Embracing the Rebuild is Working for Atlanta and Indiana. But What Comes Next?

Rhyne Howard of the Atlanta Dream dribbles

The Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever have made real progress in their respective rebuilds. After two years, in the case of Atlanta, and more than two in the case of Indiana, of aimless attempts to be the 7th or 8th seed without much success, both teams are set up much better to one day make a run in the playoffs.

For both Atlanta and Indiana, the key first step was the top of the 2022 draft. The Dream used their own third pick and some of the return they got for trading Chennedy Carter to trade up to select Rhyne Howard. Eighteen games in, all signs point to Rhyne Howard being good enough to at least be the second best player on a team that competes deep into the playoffs. She joins Aari McDonald in interesting young talent. McDonald will hopefully join Howard as a starter on said team, but she seems likely to at least be a good backup, as she has raised her true shooting from a below average 48% to an acceptable 56% as a sophomore.

The Fever, in turn, took NaLyssa Smith with the second pick. While Smith has not been as consistent as Howard, she has certainly looked the part of a player who could one day be a key piece on a good playoff team. The Fever also added more young talent than Atlanta alongside Smith in Emily Engstler, Queen Egbo and Destanni Henderson. If even one of those players can be a starter on a good playoff team, that is good for the Fever.

The Dream were more beset by bad luck than poor roster decision in 2021, but still had to respond to where they ended up. They were smart enough to recognize that once the relationship with Chennedy Carter was beyond salvage, they needed to recoup what they could. They received a competent point guard in Erica Wheeler and a pick that they already flipped for a potential star. New ownership made some fine choices with Dan Padover brought in from the Aces to run the front office and Tanisha Wright as coach.

The Fever, on the other hand, were undone by poor roster decisions more than bad luck. They were not young, nor good, an unfortunate combination. They picked players who were not good enough, in drafts without sure things. They overpaid, relative to the cap, for aging veterans who were not going to take the Fever anywhere. I am happy for Danielle Robinson getting paid, but signing a 32 year old point guard who doesn’t shoot 3s was a curious decision at the time and has not made more sense in hindsight. With Tamika Catchings moving on and Lin Dunn as interim manager, the approach has become much more sensible.

Indiana is already out of the playoffs, so they should be focusing on seeing what they have with the younger players on the roster. Atlanta has a more interesting conundrum in that they would be in the playoffs as the 8th seed if the season were to end today. While playoff experience is worth something, given the way the WNBA draft works with two year cumulative records, the Dream would be sacrificing the 2nd best odds at a top 2 pick for the privilege of being waxed by the Las Vegas Aces.

Losing a couple of playoff games will not help the Dream as much as Aliyah Boston, Haley Jones, or Diamond Miller would. Rhyne Howard still has work to do to show that she can be engine of a good offense. She may be better suited to using her shooting to play off someone more equipped to break down defenses. Add one more top draft pick if you are Atlanta, and then see who might be interested in signing with two top draft picks, one in Howard already an established All-Star caliber player.

Indiana will have a high draft pick in 2023. They should once again use their cap space to take on unwanted contracts from other teams, a la the Bria Hartley trade, rather than trying to sign a free agent like Brionna Jones. Jones is very good, and should earn a larger contract from someone not the Sun next year, but not so good to lead the Fever higher than a 7th seed. Indiana likely should be aiming for another decent pick even in the 2024 draft, as Indiana is less likely than Atlanta to get decent veterans to sign there unless there is already a top team in place. Caitlin Clark or Paige Bueckers would pair very nicely with NaLyssa Smith and co. Then Indiana can really be ready to contend.

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