What the numbers tell us about the Dream
Earlier this month, High Post Hoops’ Kurtis Zimmerman reported that the Atlanta Dream have a shot at history this season. Through 16 games, Atlanta’s record was 5-11 (31.3% winning percentage). Following a 2018 season in which the team went 23-11 (67.6% winning percentage), the Dream’s struggles put them on pace for the 8th-worst year-over-year drop in winning percentage in WNBA history.
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The Dream promptly lost four more games and entered the All-Star break with a 5-15 record, the worst in the WNBA. However, guard Alex Bentley was optimistic when I spoke with her during that losing streak. Asked whether the Dream would turn things around in the second half of the season, she declared, “Yeah, absolutely. … The wave is coming.”
One reason for optimism is the team’s stellar finish last season. The Dream finished the 2018 regular season 15-2—despite losing star Angel McCoughtry to a torn ACL in August—and were one win away from making the 2018 WNBA Finals. Minus McCoughtry, who is still rehabbing that injury, Atlanta’s core players all returned in 2019, so the players experiencing this year’s struggles are mostly the ones who drove last season’s second-half surge.
Does Atlanta still have a legitimate chance at a playoff bid this season? Or is Bentley’s confidence just a media-friendly sound bite? Let’s see what the numbers tell us. (All statistics are courtesy of WNBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com for games through July 27.)
Why Atlanta can turn things around
The Dream were practically unstoppable in the second half of 2018, so who’s to say the 2019 edition can’t start a similar winning streak? In 2018, seven players averaged at least 20 minutes per game for Atlanta. Those players were also the top seven scorers and seven of the top eight in assists in 2018. All except for the injured McCoughtry have played big roles again this season as the Dream’s top six scorers and six of their top seven in assists. And the 2018 Dream had their share of early-season struggles, too, starting 2-3 and losing five of seven games in late June.
They soon righted the ship, sporting an 11-9 record through 20 games. That is obviously much better than this season’s 5-15 mark, but in many respects, the two teams have similar stats. The 2019 Dream are averaging 5.9 made 3-pointers, 36.2 rebounds, 14.4 turnovers, and 5.5 blocks per game. At the same point last season, the 2018 team was worse in each category: 5.3 3-pointers, 35.6 rebounds, 14.5 turnovers, and 5.1 blocks. The 2019 Dream are also grabbing a slightly higher percentage of available offensive rebounds (32.5% to 31.2%) and turning them into 1.4 more second-chance points per game. Three of their losses this month have been by a combined nine points, so perhaps a little more luck or some better bounces could have kept Atlanta out of the league’s cellar entering the All-Star break.
It is also true that besides made 3-pointers and offensive rebounding rate, Atlanta’s offensive numbers this season generally pale in comparison to a season ago. The Dream are scoring nearly 10 fewer points per game than they did through their first 20 games in 2018, and their offensive rating has fallen from 95.5 to 89.1. However, two important caveats make Atlanta’s offensive woes look less dire. First, Atlanta is playing slower than last season, averaging about five fewer possessions per game. That means Atlanta has fewer opportunities to score. Second, as Swish Appeal’s Eric Nemchock has shown, offense is down league-wide this season, so comparing the 2019 Dream to the 2018 Dream may underestimate the 2019 team’s competitiveness against generally weaker offensive teams.
Finally, it’s fair to expect at least some of Atlanta’s shooters to return to their career averages, which would give the Dream a huge boost. Atlanta’s top six players are shooting a combined 37% from the field and 26% on 3-pointers. Two—third-year player Brittney Sykes and seventh-year player Alex Bentley—are posting the lowest eFG% of their careers. Eighth-year player Jessica Breland is shooting her lowest eFG% since her rookie season in 2011, while Renee Montgomery, Tiffany Hayes, and Elizabeth Williams are all shooting their worst percentages since at least 2016. The odds are that at least a couple of these players will get hot soon. The Athletic’s Kelsey Russo summarized a recent conversation with Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen:
"“The Dream’s schemes for setting up shots are working, Collen said. It’s the success rate of those shots going in the basket that is lacking and having more than one player on a successful run of making shots. … She still believes Renee Montgomery is going to hit her 3-pointers. Collen believes Alex Bentley is going to hit her first few shots and be difficult to guard. And she still believes in Brittney Sykes to make her next 3-point attempt.”"
The Dream are currently attempting the fourth-most 3-point shots per game in the WNBA. If more of them start falling, look out.
Why they can’t
Even if Atlanta’s shooting improves, that does not guarantee wins. The gap between the last-place Dream and the ninth-place New York Liberty is as wide as the gap between first and eighth place (3.5 games), and there are a lot of areas that the Dream need to shore up to be competitive with even the bottom half of the league. They rank last in the WNBA in points per game, field goals made per game, 3-point shooting, assists per game, offensive rating, net rating, plus-minus, defensive rebounding rate, effective field goal percentage, fast break points, points in the paint, opponents’ rebounds per game, and second chance points allowed.
Although most of those categories are on the offensive end, the team has also struggled defensively. The Dream are turning the ball over at a higher rate than they did through 20 games last season (18.4% to 17.6%) and allowing opponents four more points off of turnovers and offensive rebounds (30.5 to 26.1). Over the 2018 Dream’s last 14 games, they cut those numbers further, to 14.8% and 21.0. That difference in turnover rate is almost equal to the difference between first and sixth in the league this season, and the Dream would have to reduce opponents’ points off turnovers and offensive rebounds by one-third to get to 21. It’s a tall order for any team to improve that much in those areas, especially mid-season.
Finally, Atlanta does not appear to have help on the horizon. It is unknown whether McCoughtry will play this season, and she has expressed frustration with what she perceives to be pressure from the Dream to return. The Dream recently cut forward Haley Peters and signed center Alaina Coates, but Collen called Coates’s signing “a move for the future.” Coates was the No. 2 pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft, but hasn’t yet matched the production of others in her draft class. For her career, she is averaging 3.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in about 10 minutes per game. It is an open question whether she plays enough minutes to have a real impact this season. And even if she does, she may add a few more rebounds and second-chance points, but she is unlikely to help much with scoring and passing, which seem to be more severe concerns on a team that has lots of young post talent already.
Last week, Elizabeth Williams told High Post Hoops’ Bria Felicien, “We’re kind of fortunate the break is coming when it is … it’s a good chance for us to regroup a little bit.” Collen told The Athletic that she thought her players had the right attitude, but that some of them simply needed to take more shots before or after practice. We will soon see whether the break helped the Dream prepare themselves mentally, as Williams suggested, and physically, as Collen emphasized, to make a run over their last 14 games.
Atlanta kicks off its post-All Star break schedule Wednesday at tenth-place Indiana. It’s a winnable game and close to a must-have for a team that is currently 4.5 games behind Minnesota for the final playoff berth. Last season’s 15-2 run showed how focus, execution, and momentum could lead a team to great things, even without its best player. This season’s Dream will need those same ingredients, and perhaps a little luck, to dig themselves out of their first-half hole.
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