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

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The Atlanta Dream were seeking to start over.

After a few rocky seasons — player suspensions, a number of losses, a revolt against a team owner — it was time to try something latest.

Nothing says clean slate like constructing a latest roster.

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

One other piece fell into place when the Dream traded up for the primary pick on this yr’s draft and chosen guard Rhyne Howard from the University of Kentucky. Howard made history because the only former Wildcat to be chosen first overall by a W.N.B.A. franchise. Despite the facility moves Atlanta made to make sure Howard was a component of their rebuild, she isn’t feeling any pressure to atone for the failings of past Atlanta teams.

“I used to be aware of what has been happening, but we didn’t discuss that,” Howard said in a phone interview earlier this month. “We haven’t, and we didn’t even before the draft since it’s like, it’s up to now now. Everyone here is largely latest, so we’re just seeking to rebuild, which we now have done to date.”

The Atlanta Dream are in playoff contention because the W.N.B.A. nears the All-Star break, but just barely. They’re 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 past 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 path to winning the Coach of the 12 months Award. It looked as if the heyday of Dream basketball might need returned.

After winning only 4 games as an expansion club in 2008, the Dream earned six consecutive postseason berths, including three trips to the W.N.B.A. finals.

Nonetheless, by 2019 the Dream were again scraping at the underside of the standings and wouldn’t win greater than eight games in three straight seasons. There was turmoil off the court as well.

In 2020, the Dream caught the eye 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 a number of latest 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 latest team president, Morgan Shaw Parker. With every move, the Atlanta Dream have made it clear that there is no such thing as a looking back, only looking forward.

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

Howard had averaged 20.5 points per game within the 2021-22 season at Kentucky and left as a two-time SEC player of the yr. She was named to the Associated Press first team three of her 4 years in Lexington.

Her transition to the skilled ranks has been smooth. Through 16 games, Howard is averaging 16.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and a couple of.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 12 months Award. To this point, 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. Moreover, 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.

“After we checked out the trade, we’ve known within the W that it’s really, really hard to get elite-level players,” Padover said. “And while you get a chance to get one, you’ve got to actually consider it.”

He continued: “For us to get a player of Rhyne’s caliber to begin this rebuilding process, we didn’t think we could pass it up. And I feel the opposite thing that we checked out was not only the 2022 draft — we checked out the draft from 2020 to 2023, and there weren’t a variety of players that we could compare to Rhyne.”

Although there’s a variety of excitement for the trail ahead, Padover is under no illusions that it’s going to be a straightforward road. Nobody on the team has won a championship apart from Wright, who won in 2010 with the Seattle Storm.

“We do must get to where we wish to get from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “We wish to be a consistent playoff team for years to return. We’ll see what happens this yr, but I’m unsure we’re there yet.”

Atlanta had dropped 4 straight games before beating Dallas on Tuesday. Opponents scored at the least 90 points in three of the 4 losses. Within the previous 11 games, only the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces had scored greater than 80 points against the Dream.

“Defensively, we want 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 due to turnovers and one other 9.3 points per game on fast breaks. However 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 wanted to ensure we brought in professionals who were going to be respectful of each other and likewise make the town and this franchise proud,” Padover said.

What’s going to that seem like at the tip of the regular season? Will a playoff berth or major league award show that Atlanta is moving in the best direction?

“A goal of mine is to be rookie of the yr,” Howard said, “but just having the ability to have an effect on this team constantly and consistently and just leading us to where everyone desires to go is enough for me. I’m not going to get any accomplishments without my team.”

The Dream could have to fight to stay 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 could be the elite player Padover and the Dream thought she can be.

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