The Atlanta Dream appeared to enter the 2019 WNBA season with positive momentum.
Although still missing Angel McCoughtry, all other key contributors from the squad that finished the 2018 regular season with the second-best record and reached the semifinal round of the playoffs would be taking the court at the newly-renovated State Farm Arena. After playing last season’s home games at McCamish Pavilion on the campus of Georgia Tech, the Dream would now enjoy the opportunity to play their intense brand of ball in front of an invigorated fanbase in a sharp, snazzy NBA arena.
Yet, things have not unfolded as so optimistically imagined.
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Dream have played some pretty ugly basketball in front of mostly empty seats.
So, why is A-Town down?
The Dream are not defending the ATL
The Dream’s record of 1-2, although not ideal, is not all that concerning.
Yet, how “out of sync,” to quote Tiffany Hayes, the Dream has looked in all three games is quite concerning. A league worst net rating of -13.6, which is almost more than five points worse than that of the Liberty, serves as a clear expression of the team’s ineptitudes.
The primary problem is on the defensive end of the floor. Last season, Atlanta finished the season with a league-best defensive rating of 97.6. Through the first three games of 2019, the team’s rating is 105.9.
Thus far, the Dream have remained confident in their ability to #DefendTheATL. The team takes particular pride in its presence in paint, with the pair of Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland often having a #BlockParty.
However, a high block rate does not necessarily translate to effective defense.
Atlanta leads the league with 6.7 blocks per game, yet such swats have not intimidated opponents. Although the sample size is still small, the Dream are allowing more points in the paint (34.7) and more second chance points (14.3) than they did last season (31.8 and 10.6, respectively).
More porous paint defensive has not been counteracted by a stronger effort around the perimeter. The team is giving up 21.0 three-point attempts per game, compared to 19.8 attempts from distance last season. These extra attempts not only mean that opponents are getting the opportunity to put more points on the board, but they also are a sign of the Dream’s lagging defensive intensity.
The Dream’s offensive inconsistencies also have contributed to defensive problems. Opponents are scoring 19.0 points off turnovers, a mark that is tied for tenth in the league. In particular, point guard Renee Montgomery needs to take better care of the ball. Last season, she sported a solid 2.19 assist-to-turnover ratio. Thus far, her ratio is 0.88, a mark that, more than just an individual indictment, is a leading indicator of how “out of sync” the team is on offense.
The Dream need to play with pace to create offensive space
Even though the Dream did not win with offense last season, improvements on this end of the floor are necessary. And, although the cliché claims that “defense wins championships,” success in modern basketball increasingly depends on efficient offense.
Like last season, Atlanta must create effective, efficient offense in spite of their below-average ability to space the floor with outside shooting. Increasing their pace and assist percentage could help to manufacture the space needed to allow the team to take advantage of its offensive strengths - the one-on-one talent of Hayes and Brittney Sykes and the pick and roll pairing of Montgomery and Williams.
In 2019, the Dream has registered a pace of 94.20 (possessions per 40 minutes), which ranks tenth in the league, and a league-worst assist percentage of 49.4 percent. In 2018, the team was second in pace at 97.82, while tallying a middle-of-the-pack assist percentage of 60.8 percent.
Pace and passing do not necessarily produce good offense. Nonetheless, by increasing both, the Dream can get the defense in rotation, creating opportunities for Hayes and Sykes to attack the basket. Although both players have the ability to isolate at the top of the key, take their opponent off the dribble and put the ball in the hoop, this task becomes more difficult when the paint is clogged. Making the defense scramble through more ball movement will open spaces that Hayes and Sykes can speed and slink through.
Moving the ball also will make the Montgomery-Williams pick-and-roll combination more effective. One of the best roll women in the league, Williams has been stonewalled at the rim too many times this season. Her 33.3 percent effective field goal percentage is a sign of an overcrowded paint with waiting defenders. A moving ball and moving bodies can unsettle interior defenders, helping Williams find a clearer path to the rim.
At Tuesday’s practice, head coach Nicki Collen had her squad get back to the basics of ball movement, reinforcing the ways in which quick passes can unlock offensive opportunities. As she told reporters:
“We don’t want the ball to stick, so we started with simple passing drills and moving the ball with our outside hand ... (We worked on) the idea of reading two on ones, because it’s so important in this league, and then we broke down the basics of ball screen defense and pin downs, which we’re gonna face regardless of our opponent.”
In tonight’s game against the Las Vegas Aces, the Dream must inject the ball with energy to enliven their offense. Otherwise, Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson easily can patrol the paint, preventing Atlanta’s attack. Likewise, in Sunday’s matchup with Connecticut, the Dream again will need to play with alacrity in order to break down the Sun’s third-ranked defense.
Atlanta misses Angel, but they still can win without her
The absence of Angel McCoughtry, of course, also impacts the Dream. Last season, she claimed a team-best 14.3 player impact estimate. And although the squad sustained their success without her late last season, her seemingly preternatural ability to make big plays on both ends of the floor would provide a needed boost.
Yet, until McCoughtry returns, the Dream must increase their intensity and intelligence, two traits that will go a long way towards helping them rediscover last season’s connected defense and dynamic offense. The combination of the 2018 Coach of the Year and a tight team culture suggests the team should be able to right the ship.
But, when the Dream find their stride, will they also find more fans in the seats at State Farm Arena? Check back next week to understand why Atlanta struggles to scream for the Dream.
All stats courtesy of stats.wnba.com.