The Dallas Wings made a change on Monday, deciding not to exercise the 2023 option on coach Vickie Johnson’s contract. In a release, team president and CEO Greg Bibb said the move “provides our team with the best opportunity to achieve our long-term goals of advancing in the playoffs and ultimately competing for a WNBA Championship.” In two seasons, Johnson went 32-36, with one win in two playoff trips.
Johnson’s dismissal speaks to a situation over which she had no control. The failures of the Wings reside not just with Johnson and her staff, but also with Bibb. After he makes the next hire, Bibb will be working with his fourth coach since becoming general manager in November 2015. In that span, the Wings are 92-134 and Bibb can claim credit for the same number of playoff wins as Johnson: one. In fact, prior to the Wings winning Game 2 of their four-game series defeat to the Connecticut Sun this year, they had tied for the longest postseason losing streak in WNBA history.
Bibb’s player management also deserves scrutiny. In addition to highly publicized feuds that led to the departures of guard Skylar Diggins-Smith and center Liz Cambage, Bibb traded Azurá Stevens to Chicago in 2020; she won a ring the next season. In 2018, Bibb dealt swing forward Aerial Powers to the Mystics and got nothing out of the trade; Powers won a title in 2019 and made a point of calling Bibb out once she did. Center Astou Ndour-Fall was acquired for a first-round pick, before being waived after an unproductive season on a contract that Dallas paid on for two years after she left.
The draft record under Bibb is uneven. Arike Ogunbowale has been the best pick of his tenure, with Satou Sabally and Allisha Gray in the next tier. On the other hand, five former first-round selections are no longer on the roster. That doesn’t include Bella Alarie, who didn’t play this season due to personal reasons. The 2021 class could be a disaster; two players are gone while Charli Collier and Awak Kuier, the first and second overall picks, have underperformed. All told, the Wings have picked 13 players inside the top 10 of the seven drafts Bibb over which has presided. So far, it’s yielded one cornerstone, possibly a second. That won’t get it done for a team trying to rebuild through the draft.
All of that has created a less-than-ideal environment. Big-time players aren’t banging down the door to Dallas, not that the Wings could have afforded them in free agency prior to this offseason. There’s an air of uncertainty caused by this player friction and coach shuffling, and that falls directly at Bibb’s feet. Given his track record, how trusted should he be to make the next hire?
That’s not to say Johnson necessarily deserved a third season. Looking back to her hiring in December 2020, Bibb said this to our Dorothy Gentry: “Vickie was the right person to lead our team at this time. Someone who can relate to the players, who understands the challenges of the profession and someone who knows how to develop the skill sets of young professional athletes.” Almost three years later, it’s fair to say that didn’t happen.
Consider the friction between Johnson and forward Allisha Gray in Year 1. Johnson badmouthed Gray in the press after a loss against Las Vegas, saying her time with the USA 3×3 team delayed her getting familiar with the system. Gray wasn’t the only player who struggled to adjust to Johnson’s system, and despite a fantastic season, trade rumors persisted. Newly acquired center Teaira McCowan had a similar odyssey. She had a scorching finish to the regular season but was slow to acclimate to Johnson’s system.
This is before taking into account the one-off incidents, like Isabelle Harrison airing her grievances on social media or the bizarre scene of players running laps after a loss. Johnson chalked up the latter to a conditioning exercise, but no matter the reason, it just isn’t something coaches ask professional athletes to do.
There has also been minimal player development. Collier, the top pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, arrived to much fanfare, but after two seasons is adrift on the far end of the bench. This season she played in only 17 games with no starts, averaging 2.0 points in under five minutes per game. This came after a rookie season in which she played in 28 games, including 18 starts. She averaged 3.4 points in about 12 minutes per game. Kuier, the second selection in that same draft, hasn’t been much better. Ty Harris and Veronica Burton, each one the seventh overall selection in their draft years, are reserve guards. Never mind Chelsea Dungee, who didn’t even play a second season in Dallas after being the fifth overall pick.
Ogunbowale is a star, but her game has also shown no appreciable improvement under Johnson’s tutelage. The coach deserves credit for getting Marina Mabrey more playing time, but her ball handling and defense remain a work in progress. Say what you will about the front office, but no one misses on this many premium picks without help from the coaching staff. So while the record may have improved under Johnson, there were too many other issues. Perhaps she could have outgrown some of them; her only previous WNBA head coaching experience was one season in charge of the San Antonio Silver Stars prior to the team relocating to Vegas.
There is no more time for growing pains, however. Following back-to-back first-round exits in the playoffs, the rebuilding stage is clearly over, and Dallas is justified in wanting more from a head coach. It needs more. But that said, this organization is not a coach away from contending for a championship. It’s a systemic overhaul away. If things remain the same, this same column will be written again in a couple of years. Except instead of Diggins-Smith and Cambage leaving the building, it might be Ogunbowale and Sabally, because management didn’t build a strong enough supporting cast around them. Gray could walk after next year, looking for a team that prioritizes her rare skill set.
Perhaps this coaching change ends up being a good thing. But this franchise has changed coaches several times since 2015. It’s changed the players. And the city. And the nickname. There’s only one constant in that time: Bibb. So the important question isn’t who will be the Wings’ next head coach. It’s whether real progress will ever come without bigger change.