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2021 WNBA Season Preview: Will many changes result in success or shortcomings for Atlanta Dream?

While new ownership was the biggest change for the Atlanta Dream during the 2021 offseason, their roster also underwent a number of changes, resulting in a talented collection of players with little experience playing together. Will the team quickly cohere into a playoff threat or fracture due to a lack of familiarity?

Washington Mystics v Atlanta Dream
Head coach Nicki Collen instructs her squad during the 2020 WNBA season.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Since the conclusion of the 2020 WNBA season, the Atlanta Dream have undergone big changes.

Most importantly, they have new owners, with former Dream player Renee Montgomery joining an ownership group with Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair. Continuing the overhaul, the organization added Brooklyn Cartwright as Director of Basketball Operations and parted ways with President and General Manager Chris Sienko.

On the court, the Dream also will look different.

While Dream lifer Tiffany Hayes is returning after opting out of the 2020 season, she’ll only find two familiar faces — Elizabeth Williams and Monique Billings. Hayes has yet to take the court with the new faces that Atlanta added last offseason — Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen and Kalani Brown.

The remainder of the (likely) final roster will be filled out by more new faces — Aari McDonald, Cheyenne Parker, Tianna Hawkins and Odyssey Sims.

In order for the Dream to exceed their tenth-place spot in Swish Appeal’s preseason power rankings, head coach Nicki Collen’s squad will have to quickly develop cohesion and camaraderie.

Here are two reasons the Dream might struggle and two reasons they might succeed:

A nightmare season?: Potential problems for the Atlanta Dream

1. The absence of a clear team ethos

From the top of the roster to the bottom, the Dream have talented players. But does this talent translate into a team? More critically, does it translate into a consistent, winning team?

In particular, the lack of familiarity between players, especially amongst all the backcourt options, could result in a “your turn, my turn” offense, with Tiffany Hayes, Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Odyssey Sims and Aari McDonald taking turns looking for their own shot out of isolations. While isolation scoring can be effective offense, it also can encourage other players to take a “score first” offensive approach, as new frontcourt additions Cheyenne Parker and Tianna Hawkins also will want to make the most of their touches.

Instilling a team-centric system will be a crucial, challenging task for head coach Nicki Collen.

2. Can Tiffany Hayes be a true superstar?

In 2018, Tiffany Hayes turned in a superstar-level season, earning All-WNBA honors for her awesome efforts.

In 2019, with no Angel McCoughtry as a co-star, Hayes failed to rediscover her 2018 form, with nagging injuries and an unfriendly whistle sinking her offensive efficiency and effectiveness.

After a season-long absence, the Dream need the 2018 version of Hayes. For all of the flashes Chennedy Carter showed during her rookie season and all of the excitement about what Aari McDonald might do during her rookie season, this is still Tiffany Hayes’ team. As she goes, the Dream will go.

A true superstar is a prerequisite to team success in the WNBA. The Dream thus need Hayes to approach superstar highs if they are to be in the thick of the playoff chase. Hayes’ prior performances in the WNBA inspire both confidence and caution about her ability to consistently establish herself as an upper-echelon player and, in turn, take the Dream into the postseason.

Dreamin’ big!: Points of promise for the Atlanta Dream

1. Optionality and opportunity

Instead of fretting about a collection of players with competing agendas, the optionality and versatility of the Dream roster should be considered an exciting advantage.

Collen can deploy multiple interesting lineup combinations, adjusting her personnel and strategy depending on game situations. For instance, a fivesome of Tiffany Hayes, Aari McDonald, Odyssey Sims, Monique Billings and Elizabeth Williams could bring high-intensity defense. In contrast, a group of Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, Tianna Hawkins and Cheyenne Parker could offer explosive scoring.

If Collen can maximize the Dream’s many talents in various combinations, they could be an incredibly frustrating matchup for opponents, shapeshifting into different styles of play throughout a contest.

2. Super-charged Cheyenne Parker

While a less-heralded free agency signing than the other C. Parker, Cheyenne Parker brings a brand of frontcourt offensive dynamism to Atlanta that the Dream have lacked since the days of Érika de Souza.

Last season with the Chicago Sky, Parker assumed an expanded offensive role, enjoying the best season of her career. In nearly 25 minutes per game, she averaged a career-high 13.4 points, with a career high 59.7 perfect effective field goal percentage. She even flashed a 3-point shot, converting 46.9 percent of her 32 total attempts. Parker additionally averaged career highs in rebounds and assists, grabbing 6.4 boards and swiping 1.3 steals per game.

In a league with a number of ferocious post players, she also brings needed fire and feistiness to the Atlanta frontcourt. Even if they still lack elite interior size, the combination of the edgy Parker with the solid Elizabeth Williams should better equip the Dream to battle in the paint.