June 8, 2024 

What’s wrong with the Atlanta Dream’s offense?

Is Atlanta's system maximizing star Rhyne Howard's talents?

ATLANTA — In Thursday’s blowout loss to the New York Liberty, the Atlanta Dream managed only 61 points on 34.4% shooting from the field, marking their fifth consecutive game scoring under 80 points.

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“Sometimes we get in the habit of standing and looking at each other,” reserve forward Naz Hillmon told The Next. “Our [offense] is at our best when we’re moving, and that’s what our offense really is. Being able to pass, cut and go with the flow.”

A significant flaw in the Dream’s offensive strategy, which relies on an inside-out system focused on hunting one-on-one matchups, is its remarkably low pick-and-roll (PnR) frequency. PnRs are a staple in modern WNBA offenses. 

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When Las Vegas hired head coach Becky Hammon in 2022, she revamped the Aces’ philosophy from post-centric scoring to creative actions built around ball-screen offense. That helped them win back-to-back WNBA titles.

Atlanta takes a different approach, averaging only 14.3 PnR possessions per game, the lowest mark of any WNBA team since the 3-31 Tulsa Shock in 2011, according to Synergy Sports.

The Dream only ran nine PnRs in the defeat to New York, a low number even for a team that doesn’t prioritize ball screens. Atlanta scored or drew a foul on seven of its PnR possessions, averaging an impressive 1.4 points per possession (PPP). And on one of the two misses, a tremendous screen by forward Cheyenne Parker-Tyus created an open 3-point look for wing Rhyne Howard

Despite finding success with ball screens and struggling to score in the post (0.57 PPP) against Liberty stars Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart, Dream head coach Tanisha Wright stuck with her philosophy. 

Diving into the offensive numbers

The Dream can have an average offense due to the sheer scoring talent of guard Allisha Gray and Howard. But that also requires playing with pace and creating easy opportunities in transition, as Atlanta did in 2023. Last season, it led the league in pace (82.3 possessions per game), but in 2024, it is down to No. 10 (80.5).

“We’re not, and it’s not purposeful,” Wright said on whether the team is meeting the coaching staff’s expectations for pace. “We have different personnel this year. Cheyenne is playing at the four this year and not the five, which makes a difference. We also have Tina Charles, who is playing at the five for us, so it’s going to look a little different in terms of where we’re at as a staff analytically.

“Our pace in terms of our half-court offense is where we’re harping on the most. [For example], not walking into our sets and [instead] getting into our spots quickly and cutting off actions quickly.”

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This season, Wright has prioritized post touches for the 35-year-old Charles over a style of play that suits Howard, Atlanta’s generational movement shooting, shot-creating wing. This is why Nia Coffey was so valuable for the Dream in 2023. At 6’1 with a sizable wingspan and functional strength, she is a versatile defender and an elite shooter,1 which allowed Atlanta to play a four-out, one-in system. This also opened up more space for Parker-Tyus to operate in the post.2

According to WNBA.com, Atlanta had a 98.5 offensive rating and a 98.0 defensive rating (0.5 net rating) and averaged 83.8 possessions per game with Gray, Howard, Coffey and Parker-Tyus on the court in 2023. This net rating means that Atlanta scored 0.5 more points than it allowed per 100 possessions with that group on the court.

When the Dream added Haley Jones to this lineup, the Dream’s net rating spiked to 11.3, making it the ninth-best lineup in the WNBA among five-player groups to play at least 80 minutes.

In contrast, if you replace Charles with Coffey, the Dream have a 95.1 offensive rating and a 101.4 defensive rating (-6.3 net rating) through eight games in 2024. Wright has only used the Jones, Gray, Howard, Coffey and Parker-Tyus lineup in one game, Atlanta’s narrow loss to Phoenix on May 18. In those four minutes, the Dream scored seven points on 50% shooting from the field while outscoring the Mercury by three points.

With guard Aerial Powers commanding a 24.9% usage rate and Charles at 21.6%, the Dream have taken the ball out of Howard’s hands more than almost any point in her young career.

Can Jordin Canada fix this?

Wright has been vague regarding point guard Jordin Canada’s timeline to return from a right-hand injury that has kept her sidelined since the start of training camp. She’s progressing well, but it’s unclear whether she will return before July’s Olympic break.

Canada, whom Atlanta acquired from Los Angeles in a sign-and-trade in February, will have an immediate impact. The 5’6 guard is one of the quickest players in the WNBA and was the league’s highest-volume PnR operator (14 possessions per game) in 2023. 

Will Atlanta use more ball screens when Canada returns? That should be a priority. Beyond that, Atlanta’s two-big lineups could pose difficulties for Canada as a finisher if she’s consistently trying to score at the rim through crowds.

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Haley Jones needs ball screens

As The Next’s scouting team wrote in Jones’ 2023 draft profile, “She has good top speed but mediocre burst and poor acceleration, so she needs great spacing to thrive.”

Jones can’t consistently create paint touches without a screen or a tilted defense, which is where the PnR comes into play. A ball screen can take one defender away from the paint in two-big lineups. If the screen connects with the point-of-attack defender, Jones will most likely get two feet in the paint, pull a help defender over, and create an advantage for herself to score or pass.

Despite operating as the team’s starting point guard, she has only run 10 PnRs this season — fewer than Powers (18) and backup point guard Crystal Dangerfield (12).

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There are misconceptions that you need five shooters on the court to have spacing. But you can have good spacing through interior off-ball movement. This is the appeal with a potential Aaliyah Edwards and Shakira Austin frontcourt of the future in Washington. 

A summary: Parker-Tyus is best at the five, Jones needs ball screens, Howard and Gray need space to create, and Coffey is the glue that can bring all of that together. Overall, there are a lot of questions the Atlanta Dream have to answer over the next few months.

  1. Coffey has struggled to open the 2024 season but shot 42% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2023, according to Synergy Sports. ↩︎
  2. Parker-Tyus shot 63.8% in the restricted area in 2023 but is down to 56.3% in 2024. ↩︎

Written by Hunter Cruse

Hunter Cruse covers the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA Draft for The Next.