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Dream Update: How shotmaking explains Atlanta’s recent successes, shortcomings

After a breakthrough three-game winning streak, the Atlanta Dream fell back to earth with two disappointing defeats. Was the Dream’s winning streak just the product of unsustainable shooting and scoring?

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty
Atlanta’s shotmakers — Allisha Gray and Rhyne Howard — are all smiles before a recent game.
Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

After reeling off a rousing three-game road winning streak, the Atlanta Dream dropped two consecutive games, falling to the Dallas Wings in the final game of their four-game road trip before getting run off the floor (again) by the New York Liberty in their return to Gateway Center.

Can signs of sustainability be excavated and replicated from Atlanta’s three straight victories? Or, were the trio of wins a product of less repeatable variance? A closer look at some shooting and shot distribution stats indicate the second question can more confidently be answered affirmatively.

The Dream can get wins by making tough shots

To a significant extent, strong shooting spurred the Dream during their winning streak.

On the season, the Dream are an average shooting team, ranking sixth in the league at 42.7 percent. Atlanta also ranks sixth and seventh, respectively, based on true shooting and effective field goal percentages.

In wins over the Connecticut Sun and Indiana Fever, Atlanta shot over 50 percent from the field. Those are the only two games in which the team has hit over half their shot attempts this season. Against the Fever, the Dream also were on fire from three, going 7-of-15 from behind the arc while the Fever were a frigid 4-of-19.

In defeating the Liberty in Brooklyn, the Dream did not enjoy as excellent shooting; however, they benefitted from the Liberty, the second-best shooting team in the league, suffering from an off night, exemplified by Breanna Stewart struggling through a 1-of-14 performance.

While it can be too simplistic to say, “It’s a make-or-miss league,” making shots, especially when the opponent is missing shots, more likely leads to wins. But can the Dream count on consistently outshooting their opponents?

A deeper dive into the data further shows how much the Dream benefited from shooting over-performance. Based on advanced data from Pbpstats, Atlanta did not take the highest quality shots in either of these three wins, registering below their shot quality season average.

Because the Dream lead the league in the percentage of their field goal attempts that come from 2-point range, this data point is not surprising. More specifically, Atlanta does not feast on at-rim 2-pointers; rather, per Pbpstats, almost 30 percent of their shot attempts are categorized as short mid-rangers, meaning shots from four to 14 feet.

In short, Atlanta did not just hit shots, they hit tough shots.

Allisha Gray and Rhyne Howard make, take tough shots

This shot profile reflects the shot diet of the Dream’s two leading scorers: Allisha Gray and Rhyne Howard. Gray and Howard both are more than capable of cashing in on such buckets, but it is worth detailing the degree to which the Dream are relying on the pair to master the (short and long) mid-range.

In the midst of a career-best season, Gray is taking a career-high 78.8 percent of her shots from 2-point range. Encouragingly, she is getting to the rim at a career-high rate, according to Pbpstats. However, the short midrange is her most frequent shot zone. And while she converts better than 63 percent of her efforts at the rim, she is shooting 41.5 percent from four to 14 feet.

Whereas Gray attacks the rim for more than 30 percent of her shot attempts, Howard’s rim frequency, per Pbpstats, is 8.77 percent, a disappointing number for a player of her size and skill. She also is less successful than Gray converting at the basket, suggesting the need for Howard to add the strength and stability that the more experienced Gray has added over the course of her WNBA tenure. However, efficient scoring is even more difficult for Howard when she cannot get all the way to the hoop, as she is hitting less than 30 percent of the shots she takes from short mid-range, which account for approximately 27 percent of her overall shots. Howard has drained almost 52 percent of her long mid-rangers, an impressive but likely unsustainable number. She also is taking just over 18 percent of her shots from 14 feet to the 3-point line.

Gray and Howard are great players — All-Star caliber players — because they have proven that they can sink the kind of shots often discouraged by data-driven thinking. It’s not a problem that the Dream have willing and able tough shotmakers!

Can Atlanta adjust to find more sustainable scoring success?

Yet, it is a problem if the team’s offense is too dependent on tough-bucket getting from Gray, Howard and the Dream’s other perimeter players. Juxtaposing the Dream’s three-game winning streak with their two subsequent losses suggests this has been the case.

When the shots don’t fall, as happened against Dallas and New York this past week, not only does Atlanta fail to score, but — possibly more critically — they also struggle to set their defense, allowing the opponent to then find easier (sometimes too easy) scoring opportunities. From there, things can snowball, especially considering Atlanta’s turnover troubles (something to be analyzed at a future date!).

Things are far from broken for the Dream. But to achieve their upside, Atlanta needs to make offensive adjustments.

All stats from, unless noted otherwise. All stats current as of June 24.