With a new coach, a new general manager, several new players with quality credentials and a solid core of returning veterans, the outlook for the Atlanta Dream does indeed look bright for the 2014 season. After having made the WNBA Finals in 2010, 2011 and 2013, Atlanta fans are ready for the Dream to earn championship rings in 2014.
After last season, the Dream ownership decided to separate the general manager and head coaching positions for the first time in the team's brief history. In January, Angela Taylor, who helped build the Washington Mystics into a playoff team, was selected as GM. Prior to that, Michael Cooper, former Los Angeles Sparks head coach and NBA All-Star, was chosen to succeed Fred Williams, who held the position for just over a year. As his assistants, Cooper chose Teresa Edwards and Karleen Thompson, each of whom brought WNBA experience as head and assistant coaches to the table. Edwards, one of the all-time great players at the University of Georgia, most recently coached in the WNBA with the Tulsa Shock. Thompson coached for many years with Cooper's Sparks staff and then served as an assistant and head coach with the now-defunct Houston Comets.
Together, Cooper and Taylor agreed upon a course of modest changes in reshaping an already strong Dream roster.
GM Angela Taylor commented on what she wanted to do with re-shaping the Dream roster:
"Coach Cooper and I both agreed the cupboards were not bare," explained Taylor. "It was an extremely talented roster. We had three Olympians [in Brazil's Erika de Souza, Spain's Sancho Lyttle and Team USA's Angel McCoughtry]. We thought they were three who were the best at each of their positions. If we added to that group and provided a little bit of depth, we would be heading in the right direction.
"Atlanta has had an incredible amount of success on the court the last three or four years," Taylor continued. "We did not want to tweak it too much. We just wanted to take it to the next level with the subtle little things that we could do to get over the hump to win the championship."
Looking at the roster by position
This is the position where most help was needed coming into this season. Gone, to Connecticut, is Alex Bentley in a trade that landed the Dream Matee Ajavon (see below). Bentley had a solid if unspectacular rookie season in 2013 when she was the only true point guard on the roster.
Returning is Jasmine Thomas who started 29 of the 34 games last season. Thomas is a quality athlete who defends well but is a more natural shooting guard. At times her decisionmaking could be questioned not to mention her 21.6-percent three-point shooting during the regular season. From what has been shown in the first few games of 2014, Thomas may start at point guard but most of her time will be playing off the ball on offense and defending the most dangerous penetrating guard on defense.
Prior to the start of the regular season the primary point guard had been projected to be French Olympian Celine Dumerc, whom the Dream signed as a free agent during the winter. With quality point guards in short supply worldwide, Dumerc has been on the WNBA radar for several years but always had summer commitments to keep her over in Europe.
"Celine [Dumerc] is someone who you know if you have been in women's basketball over the last five-to-10 years and have watched international players," said Taylor. " She is probably one of the most dynamic players on the international stage who hasn't played in the WNBA. She was on a lot of WNBA teams' radar. She was committed to her French national team and international club. This year we just started talking to her and she said there might be an opportunity where she might be interested in coming to play in the WNBA. Once free agency opened, we just had our entire staff give her a call and start talking to her about the Atlanta Dream and how she would fit into this picture. She spent a lot of time talking with [assistant coach] Teresa Edwards about what ii is like being a point guard at this level and being a championship-level point guard. I think that they really connected."
Dumerc has yet to join the team in Atlanta (she is wrapping up her commitments in the French league and is expected to miss several games at the start of the season), but in international play, she has demonstrated good court vision and she should quickly become a crowd favorite as she loves to go for the big play. The biggest question is her ability to guard WNBA perimeter players.
However, those few games Dumerc is missing might place her in the position of having to earn back the starting spot from the Dream's first-round draft pick. From the early returns, it appears that Louisville's attacking, volume-shooting Shoni Schimmel can morph into a ball distributor on demand. Known in college for her big threes at clutch moments, as well as often jaw-dropping passing skills, Schimmel tied the Dream club record with 11 assists in the first game of the regular season, and handed out 10 more in game two to go along with 17 points. Some of the assists were "show time" and some more routine, but Schimmel has shown herself to be a quality distributor in her professional debut.
"If you are a fan of women's basketball, you can't help but enjoyed watching Shoni [Schimmel] and her development over the course of the last few years and the development of Louisville," said Taylor. "It started with Angel a few years ago when she took her team to the Final Four. To see Shoni and her team take on Baylor and lead her team to that huge upset [in the 2013 NCAA Tournament] and to see the competitive nature that she brought to the table! For us as we were evaluating her and other players for the eight-pick, [we noticed] she oozes basketball. She just loves to be in the gym and work on her game and her understanding of the game [angles and how to get players the ball, plays to be made]. We feel she is really going to enhance the players we have on our roster."
Over the long haul, Cooper will probably play Schimmel at both guard positions. At Louisville she appeared more of a natural two-guard, but in helping lead the Dream to back-to-back victories to open the season, Schimmel appears equally comfortable at the point.
Like Dumerc, Schimmel will have to show she can guard WNBA perimeter players. Until then look for Jasmine Thomas to be on the court during critical end-of-game defensive possessions. It will be interesting to see how Michael Cooper handles time at the point once Dumerc arrives. It's unlikely a European star of Dumerc's caliber planned to come to Atlanta as a back-up and if that happens, her WNBA summer adventure will probably be a brief one. With the injury bug always lurking in the "W" keeping both Dumerc and Schimmel happy and involved would be best for the Dream.
During the off-season, Armintie Herrington used her free-agent status to join her former Ole Miss and Dream coach Carol Ross in Los Angeles. Herrington is a top-notch defender and good open-court player. However, she often struggled to score in the quarter-court sets. Through last season, she had made only one 3-point shot in her entire WNBA career and has shot less than 60 percent from the foul line over those years.
In her place the shooting guard slot will most likely be shared occupancy even more so this year than last. The primary option appears to be dependent on night and opponent. Tiffany Hayes, who filled a sixth-player role for most of last year, got the starting nod in the Dream's first two games of the 2014 season -- but she finished with fewer minutes than Jasmine Thomas, another contender for the two-spot. Hayes, a Connecticut product, loves to attack the basket, going left and spot up for threes (37.7 percent from deep and 40.6 percent overall from the field in 2013). On defense to say she plays hard would be an understatement and if there is a loose ball look for her No. 15 somewhere in the pile on the floor.
As noted above, Schimmel may fill the position at times, with Dumerc called upon to hold down the point. Another option is Matee Ajavon, who came to Atlanta during this offseason, after five years in DC, as part of a three-team trade that sent Bentley to Connecticut and Kara Lawson to the Mystics and saw draft picks exchanged in all directions . Ajavon has struggled from the field the last two years (about 33% FG and 30% for 3's) after a more productive 2011. In comparing her to Herrington who she sort of replaces on the roster, you would have to call Ajavon an upgrade from behind the arc but probably a net loss on defense (still adequate here) and also to team field goal percentage where Herrington via drives and fast breaks shot 46.7% from the field in 2013.
In the early going it appears as if Cooper feels he needs Thomas' defense and prior point-guard experience on the floor along with Schimmel (an unproven defender who is still learning how not to get lost in WNBA picks). If the first two games are an indication, the Dream strategy will be have its star front-line players carry the heaviest portion of the offense with the guards shooting primarily open-court fast breaks, quarter-court drives and late-clock perimeter shots. There is probably no star at this position but a lot of options.
Taylor has a strong argument that McCoughtry ranks at -- and certainly, at the very least, near -- the top of WNBA small forwards. Yes, at times she can be a high-volume shooter but her relentless competitive spirit at both ends of the court is hard to match. In transition, she can break an opponent's back and she is always more than willing to take the game-winning shot as time expires. One area that could stand improvement is her 3-point shooting (just 20.4 percent in 2013, and she took over 100 of them).
Cooper can go in a few directions In backing up McCoughtry. He can play the aggressive Tiffany Hayes. He can even go bigger with Swin Cash (more on her below) who was brought over from Chicago in return for reserve wing Courtney Clements and a second-round 2015 pick for her in what amounted to almost a giveaway by the Sky.
Memories in the WNBA can be pretty short. Sancho Lyttle is considered one of the best power forwards in the world (to mention just one of the All-Star's many awards, Lyttle, was named MVP of Eurobasket 2013 after leading Spain to the championship). Unfortunately, between commitments to Spain in June and a season-ending injury in early July, she played only six games for Atlanta in 2013, and the Dream quite visibly suffered from her absence over the last two months of the regular season. Lyttle is highly athletic and has a terrific stroke from around and just beyond the foul line. If the early going is an indication, she is using her improved passing skills to facilitate a "high-low" game more often than in years past.
Swin Cash gives the Dream has a solid back-up to Lyttle at the power forward slot, but if Sancho stays healthy and productive, Swin's time on the floor may be limited. While the University of Connecticut product appears to be on the backside of career, she can still be a very useful player so long as she refrains from forcing up shots in search of past glories. Cash still plays hard and is more than willing to take contact in the paint. She has the range to move out and play the small forward slot but her most productive area is scoring by getting into the paint. Barring the unforeseen, look for her mostly at the "four" when on the court.
"You can never underestimate the value of having won and we are trying to create a championship culture here in Atlanta," said Taylor of the Dream's acquisition of the two-time Olympic gold-medalist and four-time WNBA All-Star who is one of just two players in WNBA history to accumulate career totals of at least 4,500 points, 2,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists. "Swin has won at the highest level. She has won three WNBA titles and we are hoping to get her fourth here with the Atlanta Dream. When that opportunity presented itself, Coach Cooper, the coaching staff and I tried to figure out what to do to get her to Atlanta. She is a nice piece to the puzzle. She complements our roster quite well and provides a lot of depth at different positions [the three or the four] allowing us to play big or small. At the end of the day, this is a player who has had a lot of success at this level."
In another position of strength for the Dream, over the last three seasons 6-5 Brazilian Erika de Souza has been one of the most productive centers in the league, shooting over 52 percent from the field and averaging just over 12 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Last season, she also tied her career-high, averaging 1.8 blocks per game. De Souza runs the court about as well as any center in the league and contributes to fast-break scoring, something you don't get out of a lot of post players who too often tend to leave the running to swift guards.
The primary back-up again appears to be 6-4 Aneika Henry, who has had a few big games over the course of her two years in Atlanta but averaged just over four points, in a little less than 10 minutes, per game while shooting a modest 45.8 percent from the field. Fortunately for the Dream, with her size (also 6-4), Lyttle can play the center slot if needed.
In an attempt to develop another post for the future, it appears the Dream will likely keep de Souza's country woman, 6-4 25-year-old Nadia Gomes Colhado. The Dream have reportedly brought in a translator to assist her. Watching from a distance behind her, Colhado has the size, build and some of the mannerisms of Chicago's Elena Delle Donne but the game of an in-key post still fairly raw by WNBA standards. Right now, it is too early to say whether she can help the Dream win games this season.
While most WNBA rosters have been finalized, when Dumerc arrives in Atlanta (she is expected within two weeks), the Dream must cut one more player to get down to the 12-player roster limit. Assuming Colhado is safe, the Dream will likely chose between rookie Inga Orekhova (6-2, small forward, South Florida, 2014, originally from the Ukraine) and second-year player Amanda Thompson (6-1, power forward, Oklahoma, 2010) who played seven games for the Tulsa Shock in 2010. Orekhova is a spot-up 3-point specialist with good mobility and size but does little else, while Thompson is a classical, strongly built power forward who scores by posting and facing up in or near the key. Orekhova is the only one of the three thought to be vulnerable to being cut who played in either of the Dream's first two regular-season games. She didn't score and needs to defend better but looked like she could play at a WNBA pace. Considering Orekhova has the more unique game, let's give her an edge in sticking, as compared to Thompson.
It is hard to argue that the moves GM Taylor has engineered should increase the chances of the Dream winning it all in 2014, barring the injury bug that struck the team in 2013. As now constructed, the Dream has size, a veteran core and versatility in its roster. One question that can't yet be answered is how deeply Cooper will go into his roster; thus far, few bench players have seen significant playing time. This season's more compact schedule, designed to accommodate FIBA's Women's World Championships, which begin in September, offers players even fewer days off than in most year to rest and recover. Players do wear down so Cooper, et al., will have how much to ask of the players' bodies and when.
In the Western Conference, Atlanta would be just another good team. However, in the Eastern Conference most teams have less star power and more questions to answer when it comes to funding success at the highest levels. Out of the gate, the Dream has to be the favorite to again come out of the East and gets a vote here for finishing first in the Eastern conference this season.
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