- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Saturday's nationally televised WNBA game between Minnesota and Atlanta (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) is supposed to showcase the league's leading scorer against the defending champions. It's a rematch of last year's WNBA Finals, a chance for the Dream to gauge where they are now against the team with the best record in the league.
But Atlanta has another issue to worry about besides how to beat the Lynx. Dream star Angel McCoughtry, who leads the WNBA at 22.7 points per game, might not be playing. Or she might. It seems nobody with the Dream knows for sure.
That's because McCoughtry is not with the team. She didn't make the trip to Washington for Friday night's game against the Mystics. Wednesday, she was at Philips Arena for Atlanta's victory against visiting Chicago, when the Dream honored their Olympic connections in McCoughtry and coach Marynell Meadors (USA) and Erika de Souza (Brazil).
But McCoughtry was in street clothes and not only didn't play against the Sky, she wasn't on the Dream bench. Instead, she sat in the stands. There appeared to be little, if any, interaction between McCoughtry and her teammates. The Dream said she was out for "personal reasons" and that her absence was indefinite.
If your response to this is a heavy sigh, a shake of the head, and an utterance of, "Oh, for crying out loud!" you're probably in good company. As well as McCoughtry played during the London Games, as big a spark as she provided Team USA off the bench, we were all looking forward to what she might bring to the WNBA in the second half of this season.
Indeed, she played well in her first two games back, with 25 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in a victory in Chicago on Aug. 17, and 22 points and 4 rebounds in a loss at Indiana on Aug. 18.
But what has happened since is still a matter of conjecture. Friday's absence will be McCoughtry's eighth game missed this season for the Dream. Before the London Games, she was dealing with a sprained knee -- or something like that. At one point, she talked about needing to rest in preparation for the Olympics, while Meadors countered that McCoughtry's first responsibility was to the Dream.
McCoughtry missed back-to-back games on June 17 and 19, both losses. Then she was out the last four games prior to the Olympics, when the Dream went 2-2. In London, she was a reserve who still ended up being the second-leading scorer for the gold-winning Americans.
It's fair to say if you've watched the interaction between the two since Meadors drafted McCoughtry out of Louisville with the overall No. 1 pick in 2009, you would surmise that the coach has tried to make allowances for the temperament and personality quirks of her star player.
McCoughtry is clearly one of the top women's basketball players in the world. She's so talented that at her best, she's as valuable to her team as anyone in the league. But at least from the outside looking in, McCoughtry seems at times disengaged from those around her. Does she fully trust her teammates? Does she feel like she has to carry the load too much of the time, especially in critical situations? Or does she actually insist on doing that? Or does it depend on the day and whom you ask?
Atlanta is 11-11 going into Friday night's game, which has the Dream in third place in the Eastern Conference. A playoff spot still seems pretty much assured considering only New York, at 9-13, really is "chasing" Atlanta now. Chicago has lost eight games in a row and is 8-13, while Washington owns the East basement at 5-17.
The Dream went to the WNBA Finals two years ago after finishing fourth in the East, and made it again last year after finishing third. So the fact that they are now six games back of first-place Connecticut does not mean they are long shots for another trip to the Finals. In fact, the postseason has been where Atlanta has played its best basketball in 2010 and '11. Once they're in the playoffs, the Dream can still make a lot happen.
But probably not without McCoughtry. The Dream beat the skidding Sky 82-71 Wednesday even without her playing. But Washington could be tougher, because despite the Mystics' record, they still seem to be competing hard.
And Minnesota (league-best 18-4) has won its three games since the Olympic break by an average of 22 points. The Lynx are at full-speed-ahead mode: very confident at home and on the road.
The combination of the insane WNBA travel demands -- the Dream have to rise at 4 a.m. Saturday for the flight back home to Atlanta, then play the Lynx at 7 that night -- and McCoughtry's absence could make for a disappointingly not-so-competitive matchup.
But will she actually be absent? And even if she plays, what kind of chemistry will the Dream have?
What's going on? McCoughtry didn't address the issue with reporters in Atlanta on Wednesday. Calls to her agent weren't immediately returned. A Dream spokeswoman said Friday from D.C. that at this point, the situation is "day-to-day."
Then again, you could say that, to a degree, it's always day-to-day with McCoughtry. Even in the best of times, she is -- shall we say -- a rather complicated individual. Remember, this is a player who in the past talked openly about having an alter ego named "Lori Ann" who she said was the competitor we all saw on the basketball court.
But in June, McCoughtry told USA Today that after a chat with former Dream assistant Carol Ross last year, she reconsidered whether she really "needed" an alter ego. And decided she didn't. So long, Lori Ann.
For the past year-plus, McCoughtry has been in the process of working on a documentary about her life, which is indeed an interesting tapestry. She also wants to be a recording artist. Plus, she has her overseas basketball commitment. So there's a lot on McCoughtry's plate, and also a lot on her mind.
McCoughtry appeared to have a good rapport with Ross, who is now head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks. Whether Ross' absence has had somewhat of an adverse effect on McCoughtry's relationships with the rest of the Dream players and staff is yet another thing about which to speculate.
McCoughtry will be a restricted free agent after this season. Her value as a player is extremely high. But it's at least worth mentioning the WNBA's trade deadline is 8 p.m. ET on Aug. 30. After that, no deals can be made until the conclusion of the postseason.
Maybe this will blow over, and McCoughtry will rejoin the Dream and help the team reach its maximum potential in 2012. Or maybe it's much more serious.
Right now, it's still a mystery that fans of the Dream, and the WNBA in general, would like to see resolved soon.
Saturday's Lynx-Dream contest is a WNBA Finals rematch that was supposed to pit the league's top scorer against the league's top team. But right now, Angel McCoughtry's puzzling absence is taking center stage.