August 9, 2022 

Atlanta Mailbag: the future, past and present

Who will the Dream keep next year? How can they secure a playoff push?

The Atlanta Dream have proven to be one of the most exciting teams in the WNBA this season. Whether it be overperforming expectations, their rocking arena environment, or a well-structured team on and off the court, there is a lot to talk about in the ATL.

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And with all those things to talk about many questions remain about this season in the future. So you asked and I answered!

I have been thinking about this question quite a lot. I’ll break it into a couple of categories. First, for the top teams that have been high up in the rankings all season (Chicago, Las Vegas, Connecticut, Seattle and Washington), there are definitely quite a few where at least one upset game is possible.

In one of the most thrilling games this season, Atlanta beat Seattle by nearly 15 points. They dominated the entire game against Seattle and the Storm could not respond. On their July 24 matchup against Seattle, they lost by 10 points, but as Coach Tanisha Wright told media, “They competed hard as s**t.”

Seattle is a seasoned team that is no stranger to the playoffs, whereas the Dream aren’t, which is why I think a series upset would be difficult; however, I think they’re well suited to get a win on them.

The next team is the Aces. On July 19, Atlanta beat the Aces 92-76 in Vegas. Tiffany Hayes and Rhyne Howard went off as they do, shots were unstoppable and the Aces couldn’t catch up. Because the Aces are relatively inconsistent and we’ve seen Atlanta stomp them before, I think it’d be possible to see an upset there.

And out of this category, I would even include Chicago. In all three of their games against the Sky, they did lose; however, every single game was extremely close.

They only lost by eight in early June after staging a near-comeback in the 4th quarter. On June 17, Atlanta forced the game into overtime, played extremely hard and lost by just six. For most of the game, they stayed just points apart and in a different world, the Dream could’ve taken home the win. And in their final regular season matchup, they lost by 15 but were close the entire game until they blew the lead in the 4th quarter.

So although I think Chicago is playing the best in the league, I do think the Dream could pull out some level of upset because they almost did it three times this year.

From this tier, Washington and Connecticut are far off the list. They’re borderline Dream kryptonite.

And from the lower tier of teams fighting for those final three spots (Dallas, Phoenix, New York and Minnesota), I think Dallas and Phoenix are the best matchups.

Dallas is on a major hot streak, so they are scary, but over the season, the Dream easily beat this team twice and didn’t play quite like themselves in the one loss. In addition, I think Dallas often makes poor decisions that don’t play to their strengths and depending on the health of Arike Ogunbowale; I think the Dream has a fighting chance.

Similar to Dallas, the Dream has proven they can beat Phoenix. The Mercury are similarly inconsistent on what kind of wins they can pull out, but especially because Diana Taurasi is out, they could win.

But like many teams, the Mercury is a seasoned team made for the postseason. If the Dream makes the playoffs, older, experienced teams will be a challenge to this young Dream team.

As for Minnesota and New York, the Lynx have proven to be a tough challenge for Atlanta and I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough evidence of New York-Atlanta matchups this year to make a real answer, especially with the Liberty’s roster fluctuation. We’ll leave the answer to those final two games of the season.

Since this question was asked, Nia Coffey was ruled out for the remainder of the season due to her right knee injury, so this really leaves us with Monique Billings vs. Naz Hillmon.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Hillmon is the right choice. During their respective starting stints, Hillmon averages 7.3 rebounds and 6.9 points, whereas Billings averaged 5.2 rebounds and 5.7 points.

Both have their flaws, but Hillmon has been so dominant and constantly embodies that “next-player-up” mentality. She is tough and is the energy this team needs. In addition, I think this team doesn’t need more switch-ups with rotations in their final stretch, so it makes sense to keep Hillmon for the final games.

I both think Hillmon should remain in the starting lineup and I also think it’s what will happen.

Right now, the Dream’s biggest obstacle is itself. When it feels like the injury report is bad, it only got worse this week with Kristy Wallace in Health & Safety Protocol. Currently, the Dream has only eight active on their roster after signing Maya Caldwell.

After Sunday’s loss to Minnesota, I would say the way to combat the injury bug is to focus more on the paint. In the first half, Cheyenne Parker was simply unstoppable and Hillmon was similarly dominant. If Parker gets fed touches and Hillmon attacks those second-chance points, I think they can continue to be successful.

In addition, they need to stay tough on what they know best: defense. They have an extremely strong team defensive structure and it’s the primary thing that will get them far with this injury luck.

I think the most obvious one is Rhyne Howard. The team sacrificed a lot to get her; she’s an obvious generational talent and the face of the franchise. So she’s the ultimate lock.

Another obvious one is Tiffany Hayes. Hayes has spent ten years in the A. And I presume she’ll end her career with the team. Although she’s been out a lot this season due to injury, she remains one of the best players on the team and if she had been healthy the entire season, I think she could’ve had a case to make the All-Star team.

The next is Cheyenne Parker. Parker worked extremely hard out of pregnancy to return stronger than ever and has done so successfully. She’s been dominant in the paint, particularly these last few games and seems really happy with the team. Throughout the season, she has explicitly expressed how much better this year is to last and the team, front office and fans love her.

“Cheyenne’s a ball player,” GM Dan Padover told The Next in early August.

Then to me, Naz Hillmon and Aari McDonald are in the same category. In a league where incredible young players get easily waived, see 2020 Rookie of the Year’s season, I would think these two young, developing players that are highly marketable out of popular NCAA careers would stay in Atlanta, but you never know.

From how I see it, the starts, development and dominance Hillmon has shown in the last nine games make me think her future is very bright and they’ll keep her around. McDonald is somewhat similar, but I think there’s more possibility she could get shifted around. She’s definitely developing, but I think if a deal is right, she may leave the A.

Otherwise, I think everyone is somewhat up in the air.

I absolutely think they can and that’s the goal for the team. Throughout the season, players, the front office and coaches have mentioned their interest in making Atlanta a destination.

“I think we have great people in senior management that’s really doing a good job of changing the narrative, making this place a professional place,” Wright told The Next. “And we continue to go after the right people player-wise I think that we can do something really special here.”

I harken back to this a lot, but last year in a podcast, Tina Charles called Tanisha Wright the most influential person in her entire career. For a Hall of Famer like Charles to say that goes to show that Wright has huge respect across the league, from her current players to her past players and teammates.

With the money available and the draw of an exciting, developing franchise down South and a prolific GM, I think an All-Star Free Agent move this offseason is imminent.

To begin, I am a firm believer in teams winning Championships, but this is definitely a fair question with a few answers.

The most obvious is Rhyne Howard. She’s likely to win Rookie of the Year, was named an All-Star and is just generally very special, or as Candace Parker said, “she’s different.” She has a long career ahead of her and I’m sure a Championship will fit in there somewhere.

The next is Tiffany Hayes. Hayes is a two-time All-Star, UCONN alum and very athletically gifted hooper. She has the skill and the experience and also the mentality.

On July 28, after being down 20 to the Minnesota Lynx at half-time, she led a near-successful comeback. In the said fourth quarter, she scored 18 points and the Dream scored 40 points, a franchise record and only the sixth time any team in the league has done it. After fouling out with three minutes remaining, she was obviously upset about the loss but explained to The Next her elite mindset.

“I just never want to lose, so I’m always going to work hard. I’m a person who’s never going to give up; I don’t care if we’re down 30 with eight minutes left,” Hayes told The Next. “I always feel like we can come back no matter what team I’m on.”

And although she’s not currently there, I think Naz Hillmon has the capacity to become a championship player. She has a mindset focused on growing herself and also the franchise in general, where she has equated the growing nature of the Michigan Women’s Basketball program to the current Dream trajectory.

Honorable mentions go to Erica Wheeler and Cheyenne Parker, who both are stars.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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