If the Atlanta Dream's 6-0 start is not surprising to you, the way they've won those six games in dominant fashion should be.
The Dream haven't just pulled together a winning streak on bad matchups and good luck, they have clearly been the better team on most occasions -- as someone at Staples Center told me after Sunday's win against the Los Angeles Sparks, "They were tossing bombs down court like ol school LA Raiders -- deep balls for layups." Due to problems with Live Access on Sunday, I am unable to either confirm or deny that and I really don't know what the analogous Seattle Seahawks metaphor might be but that's not the point -- however you want to put it, their record is not necessarily overstating their performance as they currently hold a +9.18 scoring differential over opponents. It's not like this team is amassing fluke wins.
So that sets the stage for what should be an exciting nationally televised matchup at 6:30 pm PST this evening against the 5-1 Seattle Storm. The Storm have been impressive themselves with an average margin of victory of 11.4 points per game, including a 81-56 road win over the San Antonio Silver Stars on Sunday in which they were up by 31 at the end of the third quarter.
As petrel described yesterday, "the WNBA brass couldn't have designed it better. The top team in the Eastern Conference and the top team in the Western Conference play on national television." The likelihood of this one living up to that billing should be quite high: having won three in a row on the road, the Dream are already road tested and by now it should be assumed that the Storm will give their Key Arena fans a good game at home.
With all the positivity surrounding these two teams at this early juncture, there are a lot of exciting things to look for in this game. However, what most fascinates me is the way that this 3rd year Dream franchise has improved as a unit this season. Uncreative as it might sound, that improvement is best embodied in the play of second-year forward Angel McCoughtry in particular.
Although I can say the fact that McCoughtry has improved is not much of a surprise given her off-season activity, it's difficult not to be surprised by just how much McCoughtry has improved this season.
Put simply, there aren't a whole of lot of players I'd rather have on a team than McCoughtry based upon the way she's playing right now. She has vaulted from young rising star to elite primarily because something good is very likely to happen when the ball is in her hands. Perhaps more precisely, the likelihood of something good happening generally outweighs the risk of something bad occurring.
While it might be tempting to argue that McCoughtry's gaudy statistics are drawing attention away from other players on the team, when looking closely at the team's strengths it's hard to deny McCoughtry's impact.
The Dream's turnover differential has also improved greatly to the point of becoming a strength and McCoughtry's role in that might be even larger, though more subtle. McCoughtry has a team-best 10% turnover rate this season -- the rate at which she ends a possession with a turnover -- which should be impressive on it's own. However, that becomes considerably more impressive and valuable to the team in conjunction with her nearly 33% usage percentage (team-high), the percentage of plays that she is individually involved in making a play on the court.
So, McCoughtry is handling the ball more than last season while turning it over less and doing so while leading the league in scoring at 24 points per game on 43.7% shooting. She is not merely the beneficiary of more minutes with the departure of forward Chamique Holdsclaw -- with the team relying on her more heavily this season she's actually demonstrated continued improvement as a player, especially given the expected diminishing returns of increased minutes.
While the biggest statistical reason for the team's improvement is by far their vastly improved offensive rebounding differential, the player who has made the most significant individual improvement in that area is small forward Angel McCoughtry. That's not to say that McCoughtry is the reason for the team's dominance on the boards -- the dominant play of post players Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza has quite a bit to do with that. However, the increased rebounding does reflect the overall improvements in McCoughtry's game that should have her sneaking into WNBA Most Valuable Player conversations as the season progresses.
It's hard to escape the fact that McCoughtry is the most significant contributor to the team's improvement that Kallam described in his article. That's not to mention the fact that she is arguably the most athletic player in the league and entered the league with a reputation as an outstanding defender.
So is she an early season MVP frontrunner?
More on that later, but while she's a strong candidate, Storm forward Lauren Jackson might be able to make an even stronger case. It's very difficult to think of things that the 6'5" Jackson doesn't do for the Storm. Defending superstar Candace Parker, chasing down guards to block shots on fast breaks, ranking 4th in points per game, 6th in total rebounds per game, and 4th in free throw attempts while shooting 94.4% thus far. Jackson is arguably the most versatile player in a league with a number of very versatile basketball players.
The game will certainly not be a pure "head-to-head" of early season MVP candidates. However, one of the things that makes this the perfect game for national television is that it will showcase two players who deserve mention in early MVP candidate discussions on two of the best teams in the league so far. I will maintain that it's too early to claim that this is a WNBA Finals preview given that so many teams are still coming together...but if you're reading this blog, in Seattle, and for some reason not excited about the season yet, perhaps the Dream can help you flip the switch.
Game info: 6:30 pm PST on ESPN2. Swish Appeal will have an open thread from media row for analysis on the fly.