May 5, 2021
What we know about the Atlanta Dream’s front office
Interim coach Mike Petersen embraces positive outlook; front office decisions still ambiguous
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With nine days before the season-opener, the Atlanta Dream have no general manager and an interim head coach who does not expect to take the full-time job.
It’s been a quick turnaround in Atlanta: less than 48 hours ago, Baylor University announced it would sign Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen to take over its women’s basketball program after Kim Mulkey’s departure in late April.
Though weeks of chatter preceded Mulkey’s transition to LSU, radio silence preceded her replacement’s decision to take over at Baylor. Shortly after the announcement, the Dream promoted assistant coach Mike Petersen to fill in as the interim head coach, where he will work alongside fellow assistant Darius Taylor.
During his introductory press conference Tuesday, Petersen said he had no interest in joining Collen at Baylor, and laughed when asked if he expected this to be a trial for a head coaching job down the road.
“No thank you,” he said. “When I came here, I told Nicki, ‘Hey, I don’t need to be a head coach again. I’m very happy being an assistant.’ … I enjoy being an assistant. So this is the role I have now, and I’m going to do my very very best job with Darius.”
Atlanta’s front office
The week’s whirlwind leaves Atlanta with plenty of short-term and long-term questions, and the future is in flux until a general manager is appointed.
Petersen dropped some valuable nuggets during his press conference. Though he did not fully clarify Atlanta’s decision-making hierarchy, Petersen said there would be a cooperative effort between him, assistant coach Darius Taylor and the new ownership group, which is comprised of Larry Gottesdiener, Suzanne Abair, and former Dream player Renee Montgomery.
The front office’s first big challenge will be cutting its 16-person roster down to 11 or 12 players by May 13 while remaining under the salary cap. The Dream waived veteran guard Yvonne Turner Wednesday evening but have not made any other roster changes.
“I think this roster did just really provide some interesting possibilities and opportunities for us to play in ways that folks probably won’t find super traditional,” Petersen said in response to a question about roster finalization. “But hopefully the people we’re playing against will find it very difficult.”
As The Next’s Bailey Johnson wrote in April, the Dream have a tricky cap situation. If the front office signs Aari McDonald and her $70,040 contract — and all signs point to that as a guarantee — then the most viable option becomes an 11-person roster, rather than the maximum allowance of 12.
If the Dream wishes to go down the 11-player route, the front office will have to cut one of the above players highlighted in green who is not on a training camp or draft contract, as that construction would bring them $18,500 over the salary cap. If Atlanta would rather retain 12 players, the only feasible path to remain under the cap would involve trading one of the seven players making at least $85,000 for a draft pick.
Given other team’s salary constraints and the talent of Atlanta’s higher-priced players, the front office could decide that isn’t worth the trouble. The short-term nature of the contracts, though, means a trade is not out of the question.
Earlier in training camp, Collen said that the Dream have a plethora of long-term roster decisions in the near future. Seven of the players who are expected to make the team will become unrestricted free agents after the season, including franchise centerpieces in Courtney Williams, Tiffany Hayes, and Elizabeth Williams.
The front office has about another eight days to sort out its training camp roster. Though franchise player Hayes will return from her overseas stint around Sunday, Petersen said she may not play in the Dream’s first game, as she still will need to clear league health and safety protocols.
The reaction and Petersen’s plans
For all of the change in Dream’s front office — the coaching staff didn’t learn about Collen’s involvement with the Lady Bears until the morning of the announcement — their interim coach was in positive and calm spirits in his introductory press conference and indicated that there wouldn’t be many tweaks to the team’s system.
“There’s not gonna be a very big change in how we operate day-to-day,” Petersen said. “Nicki always involved Darius and I a lot in the process, in practice, in game preparation during the game. And so our players are very used to hearing our voices.”
Taylor and Petersen will split up the responsibilities, with the former focusing on the offensive side of the floor and the latter on the defensive end. Much like Collen, Petersen will focus on positive reinforcement — a fact that became evident during Tuesday’s practice.
“I told the ownership group the same thing last night,” Petersen said. “‘Hey, I’m here, and whatever you want to do with me I’m good with.’ I’m here to help our players. I’m here to serve our players.”
Petersen said the roster was unanimously happy for Collen, even if they were upset to see her leave. Though Collen’s salary and long-term status with Atlanta were unknown, openings with the prestige and salary benefits of Baylor don’t come around often. Several Atlanta players have publically addressed their support for coach Collen’s decision, including Chennedy Carter, McDonald, and Monique Billings.
“Everyone is really excited for coach Nicki, just because we understand that, No. 1 it’s a business, and No. 2 when an opportunity comes up, when another door opens you’ve got to walk through that door,” Billings said on SicEm365 Radio. “We’ve been supportive of coach Nicki.”
“Everyone is proud for Coach Nicki and the opportunity that has been presented,” McDonald said during an interview with Swin Cash on Tuesday. “But everybody said, nothing’s changed. We have the same goal, winning a WNBA championship. We’re going to see how we respond to change.”