Atlanta puts together Dream of a season
Like Detroit's worst-to-first turnaround in 2002-03, Atlanta eyes playoff run
After last season, the Atlanta Dream were sort of tallying up the wounds suffered during a summer of getting knocked around to the tune of a 4-30 record. There was no specific reason to think things were going to get a lot better in 2009 except for the hope that they couldn't get worse.
Still, coach and general manager Marynell Meadors was all about the "bright side" of the expansion season. Such as the games in which the Dream were competitive, even if they didn't win. And the foothold the franchise started to develop in Atlanta. She had ideas of how to improve, and she knew she'd have a very high draft pick in April to help.
Then, later in 2008, one franchise's misfortune became beneficial for Atlanta. The Houston Comets disbanded, and the Dream took Sancho Lyttle with the first pick in the dispersal draft in early December. Nine days later, the Dream traded their No. 13 selection in the April draft to Los Angeles for the negotiating rights to Chamique Holdsclaw.
Then, in April, Atlanta selected Angel McCoughtry of Louisville with the overall No. 1 pick and Shalee Lehning of Kansas State with No. 25 in the second round.
Going into the season, though, no one could be sure how this was all going to work out. Would Holdsclaw -- who had retired from the WNBA just five games into the 2007 season while with Los Angeles -- not just stick it out in Atlanta but be a true leader? Was McCoughtry the right pick? There was undoubtedly a lot of talent on the team but would the personality mix be OK?
The answers came steadily over the course of the season. McCoughtry had some inconsistency early, but she has been very good in the past month-and-a-half and is a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. Holdsclaw has been out since having arthroscopic surgery on her knee Aug. 25, but has remained a steady leadership presence in supporting the team.
And the fans who endured a lot of losing last season did not go away.
"I think it's been tremendous," Meadors said. "We had great fans last year but not a very good team. The fans from Atlanta have been waiting for this. Their support, their knowledge of the game and their enthusiasm at our games is unbelievable.
"If we just keep playing and winning, next game we'll have more in the stands."
To keep winning, Atlanta has to go through three-time champion Detroit, a franchise that knows a bit about what the Dream are trying to do. In 2002, the Shock finished with the worst record in the league at 9-23. The next season, Detroit won its first league championship.
Coming into this season, the Shock appeared to be a strong contender to defend their 2008 title. But super-sub Plenette Pierson (shoulder injury) and coach Bill Laimbeer (eventual move to the NBA) were gone early, and Detroit played unevenly for a lot of the season.
About the time the Shock really seemed to get things together, Katie Smith -- last season's WNBA Finals MVP -- went out with lower back pain that might not allow her to compete in the playoffs.
Her status is "wait-until-tipoff-to-see," which is also the case for Atlanta's Holdsclaw. However, Lehning, who was injured in a collision with Washington's Lindsey Harding on Saturday, is not going to play. Her season is over, as she separated her shoulder and had surgery.
It's very unfortunate, and could have a big impact on how the Dream do in the playoffs. But regardless of how the postseason turns out, what the franchise got done this summer is pretty outstanding.
Not much was miscalculated. One of the few misses was that the Dream thought Nikki Teasley would be the answer at point guard. But when that wasn't working, Meadors waived her after 10 games. Interestingly enough, Detroit picked her up, so she'll be trying to stop the Dream in this series. However, Meadors has been very happy with what Lehning has done.
And Meadors said she was always sure McCoughtry would be her top draft pick, despite the external speculation that it was going to be Renee Montgomery.
"There was never a doubt in my mind about Angel," Meadors said. "She just makes great plays. What she can do on the court is amazing, and we've seen that especially since Chamique's been out and she's been starting."
Iziane Castro Marques is the team's top scorer at 14.4 ppg, and she's also a solid defender who helped Lehning a lot in that regard. Lehning has been a pleasant surprise for Meadors. The coach believed she had talent but wasn't expecting her to be able to step in as a starter. Ivory Latta will start in Lehning's place now.
As for her success before the injury this season, Lehning pointed out another addition to the Dream this year who has been very important: assistant Carol Ross, who previously was a longtime coach at the college level.
"Coach Ross is our defensive coach, and she's allowed us to do different things in defensive sets to play to our strengths," Lehning said. "It's been neat to see how it works."
The Dream's post tandem of Lyttle and Erika de Souza has worked very well, too.
"I tell you, they have been terrific, both of them," Meadors said. "Erika is built for power. You look at her rebounding, scoring, running the floor -- she is quick. She never quits.
"She and Sancho are different players; Sancho is more of a face-up player. And she's also a great rebounder."
Atlanta won't be in its normal home, Phillips Arena, for the first round because a Sesame Street production is scheduled there. The WNBA is used to this -- Detroit won its title in Eastern Michigan's gym last season since a Disney show was at The Palace at Auburn Hills -- because buildings sometimes get booked for "sure things" in the fall.
And no way anyone was counting on the Dream being a sure thing. But look how it has turned out.
The Dream will open the first round of the playoffs on Wednesday night in Detroit (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET), then play Friday and, if necessary, Sunday in Gwinnett Arena. Meadors says that's fine it's closer to where a lot of the players live anyway.
"We don't care where we play as long as we're still playing," Meadors said. "This team is so close, and our chemistry has been terrific all season."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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