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2023 WNBA season preview: Atlanta aims to turn playoff dreams to reality

With an improved offense and elite defense, the ascendant Atlanta Dream aim to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Here’s how it might happen.

Los Angeles Sparks v Atlanta Dream
Can Rhyne Howard, Cheyenne Parker and company return the Atlanta Dream to the playoffs?
Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Will the Atlanta Dream make the 2023 WNBA playoffs?

The offseason acquisition of Allisha Gray announced Atlanta’s intention to build on last season’s good vibes and promising growth with a playoff push. While the super teams in Las Vegas and New York, as well as a super strong squad in DC, loom over the league as surefire playoff participants, the remaining five postseason berths are up for grabs.

Can the Dream claim a spot? Here are three key things, among others, that will go a long way to determining if Atlanta achieves, or even exceeds, their playoff ambitions:

#1. An attack-minded Rhyne Howard

In large part, Rhyne Howard’s prolific 3-point shooting propelled her successful rookie season. Howard converted 42.6 percent of her 6.8 trey attempts during the first month of her career. From there, her efficiency faded, yet she still finished with a threatening season-long average of 34.3 percent on a volume of 7.3 attempts per game.

More critically, Howard’s 3-ball also swung the Dream’s success. In wins, she shot 43.2 percent and averaged 19.5 points; in losses, it was 28.8 percent and 14.2 points. These numbers not only capture how dependent the Dream were on Howard’s scoring, but also how dependent Howard’s scoring was on the 3-pointer. Check out how many of her halfcourt scoring highlights were 3s:

In year two, it is essential for Howard to more consistently manufacture points inside the arc, as Atlanta again will ask her to serve as the offensive engine. With her combination of size, handle, footwork and savvy, Howard has the ingredients needed to get into the paint and score effectively, as well as draw fouls to earn easy points at the line. Promisingly, Howard averaged 7.3 free throws per game in six August contests.

#2. Allisha Gray meets expectations

In her six seasons with the Dallas Wings, Allisha Gray played alongside very different stars in Skylar Diggins-Smith, Liz Cambage and Arike Ogunbowale, in addition to a rotating cast of teammates. She also played under four head coaches in Fred Williams, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Brian Agler and (new Dream assistant coach) Vickie Johnson. For a player whose game and temperament exudes stability and steadiness, her tenure in Dallas was anything but.

Now in Atlanta, where head coach Tanisha Wright instantly instilled a culture of accountability and empowerment, Gray should finally find herself in an environment where she can emerge into the best version of herself. By relinquishing a pair of first-round picks to acquire Gray, Wright and the rest of Atlanta’s leadership has indicated that they think she will.

Along with serving as an All-Defensive caliber defender, the Dream need Gray to operate as a threatening offensive option, alleviating the burden on and augmenting opportunities for Howard.

She can do this by building on last season’s offensive performance, when she turned in the best 3-point shooting and passing season of her career. Gray’s ability to convert more than 40 percent of her 4.8 attempts per game will offer needed spacing for an Atlanta team short on elite shooting. Although she has not flashed advantage-creating passing chops, Gray is a quick and willing ball mover, a needed trait for an Atlanta offensive that could sometimes stagnate.

When speaking to media at training camp, Gray expressed her intention to be an All-Star, an honor she (rightfully) believes she just missed out on last season. Because offensive production tends to determine All-Star selections, achieving her goal likely requires putting up more points, which she can do by increasing her volume and accuracy from the midrange. While not the most efficient shots, hitting tough buckets is an All-Star hallmark that Gray is capable of, and, more importantly, the kind of self-created scoring that the Dream offense likely will demand.

#3. A menacing, versatile defense

Aggression and execution defined the defensive effort for the undersized Dream last season. This season it seems that the same principles will apply, only with extra versatility.

Rather than using free agency or the draft to add a more traditional rim protector to the roster, Atlanta appears intent on surrounding their frontcourt of Cheyenne Parker and Monique Billings, and, if they make the final roster, Lorela Cubaj and Iliana Rupert, with long, switchable players in Howard, Gray and Nia Coffey, in addition to rookies Haley Jones and Laeticia Amihere. When on a string, this corps of defenders should swarm and suffocate opponents, igniting transition offense.

They also will be bolstered at the point of attack by Danielle Robinson and Aari McDonald, who, despite her small size, is poised to establish herself as one of the league’s most feared defenders. At her recent media availability, McDonald emphasized that the team would be “very defensive-minded” and “scary good.”

Only a few years ago, the W was dominated by traditional bigs. The Aces’ shift from twin towers to a supercharged space-and-pace system — a shift that delivered a championship — has ushered the league into a new era. If optimized, Atlanta’s defensive system and personnel is designed to thrive in this evolving WNBA.