ATLANTA, Ga. -- After Tuesday’s 76-60 defeat of Indiana, nearly a dozen reporters, writers and TV cameras huddled around Angel McCoughtry. She had just led the Atlanta Dream to their fifth consecutive home win and a league-best 8-1 record.
“This feels good,” says McCoughtry, about the best start in franchise history. “The thing about this team is, even though we are having a great start, we have the potential to be even better.”
The success of the Dream is certainly one of the surprises of the young WNBA season. While everyone has been busy talking about the Three to See, Atlanta has quietly gone about its business, racking up wins over every team in the Eastern Conference by an average of 9.5 points per game.
The differences with this year’s squad may be subtle, but they are making all the difference in the win column.
Atlanta is flat out getting it done on defense. The Dream have the best scoring defense in the league, holding opponents to 69 points per game, while are putting up 78 points of their own. The Dream own the steals category, averaging a staggering 13 steals per game, three better than L.A., which is second in the league with 10 spg -- the rest of the league averages single digits. The top three players in the league in steals are Altanta’s McCoughtry (3.89), Armintie Herrington (3.38) and Sancho Lyttle (2.80).
“Just like a shooter can get on a roll and hit some shots, you can get on a roll on defense and get some steals,” says McCoughtry, who snagged a career-best seven steals against Indiana. “It’s all about getting stops, and they open up the offense and make the crowd go crazy.”
The improvement on D can be attributed to new assistant coach Julie Plank, the former Washington head coach who led the Mystics to a franchise best record of 22-12 in 2010. Plank is now in charge of the Dream defense and brings an organized no-nonsense approach that the players have embraced.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on our defense, but she’s hard on us in practice and we definitely needed that push from last year to this year,” says guard Tiffany Hayes.
“I think in Atlanta, they’ve always had a defensive team, really wanting to get in passing lanes, be aggressive and get steals,” adds point guard Jasmine Thomas, who is in her first season with the Dream. “She (Plank) comes in and adds to that by making it more organized. She has us in all kinds of schemes based on the personnel of the other team and it just keeps us aggressive and starts our transition game.”
Head coach Fred Williams says the extra defensive effort plays right into their fast-paced transition offense, in which the goal is to push the tempo as well as make more passes to get better looks at the basket.
“I’m a big believer in combination passes,” says Williams. “I’d rather have teams that want to pass and share than shoot the first thing available. We are trying to average 18 or above assists a game.”
So far, the Dream are very close to living up to that goal, averaging 16.6 assists per game, the result is four players who are averaging in double figures, and collectively, they’ve become a balanced defensive and offensive force that no one in the East has been able to contain.
Jasmine Thomas #5, is averaging 9 points and 2.9 steals per game for the Dream (Photo by Kelly Kline)
Point guard play
Prior to the season, Lindsey Harding signed a free-agent deal with the Sparks, leading many to believe the point guard position would be a weak area for the Dream. Losing Harding may come back to haunt Atlanta in head-to-head games against L.A., but so far, the production of new starting point guard Thomas and rookie backup Alex Bentley is better than last year's combination of Harding and Ketia Swanier (who was waived).
Together, Thomas and Bentley are averaging 15.8 points, 4.7 assists and 1.6 turnovers for a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. In comparison, last year's duo of Harding and Swanier averaged 14.5 points, 6.4 assists, 3.2 turnovers for a 2.0 A/TO. While the differences aren’t astronomical, Atlanta actually took a slight step forward, NOT a step backwards. What the Dream currently have are guards who average more points and take better care of the ball ... which sounds like the kind of deal teams should want to make.
The duo, which is averaging 40 percent from behind the arc, is also buying into Williams' combination passing mentality, which has created a very balanced scoring load. By stretching the floor with a few extra passes, Erica de Souza and Sancho Lyttle are getting more touches in the paint, resulting in better scoring and rebounding numbers from both players.
The fifth-year pro is putting together an MVP-type season. Not only has she led her team to the best record in the WNBA, she’s doing it by playing both sides of the ball with all-out heart and hustle. She’s making an impact in every statistical category, averaging 20.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.9 steals per game with a +19 efficiency rating.
Angel has been named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week three out of the first four weeks of the season and has claimed league-wide season highs in single game performances in points (34 vs. Connecticut) and steals (7 vs. Indiana).
After Angel put up 23 points, three steals and four blocks in an 88-74 win over Chicago, coach Pokey Chatman handed the All-Star nothing but compliments, “Angel, she’s quality. She’s gritty, she’s tough, she’ll get on the floor, she’ll get in your face, she’s not afraid to take a shot if she’s missed six or seven. She’s definitely playing well.”
But the most noticeable difference isn’t in the stat column, but rather in attitude.
“I’m at peace,” says Angel about her on court demeanor this season. Angel appears to have approached the season with a clean slate, leaving behind the drama of last season, which included the firing of head coach Marynell Meadors, and a few ugly incidents by her so-called alter ego “Lori Ann.” Angel isn’t exactly an open book about her troubles last season, but admits she needed some "maturity."
“You don’t see that out of her this year,” says teammate Tiffany Hayes referring to Angel’s behavior last season. “She actually tries to calm the rest of us down when calls aren’t going our way -- she helps keep us level-headed. She’s grown from last year to this year."
Williams, who was suddenly thrust into the head coaching position with six weeks left in the 2012 season, spent much of the offseason working on his relationship with his star player. He communicated with Angel regularly while she played in Turkey, sending her motivational quotes and supportive emails.
When Angel returned to camp, he began work in a number of areas by showing her game film. “I think the main thing we addressed is her poise,” said Williams. “We asked her be a little bit more poised during games as far as not getting calls -- don’t worry about it, play through it. And we asked her to be more of a distributor because she is getting double- and triple-teamed a lot."
Not only has Angel improved her on-court demeanor, she's also giving up the ball and she's finding open teammates who are knocking down big threes. Instead of forcing bad shots in traffic, she's dishing to teammates who are cutting to the basket. The result is some of the best team basketball that has ever been played by the Dream, which has fans already talking about home court advantage in the playoffs, something the Dream have never had.
But don’t hand over any trophies yet. The Dream are headed on the road for the entire month of July to take on the heavyweights in the Western Conference and their new found sense of “team” is sure to be tested.
“We got a target on our back now," admits Thomas. "We have the best record in the league and people want to take us out.”
But if Atlanta pulls off a winning record in the month of July and Angel keeps putting up MVP numbers, the Dream will not only be the team to beat in the East, but the team to beat for the WNBA Championship.