The 2014 WNBA season is now in its second quarter and the Atlanta Dream is showing itself to be a legitimate contender. But to be more specific here, that's for the WNBA Championship, not just Eastern Conference banner.
Cynics will say that the Dream has been to the WNBA Finals three times before and failed to win a single game. Yet, somehow this year's edition has a different feel to it and appears more ready to go that extra step in 2014.
Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle and Angel McCoughtry form arguably the best starting frontcourt in the WNBA. All are All-Star-level performers in the prime of their respective careers and have played together since 2009, the Dream's second year in existence. The backcourt has no All-Stars but does offer a lot of options and could withstand an injury without crushing the Dream's title hopes, something that cannot be said for the frontcourt roster.
What's gone right so far for the Dream?
The WNBA season is a marathon (a compact, 34-game regular season) followed by a set of sprints (three short playoff series). So far, the Dream have remained relatively healthy with only reserve guard Matee Ajavon missing multiple games with a calf injury.
Compared to 2013, the Dream are passing the ball better in the quarter court and are still devastating when unleashed on a fast break. After 10 games, assists per game are up over last year, and, perhaps at least in part as a result, so is the team's field-goal shooting percentage. Even if the stats don't show increases in assists for certain players, the "look-to-pass-first" mentality appears more pronounced than in past years. Guards Celine Dumerc and Shoni Schimmel are above-average passers who value the assist and can make others around them better. Sancho Lyttle has looked some to make the high-low pass to Erika de Souza rather than always shooting or driving from the high post. Finally, Angel McCoughtry has become a more willing passer in the quarter court.
Head coach Michael Cooper sees the improvement in assists as key to the emergence of the Dream as a force to be reckoned with. "Being No. 1 or No. 2 in assists, that's a good thing," he stated. "I think that's something this team had not done in the past because this team relied a lot of just Angel McCoughtry scoring. In order to be an efficient basketball team you have to have good ball movement."
The renewed emphasis on assists is critical to the two-part "push" and "pass" approach Cooper is attempting to implement in the Dream's offense. "Push," as in, "create as much pace as possible." The Dream is a thing of beauty when its players get out on the fast break. In the quarter-court offense, the team is more likely to struggle. "Pass" is something the team needs to continue to grow more comfortable in relying on in critical situations. In its recent 85-83 home win versus the Lynx, Atlanta reverted to one-on-one play in the fourth quarter, forced to make tough shots to narrowly avoid a loss after having been up 13 points at the end of three quarters. In Sunday's win over Washington, the Dream's assists dropped to 14 for the game from the prior season average of 20.7. Blending the team's talented one-on-one playmakers with a willingness to make the extra pass in the quarter court is still a work in progress.
The options in the guard rotation have given Cooper a lot of flexibility. With starters Jasmine Thomas and Tiffany Hayes, Cooper gets shooting and defense. Hayes has been particularly solid at both ends of the court and is strong in transition. When bringing in Celine Dumerc and Shoni Shimmel, the team becomes more dynamic in its passing. How Matee Ajavon will fit in once back from her calf injury remains to be seen.
"I like the versatility that we bring," said Cooper. "I think our big people are very creative on the block and not just back-to-the-basket people. I like our defense and that's one reason that I took this job because our team is so efficient in defense in guarding the court from east to west. Now that we've added the north to south to it, it really has helped our basketball game. In order to be successful at any level and especially in the WNBA -- our goal is to win a championship -- it has got to start with your defense."
Another element in the plus column is the team's perimeter shooting -- nothing to write home about, but still significantly better, at 33.6 percent from the field through the season's first 10 contests, than the last four seasons in which the team netted fewer 30% of their attempts from beyond the arc. The last time Atlanta even hit the 30-percent (30.5 percent) mark from long distance was 2009.
Rebounding differential is also up compared to last year. This may be as much as a reflection of the return of Sancho Lyttle as anything else, but it is an area of emphasis for Cooper, who told Full Court, "I think you have to be near the top in a lot of statistical areas, including rebounding, field-goal percentage and free-throw shooting."
What's gone wrong so far this season and where do the Dream still need to get better?
Though Cooper, in his first year with the Dream, may extol what he sees as a much improved defense, the numbers tell a different story. Statistically, the Dream rank mid-pack in field-goal defense (similar to last year) and, in fact, opponents are shooting the ball slightly better, both from the field and from behind the arc, compared to the 2013 season. The Dream lost one of the best defenders in the league with the departure of Armintie Price to Los Angeles, and some of Price's minutes are going to Shoni Shimmel, a more creative offensive player but much weaker defender.
Elsewhere, Atlanta is still trying to figure out what to do at the point guard position. Jasmine Thomas starts there, but as Cooper readily admits, her natural position is at shooting guard. Thomas is a solid defender and can score, particularly when playing on the wing. At point, she has been known to make bad decisions at critical moments.
Celine Dumerc has only been with the Dream for a few games but the goal appears to be for her to eventually get the majority of minutes at the point guard position. The French Olympian appears to handle the ball well and thinks pass-first -- and second, appearing almost afraid to take a shot. Defensively, she is better than one might expect from a European-trained player. (Euros generally are not known for good defense by American standards.)
The rookie Schimmel, like Dumerc, is a good passer, a real energizer for the team and a more offensive-minded player. However, she can be a streaky shooter, makes rookie mistakes with the ball and is still learning to defend and not sell out for steals at the WNBA level.
Depth in the front court remains a serious vulnerability. Swin Cash has not performed close to what was expected when she came over from Chicago. Cash has been on the downswing for over a year and is shooting close to 20 percent below her career average through the Dream's first 10 games. She plays hard, but at times forces up shots and also misses some easy ones. Cooper has alluded to some health issues which may be resulting in Cash playing at her current sub-career level, but whatever the reason, this may be the best the Dream is going to get from her this season. Depth at power forward could remain an issue if neither Cash nor rookie Amanda Thompson (who struggled in this past Sunday's win at Washington) steps up. Angel McCoughtry could back up Lyttle at the "four" if needed, but it takes a lot out of her to physically battle those more strongly built bodies.
Likewise, at center, the early portion of the season has shown reserve Aneika Henry continuing to be a big drop-off (no surprise) from starter de Souza. Nadia Colhado, who received some hyped prior to the season, only plays in garbage minutes and it is debatable how much the Dream can help develop this 25-year-old Brazilian center over the next year.
Reviewing the Cooper checklist for team success, free-throw shooting needs the most work. The Dream still rank near the bottom of the league (No. 10, in a field of 12 teams) in making free throws, something they also struggled with last season. In assists, field-goal percentage and rebounding differential, the other areas he identified as essential to efficiency, the Dream ranked in the top three in all categories.
Cautious Optimism Remains Justified
As they have demonstrated time and again, if healthy, the Dream can go far based solely on their talent. However, to achieve that still elusive goal of a WNBA title, the team will have to play at a more productive level in the quarter court than it has in prior years. In 2014, there appears to be more parity in the league and with short playoff series, a down game here or there could make the 2014 Dream a memory even before the league Finals. In past years, the Dream M.O. has been "run or lose," and in bad moments, this team has looked like a rudderless ship in quarter-court sets.
The 2014 season has shown signs of improvement in weak areas while the team has retained most of its strengths from prior years. Still, the sins of the past, particularly in the form bad shots when reverting to one-on-one play, continue to rear their ugly head at critical moments. It will be up to Cooper to keep the Dream on his planned path and show he can teach old dogs a few new tricks if they are to become WNBA champions.