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Atlanta Dreaming: Meet the Upstart Leaders of the Eastern Conference

Casey Williams, WNBA.com

June 2, 2016

Who are the East-leading Atlanta Dream and where did they come from?

Written off to spend the season developing a new identity and style of play, Atlanta has come out of the gates with attitude and energy, surging through a road-heavy early schedule to pace the conference at 5-1. To understand how they’re doing it, you first have to see the “why.”

For the first time since their inaugural season in 2008, the Dream missed the playoffs last year. Their fall in just two years, from the Finals in 2013 to last place in 2015, coupled with the swift rise of Eastern powers New York and Chicago, prompted WNBA.com’s preseason power rankings to list the Dream back at the bottom of the East with Connecticut for 2016.

Yes, Atlanta needed some soul searching, tasked with devising an offensive system that does more than rely on All-Star and Olympian Angel McCoughtry and lifting up a defense that allowed the most points per game (79.8) in 2015. But the difference between them and a team like the Sun was that the Dream were going to rebuild the same way they play: quickly and on the run.

To do that, a team has to get younger and more athletic. Atlanta did that in three offseason moves that swiftly transformed their identity.

First they traded the No. 4 pick in the 2016 draft for forward/center Elizabeth Williams, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, to find a complement for defensive-minded vet Sancho Lyttle.

Then they selected guard Bria Holmes with the 11th pick on draft night, hoping the West Virginia product could step in immediately when McCoughtry needs a breather.

Finally, less than two weeks before the season opened, they sent guard Shoni Schimmel to the Liberty for a 2017 draft pick, and turned that pick into former Fever guard Layshia Clarendon.

All of Atlanta’s new faces and roles have clicked surprisingly soon, as the team now rides a four-game win streak and has already avenged its only loss, at Indiana. Credit an already-substantial amount of time spent together gelling on the road – five of their first seven games are away from Philips Arena – and two early overtime sessions in which the Dream outscored opponents 20-4.

“You’re together, you’re in the hotel, nobody gets to go their own way — I think for a young team that’s a great way to start,” said head coach Michael Cooper. “Being out on the road, we’ve just stayed in games and we cut down our turnovers.”

Atlanta ranks third in the league in turnover percentage (turnovers per 100 possessions) at 16.5 after ranking last at 20.1 a year ago. Key to that turnaround has been the emergence of Clarendon and fifth-year wing Tiffany Hayes, which has lightened the load placed on McCoughtry.  The duo has combined to average 30.2 points on 57% shooting.

“The way we’ve been fighting to come back has been great for us, just to know that we have that in us,” said Hayes. “We’ve got a lot of great scorers on this team. Whoever we run a play for, if it’s not [you], we’re finding the open player to knock down shots.”

Clarendon brings a playoff pedigree, having appeared in the 2015 Finals as a sub on the Fever. Now she’s a prime contributor whose current scoring average (14.5 PPG) is more than double her previous career high.

“She’s very demanding, coming from Indiana, a very successful organization,” said Cooper. “Been to the Finals, have won. She understands what that’s about. And we need that type of player leading this team.”

“I just want to see us do all the little things,” said Clarendon. “I think I know what it takes to be that championship player. It’s doing every little thing right. When you get in the game, you’re going to do those positive habits.

“We’ve witnessed [our identity] when we get out and run, and just stay under control. We’re really learning that balance of when to push and score and when to reel it in. I’m pleasantly surprised with how well we can execute in the halfcourt, because typically there are just teams that can score on the break but we can score in the half court, and I think that’s really dangerous.”

Here you begin to see the two-wave attack the Dream present: disciplined run-and-gun, followed up by the right hook of a good, old-fashioned Angel takeover game, the likes of which have most recently earned her Player of the Week honors. The all-world star’s motivation is clear: She called consensus preseason predictions that the Dream would remain in the Eastern Conference cellar “a slap in the face.”

“We just have a chip on our shoulder and something to prove,” McCoughtry said.

So now that the offense is sorted out and the intention is set, exactly who are the 2016 Atlanta Dream?

“We’ve got a good chemistry, a team that really likes each other,” said Cooper. “They play hard, but they play harder on the defensive end. I think that’s the path to our championship.”