Facing another season of high expectations but without their best player, the Atlanta Dream look to begin the process of winning sans Angel McCoughtry on Friday night when they open their 2019 campaign against the revamped Dallas Wings.
The Dream (23-11) set a club record for wins in 2018, finishing atop the Eastern Conference and second only to the Seattle Storm in the 12-team WNBA. McCoughtry, who averaged 16.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists, suffered a season-ending knee injury Aug. 7, which put a pall over the club in the playoffs. They had a bye to the semifinals but lost a decisive Game 5 at home to Washington, going cold in the fourth quarter in an 86-81 defeat.
McCoughtry is still sidelined by the injury and out indefinitely, with coach Nicki Collen telling The Athletic "she's not close to ready at this point." Collen is hoping off-season acquisitions Nia Coffey (5.3 ppg) and Haley Peters will lessen the blow of her star swingwoman's absence. Peters spent the last two seasons playing in France after playing for San Antonio and Washington.
"I think her level of athleticism and her strength are actually very Angel-like in her ability to get to the rim, play through contact, get on the offensive glass, be able to play a little bit of 4, a little bit of 3," Collen said about Coffey, who started 10 games for Las Vegas last year.
The Dream do return a sizable portion of their core, including leading scorer Tiffany Hayes (17.5 ppg), Renee Montgomery (10.3), Brittany Sykes (9.7), and Elizabeth Williams (9.1). Atlanta could be leaning on its defense more without McCoughtry after finishing fourth in scoring defense in 2018 at 79.5 points per game.
Dallas (15-19) was the eighth and final team to qualify for the postseason in 2018, losing to Phoenix in the first round. The Wings hired Brian Agler, who won titles with Seattle (2010) and Los Angeles (2016), but his coaching skills will be challenged immediately. The club will be without star guard Skylar Diggins as she gets into playing shape after giving birth to her first child and star frontcourt player Liz Cambage, who was dealt to Las Vegas after requesting a trade.
Cambage, who was runner-up in MVP voting after averaging a league-best 23.0 points and 9.7 rebounds and set a WNBA record with a 53-point game, leaves a gaping hole in the middle for Dallas. The Wings received Moriah Jefferson and Isabelle Harrison as part of a haul that included Las Vegas' 1st and 2nd-round picks in 2020, but chemistry may be an issue in the early going.
Jefferson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft who scored 13.9 points per game as a rookie, averaged just 5.4 points last year and was limited to 16 games due to a knee injury. There has been talk the Dallas native may sit out this year to get healthy, but the Wings are holding out hope she will play at some point.
In the interim, Agler will lean on Kayla Thornton (9.2 ppg), Allisha Gray (9.2), Azura Stevens (8.9) and No. 5 overall pick Arike Ogunbowale, who averaged 21.8 points at Notre Dame last year and led the Fighting Irish to the 2018 NCAA Women's Tournament title and a Final Four berth in 2019.