They Got Next: An Inside Look at the Atlanta Dream Rebuild

When Rhyne Howard first received the call that she would be selected first overall by the Atlanta Dream in the 2022 WNBA Draft, there was no sense of trepidation about joining the franchise. Even from the outside looking in, it was apparent that the Dream was headed in a new direction after a franchise overhaul at the end of the 2021 season.

“It was like, ok, I’m ready to be there. I’m ready to start getting this back on track,” says Howard, reminiscing about the draft night.

The Dream went 14-22 this past season, a significant step up in the record, level of competitiveness, and established play style. Howard won Rookie of the Year and was named an All-Star, the first rookie to be voted in outright to the game since A’ja Wilson in 2018. Multiple players on the roster improved their overall games. Tanisha Wright finished second in Coach of the Year voting in her first season as a head coach, as the team narrowly missed the playoffs.

Atlanta appears ripe for ascension in the coming years.

To fully appreciate the team’s path now, there must be an understanding of the breadth of the past year’s rebuild. There’s been an alignment across the board this past year in College Park; this is a rebuild. In all internal and external messaging, every organization member, from support staff to ownership, has been transparent about what 2022 would be.

The Dream’s new ownership group saw this season as their opportunity to make their mark and redefine what the organization would mean on and off the court. Renee Montgomery, Suzanne Abair, and Larry Gottesdiener formed an investment group that purchased the majority ownership stake in 2021, a few months before the season started. Much of that season was a feeling-out process, as it was too late to make major changes just two months before training camp started.

Morgan Shaw-Parker, formerly an executive with Nike and the Atlanta Falcons, agreed to come on as the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Dream due to the vision the ownership group related to her. She saw an opportunity to carve a niche in the Atlanta sports scene, but the synergy she felt in values and organizational principles resonated with her.

“We were really consistent on needing to build business and basketball together with the same core values,” says Shaw-Parker in initial conversations when the front office came together. 

General Manager Dan Padover came over from the Las Vegas Aces after a successful stint in the same role there. He echoed similar sentiments to Shaw-Parker on ownership alignment.

“Top-down, the word patience was applied. Everyone was on the same page that we would have to make the right decisions not for right now, but for the long term,” says Padover.

Focusing on people in year one was paramount in every facet. 

Bringing in the right players. Connecting to the people of Atlanta. Filling out the support staff.

Listening is the biggest job on day one, says Shaw-Parker.

“Sports are about human beings. If we aspire to be the best place to work and play in all sports, it’s got to start with bringing people into the organization that will match the culture you want to build.”

She needed to hear about the ins and outs of the organization, its strengths, its weaknesses, and how those already within it felt it could best improve before she rolled up her sleeves and got into the mud alongside them.

Dan Goldberger, the team’s Director of Marketing and longest-tenured member of the front office, was vital in imparting that knowledge. 

2022 was significant for Goldberger, as he was able to hone in on a more centralized role. The investment from ownership was tremendous, and expansion in support staff allowed him to “take off a few of the hats” he’d been wearing in previous years. 

Much of his prep headed into the year was focused on branding and in-game marketing. Building a better game experience was essential, as was finding pockets of fans to reach while also really tapping into the culture of Atlanta to make the arena and game atmosphere embody the city.

“We can’t be everything to everybody, so we really wanted to bring what makes Atlanta Atlanta into our arena. What kind of talent could we bring in to connect with fans,” says Goldberger,

The focus wasn’t just on fans; however, making Gateway a place that players were proud of and excited to play was of equal importance.

The Dream had a new floor made for the arena, a smoky gray hardwood that made the logo and city script further pop in Gateway Arena. A pregame music video and intro were made with Omeretta the Great, an Atlanta-based rapper. 

“She was Atlanta,” says Goldberger on the collaboration. She was brought in to do a concert at the first home game after the intro was unveiled, a mashup of her song Sorry Not Sorry.

Waka Flocka Flame, an Atlanta native who needs no introduction, performed at halftime of a game late in the season. One of center Cheyenne Parker’s favorite moments of the year was meeting Waka with her daughter after the game.

Building ties to the city isn’t as simple as bringing in musical artists, revamping the in-arena food, and just playing better basketball. There has to be a legitimate effort to make and establish connections.

“We have to be intentional about how we go about building that trust and building that equity in the city,” says Shaw-Parker.

The Dream is named after Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech, but the organization didn’t have a connection with the King Center. That changed this past off-season.

“We had to get in there and learn,” says Shaw-Parker.

It wasn’t about financial support; taking the time to fully immerse in the King Center’s nonviolence programs, and training was a significant step towards building a meaningful relationship.

“It’s about leaning in and actually taking those classes and doing the work, meeting with Bernice King (King’s youngest child and a current lawyer and minister), and understanding the community mindset.”

Shaw-Parker preaches the importance of genuine relationships consistently. She mentions the importance of people and mutual understanding countless times in our conversation. She shares a fondness for the importance of fundamentals and accountability with Wright and Padover. Although she doesn’t make the basketball decisions, there’s an inherent similarity to how all three operate.

“At any given time, Dan, Tanisha, and myself will rip a page out of one another’s playbook,” says Shaw-Parker. 

The unity in mission, goals, and how to reach them is a glowing mark across the franchise’s leadership. Even with the most talented executives, coaches, and players, a divergence in values and processes can directly hinder a team’s upward mobility and long-term efficacy. The alignment in Atlanta was a due part of their ability to outperform expectations this year and set the seeds for more.

“It’s important for us to be on the same page at all times. We’re different personalities and people, but we’ve got each other’s backs and make sure we’re always aligned,” says Padover.

There’s a mutual understanding amongst the organization’s brain trust that if you don’t sweat the small stuff, the foundation means less and is more suspect.

Padover and Wright first worked together in New York with the Liberty when Tanisha was still playing, and Dan was part of the front office. She was an assistant coach in Las Vegas while he was the GM. 

Their relationship is longstanding and built on trust and mutual respect. They didn’t have to spend time on pleasantries once they were hired and got to work immediately. Even if they don’t fully agree on a personnel decision, they believe in one another’s vision and are always on board.

“We’re not always going to be in 100% agreement on a player, but we’ve done a good job of ensuring that if someone is coming here, we both believe that they can be a part of this thing,” says Padover.

Anytime a question is asked about the roster or team direction, it’s met with a “Dan and I” or “T and I,” again stressing that alignment. 

When Wright and Padover came together to do their initial roster assessment, priority was put on being competitive in their first season while instilling professionalism. 

“We’re most proud of mixing and matching the right personalities to restore some credibility not only in Atlanta but around the league that this is a professional environment that people can enjoy,” says Padover.

Reinforcing and renewing the infrastructure of the organization was a crucial step. Updating and improving player housing, upgrading team training facilities, and expanding the staff was the primary focus as soon as both were hired.

Due to ownership commitment, they were able to add a player development coach and another full-time worker to the medical staff.

“From the day we started until the day before training camp, it took just about every minute of planning to get us where we wanted to go,” says Padover.

The Dream had a plethora of new faces on the roster to start the 2022 season, retaining only four players from the 2021 roster. 

Padover and Wright targeted a number of veteran players they felt could have a positive impact on the team. Erica Wheeler was top of mind for both, having played alongside Wright in New York. Padover was a video coordinator at Rutgers when Wheeler was in school there. While Nia Coffey missed much of the year with injury, she was a core part of the culture reset and came over in that trade from Los Angeles with Wheeler.

Kia Vaughn played a small role on this team on the court, her lowest minutes total since her second year in the league, but what she brought to the locker room was immeasurable. Every player on the team had words of praise for Vaughn, often without prompting.

“I mean this in the most complimentary way possible,” says Padover.”

“Not many teams would have traded a draft pick to get Kia Vaughn at this point in her career (she retired at the end of the season); we probably would have given up even more to get her because she’s been that important.”

She was the “mama bear” of the locker room—the heart of the team. The shoulder most players leaned on. Howard and fellow rookie Naz Hillmon became her frequent dinner partners on the road.

“She always has a reservation,” says Hillmon.

“We came in thinking we could just show up to restaurants, but then we ended up waiting 45 minutes. Now that we’re with Kia, we don’t have to worry about that,” says Hillmon before she and Howard bust out laughing.

Getting Vaughn to partake in their frequent Tik Toks by the end of the year was a highlight of both of their seasons.

“We did a really good job of mapping out our foundation and going to get the people we thought could fit our culture,” says Wright.

Wright believes in four pillars; accountability, being all in, respect, and toughness.

“We’re counting on her to guide us, and she hasn’t led us wrong yet,” says Howard.

Every player on the team makes sure that I know about Wright’s favorite saying, “Nobody Cares.”

Cheyenne Parker, one of the four holdovers from last season, which enjoyed a stellar season in her first year as a full-time starter, paints the picture of a harsh but effective saying. 

“It’s something she always says, which can sound kind of mean, but it’s true. Nobody cares. It’s kind of a mental toughness you have to endure to get better. She’s tough, she’s intense, but that’s what we needed.”

Wright came in with a championship mentality, one Parker compared to when James Wade took over the Sky when she was still in Chicago. Off rip, the expectations in training camp were of the highest caliber and discipline; everyone had to be on time with no excuses. No jewelry on the court. Sprint in and out of every drill. 

“If you think anybody feels sorry for you, you’re gonna get your ass kicked,” says Wright when asked about her mantra.

Parker is right, it can seem harsh and cold, but it’s a reality. It resonated with the players on the team because many came from adverse situations, and the mantra was brought about as an uplifting remembrance rather than a reprimanding. 

The energy in Atlanta was extremely negative last season, says Parker, arguably the biggest departure from 2022. Losses still sting, but there wasn’t wallowing. Nobody cares, so watch the film, get better, and attack practice with a renewed focus.

“This year, everyone from top to bottom embodies everything that we’re looking for to build this organization,” says second-year guard Aari McDonald. 

McDonald’s confidence and aggression on the court blossomed this season, and she routinely showcased what made her the third overall pick the year prior. Her playmaking shined through, she’s a walking paint touch, and her hard-nosed defense is eye-popping. The synergy she and Howard developed throughout the course of the year was encouraging to watch as both functions incredibly well off one another’s movement.

“It’s been a deep breath, really like a sigh of relief,” says McDonald in her second season.

“We celebrate each other; we all just want to turn this into a winning culture.”

Wheeler refuses to take credit for any of McDonald’s development, but McDonald is insistent that she’s played a part in her success. She always watches Wheeler see what she can take from her game.

“She’s always talking to me whether it’s on the court or not. We text about games and hold one another accountable. She’s a high-energy person and always positive,” says McDonald.

“Man, I’m not really teaching Aari anything, so I can’t take credit for anything; it’s more so just helping her speak up,” says Wheeler.

You might not find two players with such similar games yet two different personalities. Wheeler is outspoken and vocal, leading the team out of the tunnel before games in one of my favorite pregame routines. She’s a hype man, an “energetic big sister,” according to Padover. McDonald’s is quiet and reserved. There’s been a natural coalescence as they eased into different roles this season, feeding off one another. 

“To be in a position of leadership, knowing that my teammates go as I go and listen to me, that’s pretty damn powerful,” says Wheeler.

She considers herself a naturally selfless person, but she’s been an All-Star before. She has a knack for scoring and has commanded the ball throughout her career. She enjoyed the process of becoming that go-to veteran, but struggled at times with finding her game on the court, sometimes lacking her patented aggression in her game.

“The hard part is keeping others consistent and yourself consistent on top of that.”

Wheeler was playing a game in Poland when she was traded to the Dream. She came out to the locker room and had 50 missed calls and texts; her agent never called more than three times. 

She was initially frustrated, as she felt she and then Sparks coach Derek Fisher had a relationship where he could tell her up front that he was thinking of trading her. But then she got the call from Padover and was ecstatic to get back to where it all began, having signed in Atlanta in 2015 after going undrafted in 2013 and playing overseas.

“I got you here E Dub!” said Padover. Wheeler considers Atlanta home. 

She knew what she was coming into with Wright at the helm.

“T is T, you’re gonna have to adapt to her, and that’s in a good way because she holds herself to a standard that’s super high. She knows what it’s like to lose. She knows what it’s like to win championships…if you adapt to her, you’re gonna be in good shape.”

Although they were a newcomer midway through the season via trade, AD Durr came in with a similar relationship to Wright as Wheeler. They’d played together in New York when AD was a rookie in Wright’s final season before retiring.

AD felt welcomed in Atlanta and immediately at home.

“She brings so much passion and energy, and not every head coach can say that she’s one of the best I’ve ever seen…Having coaches that believe not just in one player, but in one through 12, that’s the difference,” says AD.

They felt empowered when the coaching staff got on them for passing up a shot and making the wrong read in practices and games. It didn’t come from a place of admonishment but of confidence in them to make those plays, to be that player capable of routinely stringing together positive plays.

Finding their confidence again was difficult in New York after a long and difficult stretch of dealing with long-COVID and its complications of it.

Wright’s tough-love approach sits well with the roster because of the balance within it.

“When we’re doing great, she’ll tell us that. If we’re messing up, she’s going to get on us and tell us to get our stuff together. She doesn’t break us down just to keep us there. We’ll run through a wall for her.”

Although a hip injury ended up causing them to miss the end of the regular season, AD put together a remarkable stretch of play in the 15 games they played in Atlanta. The confidence as a shot-maker was back. They were particularly dazzled with their outside jumper and a career-high 23-point outing against their old team, the Liberty, in early June.

“I love being a part of the Dream,” says Durr.

“I look forward to getting better and building something truly special.”

Durr played against Howard in college when they were at Louisville; they’re not at all surprised by Howard’s immediate impact and in-season growth.

“I didn’t expect anything less.”

As important as that shift in culture has been in resetting where the team is at and where it’s headed, its talent of Howard is irreplaceable. She’s the kind of player organizations start rebuilding for in hopes of drafting.

Once Padover and Wright came together in Atlanta, scouting the 2022 draft class was an immediate priority for the scouting department and coaching staff. Many debates were had on which players made sense in what scenarios.

Most GMs will say that talent reigns supreme, says Padover, but fit cannot be undersold. The right player for your team might not be the most talented, but your organization can get the most out of them and vice versa. Where an organization is competitively is pivotal in its drafting.

“Rhyne was always number one from when we started (draft prep) to when we ended,” says Padover.

“When we had the ability to move up and get her, we had to take that chance. She’s only going to get better. She knows that; we know that. It’s just a matter of making sure she’s patient with herself.”

Every player on the team comments on Howard’s current play and the path she’s on. That’s not to put on unfair expectations, but it’s difficult to explain without being around this team for a week.

Rhyne’s quiet; she really doesn’t talk much, even in practice. But she’s the focal point in practice, shootarounds, and the game. Not in a self-serving way, but the team just… revolves around her. People gravitate to her. 

“She’s gonna be great… she’s going to be a legendary player,” says Parker of Howard.

Howard and Hillmon have been friends since 2018, when they played together on the Team USA Under 18 team. Hillmon brings Howard out of her shell when they’re together, and she tells me that people don’t understand how funny she is.

“She’s the team clown,” says Hillmon. I made the mistake of doubting that and openly saying I didn’t believe her. 

Roughly a half hour after I talked to Howard and Hillmon, I was eating lunch in my hotel lobby when the duo walked through the front door, unbeknownst to me. In the middle of scrolling through Twitter and eating a bagel in a dead silent grand lobby, I heard, “Are you following us?!” as Howard yelled at me from across the lobby, and I stared up, more flustered than I’d been in a long time. 

All I could manage to do was cough up an “ahh, no!”

“Sounds like something someone following us would say,” yelled back Howard before she and Hillmon burst out into laughter. 

That’s one of the funniest things I’ve been privy to since I started working in basketball. It’s emblematic of that clowning nature and that if you see Howard or Hillmon, the other is likely just around the corner!

“Rhyne’s easy to get along with, she’s approachable, she’s goofy… playin’ all the time,” says McDonald.

“Some people from the outside might think she’s cocky, but she’s not like that at all. She’s humble and doesn’t brag like she doesn’t even care. Just to see that, dang, she’s something special.”

Hillmon cemented herself further as the year wore on, earning her way into the rotation as the team battled with injuries. She’s an adept screener, a good decision-maker, and a versatile defender.

Padover and Wright were unsure what position she’d play coming into the league, a bit of a tweener between frontcourt spots without a defined position. But, they saw her intangibles, her knowledge of the game, her athleticism, and her character off the court in alignment with their vision of the team moving forward.

“What’s interesting is her ability to grow her game,” says Padover.

“Her ceiling is something we haven’t seen yet. We’re fortunate to be in the position where we have the time to bet on it, and we’re going to.”

Hillmon slid in the draft, largely graded as a first-round prospect, and was ecstatic just to get the call that the Dream was selecting her with the 15th pick. Her second thought was that she was amped to play alongside Howard again.

The pair of rookies leaned on one another this season, often riding to and from practice together, relying on one another to not be late and smoothing their transition to the league with familiarity.

“They were meant to do this,” says Wheeler, illustrating the professionalism and potential of the Dream’s rookies.

“Rhyne and Naz are like my kids, man. They come to my house unannounced, do whatever they want, eat all my snacks, and are constantly like little bugs around me, which I love.”

Wheeler felt herself grow as a leader and person getting to be around and participate in their acclimation to professional basketball.

“We did it once,” retorts Hillmon on the alleged snack theft.

“If you give us your address, we’re going to come over! You can’t say we’re uninvited if you gave us your address.”

“She was like, “you’ll never come over,” well ok, we came over. She always pulls that card,” says Howard.

Culture is a cliché term in sports. So often, the word is tossed around with an understanding of the meaning but often lacking the nuance of appreciating how it came to be. Wins and losses can be a measuring stick, but even then, the full breadth of what constitutes culture and interwoven relationships isn’t captured.

While the next few seasons of growth will define what this era of Atlanta Dream basketball will be remembered for, it’s undeniable that the base is strong. The foundation is set and sowed in a way that was practically unimaginable this time last year. 

The Dream’s front office and staff are sitting down at present, analyzing the season, preparing for the next, and brainstorming how they can grow in all directions, webbing across the city of Atlanta.

“You have to pause and look inward, focus on the humans, focus on the process, focus on the strategy. It’s not just about the goal; it’s about the habits that are going to ladder up into the goal,” says Shaw-Parker, as she avidly and excitedly contemplates the next few seasons of development.

What is the next step for the Dream? 

They don’t want to skip steps, this is a process, and they don’t want to hit fast forward.

“The eventual goal is to be a Semifinals team and a Finals team consistently, and to get there is hard. This first step (building the foundation) is hard, I think the next step is going to be even harder, but we’re looking forward to it,” says Padover.

Stars are aligning in Atlanta, but it’s not the work of fate. 

The last year and change have been a non-stop endeavor to put the organization on a different and better track than it was on at the end of the 2021 season. The Dream has the feel of a team that’s on the path to something great if the start is any true indication. It might be years before the eventual goal laid out by Padover comes to fruition, and there’s beauty in witnessing and appreciating the grind of year one. 

As Atlanta continues to evolve and grow in the coming years, it’s imperative to remember where they started to achieve the full admiration of where they’re headed.

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.