October 5, 2022 

What type of coach can manage the Dallas Wings?

How past missteps inform the future

The more things change for the Dallas Wings, the more they stay the same.

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The day after the 2022 WNBA season concluded, the organization let go of head coach Vickie Johnson. Despite a record of 32-36 in her two seasons with the Wings, Johnson has the franchise’s highest win-loss percentage and its first .500 season since it moved to Dallas. The team has had four head coaches in the past five years.

The Wings have had a great deal of talent flow in and out of the organization since 2016, but have been hard-pressed to find a coach that can manage it. The constant changing of the guard has resulted in the team not being able to build continuity and play well consistently. Since the departure of center Liz Cambage in 2018 and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith in 2019, it has struggled to fill those holes.

This past season Dallas drafted a true point guard in Veronica Burton and acquired center Teaira McCowan. Those, coupled with all-star guard Arike Ogunbowale, fourth-year guard Marina Mabrey, Olympian Allisha Gray, and the wealth of talent on the bench set this team up for success. While they went 18-18, the best record for the Wings since 2016, more was expected in Johnson’s second season. There were several players on the bench that were underutilized, which may have been one of the biggest reasons Johnson was let go.

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Dallas conducted no exit interviews, and team PR did not respond to multiple requests to speak with team president and CEO Greg Bibb before Bibb himself declined to speak on the record.

The 2021 No. 1 and No. 2 picks, center Charli Collier and big Awak Kuier, respectively, did not see much time on the court; Collier averaged just 4.6 minutes, while Kuier received 12.6. Forward Isabelle Harrison came off of the bench, but could have been used more when McCowan did not match up well with the opponent. Third-year guard Tyasha Harris saw less action than Burton, when she could have been given more opportunities to take steps forward as a point guard.

The organization has had a good eye for talent, but has been underutilizing that talent since 2016, which has resulted in some players going to other teams and having more success: Theresa Plaisance won a championship with Las Vegas this season; second-year guard Dana Evans and fourth-year forward Azurá Stevens went on to win a championship with Chicago in 2021; Diggins-Smith played with Phoenix against the Sky in those Finals; forward Aerial Powers won a championship with the Washington Mystics in 2019.

Dallas has had three types of coaches: the player’s coach, the championship coach, and the young coach

Fred Williams coaching the Los Angeles Sparks in 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Fred Williams, who coached the team from 2014-18, was the type of coach that had a good rapport with players. He was experienced, having led the Atlanta Dream to the Finals in 2013. He was also the longest-tenured coach for the franchise, coaching when it was the Tulsa Shock in 2014-15, and for its first three years in Dallas in 2016-18. His Shock had their first winning season since moving to Tulsa in 2015, going 18-16, but were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Mercury. It made sense to stick with Williams when the team moved from Tulsa to Dallas, but after an eight-game losing streak in 2018, Dallas relieved Williams of his coaching duties before the final three games of the regular season. Bibb said at the time that he felt the move was necessary as the season had not met expectations. (An altercation between Bibb and Williams the night of the decision also likely expedited the change.)

Uncasville, Connecticut/USA – Aug. 19, 2018: Los Angeles Sparks Head Coach Brian Agler during a WNBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Connecticut Sun defeated the Los Angeles Sparks 89-86. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

Brian Agler, who coached the Wings from 2019-20, had two championships under his belt before joining Dallas. His first was with Seattle in 2010, and his second with Los Angeles in 2016, and he managed the talent on those championship teams well. The Wings won a total of 18 games in his two seasons, though he had a bit of a tough break with Diggins-Smith sitting out in 2019 and the young 2020 team struggling to find its way inside the bubble. The one thing his championship teams had that his teams in Dallas did not was veteran leadership. Bringing in Agler was a logical decision, but it is hard for players to listen when all they’re doing is losing. Agler and the Wings agreed to mutually part ways at the end of the 2020 season. Bibb said at the time, “As we look to the future, we believe our team is talented and well-positioned for success.”

Vickie Johnson coaching against the Washington Mystics in 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

After two coaches with championship and playoff experience did not work, enter Johnson. She was young, with just one year of head coaching experience, with the San Antonio Stars in 2017. A voice from a former veteran player that had been involved with the league since its inception seemed like the perfect solution. Still, there was a lack of veteran leadership in the locker room. Things did trend upward with Johnson, which is why her being let go after two seasons came as a bit of a surprise. The team dealt with late arrivals and crucial injuries, yet ended the regular season on a high note, winning six of its last eight regular-season games. They then won Game 2 against Connecticut in the first round of the playoffs, the franchise’s first postseason win since it was still in Detroit.

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The Wings finished fourth in scoring in 2022, but were also tenth in assists; there was a lot of scoring, but not a lot of ball movement. Whenever Dallas was stunted offensively, that prevented it from keeping leads or climbing back into games after digging itself into a hole. This was most glaring in Game 3 against the Sun, when the Wings lost by 15 points in Dallas and were eliminated from the playoffs.

“While our organization has taken steps forward this season, at this time I believe a change provides our team with the best opportunity to achieve our long-term goals of advancing in the playoffs and ultimately competing for a WNBA Championship,” Bibb stated in the press release after firing Johnson.

Dallas has been playing the long game in building in a championship-caliber team. Its next coach will need to have a strong voice that can push players to the best of their abilities — all players, not just a select few. Whichever coach comes in needs to make the Wings more attractive for veteran presences, which can help round the troops and get the team to recenter and not fall apart when things get tough. That is what the Wings have been missing for a long time.

Written by Arie Graham

Arie Graham joined 'The Next' in May 2021 as the beat writer for the Dallas Wings.

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