August 21, 2022 

Dream playoff hopes crushed, but their future is far from a nightmare

Missing the playoffs by a single game may have served the Dream exactly what they need

After a pair of back-to-back losses to the New York Liberty over the final weekend of the WNBA regular season, the Atlanta Dream’s season has officially ended, thus setting the sun on an unexpected, challenging and thrilling season in the A.

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The Dream finished their season 14-22, with a smattering of wins earlier in the season that became sparser as the season went on. And despite a losing record, the Dream were just one win away from a playoff series, overcoming most preseason expectations.

Just about everyone in the women’s basketball landscape, The Next included, predicted the Dream would end their season similarly to last season: just about last. But instead, the Dream pulled together a group that was tough, hard-working and pulled out a successful season.

Much of this was thanks to rookie coach Tanisha Wright, who instilled an expectation of toughness and trust and very well may take home Coach of the Year. And the cast of characters assembled by Wright and All-Star GM Dan Padover fit together extremely well.

“Like we said to the team in the locker room, this was a very, very special group,” Padover told The Next after the season. “No one will forget this 2022 team because they put this franchise back on the map, which is very hard to do.”

With a mix of young and old, there was a newfound feeling of love in that Atlanta locker room. The group was highlighted by a pair of rookies: #1 2022 WNBA Draft pick and team stats leader Rhyne Howard and #12 pick Naz Hillmon. The two brought energy, excitement and grittiness to both the defense and offense.

Sophomore guard Aari McDonald continued to progress over this season with an automatic jolt of energy off the bench and always pulling out the ability to make a clutch bucket. Returners Monique Billings, Tiffany Hayes and Cheyenne Parker all were forces on both the court and locker room, with Hayes and Parker both being real offensive threats in their own time.

And the additions of Erica Wheeler, Nia Coffey and AD Durr all proved important throughout the season for mentorship and court production.

And one would be remiss not to mention Kia Vaughn, the certified “mom of the team,” who mentored this team from start to finish and announced her retirement just hours after their Sunday loss.

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The team came in fifth in defense in the W and pulled off plenty of upsets. 

However, they also have plenty of room to grow. In particular, the Dream’s defining crux of the season was their inability to come back in games. When trailing after the first half, the Dream was 0-20 throughout the season. Rarely do you get a statistic so dramatic to determine a win, but it was clear all season long: if Atlanta was down at half, they wouldn’t come back.

They often made valiant comeback attempts late in the second half, as seen in their penultimate game, but being a young team, those attempts were seldom successful. As their young stars grow and they have more seasons together, their chemistry should improve they can start to gel to successfully overcome in-game adversity. 

But for this season, it was less about these larger comebacks and simply playing each game better than the last.

“That doesn’t necessarily concern me,” Wright told media in late July when being reminded of the comeback stat. “My concern today is that we came out today, and we played hard… We just have to continue to grow and continue to get better. We’re a young team, a team that’s playing together for the first time together this year.”

And although the Dream narrowly missed a playoff series, their future is bright and potentially even brighter due to the fact they’re in the lottery.

“We all thought they deserved to be in the playoffs, so we as an organization wish that they received the reward of being able to play in the postseason,” Padover said. “The consolation prize of not being in the playoffs is we got the second best odds in the lottery, and given where our franchise is at, the long term of this organization, that’s a good thing.”

The Dream are only behind the Indiana Fever for the best odds in the lottery with an exciting draft class coming down the pipeline, led by generational talent and South Carolina Gamecock post player Aliyah Boston. And the Dream have illustrated that a #1 draft pick, despite their rookie status, can be an All-Star and instrumental figure for a team.

Aside from imminent draft picks (they also will almost assuredly have Washington’s #8 pick as part of the trade that got the Howard), the Dream’s roster is bound to change. After Kia Vaughn’s retirement and seldom minutes for a few players, trades are forthcoming. The Dream will need to make up for some size and better their offense.

“No two teams are ever the same. There will definitely be changes, but who’s to say how many changes? It’s too soon to say,” Padover said.

It’s unknown what those changes will look like, but Padover confirms that there will, of course, be turnover. And the question on many minds is: what happens in the free agency realm?

Throughout the season, players and Coach Wright have explained that they want to help make Atlanta a desirable place to attract players across the league.

“I would love to stay in Atlanta and be a part of something that’s changed the tide as they rebuild it, and a reason why people want to come to Atlanta and build championships here,” Hillmon told The Next in June.

So as predicted in an earlier mailbag, a significant free agency signing feels likely to happen, especially with the influence and experience Wright and Padover have in this league.

And one free agent that has won over the hearts of the ATL is Maya Caldwell. After being in and out of the Dream’s season from training camp to the final game, many fans are clamoring to sign Caldwell to a permanent contract. Caldwell, among others, remains a thrilling question mark in this upcoming offseason.

So although a playoff run would have been a perfect bow on the already unexpected Atlanta season, the future remains exciting for the Dream, and missing the playoffs by a single game may have served them exactly what they need.

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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