An unwelcome shot at history
After a 23-11 summer, Coach of the Year honors for first-year head coach Nicki Collen, and a 3-2 out in the 2018 WNBA Semifinals, the Atlanta Dream have opened the 2019 season on a long stretch of struggles. Through 16 games, the Dream are 5-11 (31.3% winning percentage) and tied with the Dallas Wings at the bottom of the standings.
Lingering injury and the absence of their perennial All-Star and two-way leader, Angel McCoughtry, have contributed to Atlanta’s rough start which currently have them sitting with the 8th-worst year-over-year drop in winning percentage.
Injuries, along with coaching and roster changes have contributed to a number of abrupt falls since the start of the WNBA. Let’s take a look back at the five biggest drops in league history, what got them there, and the ripple effects seen since.
2007 Los Angeles Sparks
2006: 25-9 (73.5%), lost to Sacramento Monarchs in Western Conference Finals
2007: 10-24 (29.4%), missed WNBA Playoffs
In 2006 Los Angeles Sparks head coach Joe Bryant finished with the second-best record for a rookie head coach in league history on the backs of WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, Mwadi Mabika, Temeka Johnson, and bench leader Chamique Holdsclaw. Second in the league only to the Connecticut Sun, the Sparks led the Western Conference in the regular season but eventually fell to the Sacramento Monarchs 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals.
Following the season, the Sparks were rocked in ways few franchises have ever seen. Late in 2006, Jerry Buss sold the franchise to Gemini Basketball Holdings, a group led by a couple of Sparks season ticket-holders. Front office moves led to the replacement of Bryant with Michael Cooper, who returned as head coach after having led the team to their only titles in 2001 and 2002.
Despite the upheaval, the Sparks seemed poised to return their successful roster, when Leslie announced she was pregnant with her first child and would miss the 2007 season. Though the Sparks secured their future by signing her to a multi-year deal, the 2007 summer would be played without her. As if that wasn’t enough, Temeka Johnson only played 11 games due to a knee injury, and Holdsclaw abruptly announced her retirement five games in to the season.
The Sparks weren’t able to recover after that pint, finishing at the bottom of the league and missing out on the Playoffs for the first time in franchise history. That year still holds as the team’s worst finish, but it led to the acquisition of the next face of the franchise; the Sparks went on to win the 2008 WNBA Draft Lottery and selected Candace Parker with the first overall pick in the subsequent Draft.
2018 New York Liberty
2017: 22-12 (64.7%), lost to Washington Mystics in Second Round
2018: 7-27 (20.6%), missed WNBA Playoffs
The fifth year for the New York Liberty under head coach Bill Laimbeer saw them continue to dominate the Eastern Conference, finishing atop their conference for the third straight year. In the second year of the new Playoff format ignoring conference finishes, they were third overall in the WNBA, earning a first round bye behind the play of two-time Player of the Month Tina Charles and Sixth Woman of the Year Sugar Rodgers.
Unfortunately, their playoff woes continued as they were bounced after their first postseason game against the Washington Mystics. Unable to overcome Kristi Toliver‘s nine made threes, the Liberty exited after the Second Round for the second consecutive year.
After that season, Bill Laimbeer resigned to take over as head coach and GM of the relocating San Antonio Stars, and Liberty owner James Dolan made it public he was seeking to sell the Liberty. The team was relocated from Madison Square Garden to the Westchester County Center and assistant and longtime assistant and two-time WNBA champion Katie Smith was named head coach.
That subsequent season, the Liberty were never able to get traction amid the purgatory of the impending sale and potential permanent relocation. The 2018 Liberty season was perhaps best exemplified by their being on the other end of Liz Cambage‘s WNBA record 53-point game, and as fate would have it, that game started their 13-game losing streak to end the regular season.
The Liberty missed out on the Playoffs but earned a lottery pick, grabbing the highly-touted Asia Durr second overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft.
2013 Connecticut Sun
2012: 25-9 (73.5%), lost to Indiana Fever in Eastern Conference Finals
2013: 10-24 (29.4%), missed WNBA Playoffs
Connecticut hadn’t known a coach other than Mike Thibault since relocating from Orlando, and the franchise looked poised for another run to the WNBA Finals and a shot at their first title in 2012. After rebuilding under 2012 MVP Tina Charles and a deep team including Olympians Kara Lawson and Asjha Jones along with Renee Montgomery, Allison Hightower, and Kalana Greene, the Sun finished 25-9 at the top of the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2006.
After sweeping the New York Liberty, the Sun matched up with the Indiana Fever, who battled through injury to push past the Sun, ending Thibault and company’s season in the Eastern Conference Finals, just like Detroit did in 2006. The Fever went on to win their first WNBA Championship, and the Sun decided to part ways with Thibault after ten seasons.
“The only thing on the resume they wanted — a championship — I didn’t give it to them,” Thibault told the Hartford Courant after being let go.
Anne Donovan was brought in as head coach with the hope she could repeat her success from 2004, when she led the Seattle Storm to their first title. Unfortunately, injury was the death of the Sun that summer. Jones sat out the season due to nagging injuries, Lawson’s knee issues kept her out of all but six games, Montgomery (ankle) and Tan White (finger) missed about a third of the summer, and Hightower dealt with knee issues throughout the season.
All told, 12 different players started at least one game, and only three players on the roster played 30+ games for the Sun that year. The constant shuffling and inconsistency led to the 10-24 finish and no shot at postseason play.
Those two seasons had lasting impact on the league. Thibault was hired by the Washington Mystics prior to the 2013 season, and he has led them back to the top of the league. Charles asked to be traded from the Sun prior to the 2014 in a blockbuster Draft night move that sent her to New York and brought Alyssa Thomas to the Sun, along with Kelsey Bone and a 2015 first round pick that would become Elizabeth Williams. The Sun’s finish at the bottom of the league also netted them the first overall pick in 2014, Chiney Ogwumike.
1999 Cleveland Rockers
1998: 20-10 (66.7%), lost to Phoenix Mercury in WNBA Semifinals
1999: 7-25 (21.9%), missed WNBA Playoffs
The second year of the league saw head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald lead the Cleveland Rockers to the top of the Eastern Conference, second overall only to the defending champion Houston Comets (who would go on to win their second of four straight titles). Isabelle Fijalkowski led the league in field goal percentage and was a strong inside presence to balance the shooting and passing of Eva Němcová and Suzie McConnell Serio, the WNBA Newcomer of the Year.
The format of the Playoffs in the early years matched the Rockers up with the Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference, who they battled for three games but fell 2-1.
Leading up to the 1999 season, the first Collective Bargaining Agreement was finalized, and though it defined better structure for player salaries, it also led to some indecision for many of the league’s international players. In early 1999, it Fijalkowski and Němcová both remained uncertain about returning unless their contracts could compete with the eight-month European contracts they could secure overseas.
Ultimately, while Němcová came back and continued her hot shooting, leading the league in free throw percentage, Fijalkowski never would return to the league. The loss of the team’s scoring and rebounding leader was one thing, but McConnell Serio also missed about half of the season with foot injuries, taking away their leading passer and floor general. Combined with the influx of talent from the American Basketball League (ABL), which had folded the year prior, it all proved to be too much for the struggling Rockers. They finished 7-25, last in the league, and missed out on postseason play.
The Rockers parted way with Hill-MacDonald after that season and hired Dan Hughes as their new head coach after he was able to break even at 10-10 on an interim basis with the Charlotte Sting in 1999. Hughes led the team to a 66-64 record over the following four seasons until the franchise folded.
2011 Washington Mystics
2010: 22-12 (64.7%), lost to Atlanta Dream in Eastern Conference Semifinals
2011: 6-28 (17.7%), missed WNBA Playoffs
In 2010 the Washington Mystics rose to the top of the Eastern Conference. Julie Plank was in her second season as head coach and led a strong core of Crystal Langhorne, Lindsey Harding, Katie Smith, and Monique Currie to a 22-12 finish. Second only to the Seattle Storm overall, the Mystics got the top seed in the East but were shockingly swept by the Atlanta Dream 2-0.
The subsequent offseason rocked the franchise considerably. After general manager Angela Taylor left over a contract dispute, the Mystics asked Plank to take on the additional role. Unwilling to fill the dual role, Plank walked, and assistant Trudi Lacey was promoted to head coach and GM.
Amid the changes, both Harding and Smith asked to be traded to Atlanta and Seattle, respectively. Their wishes were granted, and combined with Currie’s ACL tear that kept her from playing the majority of the season, the Mystics were down three starters and their three leading scorers from 2010.
The Mystics finished 6-28 in 2011 under Lacey, a mark that is still tied for sixth-worst winning percentage all-time. The drop from 2010 to 2011 for the Mystics is the largest year-over-year decline in winning percentage in the WNBA in its history. Nothing got easier for the Mystics, as they won just five games in 2012 and parted ways with Lacey; that move would ultimately lead them to hire current head coach Mike Thibault.
Honorable Mention: 2008 Phoenix Mercury
2007: 23-11 (67.6%), won WNBA Finals
2008: 16-18 (47.1%), missed Playoffs
In 2007 Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, and Penny Taylor led the Phoenix Mercury to their first WNBA championship under head coach Paul Westhead. They finished the regular season second only to the defending champion Detroit Shock, who they went on to beat in the WNBA Finals in five games.
Following the season, Westhead resigned to take a position in the NBA, and assistant coach Corey Gaines was promoted to head coach in November 2007. Otherwise, things looked to be mostly the same for the Mercury, except they were missing a key cog in Taylor, who missed the 2008 season to prepare with the Australian team for the Olympics that year.
“Of our three-headed dragon, she was the third head,” Gaines told the Arizona Daily Star about the absence of Taylor.
Ultimately, the other two heads of the dragon, Taurasi and Pondexter, kept the Mercury pretty well afloat to a 16-18 finish, a seven-game drop from their championship year. However, that was enough to keep them out of the Playoffs, making them the first — and still only — WNBA team to miss the postseason the year after winning a championship, which is why they earn an honorable mention nod on this list.
The Mercury quickly returned to form the following season. Taylor rejoined the squad that again went 23-11 in 2009 and won their second championship.
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