It’s been a long and, at times, tumultuous ride for the Atlanta Dream over the past few seasons. After losing in five games to the Washington Mystics in the 2018 semifinals, the Dream haven’t returned to the postseason since. In 2019, face-of-the-franchise Angel McCoughtry injured her knee, forcing her to miss the season, only to bolt for the Las Vegas Aces the next offseason. Just prior to the start of the 2021 season, then head coach Nicki Collen also left for seemingly greener pastures, taking over for Kim Mulkey as the head coach of Baylor women’s basketball, leaving the Dream scrambling to fill the void. Assistant Coach Mike Petersen filled in until he had health issues, forcing him to step down and leave the team to Darius Taylor, whose team lost 13 of their final 15 games under his helm. Not to be forgotten is the highly political and contentious ownership battle the team went through with then-owner and former Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler, spearheaded by now-part-owner and team vice president Renee Montgomery in February 2021. Needless to say—the Dream had a culture issue, lacking foundational leadership and anyone to steer this team in a positive, developmental direction.
In came new ownership, a triumvirate of individuals, including the aforementioned Montgomery, real estate mogul Larry Gottesdiener, and CEO Suzanne Abair. They acted quickly; in a series of moves, the team hired a President and COO from across town in Morgan Shaw Parker, plucked two-time defending executive of the year for the Aces Dan Padover and tabbed him the new general manager, and promoted Darius Taylor from interim head coach to assistant general manager. Perhaps the most significant move the team made, however, was hiring Aces assistant Tanisha Wright to be the team’s new head coach. Many applauded the move, calling it one that can bring stability to a troubled organization.
“Known for her defensive mindset, emotional intelligence, and grit, we are beyond thrilled that Tanisha Wright is joining the Atlanta Dream,” Gottesdiener acknowledged when the hire was announced. “Tanisha demonstrates a rare depth of character that is inspiring, and we can’t wait to see the positive impact she will have on this team.”
Wright came to the Dream with a bevy of basketball experience. After a star-studded career at Penn State—including three Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2003-2005, and leading the Big Ten in scoring one year, amongst other national recognition—Wright was selected 12th overall by the Seattle Storm in 2005. Wright had a lengthy career in Seattle, filled with plenty of awards and a championship in 2010, before she left for the New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx, retiring after the 2019 season.
Wright began her coaching career in 2017 while still a player, as an assistant for the 49ers’ women’s team at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She later joined the Aces during the 2020 season as an assistant to Bill Lambeer. After two seasons on the Aces bench, she was hired to guide the Dream.
From jump street, Wright had a vision for how she wanted to change this team. In her opening press conference, Wright discussed the keys to her coaching style: players input matters, having fun and enjoying the game while you’re doing it, and for the players to have high accountability to themselves, their teammates, and their community. She discussed a need for high character and a sense of toughness within her players; these are the kinds of things this Dream team had been missing over the past few years. Additionally, in a February press conference, Wright was asked about the style of play she wants for this team. She expressed the desire for a more modern style, one that included high-tempo play and playing in transition. She cautioned, as has been her creed all season, that success takes time. When asked about the success she was hoping to have in year one, Wright said, “[success is]measured by how [the team]approach[es]each day, the competitiveness they bring. I want this to be a team known for competing.” This has been her mentality for the entire season—focusing less on W’s and L’s and more on the development of this team. When asked about the team’s makeup, Wright was quick to point out that Kia Vaughn is a “consummate professional,” and that Erica Wheeler is “good for [second-year point guard] Aari [McDonald].” When asked about the draft, Wright said the team “wanted kids who wanted to come in and work and be excited about joining the Dream.”
Wright is serious about the job and about changing the culture of this team. Every postgame press conference begins with her sitting in the middle of two of her players, as she opens with what she liked and disliked about the game. The players offer insight, and what’s clear is each player who makes the appearance has adopted the necessary seriousness and maturity, game in and game out.
The players, too, can see the positive culture changes. All season, players have been using words like trust, understanding the vision, and seeing the changes. The players have an understanding of where Wright is trying to take them, and they are fully on board with the process. This is because Wright takes accountability first and foremost when the team doesn’t perform well. Frequently, she will express comments like, “and that’s on me to have [the players]better prepared.” This is a coach who holds herself accountable just as much as she does her players, and the players both respect and adhere to that mentality.
Starting center Cheyenne Parker said, “I trust Coach T, I trust her vision, and I’m buying in.” To have an important veteran like Parker connecting with the new coach’s approach is a huge step in the right direction.
Another veteran, Erica Wheeler, offered, “I think everybody can see the changes. I’m just glad I am able to be here and be a part of it… just for them to make the changes that they’ve made, and make it a place where players want to play, that shows a lot.”
In a recent postgame press conference, McDonald talked about what the biggest difference from last year to this year has been. “We’re just coming in with a winning attitude and winning mindset,” the young guard said. “Obviously, we want to hold ourselves accountable to the best of our abilities, play within yourself, and just know your role.” This speaks to the maturity McDonald has gotten especially from working under the former point guard in Wright, and the numbers show it.
McDonald has taken a big jump this year in a number of offensive categories. She’s averaging 24.1 minutes per game (MPG), up from 16.4 MPG last season, nearly five percent better from distance, over four more points per game, and her win shares have gone from 0.3 in her rookie season to 2.0 this season, well within the top 50 players in the league. The improvement from the youth on this team can directly be attributed to the greater attention to detail and focus that Wright has brought this season.
As Gottesdiener said, Wright is known for her defensive mindset, and that’s exactly where the Dream have improved the most this season. The team has made marked jumps from the bottom third last season to the top five this season in opponents’ points per game, field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, free throw percentage, points per play, and points per 100 possessions. The team has also made the same type of jump in their three-point shooting percentage, defensive rebounds per game, and their defensive rebounding rate. While not all their numbers have been strong (they still turn the ball over way too much), there are encouraging numbers to see at worst, impressively strong to see at best from a first-year coach with a team that was as broken as this Dream team.
Wright has already helped the Dream surpass its win total from last year (13 from eight, and counting), and while they’ve struggled a bit here of late, all signs point to this team being a real problem in the coming years.
“We obviously want to win,” Wright said, “but our focus is to come out and get better every day and compete every day. We might be making small steps, but we’re making steps. The focus is always to get better every single day we step out onto the court. We want to put a product out there that the city can be proud of. We’re going to play with energy and play super super competitively.”
All stats through 8/3. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.