June 17, 2021 

The Atlanta Dream blueprint: low floor, sky-high ceiling

Odyssey Sims emergence shows how Atlanta will thrive in Chennedy Carter's return

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Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes celebrates after scoring against the Washington Mystics on June 13, 2021. Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Laying down the blueprint

If nothing else, the Atlanta Dream have an identity. It’s all about the backcourt.

On their guards’ best nights, Atlanta can hang with any team in the league. The entire institution of Dream basketball revolves around the performance of its starting guards. When they contribute, Atlanta wins. When they don’t, Atlanta loses games.

Above are stats broken up between the Atlanta Dream’s three groups: the starting backcourt players, starting frontcourt players and the bench unit. The stats are split by points per game in wins and losses. The biggest takeaway is how crucial the starting backcourt is to the Dream’s success.

“We haven’t played one game with the starting lineup that was projected by everybody before we started training camp,” interim coach Mike Petersen said. “We’ve been in a state of flux for a little bit, and we’ve had to change rotations and try to make it work as we go. Credit to our players, they’ve done a really good job with that.”

The team’s recent four-game skid is not necessarily an indictment of the team’s backcourt, which, when healthy, has three All-Star caliber scoring threats in Chennedy Carter, Tiffany Hayes and Courtney Williams. Carter, however, has been sidelined with an elbow injury since May 29.

Though a former All-Star in Odyssey Sims has taken Carter’s starting spot, Atlanta is not the same team without Carter. There’s no sugar-coating her loss at this point. The team is 1-4 without its bright young star.

And yet, the organization has some warranted optimism in its heart. Atlanta’s brightest moments without Carter have mapped out a blueprint for everything it can do with her.

Why the Dream lost four straight

As we’ve discussed before, Atlanta’s offensive flow is predicated on unpredictability. It also depends on respect.

During Atlanta’s four-game skid, its opponents didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to figure out which Dream players they should help off of, and it certainly didn’t respect the Dream’s secondary scorers. For three of the losses, the only guard in her groove was Hayes. In the final loss, Williams stepped up, but at that point, it was Hayes’ turn for a cold night.

So what do the Dream need? More than one hot hand.

It’s a fairly straightforward equation — when the Dream have one guard cooking, they look like a lottery team. When they have two guards cooking, they can compete with most teams in the WNBA. When all three guards are cooking, they look poised for a deep playoff run. The Dream finally looked like that last option in the team’s most recent win over the Washington Mystics, even if Petersen never overhauled his offensive agenda. Rather, the team’s shots started falling.

“As a coach, I believe if you start deciding whether a shot is good or bad based on whether it goes in or not, you’re hard to play for,” Petersen said. “It confuses your players, and so I’ve just almost never done that.”

Teams are begging to get burned by Atlanta’s role players and frontcourt, because they know there’s a cap to the production they can create by themselves. They want nothing to do with a trio of hot-handed Atlanta guards. When Carter returns, or if Sims returns to All-Star form, defenses might be out of luck.

What it looks like when the three guards cooking

Atlanta’s guards are high-level decision-makers. But their decisions are exponentially more impactful when opponents fear their scoring prowess. This, for example, is what Sims can do when defenses respect her (note the celebration):

For a while, passes like this weren’t available to Sims. To be clear, she was perfectly capable of hitting them — she simply didn’t endanger defenses as a scorer, or certainly not enough to warrant a collapsing defense. During the losing streak, Sims just averaged 24.3 percent from the field to the tune of 5.2 points per game. Against Washington, she finished with 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals.

Sims’ emergence dialed the game down to its easiest setting, and it showed how unstoppable this team will be when three scoring guards and Cheyenne Parker share the floor. In the 20 minutes that Hayes, Sims, Williams and Parker shared the floor, the Dream had a plus-minus of 20.0.

In essence, Sims pulled a Chennedy Carter. Sunday’s convincing win over Washington showed that a blowout won’t look out of place when the entire team is healthy.

“I just thought we were a little discombobulated against Seattle,” Petersen said after the win over Washington. “I thought we were really combobulated tonight.”

Hayes, on the other hand, raises the Dream’s floor with her scoring and raises their ceiling with her passing. When her teammates are cashing in, Hayes is often the one bringing them to the bank. Hayes collapses a defense better than almost anyone in the WNBA, which leads to easy plays like this:

This is nothing new. Hayes is a known commodity as a passer. But teams would rather fall on the sword of her playmaking than that of her drive.

How the rest of the team can fill in

Once three guards catch fire, no one else has to step outside of their comfort zone. For Atlanta, that is unbelievably valuable.

Take Parker, for example. The Dream are nearly unstoppable when Parker shares the floor with three guards. She can space the floor, catch easy dump-offs in the dunker’s spot, and can set useful screens for her teammates. She is unquestionably Atlanta’s best big, and she isn’t even at 100 percent yet.

That said, the Dream run into trouble when she’s asked to do too much. Parker has a lot in her bag — which I covered here — but her creation off of the dribble isn’t at the level of the league’s “unicorn” bigs. This is what happens when she plays outside of her comfort zone:

Notice how both plays came before the Dream’s hot second half.

The lively bench mob, too, is at its best when the players are jumping in passing lanes or up for offensive rebounds to set up their teammates. The Dream need those extra possessions. In fact, Atlanta is on track to break the WNBA record for the biggest difference in field goal attempts. When the Phoenix Mercury set the record in 2003, they attempted 6.7 more field goals per game than their opponents. The Dream are currently at a net FGA of +9.5.

Atlanta likes to get its shots up before the other team can get set on defense, which becomes much easier when the bench mob is pushing the pace. It doesn’t hurt that the Dream’s lower-usage players, like Aari McDonald and Monique Billings, are the ones initiating the break to set up their teammates. And of course, Petersen told the press not to forget about the screens that Billings and Elizabeth Williams set.

“Our bigs did a super nice job of rolling hard,” Petersen said. “I mean, if you don’t roll hard it doesn’t force them to adjust, but our bigs rolled hard, so they had to tag the screener with somebody and then we can find the backside or we can find the roller.”

Up next, the Dream face off against the Mystics, the Lynx and the Liberty twice before heading into their toughest stretch of the season with Seattle, Las Vegas and Connecticut looming.

Until Carter returns, Atlanta will need a few more big games from Sims. The chemistry is there. There is no recipe for stopping this offense when all three guards are on their A-game.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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