August 18, 2020 

How does Atlanta improve its defense?

Through the first half of the season, the Dream rank last in defensive rating at 111.5

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Blake Dietrick and Monique Billings of the Atlanta Dream defending Cheyenne Parker of the Chicago Sky on August 16, 2020. Photo Credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

If Nicki Collen had her way, she’d spend almost all of her time coaching defense.

She was an assistant coach in college and in the WNBA before getting her first head coaching job when the Atlanta Dream hired her in the fall of 2017, and at all of her previous stops, she focused on the defense.

But through the first half of the 2020 WNBA season, Atlanta has one of the worst defenses in the league. The Dream have given up less than 80 points just once — a 84-78 win over the New York Liberty — and have given up 100 points twice.

Atlanta has lost eight games in a row and hasn’t yet won in the month of August. When asked before Sunday’s game against Chicago how the Dream can get back in the win column, Collen had a simple answer.

“Play a little defense,” Collen said. “… I think the effort’s there, but we’re gonna have to guard. We’re gonna have to guard in ball screens better, we’re gonna have to guard in transition better, we’re just gonna have to have consistent effort at the defensive end. If you’d have told me this group was gonna score 85 points, I would’ve thought we’d have an opportunity to win. We’ve gotta stop giving up 100.”

Sunday’s loss to Chicago was just another game that proved the pattern that Atlanta has been working with this year. A decent start, not enough defensive pressure to keep the other team from getting the lead and then not making enough shots to stay competitive.

On Sunday, Atlanta got out to a 10-2 lead early. The Sky closed the first quarter on a 19-4 run to lead 21-14 after the first quarter and didn’t really slow down from there. The Dream shot just 39.7 percent and went 2-of-14 from 3-point range and 11-of-18 from the free throw line. Chicago shot nearly 58 percent and got hot from beyond the arc — as most teams have seemed to do against the Dream this year.

After Friday’s game, in which Atlanta gave up 12 threes in a 96-80 loss to Phoenix, Collen stressed that her team had to do a better job of defending the 3-point line.

“People who know me know that while we went into free agency trying to become a better offensive team, at my core I want to coach defense,” Collen said. “We’ve given up 30 3-pointers in the last two games.”

Added guard Blake Dietrick: “I think we just need to commit to running people off the three point line, so if that means that we fly by and don’t let them take the three and at least make them take another dribble and get into the paint and then we rotate on the back side, then that’s what we have to do. … It’s just a commitment. You’ve just gotta commit to not getting beat by threes.”

There are a myriad of reasons why Atlanta could be struggling on defense so far this year — a compressed schedule, new players on the roster, and more — but fundamentally, it’s simple when you watch the games.

The players just don’t appear to be in sync on the defensive end of the floor.

“We’re working hard, but we just don’t have good synergy on defense,” Collen said before Sunday’s game. “I can sit here and make excuses for not having enough time in camp or having three players not be here, a lot of things, but ultimately these guys have to get on a string. They’ve gotta protect the nail. They’ve gotta protect the blocks. They’ve gotta protect one another at the defensive end.”

Halfway through the season, Atlanta has the worst defensive rating in the league at 111.5, ranks last in defensive rebounds per game at 23.8, and only ranks above eighth in one defensive category — blocks, where the Dream rank sixth with an average of 3.6 per game.

Getting a player with size like Kalani Brown back into the mix should help with defense in the paint, but it’ll be a while before she’s able to play 10+ minutes per game on a regular basis.

Making more shots on the offensive end would help take pressure off the defense, and the Dream have shown flashes — like the 10-2 start against Chicago — of being locked in defensively. But inevitably, in almost every game so far, the wheels have come off at some point.

“We put [Ruthy Hebard] in ball screens and scored on the first couple of possessions,” Collen said after Sunday’s game. “[We] were kind of flying around and really in tune to the defensive game plan and caused a couple turnovers. And then they settled down like good teams do. Courtney [Vandersloot] and Allie [Quigley] started making shots. I just think Chicago settled down.”

The subtext, of course, is that the Dream did not make shots, and they did not settle down.

Atlanta has been through a grind so far this year, with 10 games in the last 19 games before getting two days off to prepare for Washington on Wednesday. But every other team in the league is playing a similar schedule, and other teams are finding ways to stay in sync on defense and get stops.

The schedule is a bit less of a grind the rest of the way, so that may help Atlanta come into games with fresher legs and a better grasp on the game plan. But until either the offense gets back to its early-season form or the defense settles in, wins will be hard to come by.

Written by Bailey Johnson

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