WNBA Early-Season Surprises: Dreaming big in Atlanta, Phoenix failing to rise


Early season hot streaks can be a bit of a masquerade in the WNBA. Training camp is so short, often with players arriving late due to overseas commitments, so the squads that are ready for the first couple of weeks may not actually be the best teams. Connecticut got everyone excited by opening last season 7-1, then went 8-18 the rest of the way when they fell back to Earth. But at the same time, it’s a short season in the WNBA. This isn’t the 82- or 162-game slog of other US sports leagues. The Sun ultimately didn’t make the postseason last year, but they would have tied for the 8th spot under the new playoff system. A hot start can take you a long way towards the playoffs, even if a collapse follows. So it’s worth paying attention to the surprises of the young 2016 WNBA season.

Let’s start with the most obvious pleasant surprise. After an ugly 2015 and most prognosticators dumping them in the lottery before this season began, the Atlanta Dream have opened the year 5-1 and resembling their old selves. I mentioned that this was a possibility in my season preview, even if it didn’t seem likely. Three key pieces of their successful teams were still in town in Angel McCoughtry, Tiffany Hayes and Sancho Lyttle. They had a new center in Elizabeth Williams who in an ideal world would replace what Erika de Souza used to give them. And while no one was quite sure what they’d get from the point guard spot, they’ve survived before without much more than replacement-level talent in that spot. So far, it’s working like a dream (sorry).

The new acquisitions have fitted in well, exceeding the expectations of virtually everybody. Layshia Clarendon was a late addition from Indiana for minimal cost, and has slid into the starting point guard spot, so far looking a more impressive player than she ever did for the Fever. She always seemed like something of a square peg being asked to fit a round hole in Indiana, who always wanted her to become a point guard despite her scorer’s instincts. And even now in Atlanta she’s not really playing as a true point. But she looks freed up to play her more natural game, driving and scoring whenever the opportunity presents itself. Between her, Hayes and McCoughtry they don’t have anyone who particularly likes to pass on the perimeter, but they’re all creative enough to get the job done. And they can all initiate the offense or bring the ball up the floor when they need to. Clarendon’s backup, Carla Cortijo, is more of a true point guard, looking to probe the defense or create for others to a greater extent, and between them they’ve solidified the spot for Atlanta. I’m not as convinced by Clarendon’s defense as Dream head coach Michael Cooper keeps claiming to be, but she’s solid enough after three years learning at the feet of Tamika Catchings, Lin Dunn and Stephanie White.

In the middle, Elizabeth Williams looks like a very nice fit at the heart of Atlanta’s defense. She had a quiet, relatively anonymous rookie year in Connecticut, seeing limited playing time behind Kelsey Bone’s breakout season. Giving up the 4th overall pick for her seemed expensive when Atlanta made the move, considering most front offices tend to prefer the unknown of college kids over players they’ve already seen look fairly unimpressive in the pros. But combined with Lyttle and McCoughtry in the frontcourt, Williams makes the Dream annoyingly long and athletic. And she can do things like this:

The Dream switch 4/5 there, which is something most teams will do because there often isn’t much difference between the two posts. But it’s not a normal 4/5 switch because Dallas were going small due to foul trouble, so Williams is left covering Karima Christmas, typically a perimeter player. Williams tracks her all the way to the hoop, times the jump nicely, and sends the shot back from whence it came (keeping the ball in play, rather than the stands, which is even better).

This next clip is on another Christmas drive, but Williams is in a help position rather than the primary defender, and she times it right again, sliding over to protect the rim without giving up the easy lane to dump the ball off to her man (Courtney Paris, under the basket):

In some ways, she’s a more natural fit with Atlanta than Erika used to be, because she’s more mobile and can switch and rotate on a more level basis with players like Lyttle. And while Williams isn’t a dominant scorer on the offensive end, she can set a solid screen, and she’s got pretty good hands to catch and finish inside. She looks to have more potential there than, say, Kiah Stokes, the most successful big so far from their 2015 draft class.

Williams does still have some learning to do. She jumps out too far on the hedge here, allowing Odyssey Sims to split the trap:

And while she executes the sideline-trap nicely here, she looks confused about where she’s supposed to go once Sims gets out of it:

But you’d expect her to be working out how to fit in on a new team after six games, even if she wasn’t in just her second season in the pros.

To some extent, you have to expect the Dream to regress back towards the mean. They’ve always been a streaky team, they haven’t played any of the Western powers yet, and if Clarendon shoots 56% all season I’ll eat any hat of your choosing. They’ll also lose Sancho Lyttle fairly soon when she leaves to help Spain qualify for the Olympics, which will require players like Reshanda Gray, Rachel Hollivay and maybe Cierra Burdick to step up in her absence. But offensively they’ve gotten very little from Lyttle so far this season, so they won’t lose a great deal on that end. And while Clarendon and Hayes are likely to cool off from their smoking hot start, McCoughtry has barely hit a thing from outside this year, after looking more comfortable there last season. So while 5-1 might be a generous reflection of how good this team will be in the final reckoning, there look to be a lot more reasons for optimism than most thought before the season began. Dream fans might not have to try to sleep through the 2016 season after all.


Now on to the distinctly more negative surprise to open up the season. The Phoenix Mercury have been awful. Especially when you consider that most people picked them to be the best team in the league, and that the entire core of their dominant 2014 championship team is back together and apparently healthy, they’ve been desperately disappointing.

Offensively, the stats say that they’ve still been one of the better teams in the league, although it’s not been particularly pretty out on the court. Diana Taurasi has been jacking up and ungodly amount of threes, often without much offense being run beforehand, and it hasn’t helped the team’s rhythm or ball movement. Brittney Griner is only occasionally part of the offense, sometimes because the team forgets to bother looking for her, but often because she does nothing to make herself worth looking for.

The opening few games of the season in Phoenix and Minnesota presented a stark contrast. Sylvia Fowles was working hard for interior position, receiving the ball deep in the paint, and finishing. Or she was running the court hard in transition, getting cheap points by beating the defense down the floor. Or she was hitting the glass for easy putbacks. Griner rarely does any of that. Too often she’s standing there with one hand in the air, vaguely waving for the ball. And even when she’s received it on the low block, she’s constantly made moves that take her away from the rim into lower percentage looks. She’s always had a soft touch on hooks and short jumpers, but power moves towards the rim get you fouled, create higher percentage shots, and make more of a statement. This should be a drop step into a layup, or even a dunk:

Instead she turns it into a lazy right-handed hook over the defender. Meanwhile, Candice Dupree took a fortnight to notice the season had begun, DeWanna Bonner’s done DeWanna Bonner things, and it’s been lovely to have Penny Taylor back in our lives (even if she’s several-steps-slower-Penny Taylor). They’ve been just about good enough on offense, even if they haven’t looked like they give much of a crap most of the time. Now for the real issue. My god, the defense…

Two years ago, when they went 36-6 (including the playoffs) on their way to a title, this team had the best offense and the best defense in the league. This year, the defense has been deplorable. All these clips are from the first 15 minutes of Tuesday night’s game (against a pretty poor Connecticut team, statistically the worst offense in the WNBA):

In the first one, no one can be bothered to pick up Morgan Tuck, so she says “okay, I’ll lay it in then”. The second one’s off a made free throw by Taurasi, with six seconds left in the first quarter, where four Mercury ‘defenders’ are still at midcourt when Tuck receives the ball for an open 12ft jumper. The third one is a basic handoff where the defenders involved leave Chiney Ogwumike all alone to wander to the hoop for a layup, with Griner arriving just in time to clobber her as she finishes the play. The fourth one sees Phoenix in the 2-3 zone that Sandy Brondello has hastily thrown together as a defensive option, and one pass leaves Camille Little wide open for a three. Then Phoenix’s typically miserable rebounding allows Jonquel Jones to grab the miss and put it back in. It’s all so lazy.

They haven’t been working back in transition, the communication’s been bad on switches and rotations, and Taurasi’s been even more sloppy and languid than in previous years (constantly waving at teammates to cover the players she can’t be bothered to stay with any more, while looking around for someone else to vaguely guard). They switch a hell of a lot, which is fine – it’s how they’ve built their system, and part of why players with similar size like Noelle Quinn and Sonja Petrovic were added to the core – but it can’t just be an easy fall-back. You switch to keep the defense in position, and make it more difficult for the opposition to find holes. Not because you just can’t be bothered to even attempt to go round a screen, or because that player was in the process of driving past you anyway.

Perhaps most scarily, Griner hasn’t even been that great at providing the final line of defense in the paint. She keeps picking up dumb fouls early in games, on lazy reach-in fouls, unnecessary illegal screens, and swipes where she could easily scare a miss from the opponent but hacks her instead. If she’s not on the court, she’s definitely not providing much of a deterrent. But even when she’s been out there, players are finishing around or over her with much greater frequency than in previous seasons. Of course, the pathetic perimeter defense isn’t helping, because the holes she has to cover are more glaring, but this hasn’t been the dominant, game-changing defender of previous years.

On a more general note, they’ve just looked so apathetic. Even in their two wins, it took bursts of energy from backups like Mistie Bass, Isabelle Harrison and Alex Harden to ignite some fire into them and push them into closing the game out. That shouldn’t be necessary for such a veteran squad. It’s like they’ve shown up for the season believing a lot of their own hype, or just expecting to fall into the same rhythm and dominance that they had two years ago. It’s not that easy in this league. And with the changes to the system, the regular season matters more than it ever has. If the Mercury coast their way to something like the 7th-best record in the league, they’ll be a scary-as-hell 7th-seed, but they’d be playing two sudden-death playoffs, on the road, before even making it into a real series. Even the 5th seed would force them into those games, just with one of them at home.

Hopefully, at some point, one of these wake-up calls will kick in. A bit more passion and energy would go a long way, but it needs to be allied with more precision and cohesion, which isn’t always easy. Two years ago, moving Taylor into the starting lineup ahead of Erin Phillips was the key switch that helped everything fall into place, but it’s hard to see what they could do that would create a similarly meaningful change. Going to that 2-3 zone on a more consistent basis isn’t likely to improve things, especially against good teams that know that it’s coming. So they need to work harder, communicate better, and generally play like they give more of a shit. Sometimes this is a pretty simple game.

We’re splitting things up this week, because this piece was long enough on its own. This week’s installment of The W Dozen should arrive tomorrow.


One comment on “WNBA Early-Season Surprises: Dreaming big in Atlanta, Phoenix failing to rise

  1. […] wrote at length this week about the surprise starts for the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury HERE. So if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look. Now, on to the 12 items that have […]

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