There is a bit of a shroud of mystery around WNBA head coaches, not much different than the way it is with coaches in other leagues.
Very few people are in those locker rooms, in those pre-draft war rooms, in those daily staff meetings to truly know what is happening on a day-to-day basis. Any fan or viewer can appreciate the glimpses we get into team huddles or practices. What is the coach like? What are they best at? What are they really stressing to the team when they prepare for a big game?
In an effort to learn more about some of the coaches of this league, I went straight to three WNBA head coaches to hear it straight from them: Los Angeles Sparks head coach Brian Agler, Seattle Storm head coach Dan Hughes, and Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen.
Agler got his start as a head coach in the WNBA back in 1999 with the Minnesota Lynx. Now in his fourth season with the Sparks, he and his team will look to advance through the playoffs to make their third consecutive trip to the Finals. Agler is the only head coach to lead two different WNBA franchises to titles — the Seattle Storm in 2010 and the Sparks in 2016.
So then, what has shaped him as a coach that has helped him find so much success along the way?
“I think all coaches as their careers go on and even from year to year or 10 years ago to now, your offense and your offensive philosophies become hybrids of people on your staff, teams you watch, your core principles, how you played and how you were taught to play when you were growing up,” Agler said. “So it’s all those things intertwined.”
And to get in his own words, what does coach Agler bring to the Sparks?
“I think in coaching in general, it doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching at, you want your team to have some kind of identity,” Agler said. “So every team in our league, if you ask the coaches that, you’re probably gonna get a lot of similar answers. But there might be some different answers, too. So with us, I want us to be a team that really plays good quarter-court defense, where the ball moves offensively and is an efficient offense, where opponents don’t score on us easily.”
In the 2018 regular season, the Sparks had the second-stingiest halfcourt defense according to Synergy Sports, with opponents scoring just 0.852 points per possession. Synergy pegs L.A.’s offense as the sixth most efficient this season, scoring to a tune of 0.911 points per possession after posting the third-best overall offensive rating in 2016 and the second-best in 2017 (WNBA.com).
This season has been much different for the Sparks, though, as key starters Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Alana Beard have each missed multiple games due to injury. The lack of practice time for teams league-wide hasn’t helped, either.
“The compact schedule — it seems like we’re having so few days of practice. So that makes you adjust as a coach on how you prepare your team to play,” Agler said.
As L.A. has dealt with several minor injuries, the rest of the league has improved to a point where opponents can really take advantage on any given night.
“I think there’s multiple teams in our league that have had really positive influences from players, coaches and things like that with a lot of size around the league, with [Liz] Cambage coming in, Breanna Stewart’s having a breakout season,” Agler said. “I think [Stewart] was playing well but she’s taken it up a notch. Phoenix has added several pieces to their team — veteran players.
“I think people that have players coming back, with the lack of practice, you have a little bit of an advantage just because there’s a lot of things that are repetitive from year to year. The big thing for us is trying to keep our players as fresh as possible on game night.”
And make no mistake, the Sparks remain a force in this league when healthy. When the team’s three 2017 All-WNBA selections (Parker, Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray) and Beard have been on the floor together, they’ve outscored opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions, per Positive Residual. But those four have logged just 419 minutes together this season, about 100 minutes fewer than Seattle’s entire starting unit or 180 minutes fewer than Phoenix’s top four.
All that said, the Sparks enter the playoffs confident in their talent, their experience, their will to hang yet another banner at Staples Center. Parker, Ogwumike and Gray in particular, after all, are three of the top players in the league that still do things on a regular basis that impress fans and Agler alike.
“Happens all the time, especially when I watch them overseas. We’ll pick up little things here and there,” Agler said. “With those three, obviously their abilities, we want to bring out their strengths. We want to play to their strengths. So we’re gonna try to put them in positions where they can be successful.”
What will define success for the Sparks in 2018? Knowing they must get through two single-elimination rounds just to advance to the semifinals, answers may vary. One additional feather in their cap atop the talent and experience of their roster: their coach has been through numerous postseason runs and knows this league about as well as anybody out there.
Dan Hughes decided to make a return to coaching. The longtime WNBA head coach announced his retirement following the 2016 season with the San Antonio Stars. He’s back now, having taken the reigns to help lead the Seattle Storm to a league-best record of 26-8. As the number one overall seed, they will host the lowest remaining seed on Sunday to kick off the semifinals.
To start with a similar question, what does Hughes bring first and foremost to his new team?
“I want to empower all of the people that I’m involved with,” Hughes said. “I want them to look and say, ‘You’re getting her in the right spot. He’s trying to do that and do it in a way that motivation is created by a positive manner as opposed to a threatening manner.’”
Hughes has indeed stepped right in and empowered 23-year-old superstar forward Breanna Stewart, who is a leading MVP candidate having recently completed the best regular season of her young career. WNBA all-time assists leader Sue Bird set career highs in both assists per game (7.1) and 3-point shooting percentage (44.8). 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jewell Loyd has taken strides to become a more complete player. Defensive stopper Alysha Clark shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc. And Natasha Howard, perhaps the acquisition of the offseason, rounds out the starting unit for the team that posted a league-best net rating of 10.2 this regular season.
With several star players on the roster, though, how does Hughes find ways to challenge them and form a connection quickly, knowing he doesn’t have, say, 82 regular season games to feel things out?
“I think there’s a two-way process,” Hughes said. “One is I can get a lot from them. So obviously there’s a dialogue happening. But they have to understand there’s times I’m not gonna agree with them. And I tell them that right up front. Right from the beginning I tell them, ‘I’ll use you for me to get greater understanding, I’ll use you to help lead the team and even teach the team. But there’s gonna be times where I may illicit your opinion and then not take it. And you’ve gotta make that work.’
“And they understand that. I think they like it. Star players, they want to feel a part of the process but they know what a coach is supposed to do and they know what a star player is supposed to do. And you want to keep them in that wheelhouse.”
As mentioned, time is of the essence in the WNBA. How does Hughes go about the process of identifying and making adjustments to ensure that his team is playing at its best?
“I do analyze the games [afterwards] to try to get an understanding mathematically of what went down,” Hughes said. “But during the games, normally there’s a process in my head where I’ll notice it. And then I’ll notice it again. And then I start to recognize that it’s a trend and that probably impacts me in that moment right there.
“Some of that might come from glancing at the stats but mostly it’s the number of pictures that go into my head of what’s going well and not well. My head kind of rolls like that. I’ll say, ‘Man, that’s the third time we haven’t blocked out over here. We’ve got to change it,’ or ‘This matchup isn’t working. The next chance I get I’m gonna change it.’ So it’s usually the number of images in my head.”
Something clearly has come together in Seattle, with Hughes right at the center of it all. After finishing below .500 each of the past two seasons and bowing out in the first round, the Storm posted the best offensive rating in the league (107.9) and the second-best defensive rating (97.7) after finishing ninth in the latter in 2017.
As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, one of the most knowledgable people on all things Seattle Storm, discussed on an appearance on the Locked On Women’s Basketball Podcast prior to the start of the season, the Storm hadn’t fared all that well in close games in the two previous seasons. Loyd and Stewart have high expectations for themselves, but both are still on their rookie contracts.
The handling of trouble becomes one of the hottest topics each year. At some point in the WNBA or NBA playoffs or a key college game, key players will rack up a few quick fouls, meaning it’s time for their coach to make a big decision: Sit the player or trust them to play through it?
“Usually I will be conservative in the second quarter if it’s a player that’s going to play 30-plus minutes,” Hughes said. “If you get to three fouls, usually three is my gauge. I might play them up to three. If I feel like things are going well enough, I’ll protect two. But three is the gauge.
“Now in the second half, it’s really a wheelhouse of my trust and whether I think they can play with five fouls or not,” Hughes added. “And most cases I take them out.”
This is an important issue for Seattle, as Hughes may be forced to make some tough decisions with Howard in particular. The rangy, athletic, do-it-all forward averaged 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes this season (Basketball-Reference). The playoffs are all about shortening rotations to put the best players on the floor as much as possible.
Foul trouble aside, are there any stats that Hughes really prioritizes for his staff to track in-game for the team?
“They track efficiency offensively in certain things we run,” Hughes said. “If we change defenses they’ll tell me how successful we were in the change. And I do kind of register that in my head going forward. Sometimes there’s specifics with teams, but those two are the ones that are most prevalent.”
Dan Hughes is one of the few to have donned the head coach/general manager title. It has often been noted that those two roles at times should butt heads. A coach is incentivized to get as much as possible out of the current group. General managers look more down the line, especially if and when things go south to the point where it may be more beneficial to try to develop younger players for the future.
Though Hughes isn’t currently wearing that GM hat in Seattle, he has walked that line previously in San Antonio. The process of developing a 2013 draft pick stood out to him in balancing the two roles.
“We drafted a player named Kayla Alexander. It was a lower first round pick [eighth overall]. She was a big center coming out of Syracuse. And we looked at her and knew that we were going to have to help develop her. But thought it’d be worth the effort.
“Fast forward to my last year in San Antonio and you started to see her kind of put her game together. And you started to recognize that she’s becoming a more effective player. So all of a sudden her role went from a developmental role to a playing role within the growth of her time. And that was a process.”
Alexander started 10 games for the Stars last season under head coach Vickie Johnson, and is currently under contract through 2019 with the Indiana Fever.
Heading into 2019 and beyond, Hughes has plenty of exciting young talent to look to develop to make the Storm a juggernaut for years to come. Jordin Canada was selected with the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft, and has been often labeled as the heir-apparent to Bird at the point guard position. Canada already is one of the quickest players in the league with the basketball, and has shown plenty of promise as an on-ball defender.
Thanks to their stellar regular season performance, the Storm have a chance to get off their feet as they await their semifinal opponent. Hughes has his team in a position where they are just three wins from a trip to the WNBA Finals.
On the other side of the bracket, first-year head coach Nicki Collen and her Atlanta Dream, too, await a semifinal opponent.
My conversation with Collen occurred back in June. It wasn’t as clear that they’d be in contention for a double-bye into the semifinals. The team started the season 8-9 before rattling off wins in 15 of their final 17 games despite losing All-Star Angel McCoughtry to a season-ending knee injury.
Even back then, Collen was confident in her team, and star guard Tiffany Hayes felt the group had already forged a strong bond that made the day-to-day grind a joy for everyone involved. After spending two seasons with the Connecticut Sun as an assistant coach, Collen came in with a focus on establishing relationships with her players.
What did the first-time head coach hope others would notice in the 2018 season?
“I think right away that I’m really passionate, that I really genuinely care about our players,” Collen said. “And that I want them to play really unselfishly, and just have an air of good culture, teamwork, and that they stay together on the floor — good times, bad times, officiating — that type of thing, that they just kind of let that stuff go.”
Because of Collen’s background as a player, she’s in a unique position to understand and appreciate the growth of the league that she now works in as a head coach.
“I was in that first group. I was coming right out of college right when the league started,” Collen said. “So I’ve always followed it as a big women’s basketball fan, and just think the depth is so good, the athleticism. There just aren’t a lot of specialists in this league anymore. If they are they have a short shelf life where they’ve gotta be true specialists and really get it done because the athleticism is just so good.
“You have more position-less basketball. You have the Candace Parkers and Nneka Ogwumikes that can really stretch it out. But then you turn around and you have the teams that have [Brittney] Griner, Cambage and [Sylvia] Fowles that can really still kind of play that pound it inside kind of basketball. So you get a little bit of everything, I think, when you look around the league.”
As an assistant, Collen was often tasked with focusing on the defensive side of the ball, which now affects how she sees games live as they unfold and determines whether to make adjustments on the fly or wait to review the game tape afterwards.
“I think there’s a little of both. Amazingly, as many years as I’ve been a defensive coordinator, I’ve always found myself in that role watching things off the ball. So there are actually times I’ll be watching off the ball and have to turn around and say, ‘What just happened?’ because I’ll actually have missed what happened with the basketball.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s times though that situations happen that if you’re not on top of and ready to make the next play, like if Seattle’s trying to come back against us, ‘Hey, [Natasha] Howard might just jump out and trap us. So let’s dive through so we don’t get it double teamed here,’ instead of thinking, ‘Hey, let’s play out of the double, no, let’s not let them double right here.’ The tape always tells all and you’re gonna see more good things, more bad things, things that you thought were so bad weren’t as bad. It definitely takes the emotion away from what happens during a game.”
Collen is one of the coaches known to have really embraced the value that analytics can bring to the table. How does that affect her process both during and outside of games?
“Not necessarily during a game,” Collen said. “When we scout, we’re very analytical in how we scout. We made decisions for instance in the [June 10] Seattle game relative to the number of shots Sue [Bird] takes in relation to the number of shots [Stewart] takes, and wanting people to take fewer shots, to take more shots, and get people out of their comfort zone. Even if the statistics in terms of their efficiency don’t spell out, you just kind of know there are certain players that are efficient because of the types of shots they take.
“So we’re more analytical before the game than we are during. There’s so much to an eye test during a game in terms of what’s working and what’s not working. We always want to play through the paint regardless of our opponent. It’s just a difference of are we playing to the paint and then kicking it out because we’re playing against Cambage and Griner? Or are we playing to the paint to try to score in there? So we’re more analytical that way.”
And does coach Collen have any strong feelings on how to handle foul trouble?
“When you think about the college game and you’ve got the people that automatically at two fouls you know they’re gonna sit until halftime. And I worked for coaches like that,” Collen said. But the last coach I worked for in college, Karl Smesko, kind of explained it as well as anyone I’ve ever had anyone explain it.
“When coaches do that, they’re basically fouling their own player out. So often a player will have two fouls, you sit them for eight minutes, and then they end the game with three. And they play the whole second half or third and fourth quarter.
“So I don’t. I always want to know what they have, but I’ll feel the moment. And who are they guarding? Because some of it comes down to if they have two fouls and it’s early and they’re guarding an aggressive player, I’m gonna get Elizabeth [Williams] out if she’s guarding an aggressive post and give her a few minutes rest, maybe go back to her if they sub. I usually play off of more who they’re guarding in a situation than I am hard line.”
If not Hughes, Collen appears to be the favorite for WNBA Coach of the Year honors, and rightfully so. The Dream added key pieces during the offseason after missing the playoffs in 2017. Collen was key in bringing back McCoughtry after she had taken a year off to rest her body after dealing with the year-round grind of playing overseas and in the WNBA. But a two seed was not a foregone conclusion. Atlanta hit a home run with its offseason acquisitions and in hiring Collen as their next head coach.
Considering how successful this season has been in Collen’s first year in that chair, what has shaped her into the coach that she now — preparing a team that is six wins away from a title?
“I think I’ve taken a little bit of something away from everyone I’ve worked for,” Collen said. “I worked for my husband [Tom Collen] a lot of years and he was a high ball screen guy — keep the ball in the hand of your best ball handlers and really take care of the basketball. I’ve always wanted our offense to be a low turnover offense. And he was just a real positive motivator.
“Karl Smesko is so analytically motivated, so I took a lot of that away from him. Also didn’t turn the ball over but played an equal opportunity offense, so it was a totally different philosophy on not turning it over, but really shot selection being key.
“And then Curt Miller, he just prepares so hard. It’s all about preparation and not being outworked. He and I worked together so well for that reason because we saw the game a lot alike but we put the same amount of effort into our prep.”
Atlanta has been the league’s best defense, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions. Their turnover percentage of 16.3 is the fifth-lowest in the league.
Both with and without McCoughtry, the offense that Collen has installed passes the eye test as a hybrid of the lessons she referenced. The ball moves from side-to-side, and a key phrase coming out of Atlanta this season — trust the pass — matches what they’re trying to do on the court. They can put the ball in the hands of Hayes, one of the most explosive pick and roll finishers in the league, or work it around to find a big slicing to the rim or an open shooter on the perimeter.
Viewers will get their first look at Collen coaching in the postseason Sunday. Regardless of their finish, though, the Dream are well-equipped moving forward with Hayes and Williams inked to longterm extensions. Young players like Brittney Sykes, Imani McGee-Stafford and Monique Billings have already been contributing off the bench and they, perhaps like their coach, are just scratching the surface of what they could be for years to come.