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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