Over the weekend, Atlanta Dream Head Coach Nicki Collen coached her team to a sixth-straight victory (with the team winning 14 out of their last 15 contests), including two back-to-back victories over the weekend: Saturday against the Dallas Wings in Atlanta and Sunday against the NY Liberty in Westchester County. Those wins have the Dream at a 22-10 record for second place in the standings — a complete 180, and then some, over what the Dream were dealing with this time last year.
The Dream finished the 2017 WNBA season 10th in the standings behind a 12-22 record, prompting the organization to fire then-head coach Michael Cooper and eventually bring in Nicki Collen. But the path to legitimacy this season has been slow.
To start their 2018 campaign, the Dream competed before thin crowds in Atlanta’s McCamish Pavilion. When they held on for a win over the reigning champion Minnesota Lynx on May 29, people called it an upset. Then, the Dream handed the Connecticut Sun, then first in the standings, their first loss of the season on June 5. Still, people called it an upset. And when Atlanta beat the heavily-favored Seattle Storm for the first time this season on June 10, people called it an upset still but finally began to take more careful notice.
The next stage was to call Atlanta “dream crushers” over those highly-favored teams.
But it would take more winning, and more dream crushing, for people to recognize Atlanta as an equally-viable contender. The perception of Atlanta upsetting teams — as if it is a lesser team conquering teams far superior — derived from the disappointing 2017 season. Hopefully now, after much more winning and clinching of season series against the league’s other top-tier teams, this notion of the Dream upsetting opponents will be put to rest.
As previously reported, here’s a look at the Dream’s season-series records over the league’s other top teams:
- Atlanta won season series against the Storm, 2-1
- Atlanta won season series against the Mystics, 2-1
- Atlanta won season series against the Sparks, 2-1
- Atlanta swept season series against the Sun, 3-0
- Atlanta won season series against the reigning champ Lynx, 2-1
But it’s not just that Atlanta started winning and didn’t stop.
Atlanta did it while dealing with various hurdles, including injuries to key players Brittney Sykes, Tiffany Hayes and Angel McCoughtry. Sykes and Hayes were out at the same time for a stretch and McCoughtry’s injury ended her season. The Dream has not lost a game since face-of-the-franchise McCoughtry went down with the injury.
A major factor in the Dream’s success this season has been Collen’s ability to assemble the right pieces and build a very deep bench. Collen called signing Jessica Breland to a multiyear contract “a huge get” for Atlanta, touting Breland’s “length, shot blocking ability, and rebounding” as features on the defensive end that would improve the team’s fortunes.
Collen was right, of course, with Breland being an impact player all season, averaging a career-high 8.1 rebounds and just under 2 blocks per game, while her offensive execution lives up to Collen’s hopes and Dreams as well. Breland earned Player of the Week honors for games played July 9-15, due in larger part to her season-high 23 points and 10 rebounds against the Washington Mystics on July 11. It was Breland’s first time picking up that award in her seven-year WNBA career — proving that Collen brought Breland into the right situation for the team but also for Breland to thrive as a player.
Collen also made the trade with the Connecticut Sun to bring Alex Bentley back to Atlanta.
Bentley has proved a worthy investment, with big-scoring games recently, including: 19 points against the Lynx on August 5 and 22 points against the Las Vegas Aces on August 7.
And then there is Tiffany Hayes.
Despite not being an All-Star selection this year, Tiffany Hayes won the Player of the Week award three times this season. After her third Player of the Week award, Collen and the Dream signed Hayes to a multiyear extension. Averaging a career-best 17.3 points per game this season, it makes sense that Atlanta would want to keep Hayes for the long haul, with hopes that she can help the Dream to bring championship bling to the franchise.
Any way you cut it, Nicki Collen has been a dream for Atlanta — assembling the right pieces, overcoming the adversity of injuries to key players and putting together the right Xs and Os for success by the team and individual players, making her the most deserving of the Coach of the Year award.