May 29, 2021 

How the Atlanta Dream’s frontcourt is quietly keeping them in contention

Monique Billings and Crystal Bradford have helped the team to its longest win streak since 2018

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Monique Billings (#25) and the Atlanta Dream celebrate a 101-95 win over the Dallas Wings. (Photo credit: Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dream backcourt dominates during win streak, but the frontcourt deserves credit

It’s almost offensive how much we should have seen this coming.

Maybe it was Nicki Collen’s departure or interim coach Mike Petersen’s windmill sermon, but nothing about the Atlanta Dream felt guaranteed when the team tipped off against Connecticut on opening night. Five games into the season, we can now consider the Dream’s high-powered, guard-oriented offense as a metaphorical middle finger to those low expectations. Or we could just listen to Courtney Williams:

During the Dream’s three-game win streak, the trio of Williams, Tiffany Hayes and Chennedy Carter are averaging 55.0 points and 10.0 assists on uber-efficient play from the field. Petersen’s job somehow gets even easier with the bench unit, as he gets to sub in his choice of a former All-Star (Odyssey Sims) and an explosive lottery pick (Aari McDonald).

So yeah, it would have been a crime if Atlanta’s backcourt didn’t flourish. But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here for the forwards, and specifically, we’re here for the Dream’s usage of their power forwards. Before I lose your interest, let me tell you that the Dream are doing some extremely funky things with their frontcourt. And it’s working.

“They’re super athletic,” Williams said of the frontcourt after Thursday’s 101-95 win over the Dallas Wings. “I think you’ve seen a lot of that tonight, just the way they were rebounding and getting those boards so we all can get out, push the pace and run. I think that’s gonna make us a better team.”

Cheyenne Parker, who was Atlanta’s flashy free agent signing this past offseason, has missed the team’s first five games as she remains in health and safety protocols following a positive coronavirus diagnosis.

The Dream’s frontcourt was supposed to be thin before Parker’s absence, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to survive without her. But Monique Billings and Crystal Bradford, who have become two of Atlanta’s go-to options at the four, are more than making up for Parker’s absence. They’re making Atlanta wildly fun and unpredictable.

Monique Billings is a renaissance woman

Monique Billings punctuates the little things on a basketball court.

Atlanta has enough talent at the top of its rotation to plug any offensive holes, which means that few players are being asked to take on roles beyond their skillset. That means a player like Billings can thrive.

“The boost she gives us when she enters the game is palpable. It has palp — you can feel it,” Petersen said. “She gets her hands on balls on defense; she’s super active. She started last year and we’ve asked her to take on a different role, and she has embraced it like a champ.”

After emerging as a starter in the bubble last year, Petersen has shifted Billings back to the bench this season. That move has transformed her from a reliable rotation piece to a legitimate luxury. Billings is a matchup nightmare on a team that pounces on weakness. When teams go big? She’s too fast. When teams go fast? She’s too big.

“We’re in such a nice place,” Petersen said. “We sub to our advantage. We don’t sub to cover something up, right? When we bring Mo, Crystal, Odyssey or Aari in, we’re adding value to the lineup. Mo is such a huge part of that.”

Despite her infectious optimism and brick-wall screens, Billings matches a carnival as much as she does an AP exam. Billings is a scholar of the game, and she’s refining the edges of her game every year. Through five games this season, the fourth-year pro is averaging 7.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

There are aspects of her game that are imperfect, certainly — she doesn’t exactly stretch the floor, and her offensive game on the low block isn’t going to startle defenders. She’s also shooting a career-low 37 percent from the floor, a figure that she knows is too low for someone whose bread and butter comes around the basket. But the rest of her game is keeping her on the floor.

Atlanta likes to play fast, and Billings has enough gas in the tank to speed without swerving. Unlike in years past, when careless turnovers and defensive miscues would spoil her success, Billings is playing near-perfect basketball from a technical standpoint. The numbers back up her brilliance: Billings currently leads Atlanta in plus-minus after ranking 114th in the WNBA last season.

She’s also showcased her value as a rebounder when Atlanta goes small, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is always. Billings dropped a double-double in Atlanta’s last contest, which was all the more impressive when you consider that it came against the league’s top rebounding team. Boxing out has been the $1,000 answer to every question about size since the start of training camp, and Billings has fit the bill on the boards.

That doesn’t mean the Dream have to sacrifice when she moves away from the basket, though. She’s poised enough to create pockets of space with on- and off-ball screens.

“I take pride in getting my guards open, so if they get open off my screen, I’m like, ‘We’re sharing that bucket.’ I get a point, they get a point,” Billings said. “For example, if I’m getting [Shekinna Stricklen] open, she hits a wide-open three just off of the screen that I set, that’s a bucket for both of us. That’s a great feeling.”

Billings’ defensive versatility has earned her minutes that should extend beyond Parker’s Dream debut. Atlanta can play three guards at once because Billings and the rest of the Atlanta Dream frontcourt are fast and switchable. Opponents haven’t attacked mismatched bigs because there aren’t any on the court.

So how can a forward who shoots 37 percent from the floor be considered an irreplaceable asset? By doing everything else at a high level.

Crystal Bradford is the world’s most interesting pick-and-pop partner

Here’s a PSA to every team that sets screens with its shot creators: you have my attention. While it would be foolish to compare Crystal Bradford to the league’s top wing creators, Atlanta has unlocked a unique and effective weapon with her in the screening position.

Though Bradford is listed as a guard given her 6’ stature, Petersen has opted to play her at the four alongside Atlanta’s array of smaller creators. In that role, she’s become a Swiss Army knife on steroids. Sometimes, those screens mean that she’ll switch onto a smaller guard, which leads to an easy shot over the top of the defender like she has in this play against 5’6 Shyla Heal.

Most of the time, the opposing wing or big who started on Bradford will begin to double off of her since Atlanta’s guards can create chaos in one-on-one situations. That creates too much space for a 35 percent 3-point shooter.

You’ll rarely see a screener who puts the ball on the floor as much as Bradford. Yes, she is smaller than most forwards who can create their own shot, and she’s setting flare screens more often than the brick walls that Billings prefers. But her two-person game with Atlanta’s smaller guards makes the Dream unpredictable and a joy to watch.

If Atlanta Dream fans are eager to see more unorthodox lineups with Bradford, they shouldn’t have to wait long.

“Crystal has tremendous position flexibility,” Petersen said. “I mean, she’s long enough and tall enough and plays hard enough that we can play her at the four. She’s skilled enough to play her at the three. She can guard almost all five spots. She’s super switchable and she can trap. So as the season goes along, we will try to use her in different ways.”

The best of the rest is yet to come

It’s still bizarre that Atlanta’s best frontcourt player has yet to arrive. Parker will change the makeup of this team, and given Atlanta’s current rotations, I envision that she’ll play alongside Bradford and Billings at the five. For now, she remains in health and safety protocol after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The Dream frontcourt hasn’t been perfect, however. Fouls have been a major area of concern in Atlanta. What Atlanta lacks in size it makes up for in defensive intensity, but that’s led to chaos and chippy fouls from many of the players. For reference, only two WNBA teams have ever allowed opponents to get at least 25 percent of their points from the free-throw line, per Her Hoop Stats. Atlanta’s at that mark right now.

Elizabeth Williams is also off to a surprisingly rocky start this season. After emerging as a consistent option in Atlanta over the last five years, Williams has struggled to get much going in 2021, averaging about half as many points (5.2) as she did last season (10.1). Defensively, she’s still playing at a high level — she’s Atlanta’s smartest defensive big, averaging just 1.6 personal fouls alongside 1.2 blocks per game. Positive regression to the mean could be on the way for her and Tianna Hawkins, even with fewer minutes to spare once Parker returns.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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