The Atlanta Dream were on the doorstep of a WNBA Finals berth.
Instead, the Seattle Storm made the leap from eighth to first en route to a title. The Dream may have topped that story jumping from tenth to second if not for one bad break.
All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry suffered a torn ACL in August. The longtime franchise star returned to the team in 2018 after sitting out the previous season to rest. New head coach Nicki Collen went on to win Coach of the Year honors during her first campaign with the club, which added two veteran starters in free agency.
Everything appeared to break the team’s way until that fateful day in early August.
Can they make it back to the same point—a decisive Game 5 in a semifinal series at home—with their full complement of players?
That quest starts with McCoughtry’s return to form, both healthy and confident. The second key is also far from a certainty: Playing well enough consistency to secure a top-two seed. The former will undoubtedly impact the latter.
One hot streak can define your season in a relatively short regular season window, something the Dream saw up close in 2018. They won 14 of 15 after an 8-9 start.
Does parity truly exist in the WNBA? Perhaps. The Mystics were the first team to escape single elimination and make the finals in three seasons since the playoff format change. All 12 teams are forced to pursue the same thing, regardless of their relative playoff experience. You want to be one of the two best teams for 34 games.
Atlanta’s path to get back to that same point will be defined by McCoughtry’s recovery.
2018 by the numbers
102.2 offensive rating (10), 99.1 defensive rating (1), 82.0 Offensive Pace Per 40 Minutes (5)
46.8 eFG% (11), 13.4 TO% (4), 27.2 OREB% (2), 72.5 DREB% (9), 30.4 FTAr (3)
Offseason storylines to watch
McCoughtry’s Timeline and How it Impacts Their Start
Collen has a very capable fill-in with Brittney Sykes. She’s one of the league’s best guard/wing athletes and has already flashed the balls skills to be much more. The questions lie with the team’s perimeter depth for whatever length of time the Dream end up playing without McCoughtry.
Atlanta may add a player that ends up logging big minutes in that stretch. Sykes and Alex Bentley could easily be called on for 20-plus minutes in a four-guard rotation with All-WNBA shooting guard Tiffany Hayes and starting point guard Renee Montgomery.
It would be a big ask to expect the same group sans McCoughtry to maintain the level of play we saw late last regular season. She and Hayes are two of the few players that move the needle. Opponents must scheme for them or they will get destroyed at the rim and the foul line.
Life will get tougher for Hayes to start the season. The team could really use another reliable 3-point shooter. This is a pick and roll roster that isn’t short on ball handlers, but it’ll need more out of spot up opportunities. Sykes is 59-of-192 (30.7 percent) through two seasons. Bentley has connected on 30.8 percent of 671 career attempts.
Both players are better with the ball in their hands. A third guard off the bench with some gravity as a shooter might be necessary to help this team get out of the gates on a 25-win pace.
Maximizing the Final Roster Slots
Nine of the Dream’s top rotation players are already under contract through 2019. Blake Dietrick gave them some quality minutes as a 3-and-D guard/wing. Damiris Dantas—more of a fifth big behind Monique Billings and Imani McGee-Stafford—was also lost to a late season injury.
If the team does nothing more than fill out those final three spots, you’d expect one goes to a big and one to a wing. It could then add another true point guard or simply make a play on potential or the best available player.
I’ve noted some teams—including the Dallas Wings awaiting word on whether Liz Cambage will return next season—who will benefit from having free agency before the draft. Atlanta may benefit most having the draft first, knowing which box that No. 11 overall pick will check for them.
Potential free agents
Unrestricted free agents (UFAs): Alexis Prince, Adaora Elonu
Restricted free agents (RFAs): Damiris Dantas
Reserved player (RP): Blake Dietrick
It will be tough for Collen and GM Chris Sienko to sift through the free agent market with limited roster spots available. They know what they have with Dantas and Dietrick. They’re in a tough position to sell a free agent on playing time, something they may not have to offer if Bentley and Sykes are knocking down shots.
Team needs and potential targets
Needs: another spot up shooter
Potential targets: best available at No. 11 overall, Riquna Williams, Guard (LA)
Williams is the most dynamic shooter in this year’s crop of unrestricted free agents. The problem? The Sparks likely have a much more appealing role to offer. She closed the season as a starter, which is far from an accident. Her shooting and defense are exactly what L.A. needs around Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker.
Round 1 Pick 11, Round 2 Pick 11, Round 3 Pick 11
Outgoing: Round 2 Pick 9
The most interesting framework for a deal would be to move a player and their first-round pick to move up a few slots if there’s one specific player the Dream really like on the board. The trade partner would have to be a perfect fit, intrigued by the chance to add a rotation player while not being particularly enamored by the available prospects in the 6-to-12 range.
Stress level: 4
The Dream do have some concerns beyond McCoughtry’s timeline. They lack a stretch option in the frontcourt. They’re very reliant on Jessica Breland’s midrange jump shots. She hit 42.6 percent on 176 attempts last season. Despite a bit of a slow start, it was the best of her career considering the volume.
Breland also made just 12-of-35 from midrange in the semifinals. Can she start venturing beyond the arc and turn some of those attempts into 3-pointers? The 35 attempts aren’t easy to dismiss—seven shots per game in a playoff series can swing a contest or two in either direction.
It’s still an easy tradeoff for opponents: Leaving Atlanta’s bigs open to fire away near the elbows allows defenders position to wall Hayes, McCoughtry & Co. from even better looks right at the rim. Billings shot 16-of-33 from midrange in the regular season. While you don’t want to live and die by those, having bigs that can make them is helpful.
Atlanta’s frontcourt rotation might be its biggest strength. Breland and Elizabeth Williams were the league’s best defensive frontcourt, but their margin for error is much slimmer because of their offensive limitations.
Yet, Billings and McGee-Stafford give them The Dream depth to sustain that level of play on the defensive end. Billings and Williams had a net rating of 8.1 in 117 minutes. Breland and McGee-Stafford were plus-7.1 in 98 minutes. The team may struggle if the defense slips at all. But considering the depth and versatility they have up front, their defensive foundation with those four players is far from a fluke.
Early 2019 season outlook
I can’t get past the idea of how much another reliable shooter would help. It would take some minutes away from Bentley and Sykes, which doesn’t sound particularly helpful in isolation. Remember what Collen did in her first season with Montgomery: She shot 37.1 percent from deep and finished second in both 3-point makes and attempts.
Montgomery let it fly off the bounce when her defenders went under screens and built in flares early in the clock. These freed her up to step into easy catch and shoot looks. Another shooter capable of hitting some of those shots at a high clip will make it that much tougher to load up on Hayes slicing to the rim and will alleviate some of that pressure on Atlanta’s bigs from the midrange.
Stats obtained via Positive Residual, WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference. Player contract info obtained via the High Post Hoops salary database.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.