June 3, 2022 

How the Atlanta Dream created an elite defense, and a winning team, in the aggregate

Rhyne Howard and Nia Coffey are emerging as All-Defensive contenders during the 6-3 start.

Before this season started, I was one of The Next’s seven foolish souls that predicted a last-place performance from the Atlanta Dream’s defense.

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It is the worst prediction I have ever made.

“In 2021, they had the league’s second-worst defense,” I thought. “How would they improve? How could they, with their best defender, Elizabeth Williams, out the door? Can they generate buy-in on defense, especially when the team starts to rack up losses?”

Tanisha Wright, a seven-time All-Defensive selection as a player per Across the Timeline, is on the early shortlist of Coach of the Year contenders in her first season at the helm. Her overhaul of the team’s defense — which now ranks first in the WNBA — has shot the team out to a 6-3 start, even as the offense (11th in the WNBA) remains a work in progress without Tiffany Hayes. In just nine games, Wright and the rest of the roster answered each of my foolish questions above.

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Recreating individuals in the aggregate

When Atlanta overhauled its personnel this past offseason, it parted with the lone All-Defensive center on the roster. That was supposed to create a major hole in the roster. What the team has done instead, is recreate a star in the aggregate thanks to some of the league’s best help defenders.

Enter Nia Coffey and Rhyne Howard, the team’s starting forwards, whose top responsibility for most of their on-court minutes seems to be roaming, recovering and then repeating that process of roaming and recovering.

Through the first nine games of the season, it’s become clear that each member of the pair is worthy of an All-Defensive candidacy. Coffey, who primarily covers the opponent’s best power forward but is the rare player who can switch across any position, is an evident net-positive in one-on-one defense, but where she and Howard have truly shined is away from the ball. There’s a reason in particular that Coffey is playing 24 minutes per game, and it isn’t the 27 percent she’s shooting from the floor.

Together, Howard and Coffey have starred in their “coverage” of the other team’s worst offensive player.

I’d ask you to think of that “coverage” in the same way you might think of a tarp “covering” a car during a tornado: technically, yes, the two are attached. But in reality? They’re focused on the eye of the action.

When the league’s best bigs get going, that eye of the tornado can often feel unstoppable. Coffey and Howard, then, have given Atlanta the league’s best home insurance south of Sylvia Fowles. Plenty of teams utilize this sort of philosophy with their post players, but few teams employ it with the precision that Atlanta’s pair of wings has.

It all culminates in a defense that is the league’s best on the interior, allowing opponents to score just 26.9 paint points per game, the WNBA’s lowest figure since 2018.

“I think Nia has done a really good job of taking on the challenge of guarding other people’s best four player,” Wright said, noting her on-ball presence as well. “And Rhyne’s done a really good job of just being active. We challenged her about her activity, being able to get deflections, get hands on the ball and being a help-side defender, all those different things. So I think the combination of both of them has really helped us be able to do different things. We can switch with those two, in any actions and their length really helps us out there.”

It was easy to define a successful defensive possession for the Atlanta Dream for swaths of the 2021 season. If they forced a turnover, it was a good outing. If they didn’t, more often than not, it was a bad one. In 2022, Atlanta’s gambles are systemic, calculated and nearly invisible to the naked eye.

Last year, they were the suckers at the slot machines. This year, they’re card-counters at the Black Jack table. Adapt or die.

Cheyenne Parker (#32) rises up to defend a jump shot from Washington Mystics star Elena Delle Donne in the team’s bout in Washington on May 24, 2022. Photo via Domenic Allegra.

The rest of the puzzle

What about, Cheyenne Parker, the team’s on-paper starting center? She’s been steady as anyone on the roster, and does what no one else on the roster is equipped to do: keep the game’s best bigs from moving her in the paint. Unfortunately, this is just one segment of the defensive responsibility of a WNBA center. Fortunately, it’s an important one, and it’s her best trait, along with her communication and help defense against driving guards.

“I think for the most part everyone has done a pretty good job of locking in on what we’re doing defensively, and Cheyenne is no different,” Wright said. “The one thing we put on Cheyenne is being very, very focused on what the defensive game plan is and in having a high level of communication because she really is the one who’s in the back and has to navigate a lot of those different things she sees. She’s doing a good job of really being a voice out there.”

Reserve Monique Billings has impressed as well, often making momentum-shifting plays that are technically worth zero points but might as well net the opponent a negative-two on the scoreboard. Though the team is not overly switchy thanks to its tremendous guard play (more on that later), the players communicate well enough to consistently switch when it’s the smartest approach.

That said, there are areas of growth for Parker and others to work on. Parker in particular has had trouble against bigs who can put the ball on the floor and make quick decisions, which is the sort of elite-level player Atlanta would likely see in a playoff matchup. The team doesn’t have an A-plus answer, yet, for those stars.

Howard, too, has room to improve. It’s been a bit too easy for the rookie to get stuck on screens, and she’s been hectic on occasion, which has allowed players to shoot over her or drive by with quick hesitations and jabs. Coffey, generally, also has mixed results one-on-one against the league’s biggest players.

There’s a caveat to all criticism: the Dream were supposed to be one of the league’s worst teams this year, and instead, they’re off to a 6-3 start just one year after they once held a 6-20 record. These players are just a month into the season, and you don’t become a well-oiled machine one month into the season. But the Dream have a long-term vision of being contenders, and getting flex tape on the cracks in the defense is part of that process.

“We’ll see glimpses of great defense, but if we can just do that on a consistent basis, and teams know what they’re going against every single night?,” Billings said after the team’s 84-76 win against the Minnesota Lynx on Wednesday. “[We can] just kind of get away from the roller coaster, the highs and lows, and be more consistent.”

Guards, and buy-in

Atlanta Dream point guard <a rel=
(Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The Dream can effectively run this help-heavy defense because each member of Atlanta’s healthy sub-six-foot personnel — Aari McDonald, Erica Wheeler and Kristy Wallace — salivates at the idea of a one-on-one matchup. Their philosophy, it appears, has been to defend on-the-ball or die. And rarely will they die.

In other words, guards are hardly ever the helpers in Atlanta. Anyone who watched the team in 2021 knows how sharp of a contrast that is from last year’s ball-hawking philosophy.

It seems like in every other game, a star is faltering on the opposite side of Atlanta. Some of the league’s craftiest scoring guards, such as Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, Chennedy Carter and Arike Ogunbowale, have failed to crack even eight points against Atlanta.

And, because of that prolific on-ball defense, everyone else can do what they need to do — roam, without having to worry too much about catching a guard at the rim, because more often than not, they aren’t going to reach the rim. Opposing guards are converting just 6.8 field goals from within eight feet against Atlanta this season, the second-best mark in the league.

McDonald, Wheeler and Wallace are mostly staying attached to their defenders. As a result, Atlanta fixed the worst aspect of its embarrassing 2021 defense. The 62 percent of catch-and-shoot looks that were unguarded in 2021, per Synergy, is down to 52 percent this year, from league-worst to league-average.

To wrap up, let’s just forget about the scheme and the stats for a moment.

Sometimes, defense is as simple as a team’s buy-in. And this year? The closeouts are better. Wallace and McDonald are pressuring most players right as they cross halfcourt, if not earlier. The roster is better conditioned to handle the team’s accelerated pace, which ranks third in the WNBA and is the 15th-highest in league history, according to Her Hoop Stats.

Buy-in generally comes from a team’s vibes, which this squad has plenty of — and which I’ll write about plenty in the coming weeks.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

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

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