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Two trades sparked Dream

Two trades — one panned, one not planned — have transformed the Dream from a squad that missed the playoffs last season into one of this season’s better teams.

With center Elizabeth Williams, acquired for the Dream’s No. 4 slot in the recently completed WNBA draft, and point guard Layshia Clarendon, acquired in exchange for a second-round pick in next year’s draft, the Dream are 5-1, two games ahead of the next-best team, New York. The Dream will play Connecticut (1-5), the conference’s last-place team, on Friday.

“Those two positions are vital if you want to win a championship,” coach Michael Cooper said. “Somebody who can deal with the middle … and a good heady point can take you a long way.”

Cooper knew of both players from his time as coach at USC. He tried to recruit Williams, who instead became an All-American at Duke, and coached against Clarendon, who was a standout at California.

Cooper targeted the move for Williams because the Dream had the league’s worst defense last season, allowing an average of 79.8 points per game. Looking at the pool of talent available in the draft, Cooper realized that he wasn’t going to find a player better than the 6-foot-3 center, so he made the trade.

“A lot of people looked at us and thought we were dumb trading that No. 4 pick,” he said.

With Williams anchoring the middle, blocking shots and stopping the pick-and-rolls that hurt the Dream last season, the team is allowing 81 points per game, fifth-best in the league.

Though it’s more points than the Dream allowed last season, opponents are shooting just 39.5 percent (second-lowest in the league), compared to 43.6 last year. The team is also blocking a league-best average of 6 shots per game, compared to 4.7 last season. Williams is grabbing an average of 6.5 rebounds per game and leads with 2.5 blocks per game.

“Cooper brought me here for a reason,” said Williams, who was drafted by Connecticut with the fourth pick in 2015. I’m here to make big plays and block shots and rebound. I think it’s working out well.”

Unlike the move for Williams, Cooper didn’t seem to have plans to acquire Clarendon. He was preparing to begin the season with Carla Cortijo, who was signed late in the 2015 season, at point.

But then he received a call from Indiana saying he could have Clarendon for a second-round draft pick. The Dream had recently traded Shoni Schimmel for a second-round pick, so Cooper flipped that for Clarendon. In effect, he traded Schimmel, who has yet to play significant minutes for New York, for Clarendon, who has started five games for the Dream.

Though her assists-to-turnover ratio is just a tick more than zero, Cooper likes Clarendon because she can guard either point guards or shooting guards.

With her and Cortijo at point, the Dream have reduced their turnovers from last season’s league-leading 16 per game to 14.3, fourth-fewest this season. The offense has increased from 77.8 points per game to 86.2 points, third-most in the league.

“Staying focused and not being settled (is the key),” Clarendon said. “We want to be 10-1, 10-2; we want to keep pushing.”