The Atlanta Dream have made it to three WNBA Finals but have yet to claim a championship. (Photo by Kelly Kline)
The Atlanta Dream have made it to three WNBA Finals but have yet to claim a championship. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

The Atlanta Dream: Looking back; looking forward

Staff Writer
October 15, 2013 - 10:24am

Championship teams are always idolized -- and multiple championships means talk of dynasties.

The rest? They are referred to, in varying degrees, as losers who can't get the job (here winning a WNBA championship) done. Particular scorn is reserved for the perennial runnerup, who is seen as defective or even accursed, even though that was the second-best team.

Which brings us to the Atlanta Dream, now a three-time WNBA runnerup. Is that nine-game losing streak in the Finals a sign of not only mediocrity, but worthy of insult? Or is it a testament to a team that's just not quite as good as that final opponent?

As a franchise, what has been the Dream's biggest 'crime'?

The franchise became successful (playoff qualified) a year too soon, costing it a shot at another quality lottery pick. The team has been good enough to reach the WNBA Final in three of its five playoff runs (six years of franchise existence) -- and in fact, only in 2009 did the Dream not get eliminated (by Detroit) by the eventual league champion.

When you reach the WNBA Finals more than once, though, fans expect a win.  For Atlanta, the Finals' opponent was the favorite in all the series, so there was no choke in any of the three years, so losing in the Finals isn't a "crime." Not getting that extra lottery pick, however, by winning too many games, has been a definite negative.

2013: What was expected?

Point guard Lindsey Harding headed west to the Sparks, leaving a huge void in the critical lead guard area. Predictions had Atlanta finishing as low as fifth with few if any having the Dream in the WNBA Finals, so getting as far as they did has to be a positive.

Dealing with key player unavailability (injury/foreign national team obligations).

The 2013 season could be best described as the year when many teams were struck by devastating (sometimes even multiple) injuries to key players.  Some teams coped better than others, and though Atlanta was as badly hurt as anyone, the Dream were playing for all the marbles -- and only one other team was. Incidentally, the Lynx avoided key long-term injuries in both championship years (2011 and 2013).

How did the Dream do dealing with its player absences?

Initially, matters went well (10-1 through June with Sancho Lyttle missing six of those games while competing for Spain in the EuroBasket Championship where she was tournament MVP). 

While Atlanta survived Lyttle's June absence, the team was not able to cope when injuries struck in early July. Having returned from Europe, Lyttle broke her foot at Minnesota in her first game back and then missed the remainder of the season.  Prior to that contest, Tiffany Hayes hurt her knee, missing the next seven games. She played the rest of the season banged up (missing four more games the rest of the way).

Atlanta was unable to cope with the multiple players' injuries and resulting lineup shuffling for much of the remainder of the regular season. Still, coach Fred Williams rallied the troops from what appeared to be a dire one-game deficit in playoff round one to defeat Washington -- and then the Dream swept Indiana before being swept by the Lynx.

How much blame/credit should the coaching get in all this?

Good coaching can be viewed as taking a team as far as its talent allows, and Williams did that, given the Dream's available roster. A healthy Sancho Lyttle (world class power forward) would have helped greatly but still might not have been enough to win the 2013 Final series. Regardless, the Dream deserve praise for just getting as far as they did. Winning one playoff series often is not easy and the Dream won two.

On-court issues (often inter-connected) that hurt their performance:

1. Unstable point guard play. The Dream had numerous ballhandlers but lacked sophisticated point guard play. Jasmine Thomas, who held down the starting slot for most of the season, is not a good game manager and really a shooting guard playing the point. Alex Bentley, who started at times, had a good rookie season but sometimes fell too readily in love with her own shot and was understandably guilty of rookie errors on numerous occasions. 

2. Ugly quartercourt offense. Season stats show that the Dream ranked last in three-point shooting (27.5 percent) and even inside the arc but still near it, the team's shooting was often an issue. When combined with the point guard problem, the Dream often settled for early possession perimeter shots that did not fall through the net, leading to long dry spells as to scoring.

3. An average passing team at best.  Angel McCoughtry, a small forward, led the team in assists with 4.4 per game when usually the point guard has that honor (Thomas was next at 3.1 for the regular season)  In June, when the team was winning, the players tended to make that extra pass to get a teammate open. That happened less frequently from July forward.

4.  Atlanta needed to keep the pace up with lots of transition play.  It is no secret that the Dream has been one of the best transition teams in the WNBA for several years. While this is a good ace in the hole, versus a quality opponent, it doesn't take the place of good quartercourt execution, as the Lynx demonstrated.  

5. Without Sancho Lyttle, the team usually did not get much of a contribution from the power forward slot, relying primarily Le'Coe Willingham who is now near the end of her ten-year, journeyman career.      

6. Too much on Angel's plate (at least in her own mind). Most noticeably in the playoffs, McCoughtry tended to over-force the action, often not taking into account time and score. Versus Indiana in the Eastern Conference Final game one, Angel took four offbalance, ill-advised shots in the fourth quarter with her team up single digits. Yes, the Dream won the game in spite of this, but those misses would have been more acceptable if the Dream was down (not ahead) late in the game. Her almost out-of-control play on offense forced Williams to bench her a number of times during the playoffs. Yes, she is the team's star, but still must improve in letting the game come to her, and must avoid being a liability for significant stretches of time.    

Dealing with the Lynx

When all the above issues, combined with facing a Lynx team that was the best passing team (led the WNBA in assists per game) in the league with four all-star starters who defend adequately enough, it was just too difficult for the Dream to match Minnesota's ability to score. In the Maya Moore era, the Lynx record is 11-1 versus the Dream. Given the condition of the team, Atlanta would not have been favored against either Los Angeles or Phoenix had either of those two come out of the West. 

So where does the Dream go from here?

First, don't panic. The Dream roster has a lot of quality to it with key players still in their prime.  

Also, Atlanta picks eighth in the 2014 draft. Given that Fred Williams traded the seventh pick (turned into Toni Young for New York) in 2013 for D.C.'s Jasmine Thomas, do not be surprised if he shops this year's first-round pick as well. In any trade, the player acquired is likely to be one both with some talent but also some issues. Recent history shows a rookie pick at eight is more likely to be a miss as well -- you have to go back to 2009 (Kia Vaughn - New York) to find a rookie who has had some immediate impact out of that slot. 

Free agent help?

A lot will depend on the new CBA as to coring (or not) of players who might be available by the new contract's rules. Obviously Atlanta will be on the market, looking for upgrades at point, perimeter shooting and post depth. 

What position should the Dream prioritize for improvement? 

Point guard play; repeat point guard play. As was seen this year in the Final, leadership and good decisions on the court are often critical as to what shot is taken when and by whom. With the Dream, those processes were way too random to beat a quality team like the Lynx.

Should the Dream look to trade Angel McCoughtry?

No, it is unlikely Atlanta could get close to equal value for her due to her reputation as difficult to coach at times. Angel made progress sharing the ball and playing within the team concept in 2013, but she still needs to let the game come to her more and not force bad shots.

What other players do the Dream need to bring back in 2014?

Word in the arena this season was that Erika de Souza needs to be re-signed. This season she played at all-star level and is a must.

Sancho Lyttle needs to be healthy all next season. With the WNBA 2014 calendar conforming to the FIBA World Championship in September and with Spain qualified, hopefully there will be no reason for Spain to pull Sancho away next season. The next EuroBasket championship for women is in 2015 and Spain is the defending champion.

Armintie Herrington can't shoot but is a warrior on defense (All-WNBA in that area this year) and offensively tends not to take outside shots she won't make. She's a keeper.

This season the Dream struggled when second-year pro Tiffany Hayes was hurt or did not play well. Hayes brought great energy off the bench, defended well and was Atlanta's best three-point threat. In retrospect, it's hard to believe she was still on the board at 14 in the 2012 draft.

After a forgettable 2013 regular season, Aneika Henry contributed enough in the postseason (particularly in game two versus the Mystics) to be retained for 2014 as a backup center. 

Rookie Alex Bentley was a pleasant surprise (making the WNBA All-Rookie team) after being taken  early in round two. What hope there is for a quality lead guard being developed from the current roster rests on her broad shoulders. Williams needs to be closely monitoring her play this winter. Given her college career, she shot the ball better this season than might have been expected, however she still needs to become much more proficient at running a WNBA team.    

Not getting a passing grade for 2013:

Rookie Courtney Clements looked great in the preseason games and demonstrates a sweet perimeter stroke during pregame shooting drills, but she was unable to successfully translate that stroke to the court during regular season games. Here is another player whose progress needs to be monitored by management this winter.

Ruth Riley contributed 18 points and 25 fouls in her 16 regular season outings. It is probably time for her to retire, ending a fine playing career.

While adequate on defense, Jasmine Thomas struggled to run the Dream offensively and was a mediocre shooter to boot. Much improvement is needed to deserve starter minutes in 2014.

Word in the arena this season was that Le'Coe Willingham has another year left on her contract. Hopefully, that will be in a backup role as she struggled to get open looks (didn't shoot the ball badly on the season) and was weak defensively. 

Will the Dream be back in Atlanta in 2014?

The franchise has recently made several new off-the-court hires so it would be surprising for the Dream to threaten folding this winter. However, with no uniform sponsor and mediocre attendance, the longterm future for the Atlanta franchise remains cloudy at best.

How might the Dream improve its average attendance?

The games with Chicago and Phoenix drew markedly bigger crowds. Granted, young stars Delle Donne and Griner were in town but Dream management needs to find a way to get those less frequent fans to attend more often and learn why they don't currently attend more frequently.   

The 2014 schedule needs to be adjusted as the team played only one 2013 home game (July 24) from June 30 to Aug. 11. At other times, too many home games were within a small block of dates.