How the Atlanta Dream Transitioned From Scrappy to Efficient to Make the WNBA Finals

Among the most noticeable changes for the Atlanta Dream this post-season has been moving point guard Shalee Lehning (far left) and center Erika de Souza (far right) to the bench. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

For a brief introduction to the Dream if you aren't familiar with the Atlanta Dream, visit SBN Seattle: Seattle Storm WNBA Title Chase: Getting To Know The Atlanta Dream.

Although it's reasonable to be reluctant about relying too heavily on a sample of four playoff games, Atlanta's transformation has been so dramatic as to not take it lightly and they might give the Storm more of a challenge than most observers might think.

Statistical overview

During their playoff run, the Dream have been the most efficient offensive team during the playoffs and have averaged a playoff-high 95.5 points per game through their four games. Meanwhile, they've continued to do well getting those energy points leading the league in points in the paint, second chance points, and fast break points during the playoffs. Although they've relied less heavily on points off turnovers, they've improved to first in the league in points off turnovers during the  playoffs.

That said, characterizing this as a series pitting the best offense (Atlanta) against the best defense (Seattle has allowed a league-low 73.5 points per game during the playoffs) is only part of the story - Atlanta is the second most efficient defensive team in the playoffs while Seattle is the second in offensive efficiency.

So the most accurate way to characterize this series is the league's two most well-rounded post-season teams - they're each getting it done on both ends.

Playoff strength: effective field goal percentage

While the Dream has continued to be the best offensive rebounding team in the league during the post-season - and by a rather significant margin of almost 5% over the next best team (the New York Liberty, their Eastern Conference Finals opponent) - where the Dream have improved most significantly is their shooting efficiency. However, while the majority of the focus has been on guard Angel McCoughtry after dropping 42 on New York, this isn't a one-dimensional team coming to face the Storm.

"Any given night is anybody," said forward Sancho Lyttle. "You see it in every game, from the time we started that first game in Washington - it was one person, this game it was another person, and if they try to keep one person away, another person has got to step up. I don't know who, but it's got to be somebody."

Perhaps the most significant way that players have stepped up to make the Dream a much improved offensive team is that they have somehow managed to find their touch from the three-point line.

During the regular season, the Dream shot a league worst 28.9% from the three point line. Contrast that with their post-season three point shooting of 39.5%. While they certainly can't be called a three point shooting team, what's happened is that their two primary three point shooters - McCoughtry and former Storm guard Iziane Castro-Marques - have gone from shooting under 30% to over 40% in the playoffs. It's a dramatic leap and for a team that thrives so much on attacking the interior, a vital one.

Whereas in the regular season a team could conceivably dare them to shoot from the perimeter all game to shut down their interior attack, now they're making teams pay if they ignore them from the three-point line.

Playoff statistical MVP: Angel McCoughtry

Yet despite attempts to look at the Dream's transformation as a team effort, the fact is that it's hard to overlook McCoughtry's performance as the best of the team. Although her shooting efficiency individually has picked up quite a bit and contributed to the team's strength overall, where she's made the most improved contribution to the team's collective effort is on the offensive boards. Already one of the strongest rebounding guards in the league during the regular season, during the post-season she has a 10.32% offensive rebounding percentage, which is up nearly 4% from the regular season and has been third best on the team. That's impressive for a player known primarily as a scorer.

"I don't know if we have an answer for that right now," said Storm coach Brian Agler when asked about stopping McCoughtry. "She scores in so many different ways: she can get you in transition, she can get you in the quarter-court, she can get you at the free throw line - which she really likes to do - and then she can get you on the offensive glass. They're going to really work hard to keep the ball in her hands. It's a challenge. It's difficult. She's extremely explosive."

Free throw shooting is something that came up during a conversation about the series with Storm assistant Jenny Boucek, who as it turns out is a much bigger self-proclaimed basketball nerd than I ever knew.

She mentioned that free throw rate will be a key stat to watch in this series and indeed it has been quite significant to the Dream's post-season success. In their Eastern Conference Finals win against the New York Liberty this past Tuesday, it was the Dream's astounding 52.17% free throw rate that was definitely the most statistically significant factor in the game.

McCoughtry was a large part of that, going 17-for-21 from the free throw line during the game for an impressive free throw rate over 1 (meaning she had more free throw attempts than field goal attempts, which becomes more impressive when considering that she is the team's number one option on offense. During the playoffs overall, McCoughtry's free throw rate has jumped from just over 30% to 55%, surpassed only by Lyttle's leap from around 25% to a playoff team-high 66.66%.

Yet while Boucek is correct that free throw shooting has been a significant improvement for the Dream in the post-season that will probably play a pivotal role in the series, the bigger issue might remain turnover percentage.

Pivotal statistic: turnover percentage

The Dream were indeed the best team in points off turnovers during the season and WNBA All-Defensive team selection Angel McCoughtry was no small part of that with her ability to use her combination of athleticism and instincts to play the passing lanes on the wing better than anyone in the league. And as noted by Agler, despite this being billed as an offense vs. defense series, the Dream's energy is just as present on the offensive end as it is on the defensive end.

"Your offense can really complement your defense and your defense can really complement your offense," said Agler. "I think that both of these teams - ourselves and Atlanta - use each end of the floor to help each other. They like to turn you over so they can get out in transition, so it's unique that both teams sort of use that, but in different scenarios, different ways."

What makes turnovers so significant in this series is that in all the Storm's losses and worst quarters this season, turnovers have been the biggest problem. Teams are fully aware that if you can pressure the Storm and disrupt their offense - something Phoenix actually did quite well in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals for stretches of time - you can make them less efficient.

But good luck doing that with Sue Bird running point.

So more important turnover-wise is that  although the Dream have actually forced opponents into a lower percentage of turnovers in the post-season and thus had far less points off turnovers, they have also decreased their turnover percentage about 6% and have a much improved turnover differential. That's no small part of the reason why this team has a much improved offensive efficiency - put simply, if you're throwing away possessions less often, you give yourself more opportunities to score.

Change to build a Dream on: replacing Shalee Lehning with Coco Miller

Whenever you think about a team making less turnovers, the most logical place to look - although not always the answer - is at the point guard spot. For the Dream, replacing Shalee Lehning in the starting point guard spot with Coco Miller has done exactly that.

"It's risky to do that," said Bird. "I give them a lot of credit."

Changing to a starting lineup that the team hadn't used all season might come off as a shock, but the change has benefited the team.

Lehning had a turnover percentage over 16% during the regular season while Miller was right around 14.08% in more limited minutes. With the playoff switch, they've each dropped to 6.1% and 9.8% respectively. For the Dream, it gives them a nice way to control the breakneck pace they want to play - the fact that Miller has been more of a scoring guard for the majority of her career means that she brings another scoring mentality to the lineup while Lehning can come off the bench and serve as more of a distributor to control the game.

"Coco is a changeup," said Bird. "With Lehning, teams tend to help off her or let her shoot, but with Coco you can't do that and that opens things up for Angel, opens things up for Lyttle and some of their other players. Driving opportunities and things like that. So it's definitely a changeup, but what Lehning brings to the team is a calm, cool, collected point guard who's going to get them into their sets and you need that at times too. So they've got a good balance right there so it's going to be tough."

Yet that wasn't even why Meadors made the switch - Miller is a bit quicker defensively than Lehning and the change was made as much as a defensive switch as an offensive switch.

"It just makes more aggressive on the defensive end," said Dream guard Iziane Castro-Marques. "It makes us smaller so we gotta be more aggressive and that helps our fast break because we're smaller and gotta run and we have players that run on that team. And when we had our big lineup, it was just a little harder to start the game at that pace. And it's just easy from the beginning to start as strong as we want to."

Key contributor: Erika de Souza

In that process of going small, another player who went to the bench was de Souza in favor of athletic guard Armintie Price. And if changing point guards seems risky, replacing an All-Star caliber player like de Souza might be more surprising.

During the regular season, de Souza had the highest offensive rebounding percentage on a team that thrived on second-chance points and was the third most statistically valuable player, not far behind Lyttle and McCoughtry. But moving to the bench has done two things, which have arguably made de Souza an even more valuable player statistically. First her turnover percentage has also dropped significantly, from nearly 14% to 6.5% in the playoffs. But second, it's helped her stay out of foul trouble, which makes her available to finish games or at least not become a non-factor quite as early as she did last time she visited KeyArena.

"She's got a habit of getting a couple of quick fouls because she's so aggressive and wants the ball," said Meadors of de Souza, who had five fouls in their June 1 visit to Seattle. "It gives us the opportunity to put her into the game a bit later and maybe she lasts a bit longer."

Perhaps the changes made to the starting lineup at this point in the season says as much about the Dream as anything else - while we live in an era in which professional athletes demand trades and publicly complain about less minutes, there is nothing that demonstrates that this Dream team is more concerned with the collective effort than the response from de Souza and Lehning.

"I think Erika and Shalee haven't reacted as if they were being benched and taken out of everything, but just a different starting lineup," said Meadors, echoing the sentiments of Lehning and de Souza as well as Miller. "The have really made valuable contributions in those four wins that they had in the Eastern Conference. They were very valuable."

After watching Seattle play all season, it might be difficult to imagine anybody beating them in a best-of-five series. But consider that the comparison floating around media sessions has been that of a Phoenix Mercury team with a defensive focus on both ends of the floor. Given that Phoenix has pushed the Storm all season and nearly beaten them in the Western Conference Finals, a Storm championship is far short of a given.

"They're very athletic, very confident, and they run," said Bird. "They love transition and causing turnovers. When you play a team like that, it means that they score quick and in bunches. We definitely have to be ready for that."

Ultimately, this team is far more well-rounded than needing 42 points from one player and although the odds based on overall performances throughout the season might be stacked heavily against the Dream, the team coming to KeyArena now has transitioned into a much more efficient and versatile team on both ends of the floor.

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