Atlanta Dream head coach Marynell Meadors discusses the trades and upgrades to the Dream roster and what to expect as the 2012 season tips off.
The commonly accepted American sports mentality says second place is for losers. Atlanta has lost the WNBA Championship each of the last two years by a 3-0 sweep. But should that be considered failing? The truth is the Dream finished as the second best team in the W.
In some way you can compare this to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills who reached the Super Bowl four consecutive years (1991-94) but lost each time. Fans must understand how difficult it is to reach a title game. In its four years of existence, the Dream has continually progressed forward, making the playoffs the last three years. This franchise is building a resume that already exceeds several WNBA clubs with longer tenures. If matters break right, they can finish near the top again this season but the Dream must conquer what appears to be the toughest Eastern Conference field of the last few years.
Looking back on what the Dream overcame in 2011…
Last season Atlanta climbed out of a seemingly impossible hole to ultimately reach the WNBA Finals. The Dream opened the season 3-9 and then won 17 of its last 22 to finish 20-14 and secure the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The culprit of their slow start was a combination of injuries and national team commitments.
Angel McCoughtry, the team’s number one star, played just three minutes in the first two games of the season and indicated that she did not feel 100% until after the All-Star break. Sancho Lyttle missed the first six games due to commitments with the Spanish National Team and then six more due to a lower back injury. Erika de Souza missed two games late in the regular season with a high ankle sprain and then three playoff games due to commitments with the Brazilian National Team. On July 30th, back-up point guard Shalee Lehning was lost for the season to the dreaded A.C.L. knee injury.
The bottom line is the Dream had very few games all season with a complete roster thus effecting chemistry and bench rotation. It’s a testament to the team’s resilience and competitive nature that they successfully defended their Eastern Conference title and returned to the Finals.
Strengths and Weaknesses…
Opponents describe Atlanta as a good rebounding team (third in the differential in spite of playing so many games without de Souza and Lyttle) and a team that likes to get out on the break. They were above average in field goal percentage, offense and defense, but among the league’s worst in shooting threes and free throws (something that dogged them in the Final series against Minnesota). The good news was Atlanta knew how to get to the free throw line where they shot 121 more attempts than their opposition.
A lot is new in the ATL…
Head coach Marynell Meadors appears to be addressing many of the team’s issues with major adjustments to the bench. In particular she has added more perimeter shooting. There are six new faces on the opening day roster. It should be noted the Dream temporality suspended de Souza, so it’s likely one of the additional post players will be cut upon her return from the Olympics.
Joe Ciampi: The long time Auburn head coach joins the Dream as an assistant coach and the replacement for Carol Ross who is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks. Interestingly, Ross was an assistant for Ciampi at Auburn early in her coaching career. The addition of Ciampi could signal greater use of the matching zone defense as he is considered to be one of the experts on it in the women’s game.
Tiffany Hayes (5-10 G): This rookie (drafted at #14) is a Florida native who won two national championships with the University of Connecticut. In college, she was a good all-around guard but the question for the WNBA will be her shooting range consistency. Her job will be to fill in at either wing slot and she should be the Dream’s best perimeter defender off the bench.
Aneika Henry (6-3 C/F): The Jamaican native who played high school and college ball in Florida (finishing with the Lady Gators) has steadily improved during her two years overseas. The question remains -- has she improved enough to help the Dream and stick on the roster once de Souza returns? She is a good athlete for her size, with an in the paint game. Her ability to finish in traffic could decide her long term WNBA fate.
Laurie Koehn (5-8 G): Few can shoot the three-ball off the pass like the Kansas State product. The addition indicates a commitment to bolster the long-range arsenal of the Dream. Her release appears quicker than in college but beyond set shooting it's hard find another aspect of her game that will work at the WNBA level. She put up 21 points in the Dream’s preseason game, but she hasn’t played in the W since 2008, and over her four-year career in the league has only averaged 2.5 points per game. When she is in the game, the Dream may employ the matching zone defense in an attempt to hide her.
Catherine Kraayeveld (6-3 F): This will mark the third stop (five years in New York and two in Chicago) for the former Oregon Duck. She’s a face-up power forward who likes to step out behind the arc. In 2011, 127 of her 167 total attempts from the field were three-balls, hitting on a respectable 38.2% for her career. Her performance could be a bell weather as to how the bench transformation has succeeded as she should have a hand in rebounding and three-point shooting.
Yelena Leuchanka (6-5 C/F): This will mark the fourth year in the league for the Belarus native. She played for the Dream in 2010 averaging 4.2 points per game on 47.6% from the field along with 2.6 rebounds. Her game is from the foul line in but her production has fit the profile of a WNBA reserve.
Ketia Swanier (5-7 PG): She should be the back-up point guard this season after three years in Phoenix and one year prior with the Connecticut Sun. Swanier hails from nearby Columbus, Georgia, and is a former UConn Husky. Her career stats are similar to the now retired Shalee Lehning. She’s about two inches smaller but somewhat quicker.
The de Souza Factor…
The Dream has all five starters in place from the 2011 season. The big asterisk is Erika de Souza who will not return until after the Olympics. She will miss the first 19 games of the season as a member of the Brazilian National Team. When gone, the 2010 All-Star leaves a gaping hole in the post game. She was the second scorer (11.8) and top rebounder (7.5) for the Dream last season. In addition, her physical and emotion style of play has sparked many come from behind wins for Atlanta. It’s fair to say, not having Erika de Souza until game two of the WNBA Finals clearly hurt the Dream’s over all chances in the series against Minnesota.
It was evident during the Dream’s preseason game against Tulsa that there is no de Souza replacement on the roster. Look for Belarus Leuchanka to get first crack. She played considerable minutes for the Dream in 2010, but lacks the physical bang on the low block that de Souza is known for. If she does not get the job done, look for Kraayeveld and Courtney Paris to get their chances. Paris fits the center mold of de Souza but has a history of tiring quickly thus not being able to play long stretches effectively. Kraayeveld is a face-up forward who happens to be 6-3 with a strong build, but often prefers stepping out and taking a three versus a lot of contact in the paint. Aneika Henry at 6 foot 3 and 205 pounds has the physical style of de Souza and is very active in the low block. If she can improve her touch around the rim and finish in traffic, she could be the answer.
Linsay Harding led the Dream in assists and was the second leading scorer on the team last season. (photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE)
The starters are back…
As one of the fiercest competitors in the WNBA, Angel McCoughtry returns at the small forward slot for the Dream. The All-Star is a fan favorite and has led the team in scoring for the last two seasons. The main knock on the Louisville product is she’s a poor three-point shooter (26.9% career). She also can reduce her effectiveness at times by getting into a huff when a close call goes against her. If her game and attitude continue to mature she has the potential to be the franchise player who can lead the Dream to the coveted WNBA Championship.
Lindsey Harding returns and proved to be a big upgrade for Atlanta at point guard. The Duke product has at times been accused of thinking more shot than pass. Still on balance, she had a solid year in Atlanta, averaging 10.9 points (shooting 45.5% from the field and 30.3% for 3’s) and 4.8 assists per game. She is a strong on-ball defender and in year two she’s poised to take a much bigger leadership role for the squad.
The starting shooting guard is expected to be Armintie Price who scores off the defense, getting out on the break or driving in the quarter court. Amazingly last season she shot 51.9% from the field, scoring 8.5 points per game. Don’t bother guarding her behind the arc as she is only one for ten in her six-year WNBA career.
Power forward Sancho Lyttle had a slightly down year in 2011. Between coming late and injury, she never seemed to fully settle in. Hopefully she can come out of the gate strong this season. In the last few days, it has been reported by the Spanish online newspaper encancha.com (http://www.encancha.com/articulo/14071) that Lyttle may again miss time this season playing for Spain in a Eurobasket pre-qualifier starting mid June going into July. When Full Court contacted Atlanta Dream media relations, the following response was received indicating disagreement with the report out of Spain. “Marynell [Meadors] said Sancho is committed to the Dream for the 2012 season, and does not anticipate her missing any time.”
Shalee Lehning retired choosing to devote full time to her duties as a Kansas State Assistant Coach. Alison Bales also hung up her sneakers choosing to go to medical school following family tradition (Her mother is a medical doctor). Sandora Irvin and Izzy Castro Marques were not brought back to the team’s training camp and Coco Miller was the last cut as training camp concluded.
The departure of Castro Marques is the most double edged. She did not have a strong regular season (7.6 ppg on just 36% from the field and 21.3% for 3’s). However, she willed the Dream past Indiana during the playoffs with 30 and 23 points in games two and three of the Eastern Conference Finals. Can anyone on the Dream’s bench this year do something similar if needed?
Expectation: Look for the two time defending Eastern Conference champions to make the playoffs. The Dream has shown that it can advance out of the fourth (2010) or third (2011) seed position. They definitely have a chip on their shoulder after losing in the Finals on their own home court for a second time. The moves made in the off-season have attempted to make the team better in the quarter court while not abandoning its fast break capabilities. Without de Souza there is little margin for error, especially given the improvements to lottery teams Chicago and Washington. Barring injuries, if the Dream can come out of the Olympic break still in the playoff race, the team has a good chance of making a third trip to the WNBA Finals.
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