Perhaps no team has undergone more change since the end of the 2018 WNBA season than the Dallas Wings.
Led by Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith, the team finished fifth in the Western Conference last season and then lost to the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the playoffs. Head coach Fred Williams was fired with three games remaining in the regular season after an altercation with team president Gregg Bibb, and interim coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin wasn’t retained. Then, in January, Cambage – one of the most talented players in the league – demanded a trade.
Other players have shuffled in and out. A new coach was hired and, finally, on Thursday, a Cambage trade was completed, sending the center to the Las Vegas Aces for a package of players and draft picks.
On top of that, the team’s other All-Star from last season – Skylar Diggins-Smith – recently gave birth, so she’ll be out of the starting lineup for quite some time.
In short: things are going to be very different for the Dallas Wings this season.
But what hasn’t changed is the depth of talent on the team’s roster and its desire to win.
The shift is a welcomed one, and the players are embracing it.
“The atmosphere and the coaching style was a lot different last year,” says sixth-year guard Tayler Hill. “I’m just looking forward to the growth that this team can have. A lot of people are counting us out, which is fine. That’s good. We want them to keep that same energy… I’m really excited to see where we can take that next step as a team.”
Ushering in a change in playing style and culture is new head coach Brian Agler. The 60-year-old Ohioan has a had decorated career as a WNBA coach, guiding his teams to a pair of titles. He won the 2010 championship with the Seattle Storm and the 2016 crown with the LA Sparks.
Agler resigned from his post as the coach of the Sparks in November 2018. Ready for a fresh task, he accepted an offer to coach the Wings less than two months later.
“The roster, the people on it, the young talent and the opportunity to build a team,” Agler said when asked why the Wings job was attractive to him. “Marketing and season ticket sales were on the rise, so I could tell that things were going really well on the business side. So, it was multiple things. And among everything else, it was just a new challenge.”
Agler has missed the post-season just once since 2008, failing to appear in the playoffs in 2014, his final season in Seattle. His teams that won titles – the 2010 Storm and 2016 Sparks – were similar in metrics. Each finished in the top four in points per-game and points allowed per-game. They were each in the top three in the league in offensive and defensive rating, and each were in the bottom three in pace.
So, while Agler’s teams might have been slow, they were efficient. And they won.
Last year, the Wings were fifth in offensive rating, third in pace, third in points per-game, ninth in defensive rating and 10th in points allowed per-game. Those numbers might shift a bit.
“It’s definitely been a change from last year, a lot of different stuff. I like the intensity that Agler brings and the standards that he has for us,” Kayla Thornton said. “I think we’ll be alright (defensively). Agler has emphasized defense. Last year, it wasn’t really up to par or where it needed to be.”
Thornton – a UTEP product entering her fourth WNBA season – became a versatile three-and-D type of player for the Wings last year. She was good for an average of 9.2 points, four rebounds, 1.8 assists, one steal and 0.4 blocks per-game last season. She was third on the team in win shares with 2.6 and had the second best effective field goal percentage with a .531 mark. From 2017, her three-point attempts doubled from 1.8 to 3.6 per-game, and she knocked down 35.5 percent of her attempts last year, keeping defenders honest.
This season, she’s willing to do whatever Agler says.
“I want to be more of a leader this year and just to fill in whatever role (Agler) needs me to be in, kind of leaning into that energetic person on the team that kind of gets everybody going,” Thornton said. “With Brian, having some rings under his belt, he obviously knows what he’s talking about. We just got to trust the process and buy into what he’s saying.”
Hill is looking forward to playing for Agler too, and hoping for a healthy season. After finishing ninth in the league in scoring in 2016 with 15.4 points per-game, Hill was poised for an even better 2017. She was a rising star. But then she suffered a knee injury, had surgery and missed about half of the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
She played in 13 games for the Washington Mystics in 2018 before they traded her to Dallas. Hill got in seven games with the Wings before the season ended.
“Last year was just kind of recovery for me, just trying to push back. I tore my knee up, my ACL, both my meniscuses, my LCL. This year, I feel a lot better,” Hill said. “Maybe not 100 percent, but definitely better than where I was last year, not just physically, but mentally as well.”
Agler will be the fourth head coach Hill has played for in the last year. At age 28 and heading into her seventh WNBA season, she’s hoping to grow, take the next step in her career and learn from him.
“I’m excited to have Brian as a mentor at this point in my career. Brian’s track record and history speaks for itself. He doesn’t have to come in and say much – you know that he knows how to win games,” Hill said. “He’s won with different teams and different atmospheres. One thing I really like about Brian is that he sets a high standard. He’s going to hold us accountable to that standard. There’s no taking shortcuts with him. He’s very attentive to details.”
Agler comes in as a respected coach. Players like Hill and Thornton are eager to take the court under his direction.
But for whatever reason, Liz Cambage wasn’t. She requested a trade in January, and if that demand wasn’t met, she likely would have sat out, like she did in 2012, and then again from 2014 through 2017.
Cambage was the runner-up to the league’s MVP award last season. She led the WNBA in scoring with 23 points per-game and posted the highest player efficiency rating at 30.7. Agler likely would’ve loved to have the chance to coach Cambage, but he won’t get it. According to Agler, he never got the opportunity to pitch the idea to her.
Agler says he’s talked to Cambage once, ever. Back when he was the coach of the Storm, the Australian national team came to Seattle to practice. Agler says that Cambage’s agent, Allison Galer, removed the possibility of the pair having a conversation.
“You know, I’ve never talked with Liz (through this process),” Agler said. “The agent really has taken over and has eliminated us having any conversation with her. So, to me, it’s sort of been a disservice. They tried to strong-arm her in getting her to L.A. and we tried and made several attempts (to get her to L.A.) – in fact there was twice where I thought we had a deal done, and to really no one’s blame, it didn’t get done.
“It’s really been difficult to try to engage this kind of process, because we’ve been limited on the conversation.”
Replacing Cambage’s production in the paint will be a multi-player effort. Players that are 6’9 and have the skill of Cambage don’t grow on trees. But the Wings do have 6’6 Azura Stevens, 6’3 Glory Johnson, and depth in the post with Theresa Plaisance and Cayla George.
Stevens – a UConn product now going into her second WNBA season – was fourth on the team in rebounds and second in blocks while posting 8.9 points per-game as a rookie. Johnson, heading into her sixth season, posted per-game averages of eight points and six rebounds last season.
In trades, the Wings also recently acquired 6’3 Isabelle Harrison and 6’7 Imani McGee-Stafford. Harrison sat out the 2018 season, but in 2017 led the San Antonio Stars in rebounding and blocks while putting up 11.4 points per-game. McGee-Stafford was a valuable player off the bench for the Atlanta Dream last season, filling in for Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland at either post position as an effective rim protector as the Dream made the Eastern Conference finals.
The Wings also drafted 6’3 Megan Gustafson in the second round. In her final collegiate season, she won the Big Ten, the AP, the USBWA, the ESPNW and the Naismith national player of the year awards.
Replacing Cambage’s production will be difficult, but it’s not impossible.
“I like our people. They’re working very hard. Obviously, we’ve got a ways to go,” Agler said. “We’ve set really high standards and you don’t achieve high standards overnight. So, it’s a day-by-day process. But I do like how they’re engaged, their desire. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything, really.”
The other All-Star the Wings will have to replace – at least for the beginning portions of the season – is Skylar Diggins-Smith. She put up 18.9 points and 6.6 assists per-game last season and was the team’s primary ball handler.
But Diggins gave birth to a baby several weeks ago. She’s been in practice, but not practicing fully. She’s just participating in shooting drills right now, Agler said. The coach said Diggins-Smith is on her own timetable and she’s being evaluated week-to-week.
“At some point this season, she’s going to bounce back and be on the floor,” Agler said.
Until then, the Wings will likely lean on Allisha Gray and rookie Arike Ogunbowale to run the show at point guard.
Also, in the Cambage trade, the Wings acquired two-time Nancy Lieberman Award-winner Moriah Jefferson, who has averaged 10.8 points and 3.8 assists per-game across her three-year WNBA career. The UConn product started her career with the San Antonio Stars and grew up just outside of Dallas.
“Our teamwork will improve as the season goes on. There are a lot of good athletes on this team and a young energy to it,” Agler said. “I think it’s going to be an ongoing process with the roster, tweaking that here and there.
“I like the challenge. I’m looking forward to hitting it head on and seeing how this team progresses.”
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