With the start of the WNBA season arriving on Friday, it’s time for the annual in-depth WNBAlien season previews. As tradition dictates, it’s the Eastern Conference first, in alphabetical order. Enjoy!
PG: Jasmine Thomas/Alex Bentley
SG: Armintie Herrington/Courtney Clements
SF: Angel McCoughtry/Tiffany Hayes/Anne Marie Armstrong
PF: Sancho Lyttle/Le’coe Willingham
C: Erika de Souza/Aneika Henry
Significant gains: Jasmine Thomas, Le’coe Willingham, Alex Bentley (all stretching the term ‘significant’).
Significant losses: Lindsey Harding.
Last season was a tumultuous one for the Atlanta Dream. There was all kinds of drama surrounding star player Angel McCoughtry, which precipitated a midseason change at head coach. Then after a decent run to close the regular season they were dumped out of the playoffs by Indiana, despite winning the opening game on the road. Rather than the trade which seemed inevitable when the Dream were imploding last year, McCoughtry was quietly re-signed in the offseason, retaining their key piece and avoiding an ugly rebuilding job.
However, there was one remaining kick in the teeth from the Marynell Meadors era still lurking in the shadows waiting to damage the Dream this offseason. The core designation in the WNBA is like the ‘franchise tag’ in the NFL – it allows each team to ‘core’ one player, preventing her from leaving the team as a free agent. However, when you’re cored and sign a multi-year contract, you remain the team’s core player for the length of that deal (unless you’re traded or retire). After the 2011 season, Meadors used the core designation on post player Erika de Souza, then signed her to a multi-year deal. So when point guard Lindsey Harding became an unrestricted free agent this offseason, the Dream could do nothing to prevent her from testing free agency. And she decided the sunshine and glitz of Los Angeles was preferable to staying in Atlanta. It leaves a glaring hole in Atlanta’s lineup at the point.
We’re going to see the Dream attempt various ways of dealing with that hole. They traded for Jasmine Thomas from Washington, a combo-guard who’s looked very ordinary during her two years in the league (albeit two years in the Mystics’ mess, so maybe she can do better now she’s escaped from Washington). They drafted Alex Bentley from Penn State who’ll be given a chance to earn minutes, and if she plays well enough could easily take Thomas’s spot at some stage. We may well also see Armintie Herrington (formerly Armintie Price) and Tiffany Hayes share the backcourt at times alongside McCoughtry, working as a ‘point guard by committee’. Fred Williams will probably try lots of things. Many of them may not be pretty. But a very similar Dream squad reached the WNBA Finals in 2010 with very little production from the point guard spot (it was before Harding arrived, with Shalee Lehning and then a decaying Coco Miller at the helm). So maybe they can survive.
Beyond the point guard drama, this is virtually the same Atlanta Dream team we’ve seen for several years now. McCoughtry will dominate the ball at times and take some terrible shots, but she’ll also penetrate at will, shoot a lot of free throws and frequently take over games. Herrington and Hayes offer speed alongside her on the wings, albeit not much perimeter shooting. The pairing of Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle remains one of the most threatening in the league when they’re on song. Erika’s the bruiser who’ll go to work in the paint at both ends, while Lyttle’s the long-limbed athlete who can still jump over everyone for a rebound when the mood strikes her. Lyttle’s drifted too far away from the rim in recent years, and started firing up endless low-percentage threes last season, which hopefully Fred Williams will find a way to limit. Developing a jumper to stretch the defense – especially on a team with limited shooting from its guards – is a positive. Taking shots from outside you just can’t make is not.
Even without Harding at the head of the snake, they’ll be one of the better defensive teams in the league again. McCoughtry and Herrington are long and quick on the perimeter, and combine with Lyttle to snag more than their share of steals. With less security at the point, the transition game that those steals ignite becomes even more important because the half-court offense is likely to be even less effective. The Dream are at their best when their defense leads to offense, rather than searching for ways to score in the half-court.
The bench looks desperately thin, which is something of a running theme in Atlanta. Aneika Henry was a serviceable fill-in down low last year (and with Lyttle likely to miss 6 games in June to represent Spain at EuroBasket Women, they’ll need Henry to be productive quickly). Le’coe Willingham was poor last season in Chicago and slides straight into the Cathrine Kraayeveld spot for Atlanta – you hope for one of her good seasons as a hustle post who can hit the occasional three, but can’t be terribly surprised if she spends most of the year on the bench. The rest of the squad is filled out by unknowns, rookies Courtney Clements and Anne Marie Armstrong. If Atlanta get much from anyone beyond their top 6, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.
The Dream have been rather overlooked in the build up to the 2013 season, lost in the shuffle with other teams changing coaches and overhauling their rosters, or introducing high-profile rookies. It’s not a group that’s particularly exciting anyone any more, because we’ve seen these pieces before, and the only noticeable difference is the loss of their starting point guard. But there’s still a talented group here, and chemistry and familiarity can be very important in this league when there’s little time to prepare. They’ll still win their fair share of games and be in the hunt for the playoffs, and over the course of 34 games maybe they can work out their point guard issues (or even discover some perimeter shooting). If so, no one will want to see McCoughtry and co. in the first round come September.