Renee Montgomery is Perfect for Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream

The Atlanta Dream made one of the 2018 offseason’s marquee moves by signing unrestricted free agent guard Renee Montgomery. 2018 WNBA Coach of the Year Nicki Collen struck a perfect balance to address what the Dream needed most.

The Dream rode a late-season surge to nab the second overall seed and a double-bye into last year’s semifinals thanks to a rock-solid defensive foundation. They ranked first in defensive rating (99.1) per Positive Residual and posted the league’s fifth-best net rating (3.1).

Hopes of a championship or a WNBA Finals berth did not come to fruition as the Dream came up short in the best-of-5 semifinals against the Washington Mystics. Several WNBA teams were forced to play on after losing key players to injury, the Dream chief among them. All-Star Angel McCoughtry went down with a season-ending knee injury in August.

McCoughtry’s absence looms large over both the 2018 postseason and the Dream’s path to the 2019 playoffs.

Her timetable to return will impact their ability to compete for a high playoff seed. But Montgomery’s arrival addressed several key needs Collen and general manager Chris Sienko were facing in their first offseason with the club.

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)

Montgomery ranked second in both 3-pointers made and attempted last regular season, trailing only Diana Taurasi, the Phoenix Mercury’s All-WNBA guard. The Dream already had two of the league’s best one-on-one scorers in McCoughtry and 2018 All-WNBA guard Tiffany Hayes.

Montgomery arrived with the ball handling chops, postseason experience and spot up shooting prowess to complement and amplify the Dream’s two perimeter stars. Collen’s deployment of Montgomery accentuated her existing strengths, unleashing a version of her that we hadn’t quite seen to date.

A staggering 76.4 percent of Montgomery’s field goal attempts came from beyond the arc last season per Basketball-Reference. Seattle’s Sami Whitcomb had a 3-point attempt rate of 80.2, but logged just 265 regular season minutes compared to Montgomery’s 935. The closest shot distributions belonged to Connecticut’s Shekinna Stricklen (75.4 3PAr in 639 minutes) and New York’s Sugar Rodgers (71.9 3PAr in 608 minutes), though neither was also tasked with as much ball handling or playmaking responsibility.

A lion’s share of Montgomery’s work had always occurred from beyond the arc: Her 3-point rate surpassed or approached 50 in six of her prior nine WNBA seasons. Her usage in other areas was scaled back, however.

The Dream were getting enough of everything else from Hayes and McCoughtry, but the addition of a complementary, non-static scoring threat at the team’s third perimeter slot made the team much more difficult to guard.

The Dream face a new challenge in 2019 beyond McCoughtry’s recovery timetable. They closed the second half of the 2018 regular season winning 15 of 17. A few plays in that span could be the difference between a top-two seed with a double bye and a 5 or 6 seed with two single elimination opponents between them and a chance to play in a series.

Their top-ranked defense—anchored by Hayes, starting center Elizabeth Williams, plus 2018 free agent signee and First-Team All-Defense honoree Jessica Breland—did not necessarily outperform their talent level to achieve that mark. But any bit of slippage or hot shooting from a few opponents will put additional strain on a group that only mustered 102.2 points per 100 possessions.

A core piece of Collen’s Coach of the Year case centered on her use of Montgomery to prop up a roster that did not have a stretch big in its regular rotation. The first wrinkle that stood out was the simple flare screens used to free Montgomery up for open looks, at times just seconds into the shot clock.

They were often paired with a quick action for Hayes or McCoughtry. Helpers can only do so much: Do they commit to walling off those dynamic finishers or anticipate weak side screening action for Montgomery?

These looks would be a welcome addition for any team. They come at a low cost—the Dreams’ top scorers didn’t have to exert maximum effort every time down the floor to create a quality attempt.

Montgomery also had the green light to fire away when she saw a window in pick and roll or transition. Pulling up off the bounce while coming off a ball screen created relatively low-stress looks. With the help of Synergy Sports data, I compiled a list of the WNBA’s top off the dribble 3-point shooters in 2018: Montgomery ranked third in makes (23) and fourth in attempts (69).

Those looks made Montgomery a dangerous third scoring option from the perimeter. There isn’t an obvious hiding place against the Dream for an opponent’s weakest perimeter defender.

Collen tapped into Montgomery’s shooting and made it a core component of her offense. She’s much more than a stationary catch-and-shoot 3-point threat.

Defenders prone to ball-watching will get nailed with those off-ball flares. The Dream can force weaker on-ball defenders to guard in pick-and-roll situations, and Montgomery’s demonstrated ability to hit tough triples off the bounce forces the defense to likely shade an extra body her way more often, opening up creases for rollers and cutters to slice toward the basket.

Will teams take greater measures to limit those looks for Montgomery? What will that look like? Will doing so open up more seams for her to attack?

The Dream may need one more shooter that can match or approach Montgomery’s versatility to squeeze more out of their halfcourt offense. They’ll likely have enough minutes to go around prior to McCoughtry’s return, though Brittney Sykes and Alex Bentley are very capable of scaling up into 20-plus minute per game roles.

Even if the Dream don’t land somebody that can approximate Montgomery’s shooting, look to see how Collen explores another wrinkle upon McCoughtry’s return: sliding her up to the 4 spot.

We saw some of it last season before her injury. Though she isn’t a high volume 3-point shooter, those lineups opened up more 4-around-1 looks and created matchup problems for opponents. She’ll have an easier time defensively at the 4 if the league continues to get smaller.

Coaching is very difficult to gauge and judge from the outside. Montgomery’s immediate impact on the Dream included Collen’s ability to maximize an individual player’s strengths.

Very few high-end rotations players change teams in WNBA free agency, but the Dream jumped at the opportunity to integrate one that would amplify the strengths of its core pieces for a coach who does that so well.

Stats obtained via Synergy Sports, Basketball-Reference and Positive Residual.

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