McCoughtry, Dream's bid for WNBA crown runs through league's best
Angel McCoughtry led the Dream back to the WNBA finals, this time vs. the Lynx
The Lynx, who went 27-7 this year, are led by Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus
The Lynx are favored to win and complete a remarkable turnaround for the team
Angel McCoughtry wants a White House meeting with the president and her freshly won championship to be the main item on the agenda.
These are the terms the do-it-all forward has set for herself, and in the last two years she has come close to landing on the president's schedule. But at the last minute she has seen her slot taken by teams that also had dates with destiny. While an All-America senior at Louisville in 2009, she carried the Cardinals to the NCAA finals. But it was the UConn Huskies (who dismissed the Cardinals in a run of 90 straight victories) that challenged President Obama in a game of P-I-G on the White House basketball court. The next year, her second with the Atlanta Dream, McCoughtry led the three-year-old franchise to its first WNBA finals berth a year after being drafted No. 1 overall. But it was the Seattle Storm (who didn't drop a playoff game en route to their second league crown) who stood in for McCoughtry and the Dream in a Rose Garden ceremony.
On Sunday, McCoughtry will lobby once more for that elusive executive appointment as she leads the Dream (20-14) in the first game of their best-of-five WNBA finals series against the Minnesota Lynx (27-7) -- yet another team of destiny that seems fated to dash the All-Star's hopes of a one-on-one with the baller-in-chief. For much of their existence the Lynx have been consigned to the league's cellar; from 1999 through 2010 they won 40 percent of their games and reached the playoffs twice (with no victories) while burning through nine coaches.
As recently as 2009 the Lynx's media guide listed the previous year's win-loss total under the heading "Miscellaneous Statistics" -- perhaps trace evidence of an attitude that might be hindering their success. But really the team's biggest hurdle was injury, the most severe befalling their best player, swingwoman Seimone Augustus. Six games into the '09 season the three-time All-Star suffered a season-ending ACL tear in her left knee; in '10 she missed nine more games after having three benign tumors removed from her abdomen and lower back.
In those two lost seasons Minnesota went 27-41 -- but if there was a silver lining to the Lynx's losing, it was the windfall of high draft picks they received in exchange. In '10, they traded the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the Connecticut Sun in a deal that yielded two-time All-Star guard and Minnesota native Lindsay Whalen, who finished this season ranked second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.65) and seventh in field-goal percentage (.511). The Lynx scored another No. 1 pick (after a 13-win season) in '11 and spent it on UConn star forward Maya Moore, who finished among the league leaders in points (13.2) and steals (1.41) on the way to Rookie of the Year honors. Eighth-year pivot Rebekkah Brunson -- who rated third in rebounds (with 8.9 per game) and sixth in double-double (with eight) -- was yet another prize the team scored, from the shuttering Sacramento Monarchs, in the 2009 dispersal draft.
Whalen, Moore and Brunson made the All-Star team along with a rejuvenated Augustus, who was back among the WNBA's top 15 scorers (16.2 ppg) and field-goal shooters (50.4 percent) at season's end. Two more lottery picks, forward Candice Wiggins (third overall in 2008) and guard Monica Wright (second overall in 2010), anchor the Lynx bench -- perhaps the league's deepest. With that new-look nucleus, the Lynx raced to the league's best regular-season record (27-7). Through the playoffs, Minnesota has gone 4-1 against San Antonio (conference semis) and Phoenix (finals) and won by an average margin of 16 points.
Contrarily, the Dream's road back to the finals has not been as smooth. The absence of key players -- some due to injury, others (like Spanish forward Sancho Lyttle) due to a national team commitment -- led to a 3-7 start to the season. McCoughtry was dinged up, too, and it showed in her poor field-goal shooting, which hovered around 39 percent during that early stretch. She eventually caught fire -- surging to 51.2 percent by September and finishing second in the league in scoring with 21.56 ppg (or a record seven-hundredths of a point behind Phoenix's Diana Taurasi) -- and the Dream won 17 of their last 22 games.
Like Minnesota, Atlanta has lost once through two rounds against Connecticut (conference semis) and Indiana (finals). But unlike the Lynx, the Dream closed out their conference finals series without one of its best players, Brazilian center Erika de Souza, who left the team after Game 1 to help her national team qualify for the Olympics. The 6-foot-5 De Souza (11.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) rounds out a scrappy rotation that includes Lyttle (10 ppg, 6.3 rpg), McCoughtry and Armintie Price (8.5 ppg, 1.5 spg) -- all three of whom were voted to the league's all-defensive team. But point guard Lindsey Harding, who was drafted No. 1 overall by the Lynx in '07, the player who stirs this mix. Finally playing to her potential in Atlanta, she averaged career highs in assists (4.8) and field-goal shooting (45.5 percent) this year.
The Dream have the starters to match up with the Lynx, but not the bench. Or the 3-point shooting. Atlanta has only one player who consistently averages 33 percent or better from beyond the arc -- swingwoman Iziane Castro Marques, at 57.9 percent -- compared with five for Minnesota: Moore (45.8 percent), Whalen (40 percent), Wiggins (35.7 percent), Augustus and Wright (both with 33.3 percent).
In other words, McCoughtry will have her work cut out for her. Unless Minnesota suffers an epic meltdown, it's likely her hopes and the Dream's of marching on Washington will have to hold until next term.