We’re back again for another year! As always, we’ll be going team-by-team with these previews, starting with the Eastern Conference (as tradition dictates). The East will be going up in relatively quick succession; you’ll have to wait a little bit for the West. Enjoy, and feel free to reply, debate, argue or whatever in the comments section below.
Celine Dumerc/Shoni Schimmel/Jasmine Thomas
Tiffany Hayes/Matee Ajavon
Angel McCoughtry/Swin Cash
Sancho Lyttle/Aneika Henry
Erika de Souza/Nadia Gomes Colhado
plus either Inga Orekhova or Amanda Thompson (or maybe both, until Dumerc arrives)
Significant additions: Dumerc, Cash, Schimmel, Ajavon, new head coach Michael Cooper
Significant losses: Alex Bentley, Armintie Herrington, Le’coe Willingham if we’re already stretching ‘significant’, former head coach Fred Williams
Dream fans were starting to get a little worried early in the 2014 offseason. For a squad that had reached the WNBA Finals in three of the last four years, there was still a clear weakness in perimeter shooting that needed to be addressed, and some question marks around their guard corps. Also, once again, they’d allowed two key players to become unrestricted free agents at the same time, and could only core one of them to make sure she couldn’t leave. They used that spot on center Erika de Souza, allowing wing Armintie Herrington free rein to choose her own destination – and she ultimately chose Los Angeles. Then they made a surprising trade that gave up young combo-guard Alex Bentley for veteran conscience-less 2-guard Matee Ajavon, opening up a big hole at point guard that there didn’t seem to be anyone around to fill. Even with the core of Angel McCoughtry, Sancho Lyttle and de Souza still in place, Michael Cooper’s first year as Dream head coach was looking tricky before it began.
Then the pieces started to fall into place. The big move was coaxing French point guard Celine Dumerc into finally giving the WNBA a try. The consensus best lead guard in Europe for quite some time now, Dumerc is a smart, heady player who can run a team, is comfortable playing a background role to other stars when necessary, but can shoot upwards of 40% from three-point range and has a fondness for making big shots. Almost the exact definition for what Atlanta needed in a point guard, considering their volatile star player and limited perimeter shooting. The only negative with Dumerc is that the French season is running long this year, and her Bourges team tend to win everything, so she’s there to the bitter end. She’s missed the whole of training camp, and there’s still a week to go in the French playoffs. So she’ll be late, and it might take her a little while to acclimatise, but by the time we reach the games that matter in August and September she should’ve fit right in.
The Dream also added Louisville’s Shoni Schimmel in the draft, and then picked up veteran forward Swin Cash for virtually nothing from Chicago. Schimmel was something of a loose cannon in college, a scorer who can let fly from anywhere and make showtime passes, who sometimes tried to do a bit too much. Cooper apparently wants to make her into a scoring point guard, which might take some time, but with combo-guard Jasmine Thomas as an alternative backup at the point he has other options to run the offense until Dumerc takes over. Cash was a surprise bonus when Chicago gave up on holding her and practically gave her away for free. While not the player she once was, she’s still a strong presence, a solid defender, and can give you reliable minutes without taking much off the table.
Plus the carryovers from previous successful Dream squads were a pretty nice start for Cooper to begin with. McCoughtry is the star, capable of taking games over with her driving and scoring ability, and her knack for jumping passing lanes to break out for steals and layups. Her willingness to toss up ugly shots from outside that have little chance of going in, and tendency to choose whining and pouting over getting back on defense, can be frustrating to watch. But you can’t deny the talent or the production. Helping her out on the perimeter, along with the players already mentioned, will be Tiffany Hayes, now entering her third WNBA season. Hayes can be a quick, exciting scorer when given the chance, and with Herrington gone (and Ajavon reliably unreliable) Hayes may see more minutes this time around.
Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza have been one of the strongest post tandems in the league for several years now (when they’re both in town and healthy). Lyttle developed a tendency to take a few too many shots from outside her range, but she’s still a long-armed, effective presence at power forward who can do damage to opponents at both ends of the floor. Erika, by contrast, is the big, physical center who likes to bully people down low, and can offer a target inside to throw the ball to when all the slashing and driving isn’t working.
The bench has some question marks on it – Erika’s Brazilian teammate Nadia Gomes Colhado is another young unknown, Aneika Henry a decent but unspectacular backup, the guards have a history of being good one game and bad the next – but the addition of Cash gave them some extra security. They still don’t have an enormous amount of perimeter shooting, but it looks a little better than it has in the past.
Cooper’s been talking about playing even faster than this team has in the past, which could be something to see considering they were already the fastest-paced team in the league. As long as they stay healthy, he won’t have to change too much – they’ve always played an aggressive brand of defense, gambling for steals and looking to break at every opportunity, which creates that breakneck pace. We might see more of the ‘small’ lineups this year whenever Lyttle or Erika rest, which used to feature McCoughtry at power forward. Now they’ll have the option to use Cash as a backup 4, staying small-ish but saving McCoughtry from having to guard opposing posts. Losing Herrington will put a little extra pressure on McCoughtry to defend better players, because in the past it’s always been Herrington who tackled the primary opposing threat on the perimeter while McCoughtry rested or gambled. Hayes and Ajavon will probably try to fill the Herrington role, but might not be able to produce quite the same standard. Herrington’s inability to shoot was a regular source of frustration for many, but they might miss her on the defensive end.
This was a dynamic and aggressive team at both ends of the floor under Marynell Meadors and then Fred Williams, and this year’s version is only likely to be more so under Cooper. They might have some teething troubles early in the year as he gets to grip with his roster, they try to fit into his system, and Dumerc arrives and settles in, but by the end of the regular season they should be as scary as ever. A fourth visit to the Finals is certainly a possibility, and if they make it back maybe this time they might even win a game.