It's time for the Atlanta Dream to get weird

Pair of losses to the Minnesota Lynx expose holes without Chennedy Carter

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Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen high-five during the game against the Minnesota Lynx on May 6. (Photo via Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Atlanta Dream have talent and a clear philosophy. But if they want to win games without Chennedy Carter, who is the face of their young core, they need to get weird.

Carter, who is one of the league’s most gifted offensive stars, was averaging 12.3 points and 3.5 assists per game before she hyperextended her elbow against the New York Liberty on May 29. Though she was expected to miss several weeks with the injury, Carter said her return will come sooner than she initially expected. She isn’t back yet.

In Carter’s absence, the Dream have become predictable. The team has lost a pair of games against the Minnesota Lynx and has an upcoming set of games against the vaunted Seattle Storm. All season long, the Dream have talked about “creating chaos,” and it seems that there is no better time to do so. Interim coach Mike Petersen has a talented team, and he should get funky with his rotations and actions. Time to adjust.

How does Atlanta create more opportunities and space?

Philosophically, the Dream are in the right place, but they need to calibrate within their ideology during Carter’s injury. That starts with creating opportunities. In its two losses to Minnesota, Atlanta combined for 39 turnovers and registered pedestrian numbers on the glass. Even without their half-court maestro, the Dream’s turnover turnovers can be temporary.

Minnesota spent the series’ eight quarters ball-watching to oblivion, and the Dream didn’t do much to adjust. The Lynx jumped in the passing lanes, swarmed Atlanta’s creators and trapped the team on the baseline. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Atlanta had the same strategy during its 4-2 start.

So there’s the first adjustment. Get groovy. Move. Cut hard, cut off the ball, and do it often. Run plays with off-ball action. Those things should come easy to the Dream, who already thrive off of unpredictability. In the Minnesota series, Atlanta telegraphed its passes and ran the same pick-and-roll actions we’ve seen all year. When teams swarm Atlanta’s guards, it wouldn’t hurt to make the first pass unpredictable.

“A lot of our turnovers were just, we played in the crowd too much we didn't get good enough spacing, and some of that was what we did and some of that give credit to Minnesota,” Petersen said. “We got a little too deep in penetration, we didn't make great decisions sometimes. I thought [Minnesota] did a really good job in that second game of really congesting and really disrupting.”

There’s the second trick, tucked neatly into Petersen’s quote: Spacing!

In the early stretch of the season, Atlanta is getting very little offensive production from its bigs, outside of their roles as screeners. Teams have come to expect this now. Personnel changes seem unlikely, especially seeing as Atlanta doesn’t have a general manager, but Petersen can change how he uses the bigs. 

If the Dream are going to give Elizabeth Williams big minutes for her defensive prowess, she should cut more on offense. She’s one of the best cutting bigs in the WNBA. If they’re going to use a high-energy player like Monique Billings, they need to keep her in constant motion. If they’re going to keep Tianna Hawkins on the floor for large stretches of the game, they’ve got to get her open looks and wait for them to fall.

The aforementioned trio has been limited offensively, and even their defensive chops and tenacity on the glass aren’t enough to keep the Dream afloat against top competition. Petersen isn’t afraid to go unorthodox, but the Dream need space. Atlanta used a space-heavy lineup for eight minutes during its 100-80 loss against Minnesota, and it proved to be the Dream’s most lethal (and least predictable) rotation. It’s time to give extended minutes to Cheyenne Parker and Shekinna Stricklen.

“It's got five people who can shoot, right, Strick can shoot it, Cheyenne can shoot it,” Petersen said. “Part of the reason we were a little bit better offensively when those two were out there is we had more space to play in, a little more room for Tiffany [Hayes], Courtney [Williams] and Aari [McDonald] to drive the ball and either score or kick.”

Yes, both bigs have their drawbacks. Stricklen isn’t the same defensive player she once was, and by Parker’s own admission, she’s only at about “60 percent” of her full health.

All that is to say this — there’s no chance Atlanta is more predictable when those two share the floor, and predictability has been their biggest flaw during the team’s past few games. Petersen said he plans to return to this lineup, which has earned the coveted Parker co-sign.

“[Stricklen] brings a lot of attention just being the sharpshooter that she is, so it was really nice to play alongside her,” Parker said. “As soon as she got in the game they were so focused on her, it got me an open three. So it was nice just to spread the defense and try to get some nice and open looks for each other.”

It’s time for the Dream to adjust their halfcourt offense

The Dream’s troubles go beyond their spacing and bigs, however. Atlanta needs to run more cuts, isolations and hand-offs — the team ranks first or second in the league at each of those play types but run the actions at a frequency that suggests otherwise.

Frankly, if you’re one of the best cutting teams in the WNBA and your opponent is ball-watching on nearly every possession, you’ve got to run a lot more action off of the ball. The Dream have been predictable — they’re constantly initiating the offense with a pick and roll, and teams are collapsing on the ball handler because the rolling big is a less dangerous threat. That doesn’t help prevent turnovers or create offense.

Good news for the Dream: they aren’t turning the ball over on cuts, and they have Aari McDonald, Tiffany Hayes and Courtney Williams on the team. They’re fast, and they should be cutting. Look at McDonald’s skill here, both as a cutter and passer. Atlanta needs more of this:

Minnesota packed the paint against Atlanta because they didn’t have to give much pressure toward the big. Teams will continue to do that unless their space becomes a legitimate threat, and until Atlanta becomes less predictable. This year, the Dream’s chaos has come from transition. It has to also come from intelligent sets that move players off of the ball, and it has to come from Atlanta’s bigs being more unpredictable.

Right now, teams are just ignoring them.

The Dream’s upcoming schedule pits them in two games against the Storm, who are the WNBA’s reigning champions. No game will be easy without Carter, and certainly not against a team that won by 37 in her absence last year. For Atlanta to steal a game — and yes, that would be a steal — they need to get weird.

The WNBA’s middle glut, which includes every team not named Las Vegas, Seattle, Connecticut and Indiana, is ripe for parity. The fight between the 4-11 seeds will be tight. So even if Carter misses just a couple of weeks, Atlanta needs to stick around .500 to stay afloat. And to stay afloat, they need to get weird.