Dream, Mystics Winning With Defense


Statistics updated as of 8/7

As the WNBA season rolls on, there is a distinct trend in the standings.

The best teams in the league are elite on offense and defense, and the worst teams in the league are awful on both ends.

There are a few exceptions, however. Despite being in the bottom half of the league in offensive rating, the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics are in the top half of the league standings.

And they are doing it with defense.

The only other team in the top six with a higher defensive rating ranking than offensive rating ranking is Connecticut.

Atlanta and Washington are finding ways to win despite below-average offenses, but they’re doing it defensively in very different ways.

(See “Next-Level Basketball Stats Paint a Clearer Picture” for more information on the four factors)

Atlanta Dream Defense

The Atlanta Dream’s roster is made up of length, and that length comes into play on the defensive end. Guards Allisha Gray (6’0”), Rhyne Howard (6’2”) and Haley Jones (6’1”) tower over most backcourts. Forwards Nia Coffey (6’1”) and Naz Hillmon (6’2”) add to the size on the perimeter and help in the paint. Monique Billings (6’4”) and Cheyenne Parker (6’4”) protect the rim on the inside.

With all of that size, the Dream are first in the WNBA in block percentage at 11.1%. They have three players (Parker, Coffey, Howard) in the top 20 in the league in blocks per game.

The Dream know who they are, and they know who they’re not.

They know they aren’t the quickest team on the perimeter as they are 10th in the league in forcing turnovers.

What they are is a tough, physical group, as evidenced by their opponents’ high free-throw rate (second worst in the WNBA). On the other end, however, this physical play is beneficial. They get to the free-throw line more than any other team in the league (0.326 FTr). This allows their defense to get set.

What head coach Tanisha Wright has done is maximize her team’s length advantage by designing a scheme around forcing tough jumpers off the dribble, which is statistically the least-effective shot in basketball. Atlanta is fourth in the league in defensive effective field-goal percentage, and second in the league in opponents’ assists per game.

They are a scouting-report defense, meaning the individual defensive rules within their system change depending on the individual matchup. They do not like to switch, so each player is directly responsible for knowing the strengths of the opposing player.

Dream Defense vs. Non-Shooters

Against non-shooters on the perimeter, the screener defender will back up to create a gap. The defender who is responsible for the non-shooter will go under the screen. She does not have to worry about the offensive player shooting, so she allows herself extra room to navigate around the screen.

This strategy also allows the help defenders to stunt and recover, essentially faking help and staying home. This is why opposing teams have such a low assist percentage (62.8% – best in the WNBA).

Dream Defense vs. Shooters

The defenders’ responsibilities change if a shooter is coming off a screen. The shooter’s defender will go over the screen instead of going under.

Going under a screen against a shooter can result in an easy three-point attempt. By going over, the defense is at a slight disadvantage.

Atlanta’s defenders on the strong side will still stunt and recover, but the screener’s defender has to hedge to stop the ballhandler from getting to the rim. Atlanta uses a flat hedge to string out the ballhandler and buy time for the initial defender to recover.

Dream Low-Post Defense

Atlanta’s help philosophy is to prevent teams from going to the baseline. Because of this, the post defender can play on the high side.

Although Cheyenne Parker is a shot blocker, she needs help guarding bigger posts like 6’6” Jonquel Jones of the New York Liberty or Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner, who is 6’9”.

In these situations, the Dream will send the double team from the weakside baseline and rotate down from the top. Atlanta will stay with the double until the ball is kicked out, where they will scramble out to defend.

Because of the overall size of the Dream’s roster, this help defender is most likely going to be a defender that is 6’0” or taller.

Dream Defensive Overview

This strategy seems simple, but it requires a lot of attention to detail and communication in a high-tempo, fluid game. Navigating through different rules for different players and adjusting on the fly is difficult.

But it’s a lot easier when you have defenders with large wingspans that can erase mistakes with their size and athleticism.

Washington Mystics Defense

Similar to Atlanta, Washington has made up for its eighth-ranked offense by focusing on the defensive end.

Washington does it in a completely different, yet equally effective, way. Lacking the overall size on their roster, Coach Eric Thibault has designed his defense around his team’s strength: Quickness.

With injuries to key players Elena Delle Donne, Shakira Austin, Ariel Atkins and Kristi Toliver plaguing the Mystics all year, they’ve turned to their backcourt of Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud to provide a spark. They’ve allowed the Mystics to quickly turn defense into offense by forcing turnovers.

Washington is second in the league in forcing turnovers. This high turnover rate leads to easy baskets in transition for the Mystics, which enables them to consistently compete.

Washington is fourth in the WNBA in steal percentage, with Sykes leading the league with 2.2 steals per game. Cloud is 11th with 1.4 steals per game.

Mystics Defensive Positioning

Thibault’s defense is a pressure system where on-ball defenders are within an arm’s length of the ballhandler and off-ball defenders are challenging the passing lanes.

When the ball is on the side, the defense really shows its fangs. The on-ball defender will shift her body to force the ballhandler to the baseline (opposite of Atlanta’s philosophy), and the low-post defender will play on the baseline side of the post (also opposite of Atlanta’s philosophy). The top defender will deny reversal, and the offense is limited with their options.

This is a suffocating defensive scheme that relies on quick, athletic defenders who can read passing lanes and fly around.

Coach Thibault has that in spades, and nobody is better at it in the league than Sykes.

Mystics Defensive Rotation

Washington’s defensive philosophy is to prevent teams from reaching the middle. Because they don’t allow middle, there are more baseline drives. Knowing this, the Mystics have their defensive rotation from the weak side ready to go.

Against a post, the post defender plays on the low side. Doubling the post is a lot easier for Washington because the baseline rotation is built in their defensive scheme.

Mystics Ballscreen Coverage

Washington also ties their ballscreen coverage into their defensive rules. On-ball defenders can’t give up middle drives.

On ballscreens set on the side of the court, this rule stays in effect. The two defenders involved in the ballscreen will “Ice” the ballscreen, or force it to the baseline. The on-ball defender will jump towards the halfcourt line and the screener’s defender will drop to the baseline.

Ballhandlers will often use a snake dribble against this ballscreen coverage. A snake dribble is where the ballhandler will attack the post defender, then snake her way into the paint making it difficult for her original defender to recover.

If the ballhandler uses a snake dribble, Thibault’s defense will rotate the same exact way it does against a baseline drive or low-post double team.

Mystics Defensive Overview

The Mystics allow the fewest field-goal attempts per game in the WNBA this season. This is due to the number of turnovers they force, but also due to the number of free-throw attempts they allow. They are tenth in defensive free-throw rate (0.316), one spot ahead of Atlanta.

Defending to Win

The Dream and the Mystics do not have the same firepower offensively as the teams at the top of the standings. To make up for this, they’ve had to focus on the defensive side of the ball to give themselves a chance to compete.

Coach Wright has taken her roster and developed a scheme that has allowed the Dream to find success. Coach Thibault has taken his roster and done the same.

The beautiful thing about basketball is that there are many ways to achieve success.

It all depends on the players you have, what they are capable of, and putting them in position to be successful.

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About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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