WNBA midseason check-in: Atlanta Dream

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 9: Tiffany Hayes
ATLANTA, GA - JULY 9: Tiffany Hayes /

The Atlanta Dream are almost the anti-Sun if you just scroll through the schedule and look for streaks. Atlanta went 4-1 to kick off the 2017 WNBA season without Angel McCoughtry. Two separate three game losing skids have come since.

Sancho Lyttle’s absence due to EuroBasket certainly played a part. She’s an important piece for any lineup to contribute in a unique combination of ways. Case in point: Lots of bigs operate out of a horns set. How many pull off this pass?

Atlanta could have survived a few of those tight losses. Had they done so, we all are probably talking about them as the surprise of the season. That’s how tight things are at the middle of the standings.

The injection of Brittney Sykes into the starting lineup has been just what they needed. The rookie guard has played 25 minutes or more in 9 straight games. Sykes has caught fire heading toward All-Star weekend, making multiple threes in four straight games. She caught up recently with Howard Megdal on the Locked On WBB Podcast

As a team, Atlanta is at 27.8% from deep—the worst mark in the league. Sykes is a really fun fit stylistically next to Layshia Clarendon and Tiffany Hayes if the shooting is real. We’ve already seen some advanced pick and roll feeds from the Syracuse alum:

Generally speaking, Sykes is just flat-out tough to guard when she’s in a triple threat position:

Also on Sykes: Even if you wanted it to happen sooner, can Head Coach Michael Cooper get some love for trying something new and now letting it happen? Most people don’t have the patience to empathize with professional basketball coaches on lineups, but we all remember those times a coach wouldn’t budge. Props to Coach Cooper for making the change.

Jordan Hooper (9-20 3PT) doesn’t play much, although that could change. Bria Holmes is just 6-for-39 from downtown after shooting 27% from deep in 2016 as a rookie.

The Dream ought to be pretty confident in where they are at. Hayes has emerged as a total star. Even when Atlanta’s team shooting really plummeted during their worst stretches, Hayes continued to shine.

To the chagrin of some, Hayes has a knack for getting to the line. At some point, that just becomes noise—that many free throw attempts don’t happen by accident.

The Dream lead the league in pace and have the second lowest turnover rate. When asked at All-Star practice how the team is able to get up the floor so quickly, Tiffany Hayes said: “Our motto is run with the Dream, so I mean, we know that if one of the guards gets it everybody can just start running because all of us can bring it up the court. All of us can start our offense.”

Some teams face the issue of needing to get up more shots. Atlanta maxes out pretty well as far as that goes. So what puts them on the path to create more open looks?

Clarendon has worked her way out of a slump. She followed up a benching in Dallas with a career night. That’s a key starting point. Atlanta’s offensive struggles have a lot to do with threat balance. A surface-level nitpicking of Hayes’ game would be to say she doesn’t dish out enough assists. If Hayes is going to run a pick and roll, the defense cares most about covering up the roller and contesting her shots at the rim.

There’s a double-whammy to any initial action conducted by Hayes: Teams sag off most of her teammates to clog the lane and Atlanta has repurposed one of its most dangerous spot up threats. 

Clarendon’s resurgence allows them to flip that script. Hayes spotting up, running off screens, or literally standing in place away from the ball opens up the floor. Hayes demands attention in every situation. What tinkering can leverage that known strength to create better opportunities for everyone? 

Elizabeth Williams could be part of that answer, especially if they can help her out with a few more timely cross screens on a nightly basis. Somewhere around and with that dynamic, Sykes has to continue to find her way as well. Bria Holmes is playing more at the four. She and Damiris Dantas are the only players with significant, steady roles off the bench right now. 

Buried the lede alert: This is a top three defense! Again, Atlanta has to feel good about some of its body of work even though they currently sit tied for 8th. They are top five in blocks (thank you, Elizabeth Williams) and steals, which both fuel that running game. 

Hayes had the following to say in regard to that defense fueling their offense and a playoff push: “We know our defense can help us on the offensive end. Because we can get stops we can get a lot of runs, so our defense being one of those better defenses in the league definitely gives us confidence.”

Hayes continued, saying, “Even though we’re like around .500 I think we can be better than what we’ve been and I think during the second half of the season we’ll show that.”

Tell us, what have you enjoyed seeing from the Dream in 2017?