February 8, 2022 

A plan taking shape: where the Atlanta Dream stand after Carter’s departure

Coffey, Wheeler in as Carter's departure signals clean slate for the franchise

Quick rundown on Atlanta’s transactions

Departures

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  1. Courtney Williams leaves for the Connecticut Sun ($103K), per Girls Talk Sports TV’s Khristina Williams.
  2. Crystal Bradford leaves for the Chicago Sky ($62K), per Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan.
  3. Elizabeth Williams leaves for the Washington Mystics ($90K), per The Next’s Howard Megdal.
  4. Tianna Hawkins (waived) leaves for the Washington Mystics ($72K), per release.
  5. Chennedy Carter traded to the Los Angeles Sparks, per The Next.
  6. The rights of Li Yueru traded to the Los Angeles Sparks, per Galligan.

Arrivals & Returners

  1. Tiffany Hayes (1 Yr, $215k) re-signed, per Galligan.
  2. Erica Wheeler (1 Yr, $185K) traded from the Los Angeles Sparks, per The Next
  3. Monique Billings (1 Yr, $140k) re-signed, per Williams.
  4. Nia Coffey (1 Yr, $130K) acquired in free agency, per The Next.
  5. Kia Vaughn (1 Yr, $110K), traded from the Phoenix Mercury in exchange for a 2023-third round pick, per The Next.
  6. Megan Walker (1 Yr, $70K), acquired on waivers from the Phoenix Mercury, per The Next.
  7. Jaylyn Agnew, signed to a training camp contract, per release.

To Be Determined

  1. Odyssey Sims, likely on the way out, sources tell The Next.
  2. Shekinna Stricklen, likely gone, sources tell The Next.
  3. Candice Dupree, unknown status.
  4. Blake Dietrick, unknown status.

The 30,000-foot view

The Atlanta Dream entered free agency with the intention of re-establishing a high-culture environment with high-culture players, even if it meant that they had to eschew some of the market’s bigger names like Diamond DeShields, Tina Charles and Liz Cambage. New general manager Dan Padover took the Atlanta job with an understanding that he couldn’t build a contender overnight, and thus, sacrificing chemistry for a middling roster wasn’t part of the plan.

By long-term standards, most of Dream’s maneuvers through the first week of the offseason look like smart (but marginal) first steps toward a return to relevancy. But the move that lingers above them all — trading a franchise-altering talent in Chennedy Carter to the Los Angeles Sparks — was, in no uncertain terms, a hazardous gamble. But more on that in a bit.

If we’re grading the Dream on a curve, the first week of the offseason was a moderate success. Of course, it will be easy to forget about that curve when the team has its inevitable ugly midseason losses next season, with more than half of the league (Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, Washington, Connecticut, Phoenix, Los Angeles) possessing faint-to-great title hopes. But the tinkering — a slew of one-year deals, namely — hint at a deeper philosophy: the front office now has ample time to assess which pieces fit together in the long-term.

Of the 12 players currently expected to fit on Atlanta’s roster (five guaranteed contracts, three unprotected contracts, a training camp deal and three picks in the upcoming draft), five will enter unrestricted free agency next year. Only one player (Cheyenne Parker) will be on a guaranteed contract. That means, unlike 2021, a youth movement has to be a priority, headlined by McDonald, Billings, and the team’s three picks in the upcoming draft.

Atlanta’s roster in 2021, after adjusting for minutes played, was the fifth-oldest in the league last season. Of course, certain factors helped that figure creep up (Dupree’s signing chief among them) but the team certainly missed opportunities to put its two young guards in advantageous situations.

Carter, of course, was suspended for the latter half of the season and is now gone. McDonald, meanwhile, played just 16 minutes per game in 2021 without much of a role change even after the team was eliminated from playoff contention. She also received a few opportunities to have an integrated role in the offense.

While it’s unlikely that McDonald would be a focal point of the offensive system next season, new head coach Tanisha Wright will likely prioritize giving McDonald chances to capitalize on her strengths (turnover-forcing defense, agility, and 3-point shooting) while helping her work on her short-comings.

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 10: Nia Coffey #12 of the Los Angeles Sparks handles the ball against the Washington Mystics on June 10, 2021, at Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

How might the new faces from Los Angeles facilitate a better future?

First, The Next’s favorite Atlanta addition this offseason: Nia Coffey. Coffey is fun, switchable and athletic on defense, as well as a shooting savant and occasional driver on offense (for more on Coffey, watch the Step Through with Evin Gualberto and Sabreena Merchant).

Most notably, her ability to space the floor (41.7 percent on 3.8 3PAs) next to Parker should help facilitate drive-friendly fireballs like McDonald and Hayes, who can kick it out to open shooters that might finally populate the Gateway Center Arena. Last year, Atlanta’s forwards and centers combined to make just 69 3-pointers (8th in the WNBA) on 27.8 percent shooting (10th in the WNBA), which did no favors for the few shot-creating guards that remained healthy.

“Nia had her best season to date last year, and we’re really excited to watch her continued growth,” Padover said. “From our very first conversation with Nia her energy and enthusiasm for what we’re trying to build here shined through, and we know she will add a lot to the culture we’re trying to build here in Atlanta.”

At 6’1, Coffey is light on her feet but strong enough to hang with many of the league’s non-elite posts, a power forward who can slide down to the 3 if Atlanta wants to go big. While the team’s newest forward is rarely one to create her shot, she can and will fit in on both ends of the floor.

Wright & Co.’s challenge, then, will be keeping her from becoming over-extended as a scorer. In Los Angeles, playing Coffey alongside three shot-creators seems like the best way to maximize her value and for her to maximize the other creators. On the other side of the ball, her help-side defense — among her most valuable traits — will be crucial alongside a defense with McDonald and Wheeler that might want to gamble on steals.

As for Atlanta’s other addition from Los Angeles: what exactly did Atlanta get in Wheeler? A true shot-creator. A Sue Bird-ankle-taker. A player who can put the ball in the basket all by herself.

Who does that help? Everyone.

The Wheeler-to-Coffey combinations in Los Angeles was smoother than many of their stats might show. Wheeler could either use her teammate as a screener in the pick-and-pop or find her in the corner of a collapsing defense. As a pure veteran presence, it appears that Atlanta tabbed the right target. McDonald, a smart playmaker and quick-twitch defender, will have the chance to learn directly from Wheeler’s facilitating finesse.

“Today is a good day for us, we are excited to add such an experienced player to the point guard position,” Wright said. “Throughout Erica’s career she has had to fight and claw her way to get to where she is today, and we are looking forward to her bringing that same determination and grit to the Dream. Erica gives us someone who can push the tempo and be a solid playmaker for her team.”

If nothing else, Wheeler is a near-perfect mentor for a second-year player in McDonald since both players possess high-octane offensive moments. More importantly, Wheeler knows a thing about beginning in an unfavorable environment. The 30-year-old guard played just 11.4 minutes per game in her first season as an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers but notably transformed her game in her later seasons and eventually became an All-Star in 2019.

Wheeler (5’7 herself) played in many three-guard rotations and could feasibly slide alongside Hayes and whichever other guard Wright decides to start.

With Williams and Bradford on the way out the door, Atlanta obviously lost two more of their scorers. Both losses will require Wright to become creative schematically and should, in the early stages of the season, likely hinder an offense that already ranked in the bottom-third of the league by most metrics.

Wheeler will soften the blow, but it could put Atlanta’s young pieces in unfamiliar situations as shot-creators. It will be the coaching staff’s job to work the roster through those lows and the front office’s job to get them assistance by the start of 2023.

How do the other pieces fit together?

Tiffany Hayes was the team’s most important signing this offseason as a pivotal member of the roster for the better part of a decade. Her return not only brings stability but likely saves the Dream from one of the ugliest offensive seasons in WNBA history. Hayes has averaged at least 14 points per game since 2016 and though there are signs of an aging star (a dip in free throw attempts, a couple of minor injuries), she remains one of the grittiest two-way wings in the league. And an All-Star when she stays healthy.

Kia Vaughn, the team’s frontcourt addition alongside Coffey, has remained a steady role player throughout her 12-year career and is an above-average finisher and low-usage option. But, to be clear, she won’t stretch the floor at all for Atlanta. Instead, on a one-year deal, it would seem that her value comes as a leader.

Leadership is hard to quantify, but the front office has done its best to qualify it in Vaughn. Atlanta traded for her when it likely could have waited until she cleared waivers and then signed her for less. As such, they seem to view her as an important piece in cultivating 2022’s environment. Whether the team sees her as a mentor for Monique Billings as well seems possible, though uncertain, given Billings’ one-year contract.

The team, of course, has its faults, which is what happens during a rebuild. Sure, it has three post players who deserve significant minutes, but it also has zero players who have emerged as elite-level interior defenders (Billings is inching closer). It has three quick guards, but at the end of the game, only two (Hayes and Wheeler) have years of experience as the closer. 

Now that the dust has settled, what’s the evaluation on the Carter trade and future picks added?

Indeed, if the team nails the 2022 pick and/or snags Aliyah Boston in 2023 and/or gets Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers in 2024, this will become a model WNBA franchise. That is transcendent talent.

“Both of these picks are going to be key assets for us as we aim to re-build this team into a title contender,” Padover said. “[The Los Angeles] trade positions us to be right where we want to be in 2022 and beyond.”

One major question remains, though: did Atlanta give up a talent of that “transcendent” caliber by trading Carter? At times borderline transcendent with her talent, at other times squarely outside of the team’s big-picture plans, Atlanta has lost its most skilled draft pick in recent memory.

Carter is, at worst, the third-most talented player to enter the WNBA since the start of the 2020 season. But did the front office truly believe that her fit in the team’s culture would foster winning in the long run? This trade seems to signal that the answer is no.

Two years is also a lot of waiting to do, especially when a player who is already a firecracker fit right in on offense.

In the next offseason, a high percentage of the league will have boatloads of cap space. Why is that? Many of the league’s top stars become free agents. 2022 will be a watershed year for the franchise. The team can use 2022 to determine how central McDonald would be on its future, hypothetical title-contending team. While McDonald’s ceiling is high, more likely franchise superstars — think A’ja Wilson in 2018 or Breanna Stewart in 2016 — exist in the 2023 and 2024 drafts.

Even if everything goes right — a top overall pick, a culture revitalization, and the emergence of young talent — will it be enough to lure top players to Atlanta? Or would the Dream need to wait yet another shortcut-free year before stamping themselves as the contenders of the future?

Probable Rotation

Atlanta could go in many directions in the 2022 WNBA Draft. However, for the sake of the depth chart, three possibilities have been added to the rotation below.

PG: Aari McDonald, Veronica Burton ( Pick 14 | Northwestern)

SG: Erica Wheeler, Jaylyn Agnew

SF: Tiffany Hayes, Ashley Joens (Pick 3 | Iowa State), Megan Walker

PF: Cheyenne Parker, Nia Coffey (6th Woman)

C: Monique Billings, Kia Vaughn, Jenna Staiti (Pick 15 | Georgia)

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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