The Dream’s Clean-Slate Strategy Made Space for a Star: Rhyne Howard

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The Atlanta Dream were looking to start over.

After a couple of rocky seasons — player suspensions, lots of losses, a revolt against a team owner — it was time to try something new.

Nothing says clean slate like building a new roster.

Atlanta kept only a few players from last year’s team: Monique Billings, Aari McDonald, Tiffany Hayes and Cheyenne Parker.

Another piece fell into place when the Dream traded up for the first pick in this year’s draft and selected guard Rhyne Howard from the University of Kentucky. Howard made history as the only former Wildcat to be selected first overall by a W.N.B.A. franchise. Despite the power moves Atlanta made to ensure Howard was a part of their rebuild, she isn’t feeling any pressure to atone for the failings of past Atlanta teams.

“I was aware of what has been going on, but we didn’t talk about that,” Howard said in a phone interview earlier this month. “We haven’t, and we didn’t even before the draft because it’s like, it’s in the past now. Everyone here is basically new, so we’re just looking to rebuild, which we have done so far.”

The Atlanta Dream are in playoff contention as the W.N.B.A. nears the All-Star break, but just barely. They are 8-8 after beating the Dallas Wings on Tuesday. Their 6-4 start under the first-time coach Tanisha Wright was promising for a franchise with fewer than 16 wins over the last two seasons.

Promising, yes, but not satisfying.

The Dream haven’t made it to postseason play since 2018, when Nicki Collen led Atlanta to a 23-11 record en route to winning the Coach of the Year Award. It looked as though the heyday of Dream basketball might have returned.

After winning only four games as an expansion club in 2008, the Dream earned six consecutive postseason berths, including three trips to the W.N.B.A. finals.

However, by 2019 the Dream were again scraping at the bottom of the standings and would not win more than eight games in three straight seasons. There was turmoil off the court as well.

In 2020, the Dream caught the attention of the sports and political worlds when the team’s players publicly supported the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat in Georgia who was running for a Senate seat against the Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who co-owned the Dream.

Then last season, the Dream suspended guard Chennedy Carter after 11 games for “conduct detrimental to the team.” That May, guards Courtney Williams and Crystal Bradford were involved in a fight outside of a club in Atlanta. It wasn’t until after the season, when video of the fight surfaced, that the W.N.B.A. suspended them. None are with Atlanta now.

Neither is Loeffler, who sold the team in February 2021 after losing to Warnock. There are lots of new faces, including Wright, Howard and General Manager Dan Padover, who was hired away from the Las Vegas Aces in October. A month earlier, the Dream hired a new team president, Morgan Shaw Parker. With every move, the Atlanta Dream have made it clear that there is no looking back, only looking forward.

“It really was a way to come into something at the ground floor that I’ve never been able to do,” Padover said. He added: “I viewed it as a challenge, and I also knew I was going to be with really good people, and we were going to bring in really good players.”

Howard had averaged 20.5 points per game in the 2021-22 season at Kentucky and left as a two-time SEC player of the year. She was named to the Associated Press first team three of her four years in Lexington.

Her transition to the professional ranks has been smooth. Through 16 games, Howard is averaging 16.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. She was named the W.N.B.A. rookie of the month for May.

She leads the Dream in points and minutes (31) per game and is a top candidate for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. So far, she has validated all that it took for Atlanta to get her.

Five days before the draft, Atlanta traded its first-round (third overall) and second-round (14th overall) picks to the Washington Mystics for the No. 1 overall pick. Additionally, the Mystics can swap their 2023 first-round pick for the 2023 first-round pick the Dream acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks.

“When we looked at the trade, we’ve known in the W that it’s really, really hard to get elite-level players,” Padover said. “And when you get an opportunity to get one, you have to really consider it.”

He continued: “For us to get a player of Rhyne’s caliber to start this rebuilding process, we didn’t think we could pass it up. And I think the other thing that we looked at was not just the 2022 draft — we looked at the draft from 2020 to 2023, and there weren’t a lot of players that we could compare to Rhyne.”

Although there is a lot of excitement for the path ahead, Padover is under no illusions that it will be an easy road. No one on the team has won a championship except for Wright, who won in 2010 with the Seattle Storm.

“We do need to get to where we want to get from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “We want to be a consistent playoff team for years to come. We’ll see what happens this year, but I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Atlanta had dropped four straight games before beating Dallas on Tuesday. Opponents scored at least 90 points in three of the four losses. In the previous 11 games, only the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces had scored more than 80 points against the Dream.

“Defensively, we need to get back to ourselves,” Wright said after a 105-92 loss to the Connecticut Sun last week. Atlanta averages a league-leading 17.7 turnovers per game. The Dream have conceded 15.1 points per game because of turnovers and another 9.3 points per game on fast breaks. But the defensive numbers aren’t all bad: Atlanta is just behind the Connecticut Sun with the third-fewest second-chance points allowed (9.2) per game.

Nia Coffey leads the team with five defensive rebounds per game, but Parker and Billings are right behind her with 4.8 per game. Parker also leads the team with 1.3 blocks per game, and averages 11.8 points per game.

“What we were dead set on was that we needed to make sure we brought in professionals who were going to be respectful of one another and also make the city and this franchise proud,” Padover said.

What will that look like at the end of the regular season? Will a playoff berth or major league award show that Atlanta is moving in the right direction?

“A goal of mine is to be rookie of the year,” Howard said, “but just being able to have an impact on this team continuously and consistently and just leading us to where everyone wants to go is enough for me. I’m not going to get any accomplishments without my team.”

The Dream will have to fight to remain in playoff contention, but Howard leads all rookies in per-game averages for minutes, points, steals, and 3-pointers and field goals made. Early returns say she can be the elite player Padover and the Dream thought she would be.