investment as right-sized, during the G-League offseason, for a WNBA club that reliably fails to exceed that attendance figure.

Carrying over virtually all the web features once prepared under the banner of Philips, State Farm Arena offers no hints that they may not become Atlanta’s WNBA home for the foreseeable future. But the team itself has already issued its “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” harbinger, back on July 31.

“We are working through some hurdles,” the Dream said on their website, in a message (“Our Home”) that was somewhat updated recently, after the Hawks’ State Farm announcement last month. “We are cautiously optimistic that the Hawks and [State Farm] ownership can work with us,” Dream PR adds. “…we will continue to keep our options open as it pertains to a back-up plan if our return to State Farm hits roadblocks.”

“Cautiously optimistic” is a perpetually familiar feeling for most Dream fans, with matters both on and away from the court. But if it isn’t going to be State Farm, and it clearly won’t be Gateway Center in 2019, then where?

 

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While many fans have tired of finding parking spaces or walking from Midtown to McCamish Pavilion, it doesn’t appear as though the Dream has worn out its welcome at Georgia Tech. The Sports Arena at Georgia State, where the players currently practice, would require significant upgrades to amenities and seating to be satisfactory for a WNBA fanbase.

 

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6,000-bench/seat Forbes Arena at Morehouse was good enough for Olympic (and ABL) hoops, so might that gym, with no end-line seating, become the “back-up plan”? With the way Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Arena fills up its docket with concerts and such, if the Dream wanted to prioritize space there, the time to secure it is now, not later.

Yet, assuaging concerns about a return to the latter locale, Dream PR asserts, “We are doing everything possible to keep this team inside the perimeter, as we have heard from our membership and agree – moving the Atlanta Dream outside the city of Atlanta is not in the best interest of our organization.” The message is clear: they’re not interested in a suburban setting, no-ma’am-ee, not at all… that is, unless they’re left with no other choice.

 

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For those who thought jaunts across the interstates from Midtown Station were bad, neither of the Morehouse or Gwinnett options are particularly friendly for fans accessing games via MARTA rail. The far-fetched GSU option is fine as far as MARTA access, not so much for on-site parking. That leaves the Dream brass stuck between State Farm, Tech, a rock, and some hard places.

 

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The pending venue announcement only impacts a few thousand WNBA fans hoofing it or rolling it to Dream games. Tens of thousands more are simply interested in watching from afar, lurking via regional television through the eyes of Bob and LaChina, as this WNBA club Defends The ATL, or, at the risk of stretching things a bit, the Southeast USA.  Atlanta as a sports-watching TV market, and as a well for potential Fortune 500-scale corporate partnerships, remains the strongest case for keeping the Dream around town.

The rationales underlying the Dream remaining in The 404 often sound like rhetoric for backing a public utility or some non-profit entity, rather than a significant revenue-generating enterprise. At present, this is the only team in the WNBA that is 100 percent female-owned. One of the owners, and the league’s current commissioner, has nearly inextricable ties with Atlanta’s Coca-Cola, a company pulling all the stops to cling to its once seal-tight beverage market share even at home.

The region can barely keep its once-prominent “Grady Babies” from getting gentrified out of the city proper by the hour. Yet the beleaguered public hospital remains the Dream’s strongest Ryde-or-Die corporate partner. There’s always, of course, our friends at MARTA, at least momentarily the region’s definitive transit authority.

 

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For locally-based private ventures, whether they’re selling soda pop or popsicles, Icebox jewelry or IceBox logo swag, sponsoring the Dream is a feel-good story, a demonstration of the metro chamber of commerce’s “True To Atlanta” commitment. Whether anyone’s legitimately making bank from of any of their corn syrupy sentiments, though, is unclear.

“Dream To Be More” was the name chosen by the Dream’s buyer group in 2009. The current majority-ownership duo probably envisioned the Dream being more than they have to this point since they took over cutting the checks in 2011. To pry the team out of Dream Too, LLC’s hands and away from town, it might take vulture capitalists who are “willing to pay” (read: desperate) to make their own sketchy arena schemes look to locals like they’re paying off, year-round. K.C. Masterpieces, anybody? And yes, Messrs. Lacob and Guber, we’re also looking at you.

Very little of this business has to do with the ladies who don the comfy blue Nike unis over thirty times a year. But for Atlanta players who have committed themselves to this management and coaching regime, the future is not the proverbial now, but it arrives very soon.

 

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This players’ collective took quickly to the designs of coach Nicki Collen, assistants Mike Petersen and Darius Taylor, and general manager Chris Sienko. And virtually everyone was rewarded in their first season together. Collen and Sienko shared annual league honors for their respective professions. Several players, including Elizabeth Williams and All-WNBA 1st-Team member Tiffany Hayes, were granted multi-year deals.

According to information compiled by Howard Megdal of Fansided’s High Post Hoops, eight Dream rotation players are under contract through the 2019 season, with only starter Jessica Breland, and reserves Alex Bentley and Imani McGee-Stafford, set to become free agents in 2020. There is neither much room, nor a pressing need, to add more.

A low first-round pick fits well under the team’s salary cap, while 2019’s second rounder could compete for a roster spot with one of this year’s, as Baylor’s Kristy Wallace (rehabbing back home in Australia with the Canberra Capitals) may return after a collegiate ACL tear. Sienko can pursue a mid-tiered free agent, or he can go for an accomplished, higher-salary veteran by combining salary space with what would be Wallace’s or the second rounder’s 12th-woman slot.

 

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So much of this roster planning, however, rests on the continued willingness of Angel McCoughtry to return. Her absence from a late-season knee ligament tear was not sorely felt during the close of the 2018 schedule, but it certainly was at closing time of Atlanta’s semifinal series versus Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics.

This injury, with a reported six-to-eight month recovery window, likely takes money off the table for McCoughtry’s international commitments. It will be interesting to see, once contract negotiation commences, how soon she opts to extend her max-salary deal with Atlanta.

 

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Even if Angel cannot return at 100-percent capacity, Atlanta can do much more than “get by” to start the 2019 WNBA season. Brittney Sykes must continue to round out her game, both as a perimeter triple-threat (shoot/drive/pass) and as a laser-focused team defender. There is only one Angel, yet the athletic guard Sykes can approximate what McCoughtry brings to the table, at least at the wing, while there are layers in future second-year forward Monique Billings’ skillset that have yet to be unpeeled.

 

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Thanks primarily to the wise addition of local resident Renee Montgomery (37.1 3FG%, best since her 2011 All-Star season), the Dream finished above 30 percent shooting beyond the three-point arc (and, not dead-last in the league) for the first time in the past three seasons. However, 31.8 3FG% as a team remains subpar (10th of 12 WNBA squads), a mark that only Hayes (32.1%, down from a career-best 37.2% in 2017) and the lightly-utilized Blake Dietrick (39.1%) joined Renee in exceeding.

For the sake of contrast, three of the league’s other Final Four playoff clubs finished Top-5 in the three-point accuracy department, each nailing comfortably above 35 percent of their attempts. That’s a difference of six or seven extra points per game for Atlanta, which would have been enough to lead the league in team scoring this year, not improving anything else.

 

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McCoughtry, Sykes and late-season pickup Bentley could only manage to connect from long-range in short spurts. The hint of a promise that Breland could eventually stretch her jumpshot beyond the three-point arc never materialized in 2018, and Damiris Dantas fell short as a stretch big before succumbing to injury herself. There is always room for improvement from within, notably including Hayes, but it is becoming clear that a more reliable wing shooter among the reserves, presumably an upgrade to Dietrick, is a free agency priority that would suit this team well.

The Dream also finished 10th in the WNBA for two-point shooting, and last-place for free throw accuracy. Overall “true shooting” improved measurably (especially by the frontcourt contributors) as the team ascended the standings during the back half of the regular season.

 

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Williams’ mid-season turnaround was most profound, and there were times during the race for the second-seed and the playoff series where Elizabeth (now a Team USA Finalist for FIBA Women’s World Cup action, later this month) was clearly the most impactful Dream player on the floor, All-Stars, All-Defensive players and All-League players included. More consistent, productive efforts from Williams, from the outset for a change, can help Atlanta reach higher heights, and there’s not much left to elevate toward after becoming a two-seed in 2018.

 

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Getting this team’s offensive efficiencies out of perennial competition with lottery clubs like Indiana and New York, and more consistently in the neighborhood with likely Eastern rivals such as Washington and Connecticut, is essential if Coach Nicki is to push this team to its next goal of returning to the Finals (and winning at least a game, if they can get there).

With Breland obligated to guard frontcourt star opponents, and Williams helping with blocks and double-teams, better defensive team rebounding (72.7 D-Reb% in 2018, tied for 9th in WNBA) to cut down on foes’ second-chance scoring chances is also a problem the Dream coaching staff needs to solve, with or without McCoughtry’s return. Collen cannot afford the Budenholzer effect of watching her top lieutenants depart early in her tenure for other coaching gigs, so Sienko may have work to do to keep Taylor and, especially, Petersen, in-house going forward.

Potentially, three Dream starters will be above the age of 30 when the 2019 season begins, while Hayes hits 30 in late September of that year. The WNBA’s eldest stateswoman, Sue Bird demonstrated in 2018 what aging gracefully can look like when accompanied by quality teammate talent, balance, depth, and sound coaching.

We also see, through longtime juggernaut Minnesota, how quickly things can turn, in a league loaded with upstarts, if one relies on time-tested formulas and older, veteran-heavy starting lineups for too long.

On a team that continues to rely upon high-tempo play, and high usage, by Angel, as selling points, Atlanta will need its younger veterans, specifically Sykes, Billings and McGee-Stafford, to prove themselves capable of becoming worthy WNBA starters by next season’s end. Sustaining success, here, would involve the likes of Breland and the defensively-challenged Montgomery returning effectively to sixth-woman statuses in the long term, with at least one of McCoughtry and Hayes joining them.

 

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As noted by Rebkell.net’s pilight, if all goes well for McCoughtry’s health, she will enter the 2019 Playoffs surpassing Becky Hammon as the most prolific scorer never to win a WNBA title. But, assuming she stays in Atlanta, she needs not exit 2019 with that notorious designation.

Changing that outcome will depend on continually sharp decisions by Sienko and Collen, who defied custom by committing to build around a pre-existing core, rather than tearing it asunder in search of something new. While the gambit proved successful in 2018, the true payoff must come next season for this group of players. The competitive banana, that looks an appetizing yellow now, probably will have a different “ap-peel” by 2020, especially if one dares to peer beyond that short timeframe.

Given the low turnouts at the figurative faregates, and the Dream’s low national profile relative to its peer WNBA clubs, it remains impressive that the WNBA’s tenure in Atlanta will soon outlast the Comets in Houston, the Monarchs in Sacramento, the Shock in Detroit. Those were all championship-claiming franchises, featuring Olympians and Hall of Fame-caliber stars, all with nary a place around town to hang a banner anymore.

Following up on crash-and-burn efforts in Charlotte, Miami and Orlando, it’s noteworthy that Atlanta has made it this far as the sole team with its WNBA footing in the American Southeast. But the foothold is far from firm, and the product the Dream has put out on the floor in its decade-plus history, regardless of individual regular-season success, has failed to generate much fan frenzy, locally or nationally.

Going all-the-way in 2019 and winning a WNBA title for a sports market that’s parched to claim any champion as its own, would help change the storyline. But as is the case with the still-new professional soccer club in town, fans are drawn, and tend to stick around, when title-contending success looks reasonably sustainable, when there are highlight-reel-making stars supported by a bedrock of a front office and a style of play (“The Peachtree Press”, in MLS) that becomes easy for fans to latch onto.

The organizational shortcomings revealed during the Dream’s upstart years, and McCoughtry’s professional upbringing, are old news and a sunk cost. What matters now are making eye-opening, assuring maneuvers that transition Atlanta’s unstable franchise into a WNBA flagship. As it pertains to WNBA players, we don’t know whether anyone will be able to Watch Them Work in 2020, or the years that follow. But in The ATL, the work to firm up the venue, the staff, the stars, and the competitive philosophy, cannot wait until then.

 

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The Atlanta Dream intend to play out the 2019 season as if there is no tomorrow. Tomorrow will come, but for the basketball players, the organization they represent, and the fans they play for, the where, the when, and the how could get much murkier after the 2019 campaign ends. No, the Dream won’t fold and suffer the fate of the Cleveland Rockers. But, if the sketchy status quo continues in the coming years, might they become the Bay Area Rollers? Atlanta sports fans can only cling to hope all that the Rocking and Rolling will be ready to go, starting eight months from now. For the WNBA in this town in 2019, it'll be now or, maybe, never.

 

Let’s Go Dream!

~lw3

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BTW - there is yet one more possible home for the Dream in the future albeit a few years out:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GSU_Sports_Arena

"In February 2018, The Signal reported plans of a 200,000 square foot (18,580 m2) convocation center included in the Georgia state government's 2019 fiscal year budget. If approved, the new arena would be located north of Georgia State Stadium on the corner of Fulton Street and Capitol Avenue. The new arena is planned to cost $80 million, with $60 million coming from state funding and the remainder from private funding. The new arena is planned to seat 8,000 spectators. In addition to being the new home of men's and women's basketball, the arena would also be used for commencement ceremonies, concerts, and other large events. While the basketball games would be played in the new arena, the programs' administrative offices and practice facilities would remain in the current Sports Arena. Planning of the new arena would take 12 months while construction would take an additional two years to complete.[11][12]"

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56 minutes ago, Randy said:

Wow - that was a great analysis. 

Thanks, to you, ClayK, BamaEd, et al. for taking time to check it out!

And great find on the planned replacement for the GSU Sports Arena (will they have to move the Lonely Olympic Cauldron?). That very well might be the long-term option if State Farm doesn't work out.  Parking ought to be better as long as luxury apartment developers don't snatch up the surrounding land first.

For those who thought walking across 75/85 from MARTA to Tech Arena was bad, though, wait 'til they get a load of I-20. There is a BRT line in the works for that area, as it's supposed to go from Grant Park thru GSU up to Piedmont Park. So we'll wait-and-see.

~lw3

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BTW - may not be important again, but there is a very convenient parking place right on 10th street across 75/85 under the tall building on the corner on the south side of the street.  I parked there for a lot of Dream games I've attended - very convenient and cheaper than on campus parking.  Never full when I went.   The sign says parking is free for patrons of the Chinese restaurant but I  don't know if it is still in business.  If so, one could dinner and free parking.

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One less safeguard for the Dream with the CBA decisions looming. Let's see how bumpy this ride gets!

~lw3

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    • By lethalweapon3
      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!
      http://dream.wnba.com/news/nicki-collen-named-atlanta-dream-head-coach/
      Let's Go Dream!
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      ...but not for long, in Texas!
      http://stars.wnba.com/news/important-message-fans/

      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
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      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.
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      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!
      ~lw3
    • By lethalweapon3
      Say, does somebody feel a Draft? The WNBA Draft is right around the corner (April 13 at 7:00 PM Eastern, first-round on ESPN2, latter rounds on ESPN U).
      With a few early-entry candidates exploring the lay of the land and electing to stick around for their senior seasons, 2017 is not going to be a terribly deep draft, talent-wise (set your calendar, though, because 2018 will be bonkers). But there are plenty of players that can contribute off the bench in the near-term, and the Atlanta Dream have an opportunity to strategically improve their depth in at least one position on the floor, if not more.
      Waiting in the Angel Wings? – As we know, there will likely be no Angel McCoughtry suiting up in the baby-blue-and-red this season. Following in the footsteps of standout players like Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, the WNBA superstar plans to take off a full year, getting some well-deserved rest and recuperating from the wear-and-tear of year-round high-level hoops (she’s finishing up her play in Russia this month).
      Bria Holmes, who emerged late last season as a reliable rookie during Atlanta’s playoff run, is most likely to get the lion’s share of Angel’s minutes. Additionally, Damiris Dantas should be primed to make major contributions, after being suspended for all of 2016 so she could play exclusively in Brazil. If veteran Matee Ajavon makes the opening-day roster, the small forward spot is fairly set. If not, then a second- or third-round selection might be able to fill out the final spot, at least on a short-term basis.
      Late-round forward options where Atlanta picks (19th overall in the second round, 31st in the third round) include Norcross’ Shayla Cooper (Ohio State), along with Drake power forward Lizzy Wendell and Jessica Jackson of Arkansas. Each can stretch the floor with midrange shots, although Shayla’s emotional flameouts when times get tough could remind many fans of McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes at their worst. If the Dream goes this route, this should be a selection that helps fill scoring and rebounding gaps this year, and gets developed to become a key sixth-woman for 2018, when McCoughtry returns.
      A Lyttle heir apparent? – As far as we can tell, Sancho Lyttle will return from Europe and serve as a defensive anchor for a Dream team that sorely needs to create stops inside, especially without all-world defender Angel in the picture. However, Lyttle is in her 30s and hasn’t played a full WNBA season, due to injuries and/or international commitments, in some time. Unsatisfied with Reshanda Gray at power forward, the Dream parted ways in the offseason and brought back Aneika Morello (née Henry). But the latter struggled mightily last season with the Connecticut Sun. Dantas can play the stretch-four role, but another backup at either the 3- or 4-spot would be helpful.
      To acquire a future star that waits in the wings until Lyttle is either traded or her contract runs out, means using the first-round pick (7th) on a blue-chip prospect. Northwestern’s Nia Coffey is probably the top player for the 4-spot coming into the draft. Super-sized pick-and-popper Chantel Osahor, also by far the NCAA’s leading rebounder, helped all-time NCAA scorer Kelsey Plum (probable #1 overall pick, by San Antonio) carry Washington deep into the past two NCAA tourneys, and is rising up draft boards. But neither would likely be the “best player available” where the Dream sit, so a trade-down deal may be possible to acquire their services.
      Shoot… we need Shooters! – You’ve tired of the Dream being among the league’s worst perimeter-shooting teams, pretty much since their inception. Hayes brings a lot of fire to the floor, but not much firepower for a 2-guard along the three-point arc. The sometimes-hot, often-cold Meighan Simmons was brought back in free agency, but there remains a sense that the solution to Atlanta’s longstanding woes will have to come from, um, outside.
      Maryland’s Shatori Walker-Kimbrough has the range to boost Atlanta’s jumpshot game, and the build to avoid being a defensive liability on the floor, unlike many hot-shooting collegiate wings. Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese might be a reach as a middle-first-rounder, but is unlikely to fall to Atlanta at #19. If the Dream have any interest in SWK or Wiese, they’ll want to swing a trade-up deal to get them.
      Gawd save Queen Elizabeth! – Reigning Most Improved Player awardee Elizabeth Williams won’t be a repeat winner, not unless coach Michael Cooper can figure out a way to double her already league-high floortime. Re-signed on a training camp contract, Markeisha Gatling served well as a stopgap in the back half of last season, but her size can make it tough on Atlanta to live up to their “Run With The Dream” motto.
      Gatling will compete for a spot on the 12-woman roster with Morello and second-year pivot Rachel Hollivay. But if Atlanta can have a top-notch young center fall to them at #7, they may leap at the chance to upgrade behind Williams, or even supplant her over time as the team’s steady starter at the 5-spot. The qualifiers for such an upgrade would include Maryland’s Brionna Jones and South Carolina’s Alaina Coates, the latter missing the Gamecocks’ NCAA championship run due to an ankle injury sustained during the SEC tourney.
      What’s the Point? – There are only 12 starting point guard spots, and of those, Layshia Clarendon has the least-flashy resume among the group. Still, she established herself well enough to earn the starting nod at least for this upcoming season. But what about beyond 2017? The sole external free agent brought in with a guaranteed deal was Brianna Kiesel. But the third-year guard couldn’t stand out in Tulsa/Dallas, and was waived in mid-season last year.
      Any opportunities to use a late-round flier on a guard that could compete with Kiesel for the backup position would be helpful. Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen lugged the Irish into the Elite Eight and should be available where the Dream pick in the second round. Allen finished second in the NCAA with a sterling 3.57 assist/turnover ratio.
      If they wish to use a first-round pick on a short-term apprentice, either of Alexis Jones (Baylor) or Alexis Peterson (Syracuse) is likely to fall to them. Despite being a bit diminutive at 5-foot-7, Peterson finished top-12 in Division I for both scoring and assists.
      WNBA First Round Draft Order (as of 4/4/2017, subject to change):
      1. San Antonio Stars
      2. Chicago Sky (from Washington)
      3. Dallas Wings
      4. Dallas (from Los Angeles, via Connecticut)
      5. San Antonio (from Phoenix)
      6. Washington Mystics (from Seattle)
      7. ATLANTA DREAM
      8. Connecticut Sun (from Indiana)
      9. Chicago Sky
      10. Dallas (from New York)
      11. Los Angeles Sparks (returned back from Dallas)
      12. Minnesota Lynx
       
      Top Players Available:
      (** edited to include Early-Entry Players)
      PG: Kelsey Plum (5'8", Washington), Alexis Jones (5'9", Baylor), Alexis Peterson (5'7", Syracuse), Lindsay Allen (5'8", Notre Dame), Leticia Romero (5'8", Florida State)
      SG: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (5'11", Maryland), **Allisha Gray (6'0", South Carolina, Washington County GA HS), ** Kaela Davis (6'2", South Carolina, Georgia Tech transfer, Buford HS, Antonio's daughter), Sydney Wiese (6'1", Oregon State), Alexis Prince (6'2", Baylor), Makayla Epps (5'10", Kentucky), Tori Jankoska (5'8", Michigan State), Adrienne Motley (5'9", Miami), Brittney Sykes (5'9", Syracuse), Saniya Chong (5'8", Connecticut)
      SF: Nina Davis (5'11", Baylor), Ronni Williams (6'0", Florida), Lizzy Wendell (6'0", Drake), Jennie Simms (6'0", Old Dominion)
      PF: Nia Coffey (6'1", Northwestern), Chantel Osahor (6'2", Washington), Jessica Jackson (6'3", Arkansas), Shayla Cooper (6'2", Ohio State, Norcross HS), Hannah Little (6'1", Oakland)
      C: Alaina Coates (6'4", South Carolina), Brionna Jones (6'3", Maryland), Erica McCall (6'3", Stanford), Evelyn Akhator (6'3", Kentucky), Breanna Lewis (6'5", Kansas State), Tearra Banks (6'2", Austin Peay)
       
      ~lw3