The End of the Holdsclaw Era

The following message was sent by Dream COO Toby Wyman to the season-ticket holders of the Atlanta Dream on May 11, 2010:

As we continue to build this franchise on and off the floor, we are at times faced with making tough decisions. We are currently challenged with one of the most difficult decisions this organization has encountered. Unfortunately, Chamique Holdsclaw recently expressed a desire to be traded. Chamique was an integral part of our success last year and we had every intention of keeping her and having her continue to play a key role with the Dream. We are actively pursuing a resolution to grant her request and we appreciate all that Chamique has done to help our young franchise.

So now, it's out in the open. The question isn't if there will be trade, the question is "when". After tons of smoke, we finally have fire.

Chamique Holdsclaw's tenure with the Atlanta Dream began on December 17, 2008 when they swapped the #13 pick to the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2009 WNBA Draft - the Dream already had the #1 pick - for the rights to Holdsclaw. (The Sparks would pick up Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton out of Purdue with the pick they acquired.) There were high hopes because Chamique Holdsclaw was probably one of the greatest women's basketball players of all time. (*) Even though Holdsclaw had her detractors - Holdsclaw's battles with depression were well documented and her walking away from the Sparks during the 2007 season let many fans down - The Claw was certainly a big-name acquisition for Atlanta.

At the time, the two biggest names on the Dream were Betty Lennox and Ivory Latta. Lennox had battled with coach Marynell Meadors and the only question among Dream observers was how Lennox would leave, not if. With Latta cut at the end of the 2009 training camp in favor of Shalee Lehning, this made Holdsclaw the biggest name on the team. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza had yet to surprise the Dream with their great 2009 seasons. McCoughtry was the #1 pick in the WNBA Draft but she was still a rookie and some suggested that there would be other players in the draft at least as good as McCoughtry.

Holdsclaw could return to a leadership role in more ways than one in Atlanta . But it seemed that injuries plagued Holdsclaw before she even put on the Powder Blue uniform of the Dream. Playing for the Wisla Can-Pack Krakow team in Poland , a knee injury sent Holdsclaw home in mid-season. Holdsclaw was only able to play 11 games for the Poles in 2008-09. Even so, the goal was for Holdsclaw to have her knee rehabbed in the interim and to return to the Dream for the start of the 2009 WNBA season.

When Holdsclaw returned to the Dream, there was still some gasoline left in the tank. Holdsclaw exploded for 28 points in a Dream game against the Shock, and three weeks later scored another 28 against the Lynx in Minnesota . The Dream were 18-16 in 2008 and 14 of those 18 wins came with Holdsclaw. Holdsclaw's ability to move the ball for the Dream offense was outstanding - she could either burst by a defender or stop-and-start, throwing off the defender's timing and leaving her helpless.

As the season progressed Holdsclaw's knees caught up with her. She would only play in 25 games of the 2009 season. Her Player Efficiency Rating was 14.85 - the equivalent of an average player and not a superstar. In terms of PER, it was Holdsclaw's worst season. (For a player at Holdsclaw's level, "average" is bad.) Like a car's overheated engine, Holdsclaw's knees finally conked out and she missed the final nine games of the regular season. She returned for one game of the playoffs against the Detroit Shock but was a non-factor, scoring 3 points in 13 minutes of play. Holdsclaw did not return for the second game, watching from the bench, and the Dream were eliminated.

Even so, Holdsclaw was one of the parts of a successful 2009 season and many hoped that a (healthy) Holdsclaw would be back in 2010. Holdclaw's health problems persisted. She signed with the Good Angels Kosice team for the 2009-10 European season and after a couple of games, the Slovaks sent Holdsclaw right back home. The impression given by the Slovaks was that she had failed her physical, and Holdsclaw confirmed it in a Twitter post:

When I didn’t pass my physical in October with the team in Slovakia , I was disappointed. I felt this way because as an athlete, all you want to do is compete, and for a short time I was unable to do so. This whole experience has been really humbling.

To replace Holdsclaw the Slovaks got...Angel McCoughtry, who did extremely well under the same circumstances - even dunking in a game against a weaker Slovak club. McCoughtry and Candice Dupree took the Good Angels Kosice team deep into Euroleague. Holdsclaw ended up with K. V. Imperial in Cyprus - a good team and perennial Eurocup contender, but not exactly a top rank European team - the kind of team where average WNBA players might play. (**)

Holdsclaw returned to Atlanta at the end of the Cypriot season. One clue that things might have changed for Holdsclaw in Atlanta was that Jennifer Lacy was still unsigned by the Dream. Holdsclaw is a close friend of Lacy's and part of the draw in playing in Atlanta was that they'd be on the same team. Lacy would be entering the fourth year of her WNBA career and would be due a significant salary raise. If Atlanta signed Lacy, the Dream would be stuck with Lacy's dismal production under Meadors; if the Dream didn't they took the risk of losing Holdsclaw who might bolt. (***)

Before camp, the Dream declined to sign Lacy and Lacy became a free agent. Lacy ended up at the Washington Mystics camp, Chamique Holdsclaw's former stamping grounds. Holdsclaw was definitely in Atlanta - she was sighted at a shoe promotion - but there were no pictures of her in camp. There was no promotional material highlighting Holdsclaw in camp, but Holdsclaw and Lacy had made appearances for the Dream (for example, at Georgia Tech in an attempt to promote the club) in the early part of 2010.

With Thursday, May 13th - Media Day - looming ahead, with Friday being the day where all WNBA rosters are finalized and with Saturday being the first game of the 2010 WNBA regular season with the Dream traveling to San Antonio , something had to give. It gave yesterday evening. Someone posted on the Dream Facebook page that Holdsclaw might be leaving and the season-ticket holders revealed the contents of their e-mails.

(* * *)

The question now is what the Dream will do with Holdsclaw. They can trade Holdsclaw, but the question is "does any other team want Holdsclaw?" Holdsclaw's on-court production depends on her shaky health and Holdsclaw's salary requirements would be high - The Claw has been in the league since 1999. Meadors would probably take any trade she could get if there were no other options...past trades by Meadors of Dream players indicate that for particular unnamed players that have left Atlanta , Meadors would have taken two used basketballs (one patched) in trade.

Another option is that the Dream could flat-out release Holdsclaw. This leaves any other team free to pick her up. The downside is that the Dream gave up a first-round draft pick for one year of an underperforming Holdsclaw. A final option would be to suspend Holdsclaw for not showing up to camp, and I don't know how suspension affects a player.

The two big questions are:

1) Is the Dream good enough to make the playoffs this year even without Holdsclaw? My answer is "yes". Lyttle, de Souza and McCoughtry make the Dream a contender.

2) Who will take over Holdsclaw's role on the Dream? Holdsclaw brought two advantages to the Dream. She was personable, and she was a team leader.

What little I've seen of Angel McCoughtry suggests that McCoughtry could step into a team leader position even as a second year player. McCoughtry has the drive and the will to win; she simply has to avoid trying to do everything for the Dream. Can McCoughtry make her teammates better, the test of a true leader? If she can, then McCoughtry becomes the Field General. Everything from last year and Euroleague suggests that McCoughtry is The One.

Whether McCoughtry has the charisma of Holdsclaw is hard to say. McCoughtry has made appearances for the Dream on television, but does she want to get out there and mingle with the fans at minor functions and turn on the charm even when she doesn't want to? If McCoughtry wanted to be the Dream's ambassador, I believe she could do it - McCoughtry is the kind of person who could do almost anything she set her mind to through sheer determination.

Even though the Holdsclaw Era is over, the Dream lives on. It's just a rule of being a fan - your players don't stay with you forever. Definitely true for the Dream - the only players left from the 2008 squad are Erika de Souza and Iziane Castro Marques. With the Atlanta Dream, change is a fact of life, not a choice.


(*) - My Hall of Fame Metric has Holdsclaw as the 13th greatest of the modern era, with a 94 percent chance of going into a hypothetical WNBA Hall of Fame.

(**) - Although I hear that it's beautiful in Cyprus .

(***) - If you buy the "Meadors is master manipulator" theory, one could conclude that Meadors let Lacy go in the hopes that Holdsclaw would soon depart afterwards. If so, the master plan failed because Holdsclaw's late trade request leaves the Dream scrambling.