California Dreamin’? How about, San Francisco Treat?
The luster from the 2018 season has hardly waned for the Atlanta Dream. Best regular season in its history, its greatest-ever league-wide finish, a Coach of the Year guiding All-WNBA and All-Star efforts on the court, and one complete half of basketball shy of a trip to the WNBA Finals, even without their All-Star available for the playoff series.
That’s all well above even the rosiest prognostications from just two months ago. Yet, there remain bigger-picture issues beyond the hardwood on the horizon, for this franchise and the league in which they play.
The first big hurdle arrives on November 1 or, perhaps, sometime before that date. Either the WNBA, or the WNBPA players’ union, can opt out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that extends past the 2019 season, through 2021.
There has been much ado in recent seasons, most vociferously this one, in which players and their union leaders have expressed concerns about the revenue share for player compensation. The meager salaries they collect here have long been offset by offseason, oft-overseas basketball, and/or related pursuits to help establish a comfortable year-round living.
But when juxtaposed with the lavishness of both players and owners in the big-brother league, WNBA players may find reason to scrap the current agreement, insisting upon a bigger slice of their league’s relatively miniscule pie… a tart, if you will.
If either side opts out of the CBA by November 1, then the clock begins ticking toward the conclusion of the 2019 season, one in which the Dream are likely to present a stable, playoff-steeled roster on the hunt for their first WNBA championship.
For this collection of players, 2019 may represent their last, best shot to win together, and not merely because of the veterans’ advancing ages. A contentious, highly-publicized lockout or strike during the Olympic season of 2020, or even beyond, could jeopardize the long-term viability of the WNBA. That’s particularly probable in the league’s most fragile markets, like Atlanta.
Where the Dream plays in Atlanta going forward may be up for debate as well. A lot of moolah has been spent to spiffy up what was already a better-than-average Philips Arena. There will be new sight lines, new screens and lighting, new fancy-schmancy fan amenities, even a new sponsor name.
All arena improvements, subsidized by Hawks ownership and your local tax dollars (enjoy your banner, Kasim), are being furnished predominately with the sustainability of the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club in mind. What we have yet to formally hear is, once the lights come back on in the springtime in State Farm Arena, that like a good neighbor, the Dream will be there.
As is the situation in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and eventually Washington, WNBA clubs are increasingly compelled to scamper about in search for a permanent local venue, away from the one that hosts tens of thousands of NBA fans. These circumstances continue trending, regardless of whether the women’s team is co-owned by the men’s team ownership.
There is no need to rush, in September, with some confirmation for the tenuous handful of season-ticket holders about where they should plan on traveling and how they’ll be seated. But the Dream needs to avoid, with all due speed, the public relations disaster that befell the New York franchise.
Liberty fans, who patiently endured annual trips to Newark while MSG was being renovated, were dragged along for months in 2018 without a decision as to where WNBA games would be held, or whether ownership would even field a team, only to find themselves scrambling to find means to reach a G-League venue in remote Westchester County. For 2015 through 2017’s best Eastern Conference club, the malaise of relentless uncertainty seeped out onto the suburban court.
Comparatively, South Fulton County isn’t nearly as far-flung, as anyone living in Atlanta knows how to get to the Airport and leave themselves ample time to maintain their itinerary, and sanity. Should Dream fans be competing for spots in expressway lanes, and for spaces on both MARTA rail and the Airport’s outdoor people-mover, with these frequent fliers? It’s within the realm of possibility, but thankfully (dependent upon one’s perspective) not for 2019.
“Gateway Center @ College Park” is scheduled to open its eventual doors in the fall of next year, precluding its availability for at least the Dream’s 2019 regular season slate. The arena will seat up to 5,000, and you can bet some folks at Hawks Inc. (and the fledgling town in our south metro) are being asked to soft-sell their $45 million investment as right-sized, during the G-League offseason, for a WNBA club that reliably fails to exceed that attendance figure.
Carrying over virtually all the web features once prepared under the banner of Philips, State Farm Arena offers no hints that they may not become Atlanta’s WNBA home for the foreseeable future. But the team itself has already issued its “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” harbinger, back on July 31.
“We are working through some hurdles,” the Dream said on their website, in a message (“Our Home”) that was somewhat updated recently, after the Hawks’ State Farm announcement last month. “We are cautiously optimistic that the Hawks and [State Farm] ownership can work with us,” Dream PR adds. “…we will continue to keep our options open as it pertains to a back-up plan if our return to State Farm hits roadblocks.”
“Cautiously optimistic” is a perpetually familiar feeling for most Dream fans, with matters both on and away from the court. But if it isn’t going to be State Farm, and it clearly won’t be Gateway Center in 2019, then where?
While many fans have tired of finding parking spaces or walking from Midtown to McCamish Pavilion, it doesn’t appear as though the Dream has worn out its welcome at Georgia Tech. The Sports Arena at Georgia State, where the players currently practice, would require significant upgrades to amenities and seating to be satisfactory for a WNBA fanbase.
6,000-bench/seat Forbes Arena at Morehouse was good enough for Olympic (and ABL) hoops, so might that gym, with no end-line seating, become the “back-up plan”? With the way Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Arena fills up its docket with concerts and such, if the Dream wanted to prioritize space there, the time to secure it is now, not later.
Yet, assuaging concerns about a return to the latter locale, Dream PR asserts, “We are doing everything possible to keep this team inside the perimeter, as we have heard from our membership and agree – moving the Atlanta Dream outside the city of Atlanta is not in the best interest of our organization.” The message is clear: they’re not interested in a suburban setting, no-ma’am-ee, not at all… that is, unless they’re left with no other choice.
For those who thought jaunts across the interstates from Midtown Station were bad, neither of the Morehouse or Gwinnett options are particularly friendly for fans accessing games via MARTA rail. The far-fetched GSU option is fine as far as MARTA access, not so much for on-site parking. That leaves the Dream brass stuck between State Farm, Tech, a rock, and some hard places.
The pending venue announcement only impacts a few thousand WNBA fans hoofing it or rolling it to Dream games. Tens of thousands more are simply interested in watching from afar, lurking via regional television through the eyes of Bob and LaChina, as this WNBA club Defends The ATL, or, at the risk of stretching things a bit, the Southeast USA. Atlanta as a sports-watching TV market, and as a well for potential Fortune 500-scale corporate partnerships, remains the strongest case for keeping the Dream around town.
The rationales underlying the Dream remaining in The 404 often sound like rhetoric for backing a public utility or some non-profit entity, rather than a significant revenue-generating enterprise. At present, this is the only team in the WNBA that is 100 percent female-owned. One of the owners, and the league’s current commissioner, has nearly inextricable ties with Atlanta’s Coca-Cola, a company pulling all the stops to cling to its once seal-tight beverage market share even at home.
The region can barely keep its once-prominent “Grady Babies” from getting gentrified out of the city proper by the hour. Yet the beleaguered public hospital remains the Dream’s strongest Ryde-or-Die corporate partner. There’s always, of course, our friends at MARTA, at least momentarily the region’s definitive transit authority.
For locally-based private ventures, whether they’re selling soda pop or popsicles, Icebox jewelry or IceBox logo swag, sponsoring the Dream is a feel-good story, a demonstration of the metro chamber of commerce’s “True To Atlanta” commitment. Whether anyone’s legitimately making bank from of any of their corn syrupy sentiments, though, is unclear.
“Dream To Be More” was the name chosen by the Dream’s buyer group in 2009. The current majority-ownership duo probably envisioned the Dream being more than they have to this point since they took over cutting the checks in 2011. To pry the team out of Dream Too, LLC’s hands and away from town, it might take vulture capitalists who are “willing to pay” (read: desperate) to make their own sketchy arena schemes look to locals like they’re paying off, year-round. K.C. Masterpieces, anybody? And yes, Messrs. Lacob and Guber, we’re also looking at you.
Very little of this business has to do with the ladies who don the comfy blue Nike unis over thirty times a year. But for Atlanta players who have committed themselves to this management and coaching regime, the future is not the proverbial now, but it arrives very soon.
This players’ collective took quickly to the designs of coach Nicki Collen, assistants Mike Petersen and Darius Taylor, and general manager Chris Sienko. And virtually everyone was rewarded in their first season together. Collen and Sienko shared annual league honors for their respective professions. Several players, including Elizabeth Williams and All-WNBA 1st-Team member Tiffany Hayes, were granted multi-year deals.
According to information compiled by Howard Megdal of Fansided’s High Post Hoops, eight Dream rotation players are under contract through the 2019 season, with only starter Jessica Breland, and reserves Alex Bentley and Imani McGee-Stafford, set to become free agents in 2020. There is neither much room, nor a pressing need, to add more.
A low first-round pick fits well under the team’s salary cap, while 2019’s second rounder could compete for a roster spot with one of this year’s, as Baylor’s Kristy Wallace (rehabbing back home in Australia with the Canberra Capitals) may return after a collegiate ACL tear. Sienko can pursue a mid-tiered free agent, or he can go for an accomplished, higher-salary veteran by combining salary space with what would be Wallace’s or the second rounder’s 12th-woman slot.
So much of this roster planning, however, rests on the continued willingness of Angel McCoughtry to return. Her absence from a late-season knee ligament tear was not sorely felt during the close of the 2018 schedule, but it certainly was at closing time of Atlanta’s semifinal series versus Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics.
This injury, with a reported six-to-eight month recovery window, likely takes money off the table for McCoughtry’s international commitments. It will be interesting to see, once contract negotiation commences, how soon she opts to extend her max-salary deal with Atlanta.
Even if Angel cannot return at 100-percent capacity, Atlanta can do much more than “get by” to start the 2019 WNBA season. Brittney Sykes must continue to round out her game, both as a perimeter triple-threat (shoot/drive/pass) and as a laser-focused team defender. There is only one Angel, yet the athletic guard Sykes can approximate what McCoughtry brings to the table, at least at the wing, while there are layers in future second-year forward Monique Billings’ skillset that have yet to be unpeeled.
Thanks primarily to the wise addition of local resident Renee Montgomery (37.1 3FG%, best since her 2011 All-Star season), the Dream finished above 30 percent shooting beyond the three-point arc (and, not dead-last in the league) for the first time in the past three seasons. However, 31.8 3FG% as a team remains subpar (10th of 12 WNBA squads), a mark that only Hayes (32.1%, down from a career-best 37.2% in 2017) and the lightly-utilized Blake Dietrick (39.1%) joined Renee in exceeding.
For the sake of contrast, three of the league’s other Final Four playoff clubs finished Top-5 in the three-point accuracy department, each nailing comfortably above 35 percent of their attempts. That’s a difference of six or seven extra points per game for Atlanta, which would have been enough to lead the league in team scoring this year, not improving anything else.
McCoughtry, Sykes and late-season pickup Bentley could only manage to connect from long-range in short spurts. The hint of a promise that Breland could eventually stretch her jumpshot beyond the three-point arc never materialized in 2018, and Damiris Dantas fell short as a stretch big before succumbing to injury herself. There is always room for improvement from within, notably including Hayes, but it is becoming clear that a more reliable wing shooter among the reserves, presumably an upgrade to Dietrick, is a free agency priority that would suit this team well.
The Dream also finished 10th in the WNBA for two-point shooting, and last-place for free throw accuracy. Overall “true shooting” improved measurably (especially by the frontcourt contributors) as the team ascended the standings during the back half of the regular season.
Williams’ mid-season turnaround was most profound, and there were times during the race for the second-seed and the playoff series where Elizabeth (now a Team USA Finalist for FIBA Women’s World Cup action, later this month) was clearly the most impactful Dream player on the floor, All-Stars, All-Defensive players and All-League players included. More consistent, productive efforts from Williams, from the outset for a change, can help Atlanta reach higher heights, and there’s not much left to elevate toward after becoming a two-seed in 2018.
Getting this team’s offensive efficiencies out of perennial competition with lottery clubs like Indiana and New York, and more consistently in the neighborhood with likely Eastern rivals such as Washington and Connecticut, is essential if Coach Nicki is to push this team to its next goal of returning to the Finals (and winning at least a game, if they can get there).
With Breland obligated to guard frontcourt star opponents, and Williams helping with blocks and double-teams, better defensive team rebounding (72.7 D-Reb% in 2018, tied for 9th in WNBA) to cut down on foes’ second-chance scoring chances is also a problem the Dream coaching staff needs to solve, with or without McCoughtry’s return. Collen cannot afford the Budenholzer effect of watching her top lieutenants depart early in her tenure for other coaching gigs, so Sienko may have work to do to keep Taylor and, especially, Petersen, in-house going forward.
Potentially, three Dream starters will be above the age of 30 when the 2019 season begins, while Hayes hits 30 in late September of that year. The WNBA’s eldest stateswoman, Sue Bird demonstrated in 2018 what aging gracefully can look like when accompanied by quality teammate talent, balance, depth, and sound coaching.
We also see, through longtime juggernaut Minnesota, how quickly things can turn, in a league loaded with upstarts, if one relies on time-tested formulas and older, veteran-heavy starting lineups for too long.
On a team that continues to rely upon high-tempo play, and high usage, by Angel, as selling points, Atlanta will need its younger veterans, specifically Sykes, Billings and McGee-Stafford, to prove themselves capable of becoming worthy WNBA starters by next season’s end. Sustaining success, here, would involve the likes of Breland and the defensively-challenged Montgomery returning effectively to sixth-woman statuses in the long term, with at least one of McCoughtry and Hayes joining them.
As noted by Rebkell.net’s pilight, if all goes well for McCoughtry’s health, she will enter the 2019 Playoffs surpassing Becky Hammon as the most prolific scorer never to win a WNBA title. But, assuming she stays in Atlanta, she needs not exit 2019 with that notorious designation.
Changing that outcome will depend on continually sharp decisions by Sienko and Collen, who defied custom by committing to build around a pre-existing core, rather than tearing it asunder in search of something new. While the gambit proved successful in 2018, the true payoff must come next season for this group of players. The competitive banana, that looks an appetizing yellow now, probably will have a different “ap-peel” by 2020, especially if one dares to peer beyond that short timeframe.
Given the low turnouts at the figurative faregates, and the Dream’s low national profile relative to its peer WNBA clubs, it remains impressive that the WNBA’s tenure in Atlanta will soon outlast the Comets in Houston, the Monarchs in Sacramento, the Shock in Detroit. Those were all championship-claiming franchises, featuring Olympians and Hall of Fame-caliber stars, all with nary a place around town to hang a banner anymore.
Following up on crash-and-burn efforts in Charlotte, Miami and Orlando, it’s noteworthy that Atlanta has made it this far as the sole team with its WNBA footing in the American Southeast. But the foothold is far from firm, and the product the Dream has put out on the floor in its decade-plus history, regardless of individual regular-season success, has failed to generate much fan frenzy, locally or nationally.
Going all-the-way in 2019 and winning a WNBA title for a sports market that’s parched to claim any champion as its own, would help change the storyline. But as is the case with the still-new professional soccer club in town, fans are drawn, and tend to stick around, when title-contending success looks reasonably sustainable, when there are highlight-reel-making stars supported by a bedrock of a front office and a style of play (“The Peachtree Press”, in MLS) that becomes easy for fans to latch onto.
The organizational shortcomings revealed during the Dream’s upstart years, and McCoughtry’s professional upbringing, are old news and a sunk cost. What matters now are making eye-opening, assuring maneuvers that transition Atlanta’s unstable franchise into a WNBA flagship. As it pertains to WNBA players, we don’t know whether anyone will be able to Watch Them Work in 2020, or the years that follow. But in The ATL, the work to firm up the venue, the staff, the stars, and the competitive philosophy, cannot wait until then.
The Atlanta Dream intend to play out the 2019 season as if there is no tomorrow. Tomorrow will come, but for the basketball players, the organization they represent, and the fans they play for, the where, the when, and the how could get much murkier after the 2019 campaign ends. No, the Dream won’t fold and suffer the fate of the Cleveland Rockers. But, if the sketchy status quo continues in the coming years, might they become the Bay Area Rollers? Atlanta sports fans can only cling to hope all that the Rocking and Rolling will be ready to go, starting eight months from now. For the WNBA in this town in 2019, it'll be now or, maybe, never.
Let’s Go Dream!