Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen shouts instructions to her team.
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com

Dream, with eyes on the future, look to close out 2019 competitively

The Dream will close their 2019 season vs. the New York Liberty at 4 p.m. Sunday in State Farm Arena.

The team is 8-25 overall but has won three games since being eliminated from the playoffs Aug. 20, including a win over the star-powered Las Vegas Aces (20-13) on Thursday night. 

Despite the lack of opportunity to play in the postseason, for a team that discussed its championship aspirations in the preseason, Dream coach Nicki Collen said she’s approaching her team’s final game in the same way she’s approached the others: with a game plan and goal to win.

“It matters not whether we win or lose these last two games in terms of how many what our percentage of draft lottery balls are in there,” Collen told the AJC. “So we'd rather finish strong and win a couple games and, and, you know, compete at a high level.”

The win over the Aces didn’t hurt the Dream’s lottery chances and a loss wouldn’t have helped. The WNBA lottery is decided based on the two-year records of the four non-playoff teams. And the Dream won 23 games last season, only a few points away from heading to the 2018 WNBA finals.

And it was clear the win felt good for the players, just as it had when they broke their 12-game losing streak while in New York. In the third quarter Thursday night, Brittney Sykes and Tiffany Hayes hugged on the bench to celebrate Marie Gülich’s 3-pointer, which ended the team’s 3-minute scoring drought.

Plus, professional athletes are the ultimate competitors. There’s also pride that comes with representing Atlanta and the Dream organization and with being one of the 144 players make up WNBA rosters.

For Sykes, all of those things factor into why she plans to compete until the end. But she’s also someone who, at 25, has recovered from two ACL tears and a foot surgery. She said she doesn’t take the opportunity to play, period, for granted.

“I was once without this game more than one time,” Sykes said before the Dream’s game vs. the Phoenix Mercury. “Each one of those times, it taught me something about myself, deeper and deeper within. And I had to dig deep, especially on the foot injury.”

She had to ask herself if playing in the WNBA was what she wanted. And she decided it was, and overcoming injuries is something she kept in mind during the losing streak. Sykes got the start Thursday and scored 15 points.

Hayes missed the Dream’s past two games because of a knee injury, at Los Angeles and against Las Vegas at home, and the likelihood of her playing Sunday is low. Jessica Breland was a last-minute addition to Thursday’s injury report. 

While she’s using the players who can win a game, Collen also said with Hayes and Breland out, there were opportunities to give players additional playing time.

Gülich scored 14 points. Monique Billings grabbed 14 rebounds. Alaina Coates pulled down 10 rebounds in the first half.

Collen said that the last game, for example, won’t decide if Maite Cazorla is the team’s future backup point guard, but she noted, “Whether you’re a free agent, or whether you're someone that’s early in your career, you know, you're trying to establish yourself,” Collen said. “You only get so many opportunities to do that.”

So, as much as the Dream looks to close the season in a competitive fashion, they are looking ahead to next season, too. 

“When you don’t have a winning season, you have to look at a lot of different things,” Collen said. “And one of them is, is that core of players good enough to get you back in the hunt? Or do we have to make tough decisions about making moves in the offseason?”

Angel McCoughtry, who missed the entire season because of a 2018 knee injury, will wear her uniform and participate in a “ceremonial aspect of the game” Sunday. She’s also an unrestricted free agent after the season is over. So is Alex Bentley, who has been shooting 30.4 percent from the field this season – the lowest of her career.

Four players on guaranteed contracts are returning: Hayes and Elizabeth Williams, who both signed multi-year extensions last year, and Breland and Renee Montgomery. The Dream can sign two players to guaranteed, full-protection contracts.

June 19, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta Dream forward Angel McCoughtry (center) watches with teammates during the first half of WNBA basketball game at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Atlanta Dream won 88-78 over the Indiana Fever. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Also, the WNBA’s players’ association opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement in November 2018, and the new deal will need to be in place before the 2020 season. That’s another factor Collen and Dream staff members have to consider as they look toward their future.

“Who knows (what’s going to happen) with the CBA?” Collen said. “We just don’t know what’s going to change with this new CBA. What the salary cap is going to look like and, you know, what moves other teams make.”

Collen added, “As an organization, we have a lot of decisions to make about what the future is going to look like.”

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