PG: Lindsey Harding/Ketia Swanier
SG: Armintie Price/Laurie Koehn
SF: Angel McCoughtry/Tiffany Hayes
PF: Sancho Lyttle/Cathrine Kraayeveld
C: (Erika de Souza)/Yelena Leuchanka/Courtney Paris/Aneika Henry
Significant additions: Swanier (free agency from Phoenix), Kraayeveld (free agency from Chicago), Leuchanka (returning after year off), Hayes (college draft)
Significant losses: de Souza (Brazilian National Team for first half of the season), Lyttle (unconfirmed absence midseason to join Spanish National Team), Iziane Castro Marques (currently with Brazilian National Team, remains WNBA unrestricted free agent), Shalee Lehning (injured and retired from WNBA), Alison Bales (retired from WNBA), assistant coach Carol Ross (left to take head coach position in Los Angeles)
Well just reading that list above doesn’t paint a pretty picture, does it? The Dream have fought their way into the WNBA Finals both of the last two years, and went into the offseason hoping to build on the squad and break through that final hurdle. But it’s not going to be easy, and the first half of the season looks like it could be about staying in contention rather than trying to build a lead. Their perimeter rotation and depth looks like it might be weaker than last year, while the loss of center Erika de Souza to Olympic duty for the first half of the season – and potentially her frontcourt partner Sancho Lyttle to EuroBasket qualifiers with Spain – will seriously weaken their interior. Still, two years in a row this team have managed to find a way into the playoffs, then proven that seeding doesn’t necessarily count for much. Betting against them might not be smart.
When it’s in one piece, Atlanta’s starting lineup has shown it can be a match for pretty much anyone in the WNBA. Angel McCoughtry’s the star and the centerpiece, with her natural scoring talent and ability to take over games offensively an integral part of the Dream’s success. She does take too many bad shots – including far too many threes for someone who shoots a horrible percentage from outside – and you wish she’d create more for others rather than just herself, but she’s still an exceptional talent. Point guard Lindsey Harding arrived via trade last year and after taking a little while to settle proved to be the upgrade they expected. Her ability to run a team has improved dramatically since she entered the WNBA, and she fits comfortably into the fast-paced system the Dream like to run.
Unlike McCoughtry, you sometimes wish Harding would push the issue a little more and find some offense of her own. There were times last year when she seemed to drift through long periods before waking up late in games – sometimes too late – but she’s solidly at the front of the second-tier of point guards in the women’s game behind Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen. At shooting guard, there may be even greater onus on Armintie Price to step up this year than there was in 2011. With Iziane Castro Marques and Coco Miller gone they’ll need Price to produce, and likely to play a lot of minutes. She had a strong year last season, using her speed to score efficiently and terrorise on the defensive end, even though her shooting from any kind of range still left a lot to be desired. She was exposed in the playoffs, with good teams taking advantage of her lack of offensive effectiveness in the halfcourt, but that shouldn’t wipe away memories of how well she played in the regular season.
The Lyttle/de Souza pairing, when they’re both in town and healthy, is one of the most fearsome in the WNBA. Lyttle can still leap out of the gym, and she’s added more range to her offensive game in recent years to provide some diversity and stretch defenses. She’s also one of the quickest and most versatile big defenders in the league. de Souza is an interior powerhouse, using her bulk and strength to score and rebound inside. Her physicality was central to shutting down Connecticut’s Tina Charles in the playoffs last year and helping the Dream to the Finals. The only problem with these two is how much we’ll actually see of them. de Souza was signed to a new contract in the offseason, but will be gone until after the Olympics with Brazil (missing 19 of the 34 games). Meanwhile, a story published recently in Spain claimed that an agreement was in place for Lyttle to join the Spanish National Team for their EuroBasket Women 2013 qualifiers, which run from June 13th to July 11th (she’d miss at least 10 WNBA games if she joined Spain for all of them). News coming out of the Dream camp suggests this agreement may not be quite as set in stone as the Spanish would like to think, so we’ll see how it plays out. Lyttle is also one of the very few players combining the WNBA, European club basketball, and European national team commitments, which makes you wonder if her health will hold up. Atlanta will already be struggling to cope without de Souza – losing Lyttle for at least 10 games as well would leave them desperately weak in the paint.
The most glaring weakness with this Atlanta squad for several years has been their lack of outside shooting. Except on the rare occasions when McCoughtry or Castro Marques got hot, seeing a made three from someone in a Dream jersey was almost worth printing up a t-shirt to proclaim “I was there”. They’ve made a clear effort to address that deficiency this offseason. Cathrine Kraayeveld is a fairly direct replacement for Alison Bales, as a post player who can set some screens, play a little defense, and knock down the outside shot. In fact, hitting threes is pretty much Kraayeveld’s only offense. But she’s a little more mobile than Bales (albeit not nearly as big), and after proving a bad fit in Chicago there’s a chance she could recapture some form in Atlanta. If she can return to her level from a few years ago in New York, she can definitely help this team. The final cuts made to take the squad down to 11 also looked like a clear message that they were desperate for perimeter shooting. Laurie Koehn, who hasn’t made a WNBA squad since 2008 in Washington, was retained ahead of Coco Miller as a backup guard. Even more than Kraayeveld, all Koehn does is shoot. And practically just threes – of her 222 career WNBA shots, 205 of them have been from behind the arc. But she can’t do much else, which always limited her opportunities with the Mystics. We’re talking the guard version of Sidney Spencer, essentially. So if she can shoot the lights out, but can’t pass, can’t defend, and will struggle to get open against decent defense, will she ever be on the floor?
The rest of the Dream bench largely just raises more questions. They signed point guard Ketia Swanier from Phoenix, and despite her being a restricted free agent (giving the Mercury the right to match the offer) the Merc seemed happy to let her go. And that’s a Mercury team with all kinds of questions at point guard, by the way. Swanier’s very, very quick, but that’s her primary talent. Sometimes she’s too quick for her own good, and can’t finish at the rim or doesn’t have time to make a smart decision. So she’ll keep up the speed of this fast-paced squad when Harding needs a blow, but at times she’ll drive Coach Meadors crazy. Along with Kraayeveld, the post backups that will try to hold the fort are somewhat dubious. Yelena Leuchanka returns, but the big Belarussian has always been significantly more successful in Europe than the WNBA. She’s got some talent, but she tends to disappear far too frequently (which shouldn’t be that easy when you’re 6-5). Courtney Paris gets another chance to prove her WNBA credentials, after an up-and-down stint with the Dream last year. She made an impact when she arrived with her bulk inside and knack for snaring rebounds, but drifted out of Meadors’s rotation as the coach seemed to lose faith. She’s still yet to prove she can really cut it at WNBA level. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Dream also kept Aneika Henry as an extra post, a forward who played at college in Florida who is making the WNBA for the first time. She’s produced some decent numbers in Europe, but if they get anything from her it’ll be a bonus.
The final member of the bench group is rookie wing Tiffany Hayes, who the Dream were delighted to see fall to them at #14 in the draft. Solid numbers at Connecticut showed what she could do, despite many fans being frustrated by her inconsistencies. Less will be asked from her in Atlanta than at UConn, but with the Dream’s lack of depth on the perimeter she’ll have more opportunity to play than a lot of rookies. She’ll likely be the primary backup to McCoughtry and Price, and the least they’ll need from her is solid defense and the ability to knock down an open jumper.
Summary and Outlook
This is still a very good team. Their speed and defensive intensity scares other teams and is very hard to deal with when they’re in full flow, and all the important pieces are projected to be back and in place down the stretch of the season. But can they overcome all their extra issues? de Souza being gone for over half the season; potentially losing Lyttle as well; the loss of key assistant coach Carol Ross (whom many people felt was practically running this team, rather than Meadors); and the questionable group of backups, many of whom are new to this team and system. It’s a lot to overcome, and their lack of dependable depth could also hurt them significantly if they pick up any injuries to their starters. But if this team can hang around for the first half of the season – and that may well happen in yet another Eastern Conference where everyone beating everyone else is a distinct possibility – they could easily sneak into the playoffs. And once again, whatever seed they may be, no one will be looking forward to facing them in the postseason.