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2019 Season in Review: Atlanta Dream tumble from top of the WNBA standings

It was just a season ago that the Atlanta Dream were fighting for a trip to the WNBA Finals. One massively disappointing year later, the franchise is facing questions about the status of its superstar and its home court.

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Atlanta Dream v Indiana Fever
It was a rough season for Tiffany Hayes (center) and the Dream. Atlanta finished last in the WNBA with a record of 8-26.
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Dream made an improbable run to the WNBA Semifinals last season, playing an aggressive brand of basketball that emphasized stout halfcourt defense and an explosive transition game. Nicki Collen was named Coach of the Year in her first season at the helm, Tiffany Hayes earned All-WNBA honors and the Dream franchise seemed to be in a position to remain competitive for years to come.

All of that already seems so long ago. The Dream regressed hard in 2019, stumbling out of the gate and never reestablishing what made them so successful just a year prior. When it was all said and done, Atlanta had won just eight games — the worst performance by the Dream since the franchise’s inaugural season in 2008.

So what happened? How did the Dream go from being a No. 2 playoff seed to the WNBA’s worst team in such little time?

WNBA: JUL 19 Atlanta Dream at Connecticut Sun Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Angel McCoughtry’s absence put Atlanta in a difficult position right away. The franchise linchpin suffered a serious knee injury late in 2018, which ended up keeping her out for all of 2019. McCoughtry’s presence as an alpha dog scorer and primary playmaker proved impossible to replace for a team that, despite its flair, still ranked below league average in offensive efficiency.

Without McCoughtry, the Dream were left with little in the way of halfcourt shot creation, and the ensuing domino effect proved to be catastrophic. Atlanta went from a below-average offensive team to a horrid one, scoring just 89.8 points per 100 possessions. Atlanta’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 41.7 percent was also a league low; there was simply no area on the court from where they shot at even an average efficiency.

The Dream shot significantly worse than league average from every zone on the floor in 2019.

Even so, it’s not like the Dream are completely devoid of talent, and losing one player should never be the sole reason for a team finishing 15 games worse than it did in the previous season. Too much of the Dream’s offensive struggles just came down to players not making enough open shots. The shooting efficiencies of the players the Dream featured most prominently (minutes per game) are not pretty:

  • Elizabeth Williams — 28.4 minutes, 45.5% eFG
  • Tiffany Hayes — 28.2 minutes, 44.1% eFG
  • Renee Montgomery — 27.9 minutes, 48.8% eFG
  • Brittney Sykes — 25.9 minutes, 40.5% eFG
  • Jessica Breland — 23.2 minutes, 39.5% eFG
  • Alex Bentley — 21.9 minutes, 35.6% eFG
Phoenix Mercury v Atlanta Dream
Tiffany Hayes had one of the finest seasons of her career in 2018, but she struggled to shoot well in 2019.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Investing such volume in inefficient scorers is rarely a recipe for success, and this was compounded by the erosion of the Dream’s defense and rebounding. While Atlanta was second to none in defensive efficiency in 2018, they were around the middle of the pack this season, which wasn’t nearly enough to make up for their poor offense. They also struggled to finish defensive possessions with rebounds, ranking dead last in the WNBA in defensive rebounding percentage.

Then there’s the question of McCoughtry. The player who has defined the Dream franchise since being drafted in 2009 has recently been at the center of a somewhat bizarre saga, putting her future with the team in question. She’ll be a free agent this offseason.

Finally, no matter what the Dream roster looks like in 2020, it will have a new home court. Dream owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loefller confirmed that the team will no longer be playing at State Farm Arena.

To say 2019 was a disappointment for the Dream would be an understatement. “Disaster” would probably be a better word. They’ll surely be looking for outside shooting in next year’s WNBA Draft, but the odds of securing favorable draft position will be against them — literally. As the WNBA uses two-year cumulative records to determine draft lottery odds, Atlanta will have just a 10.4 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick in Sept. 17’s Draft Lottery.

Will we soon be looking at an overhauled Dream team? One thing is for sure: the franchise can ill afford to have another letdown like it did in 2019.