Early this month, things weren’t so bright for the Atlanta Dream.
With a new head coach and only four returning players, the team had shown flashes of promise to start. But just after the Fourth of July they had fallen on hard times, losing five of their last seven games. They were eighth in league standings and seemed poised to drop out of playoff contention.
Then that Sunday the Dream got out to a hot start against the Phoenix Mercury, held off their rally and beat them by six points with a balanced scoring effort.
They have not looked back since.
Atlanta broke the franchise record for most consecutive wins last weekend, earning their seventh against the No. 1 Seattle Storm. Two nights later in Los Angeles, they surprised the Sparks by pulling away late to take a 10-point victory. The Dream’s eight-game winning streak going into the All-Star break gives them a 16-9 record for the third time in franchise history, and puts them in second place, 2.5 games behind Seattle and one game ahead of the Minnesota Lynx.
But just as important as their improving record is the way Atlanta has been winning: with solid contributions from both starters and reserves, and with true team basketball. The on-court cohesion of athletes is palatable, and the ball movement, often beautiful. As a result, players are using words that haven’t been heard much in their locker room the last several years.
“Coach Nicki (Collen) did a good job of pulling us together and having us be all like-minded in the sense that we’re a new look, a new team, a (have a) new culture, and we’re carrying it out,” guard Brittney Sykes said. “What you’re seeing now is what we’ve been doing since day one, week one of camp.”
“Now we’re trying to become a championship team.”
All-Star veteran forward Angel McCoughtry, who opted to sit out last year and was convinced by Collen to return this season, said both she and her teammates work to improve daily.
“We feel like we haven’t even reached our peak yet,” McCoughtry said. “We feel like the sky’s the limit for us right now. And you know what? I really want to get a ring.”
Collen was hired last October. In February the franchise signed veterans Renee Montgomery and Jessica Breland, and Elizabeth Williams signed a multi-year contract extension. Returnees from last season also included top scorer Tiffany Hayes, dynamic guard Sykes, Damiris Dantas, Imani McGee-Stafford and Layshia Clarendon. Other newcomers included second-round draft pick Monique Billings, Blake Dietrick and Alexis Prince.
Just after they began their wining streak, the Dream traded Clarendon to the Sun for Alex Bentley, who played for the team in 2013. Atlanta has not missed a beat, and neither has Bentley, who has been a reliable bench scorer and a good fit with the roster.
The possibility of earning a title seemed a long shot at the beginning of the season, with not only so many newcomers but parity looming in the league, after the infusion of an outstanding draft class. But Collen’s creation has fit together better – and more quickly – than anyone expected.
“When you put teams together, it’s just going to take time. Everyone talks about it, but it’s a real thing,” Montgomery said. “I think we’re better than I thought we would be, so fast. It’s a brand new team, new coaches, new system, – it’s literally new everything. So I’m actually surprised at how quickly it came together. I’m excited.”
Overall statistics from last year, when Atlanta went 12-22 after a nine-game losing streak and missed the playoffs, and this season are similar. What is different is player statistical distribution.
This year sees each person on the roster scoring more on average, rather than just a few starters putting up big points. In 2017 Clarendon had 6.6 assists per game and Hayes, 2.4, while no one else on the team averaged over 1.9. This season there are five Dream players who average 2 assists per game or higher. This is because the team moves the ball fluidly, scores in transition and plays tough defense.
“On our scouting report in previous years it was that Atlanta would drive the ball, shove it down your throat, and that they had a lot of one-on-one players,” Montgomery said. “The way we’re passing and sharing the ball, it’s fun. And everyone is realizing it’s fun; passing is contagious. It’s a tale of two teams right now: the team that didn’t pass and the team that did. It’s exciting to be a part of it, and to watch the maturation of us.”
Breland said the group banded together when they fully understood what they had.
“We all know our strengths, and we all know that one person can’t do what another person might be able to do,” she said. “When we put them all together, we become a power force. It’s kind of unspoken, but you see it.”
The team unity extends off the court, as players joke with each other a lot, dance together during warm ups and are mutually supportive.
“Coach did a good job of putting players together that have great personalities,” Breland said. “We enjoy each other, and that’s important…..we love each other. We crack up and we have a ball, on and off the court.”
“I think we all sincerely want to see each other do well.”
Yet, despite the sometimes outrageous humor that players often post on social media, Sykes said they know when to reel it in and tend to business.
“We have a lot of clowns on this team, as you can see. But everybody knows what they need to do and need not to do; everybody knows their role, and we know when to be focused,” Sykes said.
Preparation is key
Players are quick to credit Collen not just for being the architect of a good team, but in preparing them to face opponents. Last weekend the Dream took a red-eye flight to the West Coast the same day they had beaten Seattle, and Collen watched game video the entire time.
“She is an engineering major, so you can only imagine how she likes to prepare,” said Montgomery, a UConn alumni. “This is probably the most preparation I’ve ever done, game to game. She does game-to-game preparation like most people do playoff preparation. She’s meticulous, she’s intelligent.”
“Usually coaches will go through the top four opponent plays, and to talk about their tendencies. We’ll walk through their top ten play. She’s meticulous, and that’s why she’s so successful.”
Collen said she has to be ready, as the WNBA’s size and level of play leaves no room for error.
“This league, with everyone being so good, comes down to being able to understand player tendencies and coaching tendencies – what plays coaches tend to run,” Collen said. “What does a coach like to run coming out of a timeout? You just know.”
“I was shocked when I heard Atlanta hadn’t won more than six games in a row, but then you think about professional basketball. There’s no conferences, there’s no separation, there aren’t 350 teams. There’s 12 teams and everyone has the same salary cap, so you’re going to have (those inequities).”
Collen was a Division I assistant coach for nine years before coming to the WNBA, where she spent two seasons working for Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller. She has surprised those who didn’t know much about her, and her optimism inspires the team.
A mother of three herself, Collen conveys that spirit to her players, as well. As each prepared to go their separate ways for All-Star break Tuesday night, Collen went to each athlete with the same request: “Give me a hug.”
“She’s like the momma bear and we’re all her cubs, and then you’ve got the older tier of players,” Sykes said. “We all have nicknames for each other.”
In 2017 the Dream returned from All-Star break and went on their long losing streak. This year that kind of season re-start doesn’t look probable, due to their deep bench and work ethic.
Sykes, who stepped up in McCoughtry’s absence as a rookie, now happily leads the reserves like a veteran and brings tremendous energy to the court.
“Every time we touch that floor, as a bench unit, we have like a little huddle before the games,” Sykes said. “I talk to the bench and I tell them, ‘it’s the first ten minutes,’ then, ‘it’s the first 20 minutes’….. So we just have to take care of those quarters whenever we get in.”
Like other great teams, Atlanta players all say they focus on one game at a time. Collen gives them constant feedback, and they don’t underestimate any opponent.
“We’re trying to get better within ourselves – it’s not just about the other team,” Breland said. “It could be a team that’s at the bottom or the top, but they come out and play their best every game. For us we have the mentality that we need to get better every game.”
To do that, the Dream focuses on taking small steps, and keeping their overall goals in mind.
“Of course everyone has big goals, but when you accomplish the little goals, it gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Breland said. “Then you look at the big picture and you realized, ‘we haven’t got it yet.’”
Montgomery is already looking forward to reconvening after the break.
“I hope we stay sick with it,” she said with a smile.