Here we go, folks: 12 teams, 16ish hours because I got up a bit late. As tradition dictates, Eastern Conference first, then the West, both in alphabetical order to show no favourites. With a bit of luck I’ll be done before the Lynx and Sparks tip-off in LA tonight, then manage to stay awake through the game.
First up, conveniently enough, just happens to be the team I watched practice last weekend…
PG: Lindsey Harding/Shalee Lehning
SG: Iziane Castro-Marques/Coco Miller
SF: Angel McCoughtry/Armintie Price
PF: Sancho Lyttle/Sandora Irvin/Brittainey Raven
C: Erika de Souza/Alison Bales (plus eventually Yelena Leuchanka)
Head coach: Marynell Meadors
Significant additions: Harding.
Significant losses: Yelena Leuchanka and Lyttle for part of the season, Kelly Miller if you stretch ‘significant’.
As the reigning Eastern Conference champions, we know the Atlanta Dream can be pretty damn good.
However, last season was wildly inconsistent, featuring three separate win-streaks of four games or more, plus a midseason four-game losing streak, before closing out the regular season losing six of their last seven games. All before they turned it on in the playoffs, sweeping through the East before hitting the brick wall known as Seattle in the Finals. They essentially made only one move in the offseason, benefiting from Lindsey Harding’s wanderlust when she decided she’d had enough of D.C. and fancied playing in the South. At the mere cost of this year’s first round pick (Ta’Shia Phillips) and next year’s (which should be late-first, if everything goes to plan), the Dream upgraded from the decaying Kelly Miller to Harding, who’ll bring quickness, aggression, penetration and scoring to the point guard spot that was plainly lacking in Atlanta last year.
One of the central strengths to the Dream is the balance and ability to score from a variety of places in their starting lineup, but given the choice what they want to do is run, and run, and run. You get the idea. Shalee Lehning did her best to drive that train last year, and it’ll only improve with Harding at the helm, but the key ingredients were Angel McCoughtry on one wing, and Iziane Castro-Marques on the other. McCoughtry’s scoring percentages dropped last season when she was asked to take on more of the scoring load but as she continues to mature as a pro she should learn when to be a little more selective. The natural ability to create her own shot, get to the rim and just flat-out put points on the board by whatever means necessary isn’t going away. Castro-Marques had the season of her life last year, scoring nearly 17 points per game by always looking to be on the break and somehow hitting those bizarre running jumpers along either sideline that never look like they’re going in. She doesn’t do much except score, but don’t expect the Dream coaches to care if she continues to do it as well as she did last season.
Off the bench, Atlanta can send in Coco Miller – who showed her occasional scoring prowess in the playoffs last year (and in ripping my beloved GB National Team to bits in a preseason game last weekend) – and Armintie Price, who continues to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. But can’t shoot. Like, at all. I mean seriously, if you’ve ever played pick-up or practiced with someone who’s a really good basketball player, someone who had a little time as a pro on a low level or something like that, you’ll know that when they’re unguarded and relaxed they’ll typically drain shots all day. I watched Price practice and she can’t even shoot then. It was kind of embarrassing. Anyway, she’s really quick and if you’re upgrading the defense when McCoughtry sits down, you know she’s doing something right.
The one weakness this perimeter has, and it’s been there for years but Meadors hasn’t found a way to solve it, is the lack of three-point shooting. They were last in the league in three-point percentage last season and it wasn’t even close (Atlanta: .289, nearest other: .321). If you can keep up with them in transition, sag off into the lane to cut down on driving opportunities and make entry passes more difficult, they’re usually going to have trouble shooting over you from distance. Sometimes Izi or Angel will get hot and start hitting everything from anywhere, but largely speaking they’ll miss a fair bit more than they’ll hit. Harding won’t help much because she’s no better from long-range than Lehning, although her penetration may create a few better shots this year than last for other people. Until they get more consistent out there, the book on Atlanta is going to remain “don’t let ’em run, make ’em shoot over you”. Far, far easier said than done, given their size and quickness, but it’s an evident weakness.
When they aren’t galloping past you on the break or running the age-old ‘throw it to our best player and get out of the way’ offense, Atlanta’s post players are pretty dangerous scorers too. They’ll run the occasional traditional post-up, but more often than not it’s that play we saw a thousand times last season with a perimeter player on the wing, one of the posts flashing high to receive the ball (often beyond the three-point line), before throwing the entry pass to the other big who’s found strong position under the basket. It’s nightmarish to stop because the likes of Sancho Lyttle, Erika de Souza, Alison Bales and Yelena Leuchanka are so freaking big and they’re all smart enough to know when and how to make the pass. If it makes you feel any better, WNBA head coaches (come on, you know they’ve all subscribed to this site by now), the Dream can’t really stop it themselves in practice either.
Over the last couple of years the Lyttle/de Souza duo has developed into one of the most feared starting post tandems in the WNBA. Lyttle remains scarily athletic and annoyingly long, a pogo-stick on legs who’s learned how to control herself better and play strong positional defense as well. de Souza complements her by being enormous yet mobile for her size, difficult to get around or move off the block, and between her and Sancho it’s difficult to find anyone to go at. The bench isn’t quite so threatening. Alison Bales is even bigger than de Souza, and could benefit from having old college running-mate Harding at the point, but she’s still a backup who’d rather jack jumpshots than use her 6-7 frame to advantage down low. Sandora Irvin’s been a bust for so many years in the WNBA that I’ve lost count, and although Brittainey Raven was practicing as a post player last week she’s barely 6-0. Good luck down there, Brit. The thin bench could hurt them early in the season, as Lyttle leaves on June 14th for EuroBasket Women and will miss six games. Yelena Leuchanka, an upgrade down low on Irvin, Raven, and sometimes Bales, will also be at EuroBasket and is expected to join the Dream sometime in July. But she’s never been the epitome of reliability, so don’t hold your breath.
When they were in the UK last week I asked coaches, players and even Harding herself if she was the final piece to a championship puzzle, and they were all oddly noncommittal. In a league with this much parity maybe they’re right to keep expectations under control, but I expected them to be more confident of their chances. As an observer, they have to be considered one of the favourites in the East. They were up and down in 2010 in a very competitive Eastern Conference but having added Harding to upgrade their weakest spot, they now start games with five legitimate scoring options. It could be an inconsistent regular season again, considering several key players are starting the season with niggling injuries (Izi, Angel and Sancho all missed the preseason game last week) and the disruption Lyttle’s foreign obligations will cause, plus I still don’t really trust Meadors not to screw things up on a fairly regular basis. However, when we hit the playoffs no one is going to want to face this bunch (cue the headlines about the Dream becoming a nightmare, just for a change).