In some ways, this season has been played with house money. In his October introductory presser, newly appointed general manager Dan Padover reiterated the “long term” plan the Atlanta Dream were taking.
“We are trying to take a comprehensive approach to build a basketball team,” Padover explained then. “We want to be sure we do this the right way, do this patiently,” highlighting the importance of the “sustained success” model he and novice head coach Tanisha Wright worked to assemble. In February, they laid out their vision: bringing in talent and giving the fans something to root for. The focus was to bring in high character people and build “things the right way. We want to be really smart in how we set up our team in how we attract talent in the long term… we want to win long term, so it’s about being very diligent about what we do,” said Padover. “We are at a part in our franchise where we are trying to get as many of those young professionals that we can develop and be a part of this in the long term.”
All of this talk of long term and patience gave the indication that 2022 was to be another tough season for Dream fans. But as draft day drew near, Padover decided to go in a different direction to speed up the process. On April 6, five days before the 2022 WNBA Draft, Padover traded their third overall selection in the draft and the right to swap the Sparks’ 2023 first round selection to the Washington Mystics for the first overall selection. The team was keyed in on University of Kentucky star Rhyne Howard, and when Padover made the trade, the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year’s fate was all but sealed. With a new coach and franchise cornerstone drafted, maybe this wouldn’t be the “patient process” the new front office wanted us to believe.
Out of the gate, the Dream astounded many with a 4-1 record in their first five games. While they weren’t scoring a ton, they did have the third best pace at 99.36, and it was their defense that was buoying their strong start. In those first five games, the Dream had the third best defensive rating (93.9 DRTG), the highest defensive rebounds per game rate (31.6), second best opponents’ points in the paint (27.2), fifth most blocks per game (4.2), opponents’ points off turnovers (15.6), and opponents’ second chance points (10.0). Given the rough 2021 defensive season this team had, it was reasonable to expect this team would get better, especially with a swift culture change and defensive-minded head coach.
From the beginning of the season until July 5, the “first half” of the season, the Atlanta Dream went a respectable 8-8 with a lot of decent underlying numbers. Their offense was still trying to find itself, but their sharp defense continued the early trend—they had the third best defensive rating and rebounding percentage in the league, the fourth fewest opponents’ points per game (PPG), fourth most steals per game, and second fewest opponents’ points in the paint per game. The team had also already matched their win total from the season prior, so it was clear the changes Wright was making, coupled with the offseason personnel changes by Padover, were working to turn this team around.
Rise of a Rookie
Many people knew Rhyne Howard was good, but few knew she would be this good this quickly. Howard has been the only Rookie of the Month (ROM) award recipient this season so far, joining Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Oguwmike, A’ja Wilson, and Michaela Onyenwere in winning at least three straight ROM awards; pretty sound company. The award-winning play speaks less about the quality of competition in the rookie class, which has been stout, and more to just how good of a player Howard already is in the W.
Howard has averaged an even 16 points a game, 12th best in the league. Her 2.6 win shares sits just outside the top 30. She is also the first rookie since Wilson in 2018 to be voted to the All-Star Game. On her team, she’s the number one scoring option and facilitator. While at times defenders can take her out of games or she has the occasional poor shooting night (the last three Mystics games in the season series come to mind), she’s a superb talent and will only continue to grow.
For as good as the Dream were in the first half, they have been equally as bad in the second. Since July 6, the team has gone 4-11, losing eight of the past ten, including four in a row to end the season. Additionally, they lost their multiple-game grip on the sixth seed, dropping fully out of the playoffs and back into the draft lottery. While their injury plight hasn’t helped (they are tied for a league-high with four players currently out from their roster), the numbers that got them off to a blossoming start have started to wilt.
In that same time span, the team is ninth in DRTG (105.5) and opponents’ PPG (84.7), and 10th in steals per game (6.8). While they’ve maintained some strong numbers throughout the season, most of their other numbers just haven’t been that good. Their own PPG, for example, has been about 78.5 PPG for the season, but that has ranked 10th or 11th all season (currently 11th). Their offensive rating (ORTG) has been equally poor, fluctuating between 94-98 ORTG on the season, good for bottom third in the league. While they have the best field goal percentage on makes unassisted, that comes as a result of a grim assist percentage, or the percentage of shot makes that come off assists. Their season average is 61.1 percent, a dismal dead last in the league. Lastly, the turnovers problem: this team just cannot get out of its own way, staggering to a frighteningly high 19.8 percent turnover percentage, or the percentage of 100 plays that become turnovers. Yes, the Dream turn it over nearly a fifth of the time, barely edging out the Indiana Fever, owners of five wins and a 18 game losing streak to end the season. This Dream team was still alive for a final playoff spot until the final day of the regular season, but with two losses to New York and some personnel drama, they’ve had a rough week to end their season.
Important Additions and 2022-23 Offseason Outlook
The Dream made a concerted effort to bring quality players onto their team during the 2021-2022 offseason. They traded a 2023 third round pick to Phoenix for Kia Vaughn, re-signed Tiffany Hayes and Monique Billings to one-year deals, inked Kristy Wallace, and added Maya Caldwell to a training camp contract (she’s been back and forth on this team all season, but finally earned a rest-of-season contract). Outside of the near-draft trade, the Dream’s offseason will likely be remembered for dealing point guard Chennedy Carter and reserve player Li Yueru to the Los Angeles Sparks for Erica Wheeler and a 2022 second round pick, which became University of Michigan product Naz Hillmon.
Each of these players has brought a different aspect to this team, but the question is what will become of them after the season?
Taking a look at their cap situation above, courtesy of HerHoopStats, the Dream have many important decisions to make heading into next season. Atlanta will build around a franchise player (Howard), an underrated center who’s capable of scoring and rebounding (Cheyenne Parker), and a backup point guard and depth scorer at worst, starting caliber and secondary scorer at best (Aari McDonald). They also have a rising rotation player in Hillmon, who’s been exceptional over the past few weeks (averaging 7.4 PPG her last 12 games; up from 3.0 PPG her previous 20), so there are a few pieces in place already.
The key for the Dream is to recognize what they have already and what the quality of their replacements will be. Looking at Tiffany Hayes—does this team bring her back? She’s a Dream lifer and, when healthy, she’s a solid scorer, averaging just under 14 PPG over the course of her career. She’s also going to be 33 when next season begins, coming off two shortened seasons (21 and 11 games, respectively), will be finishing a season in which she made the highest amount on the team, and controversially have left the team mid-playoff push to play for Azerbaijan in the 3×3 Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey. What’s the opportunity cost of going in a different direction? If she’s healthy next season, what do Padover and Wright think she can offer this team? Will she take less to stay? The team will have just under $943,000 to fill six or seven spots. Giving the same amount or potentially more to a player of Hayes’ ilk, at her age with her history, knowing Howard is going to command some serious coin in a few years isn’t likely the smart choice.
What about Wheeler and Billings? Wheeler averages just 9.5 PPG with 33.9 percent from three for her career, but she also plays defense effectively. Of starters who played at least 25 minutes, Wheeler is 24th in the league with a 96.9 DRTG. On a team that has struggled defensively down the stretch, is she worth bringing back on the right deal? One can make an argument that her veteran leadership and defense are worth having around to help guide this young squad. As for Billings, she’s been hurt for much of the back half of the season, only playing in 22 games this season. Her ORTG and DRTG are right around league average, but has contributed a 1.2 win share when she’s healthy. She’ll have just turned 27 when next season starts, so she may also be a player worth having as bench depth.
Biggest Offseason Needs
To me, the Dream have five big needs for next season (isn’t it fun when it works out that way?). The first and most pressing need is scoring. This team needs an additional top scorer to help add to what Howard does. If someone else can even take the opponent’s top defender each night, the more room Howard will have to operate and produce top-flight numbers. Looking at the 2023 free agency list, there aren’t a ton of options. Could you convince Stewie to come to Atlanta? It’s a pipedream, but with a retiring Sue Bird and Stewie growing up on the east coast, maybe she… okay, still a pipedream. On the right deal, Ogwumike, with her 18.4 PPG this season, could be a good fit as a bonafide scorer on the block. Again, likely a pipedream, but the Sparks haven’t been good at all this season, so throw a max contract offer at her and see what happens. A more realistic option is Brittney Sykes, who I think would flourish on a team like this. The freedom to score and drive would give the Dream multiple perimeter attackers that would stretch any defense thin. It also would give them another defensive anchor, as Sykes is consistently at the top of the WNBA in steals and steal rate.
The second is a playmaker. Because of the aforementioned assist issues, this team could use someone to help run the offense efficiently. Wheeler is a fine player, but may not be back and isn’t a true facilitator. While McDonald may be ready for the role, it would still be good to have a more veteran ball handler. Someone like Jordin Canada could be a fit, although don’t expect her to make any threes. If they go the trade route, I wonder what it would take to pry Chelsea Gray from Vegas, as she would be a major upgrade for both the scoring and facilitation issues on this team. Gray, even though wooed once by Padover, seems to be very happy with the Aces, so it would take a pretty convincing package to make this deal work.
The third is more veteran leadership/experience. Bringing back Vaughn would have been smart, but she announced her retirement shortly after the season ended. Keeping one of their aging vets might be a good move, but they also would need to ensure that whoever they add can help this team produce, not just be a quality locker room presence.
The fourth, of course, is better health. Atlanta will cross their fingers in hopes they’ll stay healthier and see where they can go from there. They’ve still got AD under contract for next season, and they were a bright spot for the Dream following a midseason trade with the Liberty.
And the fifth and final piece is growth and consistency from their youth. What will Wright have players like Howard, McDonald, Hillmon, and possibly even Caldwell do in the offseason to help their games grow? Their “next step” development will be key for how far this team can rise and stay risen next season.
All stats through the end of the 2022 WNBA Regular Season. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA.com