About this time last season, I detailed how Wings star Arike Ogunbowale shared similarities to Luka Doncic, the other basketball superstar in Dallas who knows a thing or two about what to do on the court. While documenting several similarities between the two, one significant factor was overlooked: the lack of a suitable running mate. Yes, both players raise the level of play around them, but the inability of the Wings and Mavericks to complement their franchise player with a strong sidekick was an issue.
For the Wings, that problem has been solved with the arrival of Natasha Howard.
This isn’t a surprise. When the trade went down in January, I lauded Howard as a huge pickup for a team badly in need of veteran talent. Through six games of the young season, Howard has been even better than advertised. She has posted double-digit points in every game, including a season-high 25 in a win last week against Minnesota. She’s third on the team in points per game, second in rebounds per game, and first in blocks per game. She also has the team’s highest defensive rating and defensive win share among the Wings who have played in every game.
With the departures of Kayla Thornton, Isabelle Harrison, and Allisha Gray, adding a versatile defender became paramount. The Wings got the very player they expected to be getting when they acquired Howard in a three-team trade that also landed Crystal Dangerfield.
Dallas is also experiencing a big boost in transition. As a team, the Wings get more offensive and defensive rebounds when Howard is on the floor. That leads to more fast-break opportunities, an area in which the Wings have excelled. Dallas leads the WNBA in points off of turnovers, is third in fast-break points, and is second in scoring points off of turnovers.
Just as significant has been Howard’s contribution on the offensive end. That’s important because Ogunbowale is at long last playing alongside someone she has never had: a complementary second star. Since Ogunbowale entered the league in 2019, no teammate has averaged more than 14 points per game. It’s early in the season, but Howard is averaging 18.2 points per game. Also, when Howard is on the court, Dallas’ offensive rating is 102. When she checks out, it drops to 91.3.
No longer do the Wings have to lean solely on Ogunbowale. Take, for example, the win over Minnesota. Ogunbowale had 21 that night, but she shot only 6-of-20 from the field, including 2-of-6- from deep. In years past, a line like that would have sunk the Wings. But Flash came to the rescue, shooting 11-of-15 from the floor and turning in the team’s best offensive rating on the night. (It certainly has helped that Dallas has found a third major contributor in Satou Sabally, who is averaging 22.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game.)
That efficiency against the Lynx is a feature, not a bug, and that’s important because Dallas has lacked efficient non-post scorers. Former Wing Marina Mabrey was dynamic but not consistent. Gray was a good scorer who lacked volume, something she wasn’t shy about pointing out after a recent game. Even Sabally’s phenomenal start, welcome as it is, should still be considered an outlier until it holds up over a longer sample. Howard, meanwhile, is like a stable paycheck: you know when it’s coming and how much it’ll be, even if the dollar figure isn’t always as high as you’d hope.
With the absence of center Teaira McCowan, first due to injury and then to EuroBasket commitments, we’re getting another look at what value Howard can bring to Dallas. New coach Latricia Trammell has favored a three-guard lineup in McCowan’s absence, sliding Howard to the five next to Sabally. Dallas is second in the league in scoring, averaging 90.5 points per game, but the new look isn’t without its flaws. In a six-point win on Sunday, Connecticut used its bevy of mobile bigs to outscore Dallas in the paint, 40-22.
McCowan is an efficient paint occupier, but that comes at the cost of other players being restricted in using the lane. Because of her mobility, Howard can open up the floor by pulling bigs away from the paint. (She is shooting a career-high 36.7 percent from deep.) Before she suffered a leg injury on Sunday, Dangerfield took advantage of that, and others would be wise to follow suit. The Wings figure to function better when McCowan returns at the end of the month, but Howard has shown she can carry the load. (McCowan hasn’t played since going down with a knee injury in the third quarter of the opener.) That wasn’t always the case last season when Big T wasn’t available.
There’s also something to be said for the notion that Dallas for once isn’t relying on unproven players as much. Since 2020, the draft has been a big part of the Wings’ development strategy. That has not been working out, to say the least. Changing course to add an established All-Star as opposed to rolling the dice on draft picks is already paying dividends. That’s especially true in a league such as the WNBA, where development is anything but linear. Rare is the player who delivers in Year 1. It has been three years since Sabally was drafted second overall, and she is just now developing into the player the Wings expected, even with her making an All-Star team in 2021. You could argue Howard’s presence has had an impact on Sabally’s sudden emergence as well.
Then there are the numbers that don’t appear in the box score. Howard, 31, is a two-time All-Star, a two-time All-Defensive Team selection, a former Defensive Player of the Year, and most importantly, a three-time WNBA champion. For a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity and is looking to change the culture, Howard can teach the Wings a thing or two about winning.
Even with a .500 record early in the season, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Dallas is better than what the standings show. The Wings will miss McCowan while she plays for Turkey and cross their fingers that Dangerfield, the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2020, won’t be out long. But they can rest easy knowing they finally have a player who can ride shotgun to their franchise player.