The WNBA’s Atlanta Dream are undefeated. Here’s why…
by Clay Kallam
First, my apologies to Donna Orender–and I’m pretty sure she’s been lying awake at night waiting to hear this one: Your expansion allocation system isn’t nearly as bad as I’ve said it was.
After all, look at Atlanta, a three-year-old franchise, which right now appears to be the best team in the whole WNBA. And maybe contraction, which helped stock the Dream’s roster with some talent (and pushed some other players into the open market), was part of your plan all along, but even so Atlanta and even Chicago are both solid teams.
But this column isn’t about Donna, but rather one other often vilified woman, Marynell Meadors, and the team she built and coaches, the one I’m now claiming is the best in the league.
Of course it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon of a 6-0 team, but it’s not as much that the Dream are beating people, it’s more how the team fits together, and the likelihood of Atlanta continuing to play at this level.
First and foremost, Meadors has built from the inside out. She has carefully assembled a platoon of post players who can simply pummel opponents in the paint. Though Brazilian Erika de Souza is far from a household name in the WNBA, she leads the muscle parade for Atlanta. Though the 13.4 ppg and 10.6 rpg are impressive, what jumps out at me is that she’s the strongest woman in the league, and when she gets her feet set on the block, no one is going to move her. No one.
Sancho Lyttle actually gets a few more rebounds than de Souza and averages a couple more points, but she’s more the traditional female post player, relying less on bulk and power than de Souza. Still 14.6 and 11.0 is pretty solid, especially in tandem with de Souza.
But that’s not all – Alison Bales, all 6-7 of her, decided she really liked basketball after all, and is playing with a passion she hasn’t shown before. And she’s always been able to shoot extremely well for her size, and handle the ball too, so as a third post, she’s a great fit. Finally, thrown in Yelena Leuchanka, a 6-5 27-year-old from Belarus who has at long last arrived in the WNBA and if her European pedigree is any indication, should be able to keep the Dream dominating the boards.
A perceptive reader might ask “So how good is Atlanta on the boards?” About 10 rebounds a game better than their opposition, and that’s a huge difference. And since the Dream are turning the ball over less than their opponents as well, the end result is that Atlanta gets more possessions, and thus more chances for Angel McCoughtry to strut her stuff.
McCoughtry, a number one overall pick, has blossomed in year two, and drove Chamique Holdsclaw, once the poster girl for women’s basketball, to San Antonio. McCoughtry is a late bloomer, barely recruited out of high school, an unknown until her senior year in college, but is averaging 22.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3.8 apg in 2010. She’s just a 41.0% shooter, but she’s also a fine defender (the 1.8 spg is just a hint) and plays with passion. Atlanta fans, what there are of them, have hardly noticed Holdsclaw’s absence, especially on those nights when Iziane Castro Marques is playing well.
Izzy, as she is known, is dizzy, dizzy in the sense that sometimes she whirls through the game as though no one can stop her, and other times she staggers around as though she has no sense of where she is. She’s also battled with the Brazilian coaches, and her devotion to defense is right up there with, well, Chamique Holdsclaw’s.
But this team, carefully constructed by Meadors, can deal with Castro Marques’ ups and downs. When she’s on, about one game out of three, the Dream are pretty much unstoppable. They have the tall women in the post, scoring machine McCoughtry on one wing and then the dynamic Brazilian playing well and opening up room on the court for everyone else. When Castro Marques isn’t lighting it up, Meadors can just focus on jamming the ball down low and seeing if anyone can stop de Souza and Lyttle.
Off the bench at the wing is Armintie Price, a one-time Rookie of the Year and third overall pick in the draft, and though Price couldn’t make a 12-footer if you spotted her 10, she’s a tremendous athlete, a great defender and she’s figuring out how to work with her own limitations. All in all, that’s a pretty fine trio of perimeter players, especially on those nights that Izzy isn’t dizzy in a bad way.
Point guard is a little more problematic, as Shalee Lehning can’t shoot and isn’t a wonderful athlete, but given all the weapons around her, she’s fine. She does a good job of getting the ball to the right people at the right times, and she plays with passion every second she’s on the court, and that counts for more than a lot of people (and a lot of WNBA players) think. Behind her is Kelly Miller, a more than capable veteran, and her sister Coco.
Put it all together, though, and this is a very fine basketball team. The Dream begin by forcing teams to protect the paint and trying to contain McCoughtry, two very difficult tasks–and if Castro Marques is playing well, there’s really not much opponents can do except hope to score a whole lot of points themselves. And there’s no other team out there that seems as complete or as deep as the Dream at this early stage of the season, and all credit must go to Meadors, much as that pains a percentage of the Atlanta faithful.
And speaking of the Dream faithful, there just aren’t enough of them. Doubters said from the start that Atlanta is a terrible sports town (except for football), and those doubts appear to be justified–though of course there will be plenty of time for fans to start appreciating, and buying tickets, to a team that didn’t exist just four years ago.
And now, the Dream are more than just a mental phantasm–they are a big, strong, talented and deep team that has a clear identity, and a clear path to victory in every game they play. Of course, injuries can cause plenty of sleepless nights, but barring disaster, Atlanta looks like the team to beat in the WNBA.
And Donna Orender’s expansion plans couldn’t be turning out any better.