Image: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
To hear that former assistant coach Carol Ross of the Atlanta Dream would be heading west to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks was not the news I wanted to hear from the DFO in the off-season.
What follows is a collection of very random thoughts. If Queenie can write Random Notes of Doom, I can write Random Thoughts on Coaching Changes.
* The Dream picked up Carol Ross after the Dream’s inaugural season in 2008. Since then, the Dream have been to the playoffs every year and have won two Eastern Conference Championships. (We’ll overlook Atlanta’s 0-6 record in the WNBA Finals.) But then again, Atlanta has had such players in their corner as Chamique Holdsclaw, Sancho Lyttle, Erika de Souza, and Angel McCoughtry during that playoff streak.
The great debate among Atlanta Dream fans is, “How much of the Dream’s success is attributable to coaching and how much of it is determined by the players?”
As Pat Summitt’s father told her, you can’t bring mules to the Kentucky Derby. In Atlanta, 2008 was the Mule Year and only the Brazilians – de Souza and Iziane Castro Marques – remain from that initial roster that won only four games out of 34.
* I don’t remember if Ross was on the sidelines or not during Atlanta’s Most Embarrassing Coaching Moment. This was in Game One of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Shock in Detroit. This is from my old blog:
We almost had the lead. Angel McCoughtry stole the ball with 29 seconds left and took a good mid-range jumper. In most circumstances, that ball would have sailed in but it went out and in. Nolan came down hard, and I mean hard to the floor. I don’t remember if it was on the McCoughtry miss or on the rebound, but Nolan was clearly dizzy and was leaning up against the goal support.
If it were an acting job, Nolan would have been the next Meryl Streep. Nolan was clearly in tears. She didn’t want out of this game, but she knew something was wrong. I didn’t want her out of this game either. If Atlanta wins, I want it to be pure fair, and not contingent upon some last-minute injuries. Championship runs should not have asterisks.
The decision was made. Nolan would have to come out of the game. The problem was that Nolan had earned a trip to the free throw line – was Lyttle called for the personal? I don’t think it was really Lyttle’s fault – so who would take those shots? The WNBA rules stated that in the event that the person fouled doesn’t take the free throws, the opposing coach gets to choose the foul shooter.
This gave the Dream a great opportunity. All they had to do was pick someone who could be counted on to tank one of the two free throws. They could pick the worst foul shooter who was still eligible to be picked. This included Olayinka Sanni who had not played (but was dressed, I believe) with a 69.4 percent free throw percentage, or Kara Braxton with a 64.5 percent percentage.
Instead, the Dream brain trust picks...Crystal Kelly, who is an 84.7 percent career free throw shooter. Kelly hasn’t played in the game – but at the free throw line, she sinks both of them. 92-89 Shock, and the Dream have the ball with 16.2 seconds left.
And there begins the controversy. The press reported that Meadors chose Kelly because Kelly was theoretically cold, having not played. However, some posters at RebKell claim that they could hear on the game audio that there was some confusion among the Atlanta coaching staff as to whether or not which Detroit players were good shooters and which were poor ones.
A Detroit reporter claims that “One of her [Meadors’] assistants yelled Kelly’s name to her when the officials asked, but I didn’t see who it was.” Did an assistant coach pull the trigger?
Atlanta would suffer an Elmo Bowl sweep, losing to the Shock at the Arena at Gwinnett Center – the Dream were displaced from Philips Arena in favor of Sesame Street. We still don’t know the name of the Mystery Coach on that one. You know, it might have been Carol Ross for all we know.
* It looks like Carol Ross will not be Marynell Meadors’s heir apparent in Atlanta. This had always been the theory among Dream fans – Meadors would retire and Ross would step in. Every time there was a coaching change somewhere in the WNBA, my first thought was, “I hope no owner asks to interview Carol Ross.” Now, it looks like someone has.
So if Meadors continues to coach until retirement, who is going to replace her? That becomes the new mystery. Fred Williams? Or someone else?
* One of the great Founding Myths of WNBA Fandom is that, “Everything bad in Atlanta coaching must be attributed to Meadors; everything good must be attributed to Ross.” You can’t doubt that Carol Ross knows the Xs and Os of the pro game. There are many times on the sidelines after a time out where it will be Carol Ross drawing up the plays and Meadors will be looking on. (I call it “supervising”.)
Furthermore, she’s definitely hands-on. I generally get to the games early and I see the post players working out – and feeding the ball to them and working with them on the court is Carol Ross. If Ross was delegated this duty by Meadors (I have never seen Meadors on the court working with players in warm-ups), she took to it like a duck takes to water.
* On the other hand, there are some question marks. First: what kind of disciplinarian is Carol Ross? The “bad = Meadors, good = Ross” equation is skewed by the fact that Meadors is the disciplinarian on the team – or at least, that’s the impression I get. I think over the years Tamera Young and Angel McCoughtry have spent long periods of time in the Meadors doghouse. (This year it was Izi’s turn.)
And if there’s anything I can conclude, it’s that Meadors has 100 percent control of the team in the discipline aspect. I remember when Angel McCoughtry tried to remain on the court (was it during the playoffs?) this year when Meadors called her back and McCoughtry angrily stormed back to the bench. Meadors wasn’t going to give in on that fight the same way she hasn’t given in on any other fight against McCoughtry.
So if anyone on the Sparks tries to give Ross lip, what’s going to happen? Will Ross crack the whip or let things slide? (A good head coach knows when to do the former and when to do the latter.) I do know that if Meadors wanted to bench Candace Parker, the combined forces of Sparks fandom wouldn’t be able to change her mind. When things go sour in Los Angeles, that’s when we’ll see if Ross is head coach material.
* The second question regards talent and circumstance. The Sparks and Dream are two very different teams. The Sparks are a higher-profile team than the Dream; more light and more heat are focused on the Sparks than any other team except maybe New York. Atlanta is an overlooked team in a poor sports town in general; the Dream have made a lot of headway since 2008 but it is a work in progress whereas Los Angeles has been around since (literally) the opening tipoff of the WNBA.
Furthermore, Atlanta is a better team, or at least has been from 2009 to 2011. The Dream won 57 regular season games over that period of time; the Sparks won 46. Candace Parker is a member of the Injury of the Month Club. Tina Thompson and Ticha Penicheiro are both playing on borrowed time. Noelle Quinn got 23 starts for the Sparks last year. Defense is dismal. There’s not a lot to work with there, not yet anyway.
One overlooked aspect might be that Armintie Price was a member of the Dream during those two championship years. Price played on Ross’s Old Miss teams so Ross had the advantage of being very familiar with Price’s defensive strengths and how to use them. Both Price and Shalee Lehning are the Dream’s “coaches on the court” as each has the goal of being a coach someday.
Are there any young coaches on the court in Los Angeles? I don’t know, but I do know that there are two major veterans. Will Thompson and Penicheiro be able to get along with Ross?
(* * *)
I will definitely be sorry to see Ross go, even though I never had the chance to chat with her. Meadors was definitely the (public) face of the Dream and now it’s Ross’s turn in the spotlight. It’s always hard to say goodbye to anyone involved with the Dream. Ron Terwilliger, Ivory Latta, Chamique Holdsclaw, and now Ross.
I wish Ross the best of luck in Los Angeles except, of course, when the Sparks play Atlanta.