Nobody expects much from an expansion franchise in their first few years of existence, so even after the Atlanta Dream’s somewhat nightmarish debut season in 2008, coach Marynell Meadors remained positive.
Atlanta Dream's turnaround ends with franchise's first playoff berth - ESPN
Still, coach and general manager Marynell Meadors was all about the "bright side" of the expansion season. Such as the games in which the Dream were competitive, even if they didn't win. And the foothold the franchise started to develop in Atlanta. She had ideas of how to improve, and she knew she'd have a very high draft pick in April to help.
Hope for the future turned into change on the court much more quickly for the Dream than anybody might have imagined. After a 4-30 record in 2008, the Dream finished 2009 at 18-16, making the playoffs for the first time. Had it not been for injuries to starters Chamique Holdsclaw and Shalee Lehning down the stretch, the Dream might not only have had a better record, but also made a deep playoff run.
“We had two of our starting five out of the lineup when we went to the playoffs last year, which I thought was a tremendous detriment and probably cost us maybe moving on to the second round,” said Meadors in an interview with Swish Appeal last week. “I don’t know whether we have or not, but I thought we would have definitely had a better chance of doing that.”
So one can probably imagine that Meadors has high hopes for 2010 and for good reason.
“We want to be the best,” said Meadors when asked about her expectations for this year. “We’re going to play to win and we’re certainly dreaming to make a difference – that’s kind of our [motto] this year.”
One reason for increased optimism in the franchise's third year is that they will have arguably the best post rotation in the league, with Los Angeles Sparks legend Lisa Leslie retired and Meadors expecting to re-sign free agent center Erika de Souza. de Souza and Sancho Lyttle were named to the 2009 Eastern Conference All-Star team and reserve center Michelle Snow is among the most athletic post players in the league. So as much as the second season turnaround was the outcome of a revamped team – three starters (Holdsclaw, Lehning, Lyttle) were new to the team in 2010 – it can be said without reservation that their post play carried the team.
Atlanta was first in the league in points in the paint and second chance points in 2009 and tied for third in offensive rebounding percentage, behind the Los Angeles Sparks (who lost Leslie) and the Sacramento Monarchs (who folded). Their 9.65 steals per game (2nd behind the Indiana Fever) also led to the second most fast break points in the league with 13.29 per game. So the Dream were a team that thrived on getting themselves easy baskets with little support from the perimeter – they finished second to last in 3 point percentage at 30.5% last season.
Basketball common sense would suggest that having such ineffective perimeter shooting would stifle a team that relied so heavily on interior play (see SPI playing styles chart below: the team got 40.03% of their production from de Souza, Lyttle, and Snow). That problem would also seem to be compounded by the fact that the committed so many turnovers -- although the Dream were second in points off turnovers and fourth in turnover differential, they were second to last in turnovers per game with a mark of 16.53 for a turnover percentage of 14.54%. While it wasn't their biggest weakness based on a Four Factors analysis -- that would be free throw rate -- it's a noticeable problem, but Meadors had a reasonable explanation.
Atlanta Dream Four Factors for 2009
“I really think that you have to stop and look at all the new players we had last year – we had 8 new players last year out of 11,” said Meadors about their turnovers. “Any team that uses the fast break like we do – we’re not as good as Phoenix, but we’re pretty close – in pushing the ball up the court, you’re going to have more turnovers.
“But I think the knowledge of the players having one year under their belt playing with each other and [coming] back more mature and knowing what we expect from each other is definitely going to cut down on the turnovers.”
Nevertheless, in the eyes of fans these two major perimeter flaws – three point shooting and turnovers – are part of what made point guard Lehning such a lightening rod for fan criticism.
Despite having the league’s highest assist rate at 50.67% (Ticha Penicheiro was second at 43.68%), Lehning is not a player adept at slashing to the basket and creating easy baskets and she had the highest turnover percentage on the team at 19.05%. Of course as a point guard, her assist rate more than offsets her turnover percentage, something clearly indicated by her pure point rating of 4.27, third best in the league. Given the number of weapons the Dream have, someone that comes down the court and just looks to pass may be ideal and the turnovers might work themselves out with experience. Despite having the most turnovers on a turnover prone team, Lehning was still a good fit.
Revisiting Rookie Point Guards: How Does Atlanta’s Shalee Lehning Compare to Her First Round Counterparts? - Swish Appeal
Put simply, Lehning makes outstanding decisions with the ball given her limitations and rarely makes bad mistakes. It’s not a terrible starting point for a rookie. And I'm not just going to make a simplistic assist to turnover ratio argument. I'm talking more about how well Lehning plays the position.
As of yesterday, she leads the league in assist ratio – the percentage of plays she makes that end in an assist -- at 49.06%. To put that in perspective, the player in second is Sacramento Monarchs’ point guard Ticha Penicheiro. That also reveals a quirk with this particular number – if you don’t shoot much and pass a lot, then of course your assist ratio would be high. Nevertheless, the fact that half the plays she makes end in an assist is impressive as a rookie.
Nevertheless, if an offense is leaky, people will begin to look at the point guard position as the source of the leak.
Lehning’s glaring flaws led Dream fans to clamor for fan favorite Ivory Latta, a player that is capable of scoring and spreading the defense, which would in theory open up even more scoring opportunities for other players. However, Meadors doesn’t quite see Latta as a point guard.
“Ivory is a smaller point guard, she handles the ball, and she scores more than Shalee,” said Meadors. “I truly believe that Ivory is a 2-guard – she’s in a 1-guard body, but she’s really a 2-guard and she’s a great scorer. And 2-guards look to score."
Looking at the Sparks SPI playing styles for the Dream last season puts makes Meadors' point about the tendencies of the two guards much more clear.
|de souza, erika||20.98%||13.58%||93.20%||IU||26.76||17.85%||3.21|
Atlanta Dream SPI Playing Styles for 2009
In terms of tendencies, Latta had the strongest scoring tendency on the team and was among the highest scoring ratings in the league. Although she was not a pure scorer like Holdsclaw or Castro-Marquez, her assist rate further reinforces Meadors' point that Latta is 2-guard in the body of a 1-guard: her assist rate was 19.18%, not only below Lehning, but also below league average. Conversely, her turnover percentage was 13.66%, much better than Lehning. Yet playing around with statistics is not what Meadors is concerned with when considering who will start at the point guard position for her.
“We won 18 games with her as a starter, so it’s kind of tough to not put her back out there again,” said Meadors about whether Lehning is the projected starter for 2010. “It seemed that at times, Shalee did a great job of running our team and we were basically looking for that…To me Shalee has proven herself, even in her rookie season…When she got hurt two games before the playoffs started, when we moved to Detroit to play them it really hurt us not having her at point guard.”
Despite praise for Lehning, the team is still looking for a veteran point guard who can shoot the three.
“What I would like to do is sign a veteran point guard who can score from the three point range,” said Meadors. “We’re still trying to find that – but we have to get one… We just feel like if we get a veteran point guard that will put us in a situation where we can challenge for that championship.”
At season's end, Latta had the highest three point percentage at 36.0% and Castro-Marquez shot 34.5%, but nobody else on the team shot higher than 30%. Lehning, last year's starter, shot 20% on 30 attempts in 34 games. As it happens, there are two veteran point guards on the market that fit the bill: unrestricted free agents Kelly Miller and Kiesha Brown and restricted free agent Temeka Johnson and Kelly Miller.
In at least one sense, Johnson is the better candidate -- she's coming off a championship season with the Phoenix Mercury and shot 41.4% from the three point line last season. In addition, her assist rate of 32.1% was 10th in the league compared to Miller's 26.8% assist rate, which was 21st in the league. Johnson is much more of a distributor than Miller, which makes a lot of sense for a team that gets so much scoring production in the paint, either from drives or post-up situations. And of course, for a team interested in running the fast break, Johnson is also proven as one of the best.
The advantages for Miller might be at least slightly more difficult to determine. Miller is seven inches taller and an aggressive defender, but shot 33% from the three point line on less attempts than Johnson. Although she went to the University of Georgia, she is four years older, coming off a down season, and a much less efficient scorer by almost any standard last season. In fact, Lehning had a higher true shooting percentage (47.82%) than Miller (47.26%) and a much higher two point percentage (47.61% to 38.55%).
Brown can shoot the three, but is even less of a distributor with an assist rate of 20.68%. As a mixed player, her tendencies put her in the middle third percentile of every category in the league, but she did so in limited minutes and was responsible for a very small percentage of the Sun's overall production last year. Although she is also a Georgia graduate, she wouldn't appear to offer the team much more than Latta (or Coco Miller for that matter) offensively, which is what Meadors seems to be looking for.
But of course, with a lower salary cap there are also fiscal considerations.
Even with the team’s recent signing of center Yelena Leuchanka, the expected signing of de Souza, and the signing of a draft pick the team will likely have enough cap room to sign either player to well above the veteran minimum salary. However, there are two additional considerations -- Johnson is a restricted free agent that and might be able to command more money than Miller (i.e. the Dream could not afford to pay Johnson the maximum salary for a veteran). Conversely, Brown and Miller are unrestricted free agents that would probably command less money despite having played more than six seasons.
In other words, Johnson could theoretically sign with the Dream and would probably be an excellent fit, but Brown or Miller would be the path of least resistance.
2010 Outlook: “Dreaming to make a difference”
Maintaining one of the league’s strongest frontcourt rotations while adding perimeter support could make Atlanta a very dangerous team in 2010. And in addition to free agency, the Dream should have substantial internal development that will help them reach their goal of being the best.
Holdsclaw struggled with injuries at the end of last season and the Dream lost four of its last five games. Meadors has spoken with her recently and with her returning to health, the Dream will definitely be stronger.
“She’s good right now,” said Meadors about Holdsclaw. “I talked to her last week and we probably talked for an hour in Cyprus – she’s playing in Cyprus right now. She said that her knee felt better than it’s ever felt. So I’m very confident that when she comes back she’ll be ready to go with us.”
In addition, 2009 Rookie of the Year Angel McCoughtry is a player who Meadors says has the capability to carry a team and will only get better in the coming season. She was already an outstanding defender and showed the ability to create shots off the dribble, drastically improving her productivity in the second half of the season.
“I think we talked about consistency and I got an email from her a couple of days ago and she’s talking about our goal is to win the championship this next year,” said Meadors. “She’s going to come in here bound and determined that she’s gonna make some things happen. I just truly believe that she’s going to be a great leader for us, whether she’s captain or not.”
The Dream very well could challenge for the Eastern Conference title this year, especially if they’re able to add a veteran three point threat who can create scoring opportunities for others and spread the defense. Even without a significant addition, the expectations are high for 2010.
“I just think the Dream fans are in for an exciting year,” said Meadors. “If we can get off to a good start -- which that’s true in everybody’s situation – we got a chance to have a good year. And our goal is to do a whole lot better than we did last year. And we went from 4 wins [in 2008] to 18 last year. And we definitely want to surpass that.”
- Meadors on Erika de Souza: “Yes, I do expect to re-sign Erika de Souza,” said Meadors. “And what she brings to our team is she brings speed, quickness, athletic ability, size. She just is kind of like a do-all type player in the post area.”
Meadors also expects improvement from the All-Star center: “We talked about finishing around the rim a little bit better than she did last year. And the other thing I want her to improve upon is her defense. She’s offensive-minded and a lot of WNBA players – and NBA players too – are more offensive-minded, but I think if she can get a little bit better on the defensive end and finish around the rim, I think she’s going to be pretty tough to stop.”
Statistically, although de Souza had the most field goals made within 5 feet of the basket in the WNBA, she didn’t rank in the top ten in field goal percentage from that range. However, the more immediate concern when Meadors talks making shots around the rim might be the 6-10 foot range where de Souza shot only 30%, seventh worst in the league.
So improvement around the basket would make her quite a dominant force in the post – she had 146 FGs made from five feet and in and the next closest player had 123 (Crystal Langhorne).
- Meadors on Holdsclaw helping McCoughtry: “She’s definitely not going to hold Angel back because she really pushes Angel and inspires Angel to play better, and better, and better. And I think that with having Angel and Chamique in that position it’s going to extend Chamique’s career a little bit because Angel can come in and play some major minutes if needed.”
- Meadors on the rule of having only one assistant that can travel and needing to restructure the positions of the other two under contract: “I think that’s wrong, not having two assistants. Everybody has at least two assistants all the way down to grade school. Even in AAU they have at least two assistants.”
- Meadors on new owner Kathy Betty.