Three keys to the Atlanta Dream succeeding without Sancho Lyttle

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Atlanta Dream forward Sancho Lyttle will miss six games due to her commitment to playing for Spain's national team. What effect will her absence have on the Dream?

Of the four seasons that Sancho Lyttle has played for the Atlanta Dream, an argument could be made that she was the team's most valuable player in three of the last four years.

That's not at all to dismiss the value of Dream star Angel McCoughtry - those of you that watch the Dream closely, or even just occasionally, will probably argue that it's clear who the team's star is simply by watching who opposing defenses pay attention to and who seems to be in the middle of big plays or runs. And I've come to accept the notion that you can't count out a team with Angel McCoughtry! as a truism as much as anyone else.

But the statistics - for the purposes of this exercise drawn from National Sports Rankings and Basketball-Reference (PER & Win Score) - tell a story that at least complicates the standard narrative even if they're not necessarily conclusive.

Statistics for Lyttle and McCoughtry from 2009-2012

2009

2010

Player

NSR

PER

WS

Player

NSR

PER

WS

Lyttle

1.92

21.3

4.5

Lyttle

2.14

19.8

4.4

McCoughtry*

0.64

23.2

3.7

McCoughtry

2.65

20.5

4.1

*McCoughtry's rookie year

2011

2012

Player

NSR

PER

WS

Player

NSR

PER

WS

Lyttle**

0.76

17.6

1.8

Lyttle

1.78

16.6

3

McCoughtry

2.62

26

4.7

McCoughtry***

2.38

26

3.6

** Lyttle played 22 games
*** McCoughtry played 24 games

Of course, part of how you understand any claim for most valuable player depends on how you define "value", but year-by-year the arguments for Lyttle's importance are certainly there:

  • In 2009, Angel McCoughtry was a rookie who only started 10 games and really came on strong toward the end of the season while Lyttle had arguably the best season of her career.
  • For 2010, you could almost call it a draw, but Lyttle was one of the top five two-way rebounders in the league (4th in the league in total rebounding percentage) - a great interior complement to McCoughtry, who had the highest usage rate in the league at modest efficiency - and the second highest defensive rating.
  • In 2011, Lyttle only played 22 games, which could be used to partially describe why the team started 3-9 that season. Still, McCoughtry had an impressive season and left no doubt about who the MVP was.
  • In 2012, McCoughtry had an impressive season but only played 24 games and - depending on how you weigh missed games in the MVP determination - Lyttle could be considered more valuable by virtue of being the team's most productive player over 34 games.

Ultimately, even those that are willing to agree that Lyttle is the team's top player will probably acknowledge a bit of a chicken and egg argument here: without McCoughtry on the floor, the team would have been missing a strong perimeter defender and Lyttle would garner much more attention offensively; without Lyttle on the floor, the Dream would have lacked a strong interior defender and McCoughtry's shooting tendencies would hurt the team a bit more due to missing Lyttle's offensive rebounding ability.

Yet as someone who first started digging into basketball analytics because the hype surrounding WNBA players disproportionately highlighted seemingly pre-determined stars while ignoring other major contributors, looking at Lyttle's contribution to the Dream is interesting: she gets too many accolades to suggest that people "underrate" her (she did earn All-Star selections in both 2009 and 2010 as well as All-Defensive selections in each of the last four years, including an All-Defensive First Team nod last season), but it might be fair to say that she's somewhat underappreciated to some extent in terms of just how much she has meant to the Dream's success even as she has gotten so many accolades.

And that brings us to this season.

To some it might sound surprising to say that Lyttle has been the Dream's MVP through five games of the 2013 WNBA season: even aside from the obvious small sample size of five games, McCoughtry is once again one of the league's top 10 scorers and currently leads the league in steals per game. But Lyttle is currently scoring more efficiently than any time in her Dream career 58.58% (in part due to taking less threes), currently ranked fourth in the league in steals per game and sixth in rebounds per game, bolstered by an impressive defensive rebounding percentage of 24.25%.

The combination of those contributions helps to explain why NSR's current rankings have Lyttle ranked as the team's most valuable player, in similar fashion to past seasons.

So how will the Dream do without Lyttle available for six games while she honors her commitment to Spain's national team?

The Dream's next six games

While losing a player for 6 of 34 games is a blow to any team, the Dream actually got a favorable schedule during that time, which includes five home games.

vs Seattle Storm

vs Chicago Sky

@ Connecticut Sun

vs Indiana Fever

vs Washington Mystics

vs San Antonio Silver Stars

It's early, but a 4-2 schedule during that time isn't unreasonable: both Connecticut and Indiana have struggled early due to the absence of significant players, which could change in two weeks; Chicago will probably give them the most trouble with rookie Elena Delle Donne causing more of a matchup problem without Lyttle to help defensively.

But with all the surprise outcomes thus far in the 2013 WNBA season wins are hardly a given. So what do the Dream have to do to get through this period without Lyttle?

Three keys to the Dream succeeding without Lyttle

  • McCoughtry's efficiency and tendencies: McCoughtry is currently averaging a career-high 5.2 assists and that's no small part of the Dream's success this season. Yet she hasn't been efficient as a scorer (career-low 45.93% true shooting percentage) or distributor (-4.35 pure point rating). Dream coach Fred Williams recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they'd have to adjust their offensive schemes a bit with Lyttle's mid-range shooting ability absent and it will be interesting to see how that affects McCoughtry's performance. If she gets her scoring efficiency closer to career average, the team will be able to withstand the loss of Lyttle's offensive output. Williams floated the idea of starting her at the power forward spot and that could put her in a number of favorable matchups offensively that could help her get easier shots.
  • Point guard play: The Dream's point guard combination of Alex Bentley (8.05 pure point rating) and Jasmine Thomas (2.52 pure point rating) has been extremely efficient as distributors this season. But neither player is known for their scoring efficiency. With Bentley being a rookie, it will be interesting to see if she can improve upon her early season efficiency and any improvement from her or Thomas would help the team dramatically as they try to re-orient themselves offensively.
  • Getting scoring from her replacements: Lyttle's rebounding presence will obviously be missed, but Aneika Henry (12.66% offensive rebounding percentage) and Le'coe Willingham (28.31% defensive rebounding percentage) are currently their rebounding leaders by percentage in limited minutes thus far this season. Will they be able to perform in increased minutes? Probably so. But having them in that spot 15-20 foot range is much different than having Lyttle and her shooting ability, as Williams noted - one potentially major challenge for the Dream is that they're replacing a key scoring threat with two low usage players that have combined to average a little over 5 points per game. It's actually one more reason to significantly alter the rotation by moving McCoughtry to the power forward spot in a small ball scenario.

The Dream, perhaps moreso than other teams missing a top contributor, are more than capable of maintaining their early season momentum in Lyttle's absence and part of the reason is that it's perfectly reasonable to assume that McCoughtry can get more efficient than she has been this season. But if they continue to force opponents into turnovers, score in transition, and get themselves to the free throw line - something that a few players on their roster are adept at - they can find ways to manufacture points to replace Lyttle's 15.4 points per game.

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