Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 22, 2019
A crossroads for the Dream — Conversation with Nicki Collen — must-click links
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A crossroads for the Dream
Happy almost-WNBA season, everybody!
There are so many stories, so much that makes this league such a joy to cover, that I go into another season knowing that I will both feast on the known and unexpected while failing to get to it all before the WNBA Finals end.
That said, there may not be a more emblematic team to follow this season than the Atlanta Dream. We’re going to learn a lot about the league, writ-large, by what happens in Atlanta.
There’s the on-court makeup of the Dream, first of all. This is not a team with a classic star — Tiffany Hayes is underrated, no question, but she is also more of a first-among-equals in that offense. Consider that the WNBA, like all leagues, is constantly in a follow-the-winner mentality, and an Atlanta Dream WNBA title could well push other building franchises away from the star search and toward a defense-first, culture-centered plan.
That’s what the Dream are, really. It was what struck me, watching them last year, and that hasn’t changed when I checked in with them this preseason. One indicator I always look for when covering a team is how closely the way the head coach describes something dovetails or diverges from how the players do. And so when I talked to Renee Montgomery, and Brittney Sykes, even the newly-acquired Marie Gülich, they continued to emphasize just what Nicki Collen had told me, again and again, on points large and small.
This team, by the way, just loved Nicki. They’d run through a brick wall for her. And let’s not miss a reason why: she lets them have fun, with bench celebrations. And she is as good as any coach in this league at managing minutes — not one of the Dream averaged as many as 30 per game last season. It explains why they finished strong, and it’s going to help them in postseasons to come as well.
There are other questions the franchise must answer as well. There’s a new TV home, and a new home arena. There’s the question of how many people will show up to watch in both instances, with the implicit understanding: if not this group, endlessly entertaining and a real threat to win it all, then who? Conventional wisdom has them moving to the Bay Area if this doesn’t take. Personally, I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do in Atlanta than go watch that team, but they need more people who think like that to start showing up.
Too often, how we think about emerging leagues is based around individual team successes or failures at the top or bottom. New York’s recent travails in Westchester, Minnesota’s decade-long renaissance — these are just data points. But I’d really like to get a bellwether sense from how the city of Atlanta treats the Dream this season, how many folks come out to a newly renovated arena, what the shape and feel of their season is in 2019, on and off the court.
There’s ample reason for optimism. There are some causes for concern. 2019 will tell us a lot. Just like for the league as a whole, really.
This Week in Women’s Basketball
Reminder: First, the underlined words are the links. Second. CLICK these, even if you’ve already read them. Clicks = Attention from editors, producers and webmasters. Third, if you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me! firstname.lastname@example.org
So there’s been some kind of tipping point reached, and it’s awfully gratifying to see. The Athletic, adding freelance writers in every WNBA town. SLAM, hiring a WNBA editor. Bleacher Report, hiring the remarkable Ari Chambers. Kellen Becoats, getting the WNBA gig at SI. More is more, people, they need to see the audience, let’s keep it going! (No, really: every time a women’s sports investment doesn’t do well, we hear about it for like 50 years. So the stakes are huge, you guys.)
Meet Khalia Collier, owner of the St. Louis Surge.
Brendon Kleen on Jessica Breland, cancer survivor and key to the Atlanta Dream.
Bonus Lindsay Gibbs, this time on Edniesha Curry, lone woman coaching men’s Division I basketball.
Amanda Zahui B. contains multitudes.
Important from DeArbea Walker on the contractual side when WNBA players get hurt overseas.
I love that this crusty, uncompromising sports column calling for title or nothing is about Liz Cambage and the Aces. It just tickles me to see it.
Here’s Hannah Withiam (who is running the WNBA vertical, which is itself a win!) on The Athletic’s big move.
Maggie Hendricks on Katie Lou Samuelson? Yeah, I’m going to like getting used to this.
And Erica Ayala got Joe Tsai one-on-one!
Debbie Antonelli is just the best.
Ari Chambers was first with the Sue Bird news. Hurry back, Sue!
Across The Timeline has assembled ALL the WNBA podcasts for you in one place!
I wrote a season preview, with predicted order of finish, at the Times.
The High Post Hoops crew tackled 12 different in-depth team previews! I know I’m biased, but I am amazed at the work my crew is putting out on a daily basis.
CJR is asking about the hot new beat called the WNBA. Seriously, this has been quite a week for us glass half-full people.
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Nicki Collen, Atlanta Dream
I caught up with Nicki last week in Connecticut during preseason.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Thoughts just initially, on the defensive end especially?
NICKI COLLEN: Oh you know we are always going to be, I’m always going to be a defensive minded coach. I want to give the other team one shot. I felt like if Dallas had one huge strength with the lineups they play, they can really come to the glass from four positions, and you saw it a few times early, but I think we did a good job eliminating second chance points as the game went along.
HOWARD MEGDAL: You sent Jessica Breland out on a switch onto Arike Ogunbowale early on, she got a block. Your players, defensively, seem so interchangeable so much of the time. How much is that key to what it is you are able to do here?
NICKI COLLEN: I mean, I think they trust each other. At times, if Bree has a weakness at times that she over helps and so she gave up a three to [Cayla] George early that I don’t think she had to, but you take a play like that because she makes so many things happen and makes it so difficult. The athleticism of our posts and not even having Elizabeth [Williams] here right now is the ability to switch out on screens, especially late in the shot clock.
We are very much a team that doesn’t want to get in rotations if we don’t have to. But we are able to do that because if we guard ours well then we are not in rotations. We try to kind of recover on screens and keep the matchup’s we want and then when it gets under eight we are interchangeable in terms of switching and doing that.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Is there added pressure to get the eleven right [for the roster] especially because you are dealing with Angel’s injury?
NICKI COLLEN: It is, and we have some unique I mean, not unique to this league but for us the idea that [Alex] Bentley plays for Belarus and will miss some time for Eurobasket. I am pretty comfortable having two of the best point guards in the league. But then you lose one for three to five games potentially. Does that last spot need to go to an emergency point guard? Where I wouldn’t worry about that at all with the two of them. Otherwise so that’s why we drafted Maite [Cazorla] where we did and we felt really fortunate that she did move up. We were pretty convinced Minnesota would take her with one of those three picks that they had the second round. So when she dropped to us we were high-fiving in the draft room for sure.
HOWARD MEGDAL: With Marie Gülich, you were very specifically putting her in the spots where she was most successful at Oregon State, is that by design?
NICKI COLLEN: Yes, but it’s how we play, she is very good and pick and pop and pick and roll. She understands when to re-screen and when to twist actions. She’s just playing with a different level of confidence because she knows there is opportunity, and I think that’s different. I mean, I would play Griner, too if I was Sandy [Brondello].