January 8, 2023
2023 WNBA free agency preview: Atlanta Dream
An aggressive free agency period could be crucial for the Dream
As the women’s basketball community waits with bated breath for an undoubtedly chaotic free agency signing period beginning Feb 1, a promising, young team down south gears up to join the madness. The Atlanta Dream, with only five-set contracts in 2022, will spend the next few months building a roster that proves themselves as potential title contenders or in the continued rebuild.
And whatever happens, the Dream are no stranger to rehauling a roster with just four players that overlapped between the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
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Who Is free?
The only contracts on the books for the Dream are their four rookie contracts, Rhyne Howard, Naz Hillmon, Aari McDonald and Kristy Wallace and veteran forward Cheyenne Parker. Otherwise, the rest of last year’s roster is up for grabs.
The most notable of these players is Tiffany Hayes, who has played her entire ten-year career with the Dream. Hayes battled injury all of last season along with overseas commitments late in the season, ruling her out of critical playoff matchups, but has been a stronghold of the Dream from last season and before.
Whether she remains with the Dream and if it’s her choice or the team’s, is one of the biggest question marks of the offseason. She is an aging star, but when she was on the court, she always held her own and ranked as one of the most crucial players on the court. However, she was paid a veteran maximum salary last year, something the Dream likely won’t be able to continue affording.
Another dependable Dream staple has been Monique Billings, who has been with the team for five years and is now an unrestricted free agent. On both ends of the court, Billings has not been as crucial as many would have hoped and her tenure with the Dream is far from guaranteed.
Other experienced players include Erica Wheeler and Nia Coffey, who played their first season with the Dream last year and are now solid league staples and unrestricted free agents. Wheeler has especially left her mark on the league but is aging and may not have a place on this growing team.
AD Durr, who the Dream picked up midseason in 2022 and underwent season-ended hip surgery, is a reserved free agent for the Dream. The reserved status means Durr can only negotiate with the Dream and cannot discuss terms or sign elsewhere until released.
What the Dream have
Although much remains up in the air for the Dream, they have an extremely strong core. Howard is the face of their franchise, both with her on-court ability and league marketability. She is dominant on both ends and is only getting better and it’s essential the team builds around her.
They have veteran leadership in Parker, who had a tremendous 2022 season, playing well off Howard and the rest of the team and stretched to play the five but is often more comfortable at the four. 2022 was her best season to date and she was crucial to the Dream’s surprising success.
Then they have Hillmon and McDonald, both young players on an upward trajectory. Hillmon can potentially be a real defensive threat and McDonald is a speedy guard who has only improved. Wallace was an older rookie who had some important stints when others were injured, but if she will remain in the league is unknown.
And the Dream selected the No. 3 2023 draft pick, which likely gets them a skilled player up for development, but not an automatic generational talent.
Atlanta has a great balance with obvious growing talent and immense cap space that could open up incredible opportunities. For the next five years, they have a two-time Executive of the Year, Dan Padover, and 2022 AP Coach of the Year, Tanisha Wright, at the helm. The leadership duo is some of the best the WNBA has to offer, as they proved last season and they will continue to work hard to build this team up.
What they need
It’s essential the Dream work around their young core, particularly after locker room mentor Kia Vaughn retired at the end of last season. They’re also currently lacking in size, so to be more competitive, they’ll need more size inside and someone to comfortably play the five.
Padover told The Next it’s “hard to know” whether their offseason moves will capitalize most off trades, development, or free agency signings and emphasized the team’s commitment to development. However, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems free agency moves are inevitable.
This year’s free agency pool is wide open, with star power like Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot topping the list. And although anyone could come to the A, these are some of the characters with the most realistic pathways to the ATL:
Tina Charles spent last season with Phoenix and Seattle and has solidified herself as one of the WNBA greats. She seems to be searching for a ring and has spent time all over the league in her 12-year tenure, but it’s unclear her status in a locker room. However, her talent is undeniable and could fit nicely next to Howard. The most promising sign she could come play on this team is the fact that she named Coach Wright the most influential person of her entire career. It would be a risky move for all sides, but it could pay off.
Azurá Stevens is a championship-winning big that has played five years in the league and three with the Chicago Sky. She shows serious improvement year over year and although she’s not currently a franchise-maker, she is an impressive big with consistent offensive production and board play. She may be the most realistic pickup for the Dream and one they can continue developing into a leader.
Brionna Jones won Most Improved in 2021 and has only continued on that upward trajectory, averaging 13.8 and 5.1 last season and an All-Star spot. She is still young but could be a franchise talent with a hard-working, coachable attitude. Jones may be the best target for the Dream; however, she’ll be a hot commodity this free agency season as much of what happens with the Dream and the league’s free agency prospects hinges on the Connecticut Sun. Will their roster implode after consistent playoff heartbreaks, or will they retain their talented core?
Angel McCoughtry has long been synonymous with the Atlanta Dream, making the postseason seven out of her nine years with the Dream. She was a huge free agent signing for the Lynx last season but was still injured and never rostered. It’s unclear if her time with the WNBA is over, but she’s been spotted with Dream players around Atlanta and could be coming back. In addition, she worked alongside both Wright and Padover during her stint in Vegas. It’s unclear where her skill level is now after battling injuries, but she could be a good addition to the locker room and to the fans.
Brittney Sykes was originally drafted to Atlanta back in 2017, where she played for three years. Although she’s an aging star, she’s a lockdown defender who may be looking to escape a floundering Sparks franchise and return to the A at a franchise she knows well. She’s not a marquee player, but she’s consistent and would be a great defensive addition to the Dream’s strong defense and her presence could be equally helpful off the court.
Alysha Clark has been a defensive staple of every team she’s been on, with two championships under her belt. It’s likely the Mystics push to retain her as they gear up for a serious chance at a championship, but if the Dream could snag her, she could continue the Dream’s defensive mission and act as a poster child for a mentoring vet.
Emma Meesseman quite surprisingly made her way to the Windy City last year, while James Wade also found a way to retain most of his championship roster. Still, after a failed 2022 championship attempt, it’s unlikely the Sky will be able to pull off that roster again. Meesseman is likely to shop around and her dominance as a big and championship experience with Washington could be just the thing necessary for the Dream.
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But when examining these potential targets, it begs the question, what is the Dream’s mindset going into this year? Padover said it’s all about short-term progress, insinuating this team is still rebuilding. With a generational talent like Howard paired alongside a big free agency name, the Dream could easily be in win-now mode and find themselves with a deep playoff run. Free agency is bound to reveal the team’s attractiveness to free agents and their seriousness about a competitive season.
With a No. 3 draft pick, good options from last year’s roster and wide-open free agency, the Dream have plenty of opportunity to make something very serious out of this season. Still, in an ever-competitive league, no one knows what will happen.