How Atlanta Can Prove 2019, Not 2018, Was Only a Dream

After coming within minutes of a WNBA Finals appearance in 2018, the Atlanta Dream came crashing down to earth and finished with the league’s worst record in 2019. 

Longtime franchise player Angel McCoughtry ended up missing the entire season after a late-season ACL tear ended her 2018 campaign. Tiffany Hayes (ankle) was limited early on. 

On some level, the dip is understandable. Atlanta’s two headliners weren’t at full strength from day one, and any stretch where a team wins 15 of its final 17 is tough to replicate. 

Offseason questions for the Dream start with those two stars and the moves they can make to prove that 2018 run was more than a blip. 

Angel’s return

ATLANTA, GA Ð JULY 22: Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry (35) brings the ball up the court during the WNBA game between Atlanta and Seattle on July 22, 2018 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. The Atlanta Dream defeated the Seattle Storm by a score of 87 Ð 74. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

What kind of player will McCoughtry be during her age-33 season while coming off the injury? 

She made headlines in June, telling The Athletic’s Kelsey Russo that she had been in some trade talks. The more relevant nugget: She also underwent a second surgery near the start of 2019. 

Talking trades follows the same script as so many other situations in recent WNBA history.

Atlanta can’t just go find somebody on the open market that would even approach what McCoughtry was in 2018. They’d have every reason to Core her and explore a sign-and-trade if necessary. 

The rehab didn’t go as McCoughtry and the Dream would have initially hoped, either. Now, she’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent. She took to Twitter earlier this month to announce that she’s been cleared to play

February will be an interesting month for the Louisville alum. The U.S. national team will be playing an exhibition against the Cardinals then. What better stage for the former Olympian to get back on the court while sending a message to USA Basketball and the rest of the league about the progress she’s made on her knee? 

Who makes shots? 

ATLANTA, GA Ð AUGUST 09: Atlanta’s Renee Montgomery (21) drives to the basket during the WNBA game between Atlanta and Los Angeles on August 9th, 2018 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. The Atlanta Dream defeated the Los Angeles Sparks by a score of 79 Ð 73. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

With or without McCoughtry’s presence, the Dream need to surround Hayes with players that can knock down open shots. 

Coming off a strong first season in Atlanta, starting point guard Renee Montgomery was shooting just 28 percent from deep at the end of July (21 games). 

Alex Bentley shot a miserable 27 percent from the field during that same stretch, and the Dream weren’t getting a breakout from young slashing wing Brittney Sykes (36.8 percent shooting, 25.0 3PT%). 

Including the 2019 season, Montgomery is a career 34.7 percent 3-point shooter, so those two-plus months weren’t indicative of what she is as a threat from beyond the arc. A Hayes-McCoughtry pairing and frontcourt without much shooting or post-up scoring punch accentuates the Dream’s need for her to hit tough shots on the move and command serious attention beyond the arc. 

Those two stars work best with the ball in their hands, so this group needs dynamic off-ball threats around them. 

What the Dream believe about those other two guards may set the course for their entire offseason once the McCoughtry domino falls. 

Sykes oozes potential. Very few players can attack seams like her, but the jumper needs to come along. As is, she isn’t surpassing Hayes or McCoughtry in the pecking order. And for all her raw athleticism, Sykes hasn’t looked like a defender you feel on every possession.

It’s been more about the occasional, wildly impressive highlight reel block or steal. 

Bentley’s now-expired contract opened the door for a sly maneuver by the Minnesota Lynx, who used a guaranteed contract to lure restricted free agent Damiris Dantas away. Atlanta already had the maximum number of six guaranteed deals on its books—Bentley and the five returning starters. 

Bentley could still work out just fine as a guard off the bench, but the Dream weren’t counting on her to drive the offense for 30-plus minutes. Now Atlanta could look to pull a similar maneuver with that guaranteed slot either in free agency or via trade. 

Getting lucky at No. 4

Apr 7, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; Baylor Lady Bears forward Lauren Cox (15) controls the ball as Notre Dame Fighting Irish center Mikayla Vaughn (30) defends during the second half in the championship game of the women’s Final Four of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta should be crossing its fingers for the two top early entrant candidates to throw their hats in the ring. That would mean one of Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally, Baylor’s Lauren Cox or Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter would fall to the Dream. 

All four profile as longtime starters at a minimum with some serious star potential. Ionescu, Carter and Sabally could shoulder a big offensive load on the perimeter as McCoughtry moves into a different phase of her career or moves on. 

Without that specific form of lottery luck, it’s tough to see a way for the Dream to make an ultra-splashy move to land another star-level talent or strike a deal to upgrade somewhere in their starting lineup.

The formula for 2020 will call for a hot start from Hayes, better shooting luck, a leap by Sykes and a move or two that might upgrade the bench in order to put 2019’s 8-26 finish firmly in the rearview mirror.