Injured & Tested. The Dream Can Still Win.
By B Terrell
It’s April. That means a new WNBA season is right around the corner. Team executives and coaches are crunching numbers and focusing on what’s best and next for their rosters. How to improve on the best practices from the season before? How do you avoid what some may refer to as mistakes and what others would classify as teachable moments? What’s the identity? Is everyone healthy and ready to go?
Healthy? Ready? Well, Let’s take a look...
The Atlanta Dream went 23-11 in 2018 which was good enough to secure the number two seed in the playoffs equaling in a double bye, which ultimately meant a little extra... rest.
At that point, rest may have been exactly what the Dream needed. A few weeks prior to the start of the playoffs, the team’s franchise player, Angel McCoughtry, went down against the Las Vegas Aces during a playoff clinching August 7th game. I’m no medical expert, but could tell it was a severe injury from the look on her face. I was in attendance for that game, and McCamish Pavilion was QUIET while she laid on the court in obvious pain. It was later reported as an ACL injury, and Angel was ruled out the rest of the season.
The Dream would go on to win the game as well as four of their next five. The team seemed as though they had not missed a beat even in the midst of the absence of their superstar player, and were looking to continue their momentum. With Angel being out, it was sure to impact the team paired w/ the expectation of carrying the load. Minutes for the most part remained the same with the greatest increase being the trio of Elizabeth Williams, Jessica Breland and Tiffany Hayes all playing an additional 5mpg.
Angel’s a versatile player that can play positions 1-4 very well, and in some instances depending on matchup, can even be an undersized yet agile presence at the 5 position. With that being said, what stuck out to me was the bump in possessions the post players experienced. Before August 7th, Elizabeth Williams saw an average of 55.46. After? Her touches jumped to 64.8 thus causing her offensive rating to shift from 103% to 110%. Elsewhere in the post, Monique Billings experienced her fair share of increased possessions. She benefitted from an extra 3 touches per game while only averaging an extra 60 seconds of playing time. However, her defensive rating jumped from 94.8% to 100%. This seemed to be a part of the new game plan -- pack it in the paint and allow the defense to collapse in order to get the open shot. Think that helped? Well, their 3pt baskets eventually accounted for 26% of their offense up from 21%.
In the games after Angel’s injury, the player who possibly may have benefitted the most was the “newcomer” -- Alex Bentley. Affectionately billed as “Big Shot Bentley,” her defensive rating surged from 99% to 112%. Her scoring in the playoffs helped soften the blow of McCoughtry’s absence. While averaging 24mpg vs. 20mpg in the regular season, Bentley’s scoring nearly doubled from 8.5ppg to 15.6ppg.
That’s where the benefits ran out – they met the Mystics in the semifinals. Equipped w/ more size, stronger bodies, and arguably better shooters, the Mystics slowed the pace JUST enough even with an injured Elena Delle Donne to earn their franchise’s first trip to the WNBA Finals.
There’s plenty to build on once McCoughtry returns. Those few weeks showed the team is able to compete and can win games. To me, the absence of a veteran and sizable combo guard made the biggest difference. Yes. They recognized a benefit in being able to rely on outside shooting. However, what happens when the shooter can’t make her shot?
There are pros and cons to every scenario. The timetable for McCoughtry’s return still remains a mystery. Her recent social media posts suggest she’s working aggressively to suit up early season. However, one can’t help but think she’ll only return once she’s at a confident and near 100%. Dream head coach, Nicki Collen, suggested the same. When questioned after the 2019 WNBA Draft, she affirmed, “She will not be ready to start the season. There’s no question about that. She’s making progress.” Collen then went on to further update her progress by adding, “Angel’s not 25 anymore,” she said jokingly, “we’re just letting her body respond. She’s hard at work at P3 here in town and Emory which is a great partner of ours. She’s doing a really good job of working to get back, and she’s taking day by day and she’s getting strong. It’s all about quad strength at this point.” A mid-June or early July return now sounds like the probable timeframe.
Coach Collen has the tools to determine the makeup of her team’s on-court identity. While I’m sure they’ll venture back to what worked once McCoughtry eventually returns to the lineup -- especially after hitting their stride in July - - I’m sure they’ll incorporate what worked during their late-season success as well.
They say pressure makes diamonds. Can the Dream continue their trek and shine as bright? Time will tell, and this season will provide another shot.