The Atlanta Dream face a numbers crunch

Nicki Collen's offseason, with more players than roster spots, presents a new challenge

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PALMETTO, FL- SEPTEMBER 11: DeWanna Bonner #24 of the Connecticut Sun rebounds the ball during the game against the Atlanta Dream on September 11, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

After 70 days in the bubble, Nicki Collen took barely more than a day to relax at home before getting right back to work.

The Dream lost to the Mystics on Sept. 13, and most players and staff departed Bradenton on the next day — some players had flights as early as 6 a.m. On the 15th, Collen and her assistant coaches, Darius Taylor and Mike Petersen, met to discuss how to improve the team for next year.

“We talked as a staff on Tuesday when we got back about how we make all our returnees (better),” Collen said last month. “What one or two things do I have to help them understand to make them better players whether it’s offensively (or) defensively. Whether it’s communication. Whether it’s growth areas for each player. We kind of talked about that and then we talked about what do we need at this point.”

Unlike last season, the Dream don’t need to reinvent their roster. 2021 won’t be another year where Atlanta has more new players on the roster than it does returnees.

What the Dream do have to deal with, though, is the number of players they have under contract. They can bring a maximum of 15 players to training camp for 12 roster spots.

“I was looking at all the players who are reserved for us,” Collen said. “I’m not even sure we’re gonna keep them all on the reserve list because we’ve got so many. We’ve got like 20 players under contract right now. We won’t even be allowed to have that many, quite frankly, going into the new year. We’ll have to figure out what that means.”

Players on the reserved list who didn’t play this season include Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery, Maite Cazorla, Mikayla Pivec and Kobi Thornton. Hayes is still under contract, so she’ll return to the Dream without issues next year. The rest of the decisions get more complicated.

Montgomery was on the last year of her contract this season, and because she opted out, she is no longer actively under contract with the Dream — but she isn’t a free agent. She can only negotiate with the Dream, but it’s relatively unlikely that she’s a part of the Dream’s plans going forward.

Kaela Davis, who the Dream signed after waiving late in the season, is a restricted free agent, as is Blake Dietrick. Davis appeared in two games and played two total minutes, so a return to Atlanta is unlikely.

Dietrick was a bright spot for the Dream this year at backup point guard — and set a new franchise record for three-point shooting percentage. Collen is a big fan of Dietrick’s and likes what she brings to the team, but with Hayes returning and potential returns from Montgomery and Cazorla, as well as Chennedy Carter’s performance as the starter, there are a lot of guards for not very many roster spots.

“Maite’s playing with the top team in Spain right now and probably, had we had a real training camp, Maite would’ve made the team (this) year,” Collen said. “Between Thornton and Pivec and our international players, we’ve got a lot of players and most of them probably will not be on our roster next year.”

Betnijah Laney and Glory Johnson are unrestricted free agents. Laney, as the reigning Most Improved Player, has stated her intent to return to the Dream, and Collen said she’ll be a priority in free agency.

Johnson is less likely to return. She had a few strong games, but mostly struggled to carve out a role for herself and didn’t live up to Collen’s hopes for her.

“It’s no small mystery that I moved (Shekinna Stricklen) down to the four at the end of the season because nobody was guarding our fours on the perimeter,” Collen said. “They weren’t guarding Glory and they weren’t guarding Monique (Billings) unless they were near the rim, so we’ve got to address (that).

“What do we do for a stretch four? There’s not a lot of stretch fours in the draft. A big part of offseason plans will be to make sure that we have a more versatile stretch four, so there’s space for Elizabeth (Williams) to roll and play, so there’s space for Chennedy and (Hayes) to drive into.”

As Collen said, stretch four is the Dream’s biggest need heading into the offseason. The rest of the roster is relatively settled — or will be relatively easy to settle.

“We’ve already identified both the unrestricted free agents as well as the possible trade-type players that we might target for needs that we have,” Collen said. “That just plays out over time. There’s no set plan for that other than we know what areas we need to be better. Excited that Betnijah told me she wants to come back to Atlanta, so she’ll be a priority in resigning, but everybody else is under contract right now. We’re excited about that.”

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