Training camp started on Sunday with Atlanta Dream head coach Michael Cooper beginning his second year with the Atlanta Dream. Last season ended in disappointment with an exit from the first round of the playoffs after winning the Eastern Conference regular season title. This year, the Dream hopes to remedy that mistake and return to its familiar destination of the WNBA Finals.
But what does the Dream need to do to cross the final barrier that separates themselves between a contender and a championship? What five things does the Dream have to do to bear that silver WNBA championship trophy at the end of the season?
1. Keep the core: By "the core" I mean Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle and Angel McCoughtry. The Dream has the kind of players it needs to win a championship right now - you can add Tiffany Hayes, Shoni Schimmel, Aneika Henry, and you can add whichever bench players (real or imaginary) that you want to, but they coalesce about that core.
Think about it. This core group of players has gone to three WNBA Finals. The fans of other WNBA teams might dog the Dream, but they'd give two arms and a leg to have players like that. So would a lot of other WNBA coaches and GMs. Put that de Souza/Lyttle/McCoughtry squad on the Shock roster or the Sun roster and those teams become championship contenders.
Even though Branch Rickey said it's smarter to trade too early than too late - and I agree with him - my advice to the Dream front office is when some GM is dangling huge draft picks or established stars for one of these three players, smile, thank them for the call, and hang up.
2. Stay healthy: We saw what happened with Chicago last year. They had players off the roster for various reasons. Fowles had a right labrum hip tear. Delle Donne had Lyme disease. Vandersloot had a left MCL knee strain and the Sky struggled to put together a coherent roster for most of the season.
Then at the end of the year, all three players were (relatively) healthy and suddenly it was a different team. The sick Sky team finished with a losing record; the healthy one went to the WNBA Finals.
Of course, every team wants to stay healthy. But for the Dream, it takes on critical importance.
See those numbers? Those are Herfindahl indices. They're hard to explain, so I'll summarize by saying that they give a very rough idea of how "deep" a team goes in terms of distribution of minutes. The higher the number, the more "spread out" the minutes of the team.
The Shock led the league last year, with three players playing over 1,000 minutes in the regular season and a fourth (Courtney Paris) playing in the 900s. Phoenix had four players with over 1,000 minutes. Up next? The Dream with three players (McCoughtry, Hayes, De Souza) playing 900 minutes and Lyttle playing over 1,000.
Lyttle's minutes are a particular concern. She was in the top 10 in the WNBA in minutes played last season. Overseas, she played a full season in Turkey plus a march to the domestic league championship, plus Euroleague, PLUS three Euroleague playoff games. There weren’t many breaks for her and all of that play will catch up to a player sooner or later. So someone from the bench needs to step up and take these loads off Lyttle, and de Souza, and McCoughtry.
Furthermore, a healthy Michael Cooper would be helpful. When he was diagnosed and treated for tongue cancer, the Dream went into a swoon that they never recovered from. They need him at the helm.
3. Solve the point guard situation. The joke among Dream followers is that we had three point guards that exhibited all three skills a point guard needs: to pass, to score, and to play defense. The punchline of the joke was that each of the point guards had only two of those three skills.
Schimmel’s “missing skill” was defense, but she just needs to get up to being an average defender. She made great strides last season and had a strong offensive push at the end of the regular season.
Point guard by committee is a short term fix. Someone needs to take the helm at point guard, and the best candidate is Schimmel. When she's off, she's really off but when she's on, then you can sit back and reap the benefits. If she plays passable defense, she'll have a long WNBA career. Her only weakness is that she's not really a drive to the basket kind of point guard, but the hope is that Samantha Logic will be that option at backup point guard and that the leadership mantle will fall squarely onto Schimmel's shoulders. Schimmel only showed what kind of point guard she might be last year; this season she has to show up as the point guard she will be for the future.
4. Three point shooting. Everyone wants it in the WNBA, but it's hard to get. Last year, the Dream finished dead last in 3-point shooting. If you don't know why 3-point shooting is important, the lack of a 3-point threat allows teams to crowd around the basket or (mostly) ignore offensive players behind the 3-point arc. If the Dream can spread defenses, it makes it easier for Atlanta not just to shoot, but to run.
Oh well, the 30.3 percent from last year (12th in the league) was better than the 27.5 percent from the year before (12th). After 2008 when the Dream finished 7th in the league in 3-point shooting percentage, Atlanta has never finished higher than 11th in the league since then.
So who does the Dream have coming into camp? Brittany Hrynko, who shot 34.2 percent from the 3-point line for DePaul in 257 attempts. Hrynko needs to have a good camp and needs to keep her 3-point shooting percentage high. Hayes and Schimmel have proven they can be long range threats but the Dream clearly need more help.
5. A lock-down post defender. Remember the last quarter the Dream played in 2014? When one player on the Chicago Sky, Elena Delle Donne scored more points by herself than the entire Atlanta Dream scored? And this is against a team that has two All-Defensive Team players (Lyttle, McCoughtry).
Ify Ibekwe could certainly help. She was a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, and now she's in the Atlanta Dream camp. Delle Donne's height and quick step bring defensive nightmares for any player guarding her but the Dream really need a role player who can come off the bench and do the dirty work against any team with a good post player. Swin Cash didn't pan out on the offensive end and DeLisha Milton-Jones was hurt before her season even started.
The last great defensive specialist the Dream had was Armintie Herrington, and she wasn't a post player. Every team needs its role players, and if the Dream can find that spare part it needs, then the Sky won't be the limit in the 2015 post-season.