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The Atlanta Dream were looking to start over.

After a few difficult seasons – player suspensions, numerous defeats, rebellion against a team owner – it was time to try something new.

Nothing says a clean slate like building a new list.

Atlanta only kept 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 for the top 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 WNBA franchise. Despite the power moves Atlanta made to ensure Howard was part of their rebuild, it feels no pressure to atone for the failures of Atlanta’s former teams.

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

The Atlanta Dream are in playoff contention as the WNBA nears All-Star Break, but just barely. They are 8-8 after beating the Dallas Wings on Tuesday. Their 6-4 start under first coach Tanisha Wright was promising for a franchise with less than 16 wins over the past two seasons.

Promising, yes, but not satisfactory.

The Dream hasn’t made the playoffs since 2018, when Nicki Collen led Atlanta to a 23-11 record en route to winning Coach of the Year. It looked like the golden age of Dream Basketball might have returned.

After winning just four games as an expansion club in 2008, the Dream earned six consecutive playoff berths, including three trips to the WNBA Finals.

However, in 2019, the Dream were once again scratching the bottom of the standings and would win no more than eight games in three consecutive seasons. There was also commotion off the field.

In 2020, the Dream caught the eye of the sporting and political world when the team’s players publicly endorsed Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia who was running for a Senate seat against incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of Dream. .

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

Neither did Loeffler, who sold the team in February 2021 after losing to Warnock. There are plenty 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 made it clear that there is no looking back, only looking forward.

“It was really a way to get into something downstairs that I never got to do,” Padover said. He added: “I saw it as a challenge, and I also knew that I was going to be with some really good people, and we were going to bring in some really good players.”

Howard had averaged 20.5 points per game in the 2021-22 season at Kentucky and left as SEC Player of the Year twice. She was named to the Associated Press first team for three of her four years at Lexington.

His transition to the professional ranks was smooth. In 16 games, Howard is averaging 16.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. She was named WNBA Rookie of the Month for May.

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

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

“When we looked at the trade, we knew in the W that it’s really, really hard to get elite-level players,” Padover said. “And when you have the opportunity to get one, you really have to think about 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 him up. And I think the other thing we looked at wasn’t just the 2022 draft — we looked at the 2020 draft through 2023, and there weren’t a lot of players we could compare to Rhyne.

Although there is plenty of excitement for the road 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 have to get where we want to go competitively,” 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 lost four straight before beating Dallas on Tuesday. Opponents have scored at least 90 points in three of 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 have to come back to ourselves,” Wright said after a 105-92 loss to the Connecticut Sun last week. Atlanta is averaging a league-leading 17.7 turnovers per game. The Dream gave up 15.1 points per game from turnovers and an additional 9.3 points per game on breakouts. 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 an average of 11.8 points per game.

“What we were determined on was that we had to make sure we brought in professionals who were going to respect each other and make the city and this franchise proud,” Padover said.

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

“One of my goals is to be rookie of the year,” Howard said, “but just being able to impact this team continuously and consistently and take us to where everyone wants to go enough for me. I will not achieve any success without my team.

The Dream will 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 feedback says she can be the elite player that Padover and the dream thought she would be.

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