2020 Atlanta Dream and WNBA Previews

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Finally, I get to watch Dream as they won their second game of the season.  We have NBA fans who will have some really, really exciting lawn this summer.  They have said that watching their grass grow is more exciting than watching WNBA games.

Carter is indeed the Dream's answer to Trae of the Hawks.  Exciting, at least for me, seeing these gals as they played last night.


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A'ight, Betnijah!

Her first name is actually pronounced, "beh-NIGH-juh". But unlike the T in the first syllable, nothing about Betnijah Laney's game has been quiet. As she and the Atlanta Dream prepare to face her most recent team, the Indiana Fever (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, NBA TV), Laney is the early clubhouse leader for the WNBA's Most Improved Player award.

Laney's mother was a star for the legendary Cheney State program, the HBCU that reached the inaugural Women's National Championship game back in 1982. The great C. Vivian Stringer  coached Yolanda Laney then, as she would Yolanda's daughter three decades later at her D-1 powerhouse of Rutgers.

Betnijah scrapped her way onto a WNBA roster with the Chicago Sky as a second-round pick in 2015, and was coming along slowly both here and overseas in Australia, until an ACL tear derailed her progress and sidelined her for over a year. The Delaware native returned to WNBA action in 2018 with Curt Miller and then-assistant Nicki Collen in Connecticut, re-establishing herself as a defense-oriented wing. Then, she reunited with former Sky coach Pokey Chatman at Indiana, earning a career high of 27 starts last season with the Fever.

But through that time, her offense was wayward (38.8 2FG%, 30.3 3FG%, 1.7 APG, 1.4 TOs/game w/ IND). Her shooting peaked with low usage the season before with Connecticut, and Dream head coach Collen found that enough to grant the free agent a flyer as she needed to scramble to replace the losses of Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery.

Collen tried to warn everyone what was coming, as she described the most standout performer in practice and in scrimmages. "She plays with a ton of energy," said Coach Nicki last week, "and right now she’s making her pull-up jump shots." That has carried over in both of Atlanta's victories so far on the young season.

19 points on 6-for-14 shooting (2-for-4 3FGs) to lead the way to the win over Dallas, and 30 points (2-for2 on threes) plus 8 rebounds, including the game-clinching putback off a blocked shot of Monqiue Billings, to fend off the suddenly-shorthanded Liberty on Friday night.

Laney remains turnover-prone (3.7 TOs/game, incl. 6 vs. DAL). But with so many would-be contributors slow to join the rotation, she's been the release valve, and the stopgap (2.0 SPG, incl. 3 vs. NYL), that takes so much pressure off of rookie Chennedy Carter. They'll face an Indiana squad (1-2) that has an imposing center in Teaira McCowan, who their newest coach Marianne Stanley won't be able to resist starting if Natalie Achonwa is a no-go due to injury.

To counter the Mitchells, including Kelsey (52.9 3FG%, team-high 17.0 PPG) and Tiffany, the Dream will need the perimeter jumpers to fall. When Carter and Shekinna Stricklen find themselves bottled up, Laney may once again be their best bet.


Let's Go Dream!


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Who's going to slow down the Fantastic Four?

On the Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith need no introduction. But now there's a surprise alloy on the Mercury that few saw coming. The second-leading scorer in the WNBA, coming into today's affair between the Merc and the Atlanta Dream (7 PM Eastern, ESPN2), is none of the Big Three, but Bria Hartley.

A 2014 first-round pick out of UConn, Hartley had some promise but was mostly going through the motions in her first six seasons in The W, first with the Mystics and then for three years in her home metro of New York with the Liberty. The guard was basically inert on offense (38.1 career FG% coming into 2020), not much of a threat unless she was drawing trips to the free throw line.

We don't know if it was during Bria's most recent run with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahçe where things started to click. But lately, Miss Hartley can hardly miss.

Following up on an inauspicious start in the season-opener versus Los Angeles, Bria established her career-high in scoring with 26 points (9-for-15 FGs), plus five assists and a pair of steals, in the Mercury's loss to Indiana on July 31. That career mark would stand for four calendar days. 27 points (10-for-18 FGs) in a win over the sadly shorthanded Liberty on Sunday raised not only her scoring average to 19.8 PPG, but quite a few eyebrows, in ways similar to the NBA's T.J. Warren just up I-75 and I-4.

Filling the gap left behind by 2019 Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell, Hartley's surge has lifted the Mercury (2-2) off the mat while cooling coach Sandy Brondello's seat for at least the moment. While the sixth-woman is providing plenty of punch off the bench, behind the scrappy Sophie Cunningham, Brondello can now consider forging a high-octane three-guard lineup for Phoenix (NBA-high 93.5 team PPG), with Bria alongside Sky and Di.

Griner (16.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.8 BPG) has yet to truly sink her teeth into opposing offenses, or to dominate with inside-out offensive play the way she did while flirting with MVP honors in 2019. Diggins-Smith (9-for-11 FGs vs. LVA; 2-for-10 FGs "@" NYL) has been on-and-off in the early going, too. If those cylinders start firing, it will be hard for the Dream (91.5 opponent PPG) to keep up in this drag race.

The one good thing about ranking 11th out of 12 teams in opponent scoring for Atlanta (2-2), is that Phoenix is currently holding down the 12-spot (WNBA-worst 91.8 opponent PPG). The neophytic Dream are allowing shooters to roam under-contested (league-worsts of 39.5 3FG%; 51.5 FG% allowed "@" IND), and rebounders to grant teammates lots of second-chances. Meanwhile, the Merc are playing hack-a-baller rather than finessing their way to true stops (WNBA-worst 24.5 personals per game), allowing fast-paced foes that shoot well from the line -- like, oddly enough, Atlanta (81.6 team FT%, 4th in WNBA) -- to stay within striking range.

Courtney Williams carried the water for the Dream offensively with 18 points in Sunday's 93-77 loss to the Fever, her second game back from COVID-related absence. I feel a little better about Courtney going forward now that we've heard, even if it was just briefly, from her famous WNBA superfan father.

"Yep she is her daddy child," said Don Williams on Twitter, reply-Tweeting this morning to the Dream daring followers to "name a duo cooler than," Courtney and Chennedy Carter, and they didn't mean from the field (16-for-27 on twos against IND). Charlton County, where the Williams family resides near Jacksonville, has been an epicenter for COVID-19 outbreaks in South Georgia, leaving me to hope that if she has family fighting the pandemic, that they are recovering swiftly and well.

C-Will is likely to soon take a spot in the Atlanta starting five alongside Chennedy, likely turning Betnijah Laney into a Hartley-style sixth-woman supernova, since the need for sustainable three-point markspersonship would keep Shekinna Stricklen along the top line. When that happens, it will be fun to see how well those guards share the ball, and how Williams' pound-for-pound rebounding prowess makes it simpler for the Dream to keep opponents one-and-done while sparking transition for their prized rookie.

Atlanta has prevailed so far when Monique Billings has been monstrous around the boards (10.8 RPG, 3rd in WNBA). But her offense has waned since her sterling 30-point season debut. Carter and the Dream guards must grant Billings better opportunities to finish around the rim instead of settling for tough jumpers and drives into congested lanes. The more that Dream coach Nicki Collen can design offenses that draw defensive bigs, not just Griner but players like the Merc's emerging Alanna Smith, out of the paint and defending from behind, the better Atlanta can compete over 40 minutes of play.

Phoenix can't afford many slip-ups, especially against teams like the Dream in this shortened regular season. But with some tweaks to their approaches at both ends of the floor, Atlanta has the potential to make tonight's Wubble run a competitive, high-scoring affair. While the Dream leans on an assertive rookie and an unheralded veteran (Laney) for nightly heroics, can Hartley once again make the Mercury's Fantastic Four... the Thing?


Let's Go Dream!


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Imagine: your favorite basketball team just won a league championship. It was led by a player who, merely two seasons after being named Rookie of the Year, earns both league MVP and Finals MVP honors. You’re all set to bring the squad back for a repeat. But first… that superstar player must leave North America, to spend an offseason in Russia.

It’s there, while guiding a Russian Premier League club to a Euroleague championship game, that the franchise player tears an Achilles, thereby derailing your stateside team’s hopes for a title defense.

Such is the peril that lurks for the WNBA and its stars in every offseason, where the need to make ends meet and keep skills sharp year-round requires quite a bit of globe-trotting, and a dash of injury luck.

The league tried to offset the sunk salary by paying 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart as a “league ambassador” in 2019, while Dan Hughes coached her Seattle Storm to a respectable 18-16 finish and a second-round WNBA appearance. The players’ union fought for meager improvements in revenue share that will have its most esteemed players making closer to $200k than $100k over the next half-decade, perhaps keeping a few American-born stars in The States more frequently during the downtimes.

But the Storm understood that any addition to its banner tally relies on Stewie making it back healthy and prepared to dominate at the season’s start. They’ve got that, and Sue Bird, for the abbreviated 2020 campaign that has begun quite nicely for Seattle. They aim to stretch their record to 5-1 with a win this evening against the upstart Atlanta Dream (6 PM Eastern, ESPN2).

The Storm entered the Wubble without Hughes, who has opted out and delegated the coaching reins to the accomplished Gary Kloppenburg. They likely go into this game without Bird (knee bone bruise), who is listed as day-to-day, and fellow veteran guard Epiphanny Prince, who has departed from the Wubble to attend to a personal matter.

Breanna has had a smooth return to WNBA action, averaging nearly 19 points and catching 8 caroms per contest while leading the league with 1.8 blocks per game. She won’t need to vacate the paint much on defense, so long as Jordin Canada can stay in front of Chennedy Carter, whose 26 points kept Atlanta competitive with Phoenix for three quarters on Tuesday night. And with Natasha Howard in the middle and Alysha Clark roving from the wing, Seattle’s confident they can keep Carter bottled up, daring a WNBA vet to beat them instead.

Sabrina Ionesu’s season-ending injury effectively narrows the race for Rookie of the Year to Dallas’ Satou Sabally, Minnesota’s Crystal Dangerfield, Indiana’s Julie Allemand, and Carter, who now leads active rooks with 17.4 PPG while trailing only Allemand with 4.0 APG. But tonight, and in the weeks ahead, Atlanta coach Nicki Collen will need better distribution and less head-down, damn-the-torpedoes drives from her leading scorer.

The Dream (2-3) did much better defending the three-point line against Phoenix (4-for-20 3FGs), holding the Mercury down until Diana Taurasi finally found daylight in the second half of their 81-74 win. But going the other way, Atlanta will need better looks and sharper execution from Courtney Williams (3rd in usage%, one spot behind Carter; 9 rebounds but 1-for-8 FGs off the bench against PHX) and Elizabeth Williams. The latter “led” the way on Tuesday with six of Atlanta’s 23 turnovers (zero assists), and while the high-usage Carter committed five, Courtney and two other Dreammates committed three apiece.

Atlanta is scoring the second-most points off turnovers (20.4, behind Los Angeles’ 20.6), but the Dream also allow the second-most (20.8, behind New York’s 21.4), and that erratic play won’t fly against a disciplined team (13.8 TOs/game, 3rd-fewest in WNBA; 9.6 SPG and 4.4 BPG, 3rd-most) with championship chops like the Storm.

Under Coach Klop’s watch, Seattle doesn’t want to out-run opponents (league-low 79.8 possessions per-40), but they do like to out-gun them (8.4 made threes per game, 3rd in WNBA). Mo Billings and Glory Johnson must vacate the paint to attend to Stewart at the perimeter, and Atlanta’s wings must make Jewell Loyd (6-for-14 3FGs in past two games) become less of a sit-back jumpshooter and put the ball on the floor. Inside, Elizabeth Williams must hold her own versus Howard and limit Seattle’s opportunities for second-chance kickouts.

The Storm’s 31.2 paint points per game are tied for a league-low, but they also make things miserable inside with a league-best 28.0 paint PPG allowed, forcing lots of turnovers (20.3 opponent TO%, 2nd-best in WNBA) while limiting fouls and opponent trips to the charity stripe (22.1% opponent FTA rate, 2nd-lowest in WNBA).

The path is clearing for Atlanta to help Carter’s rookie run in the Wubble become an award-winning one, charting Stewart’s footsteps from back in 2016. After the season ends, Dream fans will just have to hope Chennedy can limit her traveling to the kind you see on WNBA floors.


Let’s Go Dream!


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After putting a sweet scare into Seattle on Thursday, will Chennedy Carter and the Atlanta Dream's rematch with the Dallas Wings (12 noon Eastern, ESPN2), featuring follow star ball-handler Arike Ogunbowale and fellow rookie sensation Satou Sabally, be an afternoon delight? Stay tuned!


Let's Go Dream!


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Can a top scorer in the Wubble be the first WNBA MVP representing a last-place team? DeWanna Bonner and the Connecticut Sun hope we will never have to find out.

Connecticut's major offseason addition, Bonner (3x WNBA All-Star, 3x WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year) stormed through the first week-and-a-half of the WNBA season as the league's leading scorer, and she continues to lead the way with 19.7 PPG (4th in WNBA) to go along with a top-ten ranking in boards (7.7 RPG, 10th in WNBA, eight spots behind wrecking-ball Alyssa Thomas' 10.4). But the 2019 WNBA Finalists, missing Jonquel Jones (opted out of 2020) and key role players like Atlanta's Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen, have struggled to retain the verve from the outset of this shortened season.

Coach Curt Miller's charges went 0-5 out of the gate, stopping the skid last Thursday with a resounding 91-68 win over the Dallas Wings. The fortunate news for Miller and the Sun (1-6) is, despite Saturday's 100-93 loss to Chicago, on the same day the Atlanta Dream, tonight's opponent (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South in ATL, WNBA League Pass), fell to Dallas by an 85-75 score. Atlanta failed to sustain the momentum from Thursday's close-shave loss to top-seeded Seattle, looking lethargic when the times came in the second half to set up reasonable shots and defend in transition.

Chennedy Carter (3-for-11 2FGs, 3 assists, 4 TOs) was hampered not only by the Wings' defense but, as she would reveal after the game, the loss of her grandfather. The cruel nature of this pandemic-laced season is that NBA and WNBA players must make tougher decisions when loved ones pass away or have life emergencies that they would attend to, normally. Hollywood plans to remain in the Wubble, and to dedicate the rest of the season to her grandpa.

"I thought we came out flat. I don't think we came out with a ton of energy. That's probably my fault," offered Dream coach Nicki Collen after the last game. "We can't take days off." Well, technically, there's not a lot of choice, given there is usually one intermittent day between games in the Wubble. "We did full recovery," after the Seattle game, Collen said, "thinking this was a quick turnaround and a noon tip. We probably should've been in the gym."

"We're too young. That's on me."

Not spring chickadees are WNBA vets Glory Johnson and Stricklen. The former continues to round into form off a Dream bench that Collen allowed to only go 8-deep versus the Wings despite the short trunaround (guard Alexis Jones needs to be at least as good an option as Blake Dietrick but has been mostly M.I.A., while center Kalani Brown's rebounding can't enter the mix soon enough.) The latter, Shekinna, shot just 1-for-5 on threes in what was otherwise a fairly balanced offensive attack by Atlanta on Saturday.

With Bonner, former Dream forward Bria Holmes, Brionna Jones and Thomas packing the paint and making drives an adventure for Carter today (to say little of ex-Dream point guard Jasmine Thomas, who had team-highs of 22 points, four 3FGs, and 5 steals, despite 7 TOs versus the Sky), Stricklen needs to hit open shots and remind the Sun (30.8 team 3FG%, next-to-last in WNBA) just what they've been missing.

Atlanta's 67.5 D-Reb% is just a shade of ahead of Dallas among the worst in the league. Despite Elizabeth Williams' six offensive rebounds on Saturday, the Dream pivot was goose-egged at the other end of the floor over the course of 33 minutes. Monique Billings, who will likely have her hands full face-guarding the lithe yet sturdy Bonner for much of the evening, has struggled in many aspects since her sterling season debut (30 points in last six games, total, since her season-opening 30-point game; 11-for-40 FGs since starting out 10-for-14 in Game 1). Mo needs not be on an island to herself in the defensive paint if she is going to fix those other issues soon.

Even without Jonquel, Connecticut (4th in WNBA for team O-Reb% and D-Reb%) has ample resources to attack the glass with impunity. Glory and E-Will controlling the defensive glass will be essential for helping blot out the Sun's ability to deny Carter and C-Will the possessions they'll need over 40 minutes of play to keep Atlanta competitive.

The last shall be first? For Atlanta, that may finally hold true, whenever the next WNBA Draft Lottery comes around. Connecticut can't have the same fortune, given the successes they had in 2019 calculate into their Lottery odds for 2021 (the Dream know all about how that works). For the Sun, if the losing stretches on for much longer in the Wubble, they have to hope that "last shall be first" adage will apply to their MVP candidate, Bonner.


Let's Go Dream!


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    • By lethalweapon3
      Say, is anyone feeling a draft? The window hasn’t quite closed on the prospects for a WNBA season this year. The new-look Atlanta Dream will try to turn 2019’s season-long frown upside down with the 4th pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft tonight (7 PM Eastern, ESPN).

      The Dream’s long half-baked history is tied to the many snakebites they have suffered in seeking out a transcendent basketball talent and surefire fan draw through the Draft. 2014’s gamble for Shoni Schimmel, much like the player herself, eventually blew up. The opportunity to nab a future star, like ATL-native and 2019 All-Star Diamond DeShields, through the 2018 Draft was squandered away via trade by Michael Cooper, in a failed ploy for a late 2017 playoff run.
      Ron Terwilliger, the Atlanta-based real estate mogul and inaugural franchise owner, wanted in on the WNBA game, but only under the assumption that the league was going to hand his new team first dibs in the draft, clearing the way for Tennessee superstar and NCAA champ Candace Parker to head south. This was not to be, as the league rewarded a Los Angeles Sparks team that was absent Lisa Leslie (pregnancy) the top pick in 2008.
      Atlanta, instead, wound up 4th, and traded down to pick #8. The Dream’s comically bad opening season was attached with a top pick the following year, but Terwilliger, miffed by the lost opportunity to showcase Parker, was seeking out the exits already by then.
      For reasons both good and bad, Atlanta did obtain a franchise-defining player in Angel McCoughtry. But Angel never quite reached Parker’s lofty tier, and the organization failed to find the teammate chemistry and reliable coaching to help the 3-time WNBA Finalist achieve championship glories during her peak athletic years in A-Town.

      If there is to be a 2020 season, McCoughtry will spend it with the Las Vegas Aces, as the decade-long franchise face was permitted to lickety-split in free agency.
      Atlanta checked out of 2019 with an 8-26 mark, the worst record in The W. But a rule instituted by former Atlanta councilperson and ex-league commissioner Lisa Borders combined the prior two seasons for each team to calculate lottery odds, precisely to avoid the gains made by teams like L.A., who won Parker due to Leslie’s absence, and Phoenix, who nabbed top-pick Brittney Griner after Diana Taurasi took a year-long sabbatical from WNBA play.

      Once Angel and her team made it clear she was unlikely to play last season, it would have been sweet to just play like mowed-down fescue for Sabrina Ionescu, the record-shattering Oregon guard who is all but certain to be a star in the pros. Alas, 2018’s campaign that had the Dream nearly reaching the WNBA Finals came with the penalty of the 4th-worst lottery odds for 2020. Sabrina is instead bound for New York, the Liberty this week rolling out the red carpet for her while shipping their hometown star Tina Charles to Washington.

      There remains ample potential for a bounce-back season by the Dream, even with Angel gone for good. An active offseason by Dream GM Chris Sienko brought former Brittney bride Glory Johnson (coincidentally, Angel arranged her fateful “surprise” 2014 engagement party with Griner here in Atlanta), still a steady rebounder and post scorer, into the fold. Further addressing the team’s historic wayward-shooting droughts, swing player and 2019 3-Point Contest winner Shekinna Stricklen also arrived as a free agent.

      The biggest offseason coup came when Atlanta pried the face of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs (if you maybe discount her superfan dad), South Georgia native Courtney Williams, away from Connecticut via trade. The energetic mid-range scorer hit enough big shots in the playoffs to nearly carry the Sun to a surprise 2019 WNBA title. Taking Williams together with her former Sun teammate, Stricklen, and Johnson, and that’s enough versatility, energy and experience to offset the departures of McCoughtry and Brittney Sykes, who was dealt to the Sparks in a deal for young pivot Kalani Brown.

      Johnson, with Dream holdovers Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery and Elizabeth Williams, ought to bring enough leadership for Atlanta, behind head coach Nicki Collen, to hop back into low-level playoff contention in the near-term. But the challenge for this draft is to find, without Ionescu available, a player who can mesh well with the current roster but also be molded into a franchise-carrying star in the seasons to come. If that player is a guard, then a couple SEC stars come immediately to mind.

      Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter is a certified bucket. A 5-foot-7 supernova scorer, she will have time to round out her game as a floor leader while granting fans plenty of highlight plays along the way. Scoring over 20 PPG every season with the Aggies, Carter’s perimeter accuracy regressed in 2019-20, but prior seasons suggest she could shine in this area with an adequate supporting cast to pry defenders away.

      2020 Dawn Staley Award winner Tyasha Harris spent her collegiate career under Dawn Staley’s watch at South Carolina, feeding eventual WNBA Rookies of the Year Allisha Gray and A’ja Wilson with the rock before their successful springboards to the next level. That was all before going 32-1 with the SEC Tournament champion Gamecocks in her senior season. Harris is the ultimate pass-first point guard prototype as a steady ball-handler and play-caller, but her quality jump-shooting and dogged defense give off the air of a slightly taller Briann January.

      Oregon’s Satou Sabally and Baylor’s Lauren Cox are expected to follow Ionescu’s name being called with the next two picks in this Draft, by Indiana and Dallas, respectively. In the event either forward falls to #4 due to Carter going higher, and given Glory’s reported one-year deal with Atlanta, Sabally or Cox would be painfully hard to pass up.

      An early-entry candidate like Carter, the 6-foot-4 Sabally has great size for the small forward position, and the Cheryl Miller Award winner has quality shooting range to boot. A 2019 NCAA champion, Cox is a solid shot-blocker, as well as passer, in the post. Type-1 since her childhood and playing with a blood sugar monitor, she is the ultimate answer to the question about the last time you’ve seen a funky diabetic.

      The biggest name out of 2017’s five-star high school crop, Megan Walker struggled under the glare of Geno Auriemma at UConn, particularly outside of weak-conference play, but she won’t be the last to do so along the way becoming a steeled star talent at the pro level. For a team that can afford to wait a year or two for her emergence, Walker carries a strong “Star Potential” banner with her athletic upside as a forward.
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      Texas Tech’s Brittany Brewer may drop into the second round despite being the top prototypical center on most draft boards. Do-it-all Oregon State guard Mikayla Pivec, a consistent triple-double threat in the collegiate ranks, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the SEC tourney MVP at small forward for the Gamecocks, or Tynice Martin, an Atlanta native and SACA graduate who starred at West Virginia, are among the many options that could fall to Atlanta’s picks in the second or even top-of-third rounds.

      Even before the current health crisis hit, nearly everything around the Atlanta Dream seemed to be in flux, from the focus of team ownership, to Angel’s playing status, to where the team would even play (they relocate to College Park’s Skyhawks venue with the next WNBA tipoff). Even without making an instant splash, a great first-round draft selection tonight could eventually, and finally, help the Dream work their way toward a steady footing as a competitive franchise in this league. After so many years of being snakebit, it is time for Atlanta to begin snapping back.
      Let’s Go Dream!
    • By lethalweapon3
      Happy trails, Angel! Aces putting all their cards on the table for 2020!
    • By lethalweapon3
      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.