When the Wings traded for Teaira McCowan in March, it was lauded as a savvy move. After a lackluster rookie year from Charli Collier along with patchwork lineups involving Isabelle Harrison playing the five, the arrival of McCowan, a 6-foot-7 paint-patroller, represented a significant change. Not since Liz Cambage in 2018 had Dallas fielded a player with a skill set like McCowan’s. Finally, the Wings had their game-changing center.
But sometimes, the best-laid plans of general managers and coaches sometimes go awry.
That’s not to imply McCowan’s play has been a complete negative. Quite the opposite. Looking at the 2022 numbers, the Wings are better in every meaningful way when McCowan is on the court. Their offensive rating is 114 with McCowan in games as opposed to 100.2 when she’s on the bench. Their offensive rebound percentage goes up 7 percent and the defensive rebound percentage increases almost 5 percent, while the effective field goal percentage is 54.6 percent as opposed to 45.1 percent.
You don’t even have to use the advanced metrics to see how McCowan affects play. In her last three games, she has had double-digit points with a double-double in two of them. Based on scoring, her best game of the season came in a July 12 loss to the Storm; McCowan had 18 points and 10 boards. She’s rounding into form as the team hits the back end of the season.
Yet you’d be excused if you believe this trade has been a disappointment. McCowan was expected to be an impact player from the time she arrived, someone who changed the Wings’ fortunes. As of July 14, however, she has appeared in 20 of 23 games; the Wings’ record in those games is 9-11. Dallas is 0-2 in her two starts. She has almost double the number of games with fewer than 10 points (13) as she does games with double-figure scoring (seven).
During her three-year tenure in Indiana, McCowan was a consistent double-double threat. In each of the non-Wubble seasons, she averaged at least 10 points and nine rebounds. She had 23 double-doubles across 66 games in those two seasons. Her number of field-goal attempts increased every season since her 2019 debut; she attempted eight shots a game in 2021. Indiana was better with her on the court in all the relevant categories for a big (rebounding, blocks, etc), while also being better offensively. (Better is the relative term, because the Fever were an unmitigated disaster when McCowan was there.)
That certainly wasn’t the case out of the gate in Dallas, and there’s an obvious reason why: McCowan’s WNBA season started late because her Turkish club, Ormanspor, made the playoffs. That meant no training camp in Dallas, so her integration with the Wings and her new city came during the season. As a result, coach Vickie Johnson eased her into the rotation. McCowan played double-digit minutes in just four of the first 10 games. She has since played at least 14 minutes in each of the last nine games.
“She is still trying to learn our system and what we’re trying to do defensively and offensively,” Johnson said last month. “I think she has been playing well for us.” McCowan didn’t disagree. “I’ve been in the league, but I haven’t been in the system,” she said. “I think that’s the difficult part, trying to figure out the system and how I fit in.”
That’s all fair, but it does pose questions: how difficult is the system Johnson wants to run that it can’t accommodate a player such as McCowan? That it takes more than half a season for a player of McCowan’s caliber to show her skills? Nobody is questioning the validity of the problems she’s having, but their existence is something worth exploring.
Because over the last month, McCowan has shown why she was worth a pair of first-round picks. Since June 17, she’s putting up 11 points, eight rebounds, and a block per game on 60 percent shooting and, crucially, almost six minutes more than her season average. As her playing time has increased, so has the production. Given that, it’s fair to question whether those early underperforming stats were because she wasn’t familiar with the system or because she wasn’t seeing the court as much as necessary. Perhaps it’s a mix of the two–but her higher usage and better stats in that time point a certain way.
Because if McCowan is rounding into form, getting more of this version of her would be a huge breakthrough for the Wings. After all, Dallas isn’t lacking for high-octane guard play, even as trade rumors about Allisha Gray burn white hot. No, it’s the lack of a post presence to combat the top bigs in the WNBA, including A’ja Wilson and Jonquel Jones, that has plagued the Wings.
At her best, McCowan ranks in the upper echelon, the sort of player who can win rebounding battles on the offensive end as well as provide a scoring outlet down low. Defensively, she can guard them, too. Her presence also creates more versatility among the other four spots. Dallas can deploy a multitude of combinations at forward now that players such as Isabelle Harrison and Kayla Thornton aren’t moonlighting at the five. Playing McCowan next to Awak Kuier gives the Wings two shot blockers at different levels of the defense and gets Kuier away from the basket, which opens up her offense.
The hope is that McCowan’s recent rise is sustainable, which leads to a late-season move up the standings. One would be forgiven, however, for being skeptical. This is the same team on which Moriah Jefferson never figured things out after her arrival in 2020 after missing all of 2019 with a knee injury. This is the same squad on which Charli Collier, the first pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, is averaging four minutes a game. This is the same organization for which Kuier, the second pick in the draft after Collier, is getting playing time even though it hasn’t unlocked her potential.
So far, the McCowan trade has yet to bear the fruit of consistent, game-changing results–for reasons that only have so much to do with her. The Wings are running out of time for those to come, too. At 10-13 they’re among a glut of teams unsure of what they are. They could just as easily sneak into the playoffs as they could miss out. If they do come up short, the questions will then fall on the shoulders of Johnson, now in her second season.
Here’s one way for the head coach to cut them off: give McCowan the opportunities her on-court performance demands. Her numbers show she makes the team better, while the capital paid to acquire her highlights her value to the team’s present and future. With restricted free agency looming after the season, McCowan’s on- and off- court importance matters more than almost any other storyline one can find on this team.
Whatever happens after that, happens. There’s no control of the outcome, but there is control of the process, and McCowan being on the court as often as possible is the correct decision. If the last month is any indication, the Wings should be happy with the results, too.