The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 3, 2019
What's ailing the Atlanta Dream? — Interview with Mike Thibault — Must-click women's basketball links
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The Atlanta Nightmare
Much of the 2019 WNBA season has unfolded roughly as expected, in my eyes and to observers generally.
The Mystics and Sun are elite. The Sky and Aces are improved. Los Angeles is struggling to incorporate all its new talent, Minnesota is punching above its weight.
And then there’s… Atlanta, who is just awful so far this season, betraying everything I thought I knew about them, and surprising WNBA talent evaluators.
After Tuesday night’s loss to the Lynx, the Dream are 2-9, good for 12th in the league. They are tied in the loss column with Indiana, but the Fever are 5-9, and the way Atlanta is playing right now, it is hard to see where the next three wins come from. At Seattle? At Phoenix? Home against the Sun and Lynx? Those are the next four.
A cursory look at the stats indicates that the problem is team-wide, and on both ends of the floor. The Dream are at an 89.3 offensive rating, which isn’t just last in the WNBA in 2019, it would be the lowest full-season mark since the San Antonio Stars back in 2015. And defensively, their 103.1 is last as well, a year after finishing atop the league in the measure, with defense serving as the identity of this team.
Much of the defensive decline can be attributed to all the missed shots. The Dream shot 42.6% from the field last year, 37.4% from the field so far this season. That’s led to a jump in transition possessions for the opposition so far — per Synergy, 16.5% of the time this year, 14.4% of the time last year — and in both campaigns, Dream opponents average better than a point per possession in such instances.
But that’s not everything. The Dream, for instance, forced shots earlier in halfcourt possessions last year — just 8.3% of them got to the final four seconds of the shot clock, again per Synergy — and once they did, the Dream finished the possessions, holding opponents in those instances to 0.586 points per possession. This year? 12.1 percent of the time, teams reach that final four seconds, but once they do, they are scoring at a 0.776 rate, 10th in the league. Again, a team known last year for tenacity is taking its foot off the gas before that shot clock reaches zero.
That was what was most unsettling about Stephanie Talbot’s big night against them Tuesday. Nicki Collen talked about it postgame, but here, let my tweet of a screenshot do the work of Synergy:
The question is, of course, how you fix this. Fortunately, Atlanta has one of the best basketball minds in the world in Nicki Collen to do so. But with Angel McCoughtry under contract all season, Jessica Breland, Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes all signed through 2020, exactly how to adjust the roster to add more offense beyond just hoping McCoughtry comes back early is unclear.
And why is a team that looked as unified as any I’d seen in recent years right through last year’s playoffs and into the preseason this spring is failing to give max effort on the defensive end all season? It’s a mystery to me, to the Dream, and to observers around the league.
This Week in Women’s Basketball
Let’s give a massive shoutout to The Athletic’s WNBA section (and friend of the email list Hannah Withiam). Just this week, my subscription got me:
(Make sure you share these, like them on the page, comment on them and subscribe. You need to give bottom-line response when companies invest in coverage of women’s sports.)
Lots of great stuff all over this week.
Danielle Lerner has the story of Louisville’s Yacine Diop.
Keith Geswein has a closer look at Teaira McCowan’s rebounding dominance.
Kurt Streeter got some time with Maya Moore.
Kellen Becoats tracks A’ja Wilson’s progress.
NBA2k20 is finally doing right by the WNBA.
A soccer piece, yes, but the author seems to have a basketball background.
New FDU coach Ang Szumilo discusses how she got into coaching.
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Mike Thibault, Washington Mystics
(I caught up with Mike when he and the Mystics came through town last month. Mike won WNBA Coach of the Month in June.)
HOWARD MEGDAL: So I know a trick you picked up from your time coaching under Pat Riley is showing video highlights with music to your team. What’s the last time you used it?
MIKE THIBAULT: We did it opening day of training camp. We take turns picking music. I didn’t really think about it, it was just something we did. I don’t over do it because I think you have to pick your spots. So the players know that there’s a little something different about it.
HOWARD MEGDAL: What did this one look like?
MIKE THIBAULT: Basically, the start of the film was watching the end of our Seattle series, for them celebrating. Then it was how you pick yourself up and go back to the fight again. They were stumped from the playoffs in Atlanta series, LA game, Elena going down, LaToya, Ariel Atkins going down…just bounce back and play.
HOWARD MEGDAL: It feels, on some level, like it’s too simplistic to say it this way, but you guys in the finals, Seattle’s decimated, you’re better, does it feel like this is where you should be? This is yours for the taking? Not that anything is promised to you.
MIKE THIBAULT: We just feel like we know how to do it, now can we do it again. It’s hard — the league is too good. Seeding make a big difference, Connecticut could have been in the finals if they beat Phoenix. Especially when you have one-game knockouts, it skews the whole thing.
HOWARD MEGDAL: It makes the top two seeds more valuable than anything else in this league.
MIKE THIBAULT: Yup. We don’t often have it, we won as a road team, we won at home against LA last year, I don’t know, I just think the league is way too good from top to bottom. I just think there’s a good vibe about our team because we’re more mature, the young players have more experience, that just makes a big difference.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Having Aerial Powers though, having gone through a training camp now, is there a significance there? People forget, she came in early, this is a legit, essentially lottery level talent.
MIKE THIBAULT: Yes, if she and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough then we have the depth we hope for. Obviously for a month now, we’re going to be a little thin, but when it counts we should have a full room of experienced players who know what it’s like.