May 25, 2021 

How the Atlanta Dream can bump up those shooting percentages

Changes within or via trade could make the difference

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Shekinna Stricklen takes a shot during the 2020 season. Photo: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Dream finally catch fire — how did they do it?

Almost every modern offense shapes its game around the 3-pointer.

As a concept, it’s fairly to easy to understand why. Threes are worth more than twos, and the players who take those threes create space to make the twos easier (and thus, more valuable) space the floor to create openings for post players or slashing guards.

The Atlanta Dream don’t really care what a modern offense is supposed to look like.

Instead, they’ve taken the inverted approach to outside shooting, flipping analytics on its head and asking what if every 3-pointer was predicated on penetration?

“The best perimeter shots for us, and for everybody really, come off some kind of penetration, and we have players that penetrate well,” interim head coach Mike Petersen said. “If we can get downhill — into the lane with a paint touch, or taking it up the baseline — and then pitch and get defenses into rotations, those are the shots that everyone shoots the highest percentage on. Those are the shots we want.”

Odyssey Sims is the archetype for that style of offense. Defenses know they have to collapse on Sims once she touches the paint, but in reality, her greatest threat comes as a passer. Take either of these plays from the Dream’s first win of the season, an 83-79 victory over the Indiana Fever — Sims shows her second nature as a playmaking savant, whipping these passes across her body for six easy points.

(As a brief aside, the drive and kick is also a strong suit of Aari McDonald, who did not play against Indiana but will receive plenty of playing time this season. )

These two plays are part of a burgeoning trend in Atlanta, as a decent share of the Dream’s outside attack in 2021 has come from drive and kick opportunities. That’s an important revision from last year’s offense, when the lion’s share of outside looks coming from passes zipping around the perimeter. In 2020, Atlanta’s offense mirrored the collegiate game more than the professional one. That’s changing.

“You’ve got to move the defense and soften it, and then get into the lane and make plays,” Petersen said. “I think in the last game we did a really good job of that.”

This offseason, the now-extinct Dream brass of coach Nicki Collen and general manager Chris Sienko began to sow the seeds of a versatile offense, dreaming of a world with ample pick and pop opportunities. Those seeds have began to sprout with the return of Shekinna Stricklen and the ‘Strick and pop.’

Stricklen has been dealing with knee injuries early in the season, and was sidelined for three straight halves against Chicago and Indiana. Though she didn’t check in until the end of the third quarter against the Fever, Stricklen made an immediate impression once she hit the court, knocking down two 3-pointers in the 30 seconds.

“Strick and Tiana or Crystal, when any of them are at the four, they’re very good in pick and pop,” Petersen said. “But it’s the same principle. You come off the ball screen, you attack downhill off the ball screen, you’re forced to help, and you throw the pitch.”

Once Indiana realized it needed to respect Atlanta from deep — something it uncovered too little, too late — the lane opened up for Atlanta’s guards to drive to the hoop. And that’s where we arrive at the great opportunity cost of the 2021 Dream.

Oddly enough, Atlanta’s success exposed its weakness

Atlanta’s guards have created open 3-point shots for players like Stricklen. But until the waning minutes of Atlanta’s last game, the outside shot has not created many open lanes for the slashers. Every team has to pick a poison on defense, and Atlanta’s opponents are choosing to swallow the paint every time.

Among the league’s 12 teams, Atlanta is attempting the most field goals in the restricted area (27.7 per game) but converting them at the lowest percentage (41.0 percent, with the next-lowest at 52.6 percent). That isn’t because they can’t score at the rim, or even that they’re taking ill-advised shots. There just isn’t anyone guarding the shooters.

“Me hitting the threes today made them switch, and when they switch from me, that puts a post on our quick guards,” Stricklen said. “We just started screening, they had to switch, and we got easy layups. If they’re gonna switch, then it’s so easy for our quick guards to get to the basket. If they don’t, then I have the shot. So, I think that’s going to be really hard.”

Once Stricklen entered the game, the paint got a whole lot emptier. Defenses never want to switch against Atlanta, and especially not against Chennedy Carter. Rather than switching, most teams choose to double Carter and get the ball out of her hands, usually because the screener isn’t a real risk from outside.

Plays like this, however, change that. Jantel Lavender isn’t supposed to be on Carter. That’s the guard version of BBQ chicken.

Of course, there’s a constant push-pull with Carter. The Dream want her to be aggressive and get to the hoop without sacrificing kickouts to open shooters, but that’s tough to manage with the type of damage she can do in the paint.

Carter is in rarefied air as a second-year player, and she’s on the fast track to becoming the best scorer in the WNBA. Like everyone else in the league, however, she is not a perfect offensive player. At this stage of her career, I’d only venture to call her a good passer, not a great one. That means defenders will continue to swarm the paint, and she’ll have to keep breaking basketball logic to finish her acrobatic, angled shots at the rim. An upgraded drive-and-kick game is the next logical evolution to Carter’s rapid offensive ascent, especially if Atlanta upgrades its perimeter shooting.

Will Cheyenne Parker’s return be enough, or is a trade needed?

Externally, Atlanta seems perfectly comfortable hoisting a below-average number of 3-point shots, and Petersen has implied that he doesn’t have major plans to change the Dream’s playing style.

“It’s huge, it’s modern basketball,” Petersen said of the 3-pointer. “Are we going to shoot 50 percent from three every night? No. Basketball is a game of large numbers. If you start changing things based on one game, you’re going to lose your mind.”

I’m not convinced that that’s going to be enough, even once Cheyenne Parker returns.

However, if the Dream are encouraged by the outside attack against Indiana but don’t think it is sustainable with the current roster, a trade could be impending.

Might the Dream want to orchestrate a trade with the Washington Mystics? Washington is the team with the fewest restricted-area field goals in the WNBA. If the Dream wanted to add a shooter, one would have to think a call for Sydney Wiese (40 percent on 2.8 attempts per game since 2019) or Leilani Mitchell (career 38.4 percent shooter on 3.2 attempts per game) would be in order. With no general manager, however, it’s unclear if the ownership group would want to make any sort of splash.

Atlanta has good shooters. Courtney Williams is a smoldering 8-for-14 from beyond the arc this season, and Crystal Bradford has emerged as a reliable outside option. Though Tiffany Hayes and Tianna Hawkins have gotten off to tepid starts, both have reliable track records from 3-point territory. And of course, Stricklen and Parker can do damage.

Parker’s return in particular should clarify the roster’s offensive needs. For starters, her play down low will finally give the Dream someone to constantly feed in the post when needed. But she’s more than a rumbling big who clogs up the lane — Parker is a weapon from outside. After shooting a career-high 46.9 percent from deep last season on 1.6 attempts per game, her ability to pick and pop is a long-coveted desire of the Dream’s. On Monday, Petersen said the timetable for Parker’s return is still indefinite.

Hopefully, we’ll learn a little more on Tuesday evening as Atlanta gears up for a rematch against Chicago, with tip-off set for 8:00 p.m. ET.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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