The Atlanta Dream was in the WNBA Finals for two consecutive years, 2010 and 2011. In 2010, the player at point guard was Shalee Lehning, who had 159 assists to just 61 turnovers. Lehning was not the kind of point guard that turned over the ball, and she fit former Atlanta Dream head coach Marynell Meadors's system well - bring the ball up the court, get the ball to Angel McCoughtry or Iziane Castro Marques, and get back on defense.
In 2011, Lehning lost her starting job to Lindsey Harding. Harding could do something that Lehning couldn't: score. Lehning's lack of offensive oomph meant that a defender assigned to Lehning could keep one eye on someone else. Lindsey Harding, however, averaged 10.5 ppg in the 2011 season compared to the 3.7 ppg from Lehning in 2010. She provided a slight three point threat (she's hit 26 percent from behind the arc lifetime) and defenses would be forced to play 5-on-5. Despite a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2011, the Dream escaped their Eastern Conference Finals match-up with Indiana and went to the WNBA Finals a second straight year.
It was the Dream's misfortune to face the Minnesota Lynx in the 2011 finals after facing Seattle in 2010. The combined regular season record of both of Atlanta's finals opponents was 55-13 and Atlanta suffered the ignominy of being swept in the WNBA Finals two straight years.
Now, Lindsey Harding will be heading to Los Angeles. Over six years, she has played a grand total of two years each for every team she has played for - two years for Minnesota, two years for Washington and now two years for Atlanta. It was announced that Harding has signed a free agent contract with Los Angeles, where she will be reunited with the former assistant coach at Atlanta, Carol Ross.
The Lindsey Harding Timeline
Lindsey Harding might have been the greatest point guard to play at Duke, holding the school's record for assists. Harding came up through the college ranks under the Gail Goestenkors era. Unfortunately, despite her record of greatness at Duke - only she and Alana Beard have ever had their numbers retired at Duke - she will probably be remembered for getting close at Duke but never winning a national championship. In 2006, Duke managed to take Maryland into overtime against Maryland but fell by three points. The next year, in 2007, Harding's senior season came to an end when she missed a pair of free throws with 0.1 seconds left on the clock as Rutgers upset Duke 53-52 in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, ending Harding's college career.
Harding was actually a fifth year senior. She actually set out an entire season in 2004-05 for a violation of team rules after her sophomore season. No one knows what Harding's violation of team rules was. Harding hasn't mentioned the reason for her suspension. Neither has Goestenkors (another player wouldn't be suspended indefinitely at Duke for the next seven years.)
Despite falling short, her accolades were great. She won the Nancy Lieberman Award in 2007, making her the premiere point guard coming into the WNBA draft. Phoenix picked first in 2007 and they chose Lindsey Harding as the #1 pick. They subsequently traded Harding to the Minnesota Lynx for Tangela Smith.
Tangela Smith would help the Mercury wrap up two WNBA championships in 2007 and 2009. Meanwhile, Harding certainly helped Minnesota - the Lynx finished 10-24 over the two previous seasons but finished 16-18 during Harding's first year, where she played 20 games for Minnesota but suffered an ACL tear that ended her season. During Harding's second year the Lynx would finish 14-20 under the helm of Jennifer Gillom.
That off-season, Washington Mystics GM Angela Taylor acquired Lindsey Harding in a package deal involving multiple future draft picks. It was a third straight losing season for Harding but the Mystics were much improved, finishing 16-18 in her first year there and going to the playoffs for the first time in three years. The following year, Washington would finish 22-12 in the Eastern Conference and win the conference title. Unfortunately for Mystics fans Washington would be swept in the opening round of the playoffs by Atlanta, losing 101-77 at Philips Arena against the Dream in the second game.
In 2011, Harding requested a trade from Washington after both head coach Julie Plank and Taylor were let go/walked away from the Mystics. The purpose of the trade, according to Kathy Orton of the Washington Post, was for Harding to be closer to her family. Atlanta got Harding and a second round draft pick in 2012, and the Mystics got Ta'Shia Phillips, Kelly Miller and a first round 2012 pick that turned out to be Natalie Novosel.
What the Dream got was one of the best point guards in the league and a great defender as well. What Washington got was half of a season of Phillips (who would be waived in mid-season), a season of Kelly Miller (who signed as a free agent with the Liberty in 2012 and would be waived mid-season) and Novosel (who shot 33.7 percent from the floor in 31 games).
Total Win Shares, all participants (over 2011-12)
If you believe the good folks at basketball-reference.com, Washington lost five wins over two years when they made that trade. Maybe they didn't have much of a choice. Maybe with Washington's horrible record it didn't matter that much, because even with Harding they might have still been terrible. (Maybe Novosel will pick up some Win Shares in the future, but I doubt it.)
Now what for Atlanta?
a) Find a hot free agent.
Atlanta just had 3.4 wins - Harding's Win Shares allotment over the 2012 season - walk out the door. The Dream now has some money that they can spend...but who could they spend it on?
Shannon Bobbitt? She's a replacement level point guard. She doesn't add anything.
Temeka Johnson? She can shoot the three at least.
Kristi Toliver? That would be a real Atlanta Dream, so I suggest you wake up.
b) Hope that Tiffany Hayes shines at point guard.
Tiffany Hayes could theoretically take over at point guard - she did play that position at Connecticut every now and then. She isn't the best field goal shooter but she scored 8.6 points per game and ended the season with 2.5 Win Shares. Hayes is coming off her freshman season, so after a year to learn the pro game the hope is that she has a lot of upside - she was on the All-Rookie Team last year.
c) Replacement by aggregate
Atlanta's only other solution is to strengthen the team by aggregate - if you can't replace Lindsey Harding, then you replace a whole bunch of other parts that might somehow add up to one (1) Lindsey Harding.
However, it looks like Lyttle, de Souza, Price and McCoughtry are going to be in Atlanta a while. Barring injury, those players will start. The only place for Atlanta to upgrade is at bench level. Once you get past Cathrine Kraayeveld it starts to look real thin. Kraayeveld was decent coming off the bench, better than replacement level. Beyond that you're talking about the Laurie Koehn level. There's a lot of flexibility here, but even so a bench player isn't going to replace Harding's production.
When I talked to him this year, Atlanta Dream head coach Fred Williams stated that he expected everyone to come back next season. Unfortunately, Harding decided to go elsewhere. No one in Atlanta wanted to see her go, for certain, and now Coach Fred might have to take his coach hat off briefly to see what's there in the market. I certainly wish him the best of luck; that's got to be a tough job.
For more on the Dream, check out our offseason storystream.