(Author's note - Peachtree Hoops will again be covering the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA for the 2015 season. The WNBA's regular season gets underway on Friday and lasts throughout the summer. Most of our Dream updates will pass through the main page of the site but all will be collected in our Atlanta Dream Hub which can be found by clicking here)
When we last saw the Atlanta Dream they were squandering a 17-point lead in Game 3 of the opening round of the WNBA Playoffs to the Chicago Sky. Elena Delle Donne's buzzer beater sent Atlanta home early with a lot of unrealized expectations.
In large part, the Dream are back in 2015 with only cosmetic changes to their roster. Their front court trio of Angel McCoughtry, Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle return looking for yet another Finals run. This time however, they hope to break through and capture a championship that has so far alluded them.
Michael Cooper is entering his second year as the team's head coach and adopted a "championship or bust" mentality during his first season on the bench for the Dream. Atlanta jumped out to a quick start but fizzled late and were unable to recapture that early season edge during the playoffs. A six-game absence at mid-season by Cooper due to tongue cancer didn't help the situation.
This time Cooper's team is looking to start fast and to finish strong. If they hope to make another Finals run, then they are going to have to shore up several areas this season. The Dream led the league in turnovers by a wide margin in 2014 and were also at the bottom of the league in three-point percentage and free throw percentage.
The Dream have never really shot the basketball well from the perimeter but have made up for it thanks to an aggressive and gambling defensive system that forced turnovers and ignited their fast break. The increased number of turnovers in 2014 derailed that somewhat and with questions surrounding the point guard position could be a major problem again this season.
You can't look at the Dream's roster without first focusing on Angel McCoughtry who has been the team's star since her arrival. McCoughtry's scoring numbers dropped across the board in 2014 as Cooper installed a more equal opportunity offense. Cooper surmised that less McCoughtry would benefit the Dream as a whole and for the first part of the season he appeared to be correct in that assumption. McCoughtry's scoring average dipped to 18.5 points per game which was the lowest since her rookie season. He usage rate dropped from 35.1 percent all the way to 30.1 in 2015. Make no mistake, she was still the focal point of Atlanta's offense but Cooper did his best to get opportunities for Hayes and de Souza in attempt to make the Dream harder to guard in the half court setting.
"I'm going to take the Gregg Popovich approach with her during the season and make sure she gets her rest," Cooper said. "She didn't play a full season overseas, so that really has helped. With the people coming in, it can take a heavy burden off her in terms of scoring. Look for her scoring average (18.5 a game) to go down. If we can get her rest during the season, she will be a better player when we really, really need her."
That means that big things will once again be expected from Angel's supporting cast. With more opportunities, Erika de Souza and Tiffany Hayes saw their numbers rise last season. Hayes averaged a career-best 12.9 points per game and shot a very good 47 percent from the field. She led the team in three-point percentage knocking them down at a 36 percent clip.
De Souza also set a career-high in points per game averaging 13.8 points to go along with 8.7 rebounds but cooled off considerably down the stretch. Lyttle again posted a solid line of 12.2 points and 9.0 rebounds while also being one of the team's best defenders.
The point guard position may be the biggest question mark for the Dream entering the regular season. Jasmine Thomas started 23 games for the Dream in 2014 but was dealt to the Connecticut Sun in a draft night trade. Celine Dumerc made 11 starts but all indications are that she won't be returning to the WNBA this season.
That means that second-year guard Shoni Schimmel will likely get the first crack at nailing down the starting point guard job. Schimmel's rookie season was filled with plenty of highs and lows. She is a playmaker but her aggressive style helped add to the Dream's turnover problems. Atlanta could really benefit from having her on the floor to help stretch defenses with her outside shot but she is going to have to improve defensively or Cooper is going to have himself a giant problem as the season wears on.
Atlanta spent a first-round pick on Iowa point guard Samantha Logic who figures to see playing time behind Schimmel as the season wears on. Logic is much more of a pure point guard and did a bit of everything while in college. The Dream may be well served if she proves capable early on because right now their other options appear to be limited.
Aneika Henry proved to be a valuable bench player in 2014 and will team with Nadia Colhado as frontcourt reserves. Atlanta signed Roneeka Hodges and brought back Delisha Milton-Jones who was acquired last season in the trade that sent Swin Cash to New York. Matee Ajavon also returns and will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2014 campaign.
The Dream once again figure to be in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. Their talented front court trio is plenty enough to secure them a playoff spot. It is still questionable as to whether or not this is a championship level team. Is Schimmel the answer at the point? If she is not, can Cooper turn to Logic or someone else on the roster or will he be forced to put the ball in McCoughtry's hands more than he probably wants?
Too often this team was its own worst enemy last season. Turnovers and lack of focus for stretches undermined what could have been a really good season. No doubt losing Cooper at the mid-point hurt the team, but it appeared that they never really came together even through the strong start.
Will 2015 be different, or is this the point where they have to consider breaking up the core?