August 18, 2021 

How the Atlanta Dream can capitalize on their last sliver of hope

Exclusive info on the status of Chennedy Carter, Tiffany Hayes and a historically bad-but-improving defense

In 2018, the Atlanta Dream won nine of their last 11 games.

In 2021, the Atlanta Dream will have to do the same.

With 11 games left on the schedule, no team in the WNBA has less room for error than the Atlanta Dream. But there is some tempered optimism in Atlanta that the playoff window is still open.

Updates on Chennedy Carter and Tiffany Hayes

As the Dream plan out a map toward the playoffs, one player is notably absent from their blueprint: Chennedy Carter.

On Wednesday, sources told The Next that the team is planning the rest of its season under the assumption that Carter will not play for the team. Atlanta’s young star has not played since July after she was suspended following a game against the Las Vegas Aces. She has not returned to the team since the incident.

Sources also told The Next that the team is “highly unlikely” to move Carter before the August 21 trade deadline.

That isn’t to say that the team would not welcome Carter back. Instead, the Dream are effectively leaving the ball in her court.

On Sunday, Atlanta’s interim coach Darius Taylor gave a short update on Carter’s status, reiterating that there is “no timetable yet” for her return. On Wednesday, a source elaborated to The Next that Carter’s return is entirely predicated on her “meeting several conditions” that the front office set for her at the beginning of her suspension and which she has not completed. One potential spot for optimism remains on the communication front: Carter and the team are still in contact with one another, though the communication was not described as frequent.

Atlanta’s personnel, meanwhile, is focused on their nine healthy players and their top realistic hope for the playoffs: Tiffany Hayes. Though Hayes hinted at an imminent return in early August, she is still working her way back from an MCL injury that has continued to linger into the second half of the season. Taylor told assembled media on Sunday that Hayes was still day-to-day, and though she is close to 100 percent, the team is cautious about rushing her back. On Wednesday, the team upgraded her to “questionable” for the rematch against the Los Angeles Sparks.

The Dream are 0-2 to start the second half and have lost 13 of their last 15 games. While they aren’t banking on Carter’s return to the team, they have yet to prove that they can win without her. But at this point in the season, the Dream can’t drag their feet and hope that Carter comes through in the clutch. Instead, their last sliver of hope lies in two places: Hayes, and the rejuvenation of a once-decent defense.

How Atlanta has started to fix a historically awful defense

Over the Olympic Break, the Atlanta Dream had one focus: defensive improvements. As the image above shows, there was a good reason for that. Taylor, a defensive-minded coach, has started to plug the holes in the team’s weaker half. But the final kinks are still getting worked out. Over the Olympic Break, Hayes was a significant part of the team’s defensive game plan. And the quicker she heals, the less time Atlanta will have to operate on the fly.

In the first half of the season, the Dream’s 3-point defense was bad enough to generate second-hand embarrassment. Opponents feasted against Atlanta’s high-pressure defensive schemes; which would snowball into countless, open 3-point attempts unless the Dream made perfect defensive rotations. That did not happen often. When the pressure turned down, opponents would bring Atlanta’s bigs out on the perimeter. That left even the likes of Elizabeth Williams (a former All-Defensive big) out to dry.

All that is to say this: even in two losses, Taylor has done an incredible job at making adjustments.

The Dream held the Sparks to score a season-low 30 first-half points in the first half of Tuesday’s contest. And kept Phoenix at bay for the first three quarters. For the first time in a long time, Atlanta looked like a competent defense that was simply befallen by a short rotation.

“When we follow the gameplan, we’re in pretty good shape,” Taylor said after Tuesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Sparks. “But it’s giving up backdoors, it’s transition baskets where we just didn’t get back matched up with our feet organized. We just gave up, you know, some easy baskets.”

The 3-point defense is here to stay, it seems. Per Synergy, Atlanta allowed the most unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities in the first half of the season (64 percent vs. 53 percent league-wide average) and (unlike other teams) allowed actual shooters like Sami Whitcomb, Sue Bird and Kelsey Plum to take those wide-open shots. That changed against Phoenix and Los Angeles.

In her spot minutes, Aari McDonald has played like the defensive star she was in college. Courtney Williams looks fresh and jumpy after a physically taxing first half. Even Atlanta’s bigs are holding their own on the perimeter, a welcome sight for the coaching staff.

The team’s newest post addition, Candice Dupree, has also looked like a better defensive player than what we saw of her in the first half of the season when she was a member of the Seattle Storm. That is, with one massive caveat: she is unplayable against elite post players.

Dupree’s lack of size and athleticism hurts the Dream on the inside, and with matchups against Brittney Griner, Tina Charles, A’ja Wilson and Elizabeth Cambage on the way, she’ll be virtually unplayable in a way that Monique Billings and Elizabeth Williams are not. But if we’re looking at the narrow window into the playoffs, Dupree has value. It just happens to come in the minutes where she isn’t asked to dominate on the defensive end.

So yes, if the Dream do anything other than light the world on fire; the rest of the season will pivot toward player development and offseason planning. But with Hayes’ hopeful return and a rapidly-improving defense; a glimmer of hope still exists inside the Atlanta Dream locker room.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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