Year One Down: Grading Vickie Johnson’s First Season as Dallas’ Head Coach

Coming into the 25th season of the W, Vickie Johnson had a new role to fill as the head coach of the Dallas Wings. She gained a team with a lot of spunk and room to develop. Inexperience didn’t play a part in her hiring as Johnson is known not only for her rep as a great player but also for her roles as a one-time head coach for the San Antonio Stars in their final season and an assistant coach for the Las Vegas Aces between 2018 and 2020. It was time to bet on her.

Fast-forward to the 2021 season, Johnson and the Wings ended a two-year playoff drought for Dallas, which brought some hope to the organization after a couple seasons of falling short. Plus, two of her players were selected for the 2021 All-Star roster, and Marina Mabrey was in the running for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Woman of the Year. 

In addition to what she achieved during the 2021 season, Johnson kicked off 2022 by securing a coaching position with USA Basketball. The organization announced that Vickie will work alongside Curt Miller, Mike Thibault and James Wade on the coaching staff for the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup Qualifying Tournament.

All in all, Johnson has exceeded a lot of expectations in her first year. Still, while we celebrate the strides she’s made, we must also pay attention to the areas in which Johnson has room to grow. Let’s take a look back at and assess Johnson’s first trip around the sun with the Wings.

 

Homeroom: Starting the Season

Johnson came into Dallas having the number one overall pick plus three other picks in her back pocket. Although some fans were a little salty about the draft order, this group of rookies showed a lot of promise. On top of that, veteran Wings players—like Kayla Thornton, Isabelle Harrison and Allisha Gray—were ready to be anchors for this rookie class, helping to guide and support the fresh talent. 

However, before things could take flight, the 13th overall pick, Dana Evans, was traded to the Chicago Sky (which worked out in Evans’ favor in the end). Additionally, players Allisha Gray and Satou Sabally were absent for some games due to Olympic qualifiers, while Awak Kuier awaited her stateside arrival in Finland. Things were going to be rocky for a while with players departing and being delayed, but Johnson had to make do with what she had.  

 

Core Classes: Regular Season

In their first eight games, the Dallas Wings went 3-5 with two of those wins being against the Los Angeles Sparks. The team’s longest win streak was from June 6 to June 11, during which they won three consecutive games. The chemistry on the court was poor and out of sync the majority of the season, and on-court frustration plagued their close games in particular. To put it plainly, Dallas had to figure it out, and it was up to Johnson to guide a young squad. 

One possible contributing factor to the Wings’ struggles was Johnson’s choice to not stick with a solid starting five, which many (myself included) believed hurt the Wings. During the course of the season, Johnson totaled 13 different starting combinations, only the Washington Mystics (18) and the Los Angeles Sparks (14) totaled more.

While it’s noble to give players their minutes and try different starters to see what works, this is the WNBA. Other teams don’t wait for you to get it together on the floor, it’s either win or go home.

What’s more, Johnson has some fiery players on her squad whose demeanor can be difficult to manage during games. Everyone loves feisty Mabrey and gritty Arike Ogunbowale because we expect a lights out performance after they’re all fired up. But what happens after the play has ended, and it’s time to calm down and regroup? Players don’t always take the high road.

With Dallas being the youngest team in the league, this fire showed itself poorly during most of their games. Players were too worried about foul calls to get back in transition and avoid techs, or they neglected ball movement and began to take poor shots to make up for it. This showed itself mostly during third quarters when the team needed to double down but instead gave up more points. 

Weighed down by a lack of cohesion and poor morale, the Wings lost their final three games heading into the Olympic break, with their final loss being to the Aces by 16 points. It was almost as if the team had lost faith in themselves, and looking back at the talent this team possessed, you can’t blame them for feeling a little disappointed.

Nonetheless, one shining light that doesn’t get mentioned when discussing the Wings’ regular season inconsistencies is how patient Johnson was. While her quiet manner can come across as intimidating, Johnson’s reserved coaching persona is a reflection of how meticulous and thoughtful she is. She notices what improvements need to be made and relays them to her players while encouraging them to figure it out both individually and as a unit. Described as a silent leader by her former teammate Rebecca Lobo, Johnson is more about acting as a leader than being a vocalist.

Dallas returned after the break and went 5-6 in their final games, clinching the seventh seed for the playoffs. The Wings started and ended their season by beating the Los Angeles Sparks, with four players scoring double-digits and the team shooting over 45.0 percent from the field and beyond the arc in the final game.

Johnson recollected the final regular-season matchup as one of her favorites, recalling how the team went from just trying to prove themselves in the beginning to rallying for a playoff spot. The drought was over. Although the road was hard fought, the Wings made it to their goal. 

 

Electives: Postseason 

After finally making the playoffs, the Wings postseason dreams fell short when they were knocked out of the first-round, single-elimination game against the eventual champions Chicago Sky, 64-81. Coming into the playoff game, Dallas was a potential threat. But in the first few minutes, it became clear that Chicago had planned very well for its opponent. 

In the first quarter, Dallas had a turnover of their first play, followed by poor spacing on the court and lackluster energy. James Wade’s expectation for his squad was to limit Dallas’ second chance points, be strong in transition defense and defend without fouling, which the Sky pretty much accomplished. 

As the game continued, Chicago was able to keep the ball out of Arike’s hands, stall Gray’s  rhythm and take over on offensive rebounding. The Sky pushed the pace and caught Dallas off guard in transition many times, giving the Wings no room to think or maneuver.

Equally important, Dallas’ in-game frustrations that hurt them all regular season reflected on the court tremendously during the single-elimination game. Players hung their heads when shots didn’t fall or they received a foul, and they took dire shots hoping they would strike a rhythm. The bench for the Wings was idle, subtly cheering for their teammates. The overall vibe of Dallas lacked the flashy, fun and aggressive style they usually play with.

Johnson called her team out nearing the two-minute mark in the first quarter, saying that she needed to see more ball movement, better defense and improved shots. Only two minutes into the second quarter, they had missed 1213 of their last 15 attempts. 

Ogunbowale’s three-point shooting was a saving grace for the Wings, shooting 5-of-10 on the night, igniting some momentum for her team. 

 

 

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The Wings went on a 9-0 run near the end of the second quarter, and Moriah Jefferson clinched a buzzer-beater jumper to end the half. It was time for Johnson to dig in and get her team back on track, which she ultimately did.

The third quarter for the Dallas Wings in this single-elimination game was arguably their best of the season. After being plagued with third quarter struggles all year, Dallas came out swinging and wanted all the smoke. Jefferson and Sabally keyed in on getting back in transition and defensive stops. Mabrey entered the game and brought a different energy to the floor. The team’s shots continued to fall. 

 

 

They shaved off what was once a 21-point deficit halfway through the second quarter to bring it within five at the end of the third. The Wings were ready for one more chance at keeping their playoff dreams alive.

Unfortunately, their goal of staging a lengthy postseason run was cut short after a tumbling fourth quarter. Sabally began to feel ill, and her productivity on the court dropped. Thornton was still unable to get going after struggling all game. The team’s overall production plummeted as the Sky found their rhythm and their shots started to ring off. 

After the game, Johnson said that she was happy with the culture they’re building in Dallas and rightfully so. The team’s ability to make real-time adjustments during the third quarter showed maturity, providing some hope for an extended run next season. Plus, it is invaluable for a team like the Wings to gain experience in a playoff game. They faced a strong Sky team, and Candace Parker and company are who they are, but Dallas gave Chicago a run for its money on a few occasions during the matchup.

Considering that the Wings had to navigate player absences, a new head coach entering the organization, a roster full of untapped talent and year two of the pandemic, making it to the playoffs during this challenging 2021 season deserves some recognition. But it’s also a lesson for the Wings that they can make it back and stage a longer playoff run if they make some adjustments. If the Wings can take Johnson’s instruction and make the proper changes during each game, they’ll be able to stage a much better regular season and playoff run. 

 

Final Grade: B-

The team at Winsidr came together to give Vickie Johnson her final grade of the season, scoring a B- in her first year with the Wings. Here’s a look at the consensus our team came to on what Johnson can improve upon with her team next season:

  1. A clear distribution of minutes: After being dealt a unique hand in terms of her roster, Johnson managed her team as well as she could. However, a starting lineup needs to be established with solid pairings that show promise. Shuffling players in and out of rotations and switching lineups with little reason isn’t conducive to establishing a style and culture that lead to long-term success.
  2. Trusting and developing young talent: Dallas’ young players need game time and a safe environment to make mistakes to eventually live up to their potential and expand their games.
  3. Coach Mabrey and Ogunbowale to be better facilitators: If Arike wants to continue being the focal point of the offense, she needs to improve her passing and defending.

The majority of the Winsidr team agreed that the Wings can stage another postseason run with Johnson as their head coach, with 87.0 percent feeling confident in Dallas’ chances to make the playoffs. Having done so in her first year, Johnson’s promise of taking her team further each postseason seems attainable. While the Wings have some adjustments to make, and we’ll have to wait until free agency wraps up to better understand what changes are necessary, the ceiling is high for this young team.

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