June 29, 2021
Washington Mystics waive three players in search for flexibility
Mike Thibault is patiently playing the long game, with an eye toward the playoffs
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The injury bug has hit the Washington Mystics hard this season, forcing them to play with as few as seven healthy players at times over the past two weeks. On Tuesday, the Mystics will again be shorthanded against the Connecticut Sun, but this time, the scarcity of players is their own doing.
The Mystics waived guard Kiara Leslie, guard Stella Johnson and center Megan Gustafson on Monday, which was the final day that teams could cut players in time for them to clear waivers and become free agents before all player contracts become guaranteed for the rest of the season. Those cuts mean that the Mystics will have between six and eight healthy players on Tuesday, depending on whether point guard Natasha Cloud and forward Myisha Hines-Allen return from injury.
Mystics coach and general manager Mike Thibault told the media on Monday that his decision “gives us flexibility” for the rest of the season, which in his mind is more important than having a deep bench on Tuesday. “I felt we needed to have the most options possible available to us and not be locked into guaranteed contracts the rest of the year,” he said.
Leslie was perhaps the most surprising of the cuts, as the 6’ guard was the Mystics’ first-round draft pick in 2019 and was in just her second healthy season after missing her rookie year with a knee injury. In 2020, she started 10 games, averaged 5.5 points in 21.8 minutes per game and performed well enough defensively that she was sometimes assigned to guard the opponent’s top perimeter player. However, in nine games this season, she averaged just 2.8 points in under 10 minutes per game while shooting 33.3 percent from the floor.
“This year, [Leslie’s performance has] been up and down. And my feeling was, with a player that’s up and down, that I don’t want to guarantee them,” Thibault said. He added that the decision may also serve as a wake-up call for Leslie: “To be honest, I think she needed a reset, too, on what expectations are in our organization.”
Johnson, a second-year pro whom the Mystics signed midway through last season, was behind Leslie on the depth chart this season, as she appeared in just six of the team’s 15 games and played a total of 31 minutes. Even with the Mystics’ injury woes, she did not play in the team’s last two games, losses to Los Angeles and Dallas. Thibault had seemed optimistic about Johnson before the season, even saying last fall that the team would treat her as its 2021 first-round draft pick, but she simply couldn’t find minutes on this team.
Meanwhile, Gustafson had been signed on Jun. 21 on a hardship contract and averaged 4.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in three games with the Mystics. The decision to cut the 6’3 center was largely procedural, Thibault said. Hardship contracts are allowed based on injuries and must be terminated when the team gets healthier, so guaranteeing Gustafson’s contract would have required the Mystics to pay her through the end of the season, even if other players got healthy and her contract was automatically terminated.
Where the Mystics go from here is still up in the air. Thibault indicated that the Mystics would likely re-sign one or two of the three waived players on seven-day contracts on Thursday, after the mid-season deadline for guaranteed contracts passes. Gustafson is likely to get a seven-day contract, and the Mystics will also look at players who were waived by other teams this week.
One player who could certainly be a difference-maker is longtime Mystic and 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who is not under contract while she plays with the Belgian national team this summer. Thibault had previously set aside cap space for Meesseman if she chooses to re-sign with the Mystics after the Olympics, so these cuts were not made to free up money specifically for Meesseman, but they did give the Mystics financial flexibility to experiment with players who could be more impactful than some of the players who were waived.
“We wanted some cap space to kind of figure out our roster,” Thibault said. “… By using seven-day contracts and the Olympic break as kind of a buffer, we can figure some things out before we resume play in August.” Importantly, the days during the Olympic break do not count against a player’s seven-day contract, so a player could sign two days before the break and still have five days after the break on the same contract.
Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Mystics sit in ninth place with a 7-8 record, but they are only one game behind fourth-place Chicago, so there is plenty of opportunity to charge up the leaderboard. And the Mystics’ unique schedule over the next two weeks, in which they play just three games before the Olympic break, will help Thibault manage minutes with a shorter roster and give him more practice time with the players on seven-day contracts.
The goal is that all the mixing and matching will pay off in the postseason, even if it creates some short-term challenges.
“I don’t like to necessarily go into a game with only six or seven players, but that may be what we have to do for this year for one game,” Thibault told the media on Monday. “… The goal for us is to be playing in the playoffs and be playing at our best, and if we don’t keep that goal as our main objective, then we’re making mistakes. Making a decision based on one game would be a bad decision as far as I’m concerned. … We had to do what’s best for this team going forward in the long term.”
Because Leslie and Johnson weren’t playing many minutes and Gustafson was such a recent addition, their absences likely won’t impact the Mystics’ rotation much on Tuesday. The return of Cloud and Hines-Allen, who are both listed as questionable, would have a much larger effect: That duo is averaging 56.2 minutes and 20.9 points per game, well above the 27.1 minutes and 8.8 points from Leslie, Johnson and Gustafson combined. Cloud and Hines-Allen got in some shooting and walked through plays with their teammates on Monday and will both be game-time decisions.
Thibault added that guard Ariel Atkins, the team’s second-leading scorer and a recent selection to the U.S. Olympic team, is expected to play despite getting hit in the back against Los Angeles on Jun. 24.
Overall, Thibault’s decision-making on Monday is consistent with his approach all season. He has preached patience with two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, who has had a lengthy recovery from offseason back surgery, both out of concern for her health and because he knows it is more important to have her healthy in the playoffs than in the regular season. He opted to ramp up gradually in training camp rather than risk players getting injured or the team burning out after a fast start. And he will be patient as he tinkers with the roster over the next few weeks, whether that ultimately means bringing in several new players or re-signing familiar faces on more flexible contracts.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.