2021 WNBA season preview: Washington Mystics
Behind two MVPs, the Washington Mystics are chasing another championship in 2021
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As far as contingency plans go, Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault has had a pretty good one since acquiring Tina Charles from New York in April 2020. If Elena Delle Donne, the 2019 WNBA MVP, is still recovering from offseason back surgery, plug in Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP. And if Delle Donne is healthy, play the two MVPs together in the frontcourt, with shooters all around them.
But even the best Plan Bs sometimes require Plan Cs, and that was what happened in 2020, as neither Delle Donne nor Charles played in the wubble in Bradenton, Florida. Now, after another offseason back surgery for Delle Donne, the Mystics are back to Plan B entering 2021.
Charles’ resume is one of the best in WNBA history: beyond the MVP award, she has also earned eight All-WNBA honors, seven All-Star selections and four All-Defensive Team awards and was the Rookie of the Year in 2010. The ironwoman ranks ninth in league history in minutes per game (32.4) and has career averages of 18.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.0 blocks per game.
Yet in the offseason and even during training camp, not many people were talking about Charles. She had a down season by her standards in 2019 but has been “dominant” in camp, according to Thibault. She scored 18 points in each of the Mystics’ two preseason games on 54% shooting from the field, even as she and her teammates are still building chemistry and learning how and where to get each other the ball.
“If anybody is sleeping on Tina, they’re a fool,” said guard Shavonte Zellous, who played with Charles in New York and signed a training camp contract with the Mystics this spring. “… It just amazes me the things that she’s capable of doing, and now Tina has added a lot of things to her game. Of course we know she’s a back-to-the-[basket] killer in the paint, she can shoot the three, but now she’s got a little bit of handles with her. So anybody sleeping on Tina, beware, because she has looked great at camp.”
Through the two preseason games, Charles is perhaps the surest thing on this Mystics squad: she is one of the few players who hasn’t struggled to make shots, and she is a primary target on most offensive possessions. “Tina’s always going to be a go-to player,” Thibault said after the first game, citing how she can not only make shots, but also create opportunities for others with her passing and the defensive attention she commands.
With Charles’ role and impact seemingly clear, here are three other questions that still need answering as the season gets underway:
When will we see both MVPs?
Plan B may be great, but Plan A—Delle Donne and Charles playing together—could be the ticket to a championship for the Mystics. As guard Kiara Leslie put it recently, “Having two MVPs on a team right now, I don't think it can get any better than that.”
However, it’s not clear how soon that plan will become a reality. Delle Donne had a second surgery in December 2020 to repair herniated discs that she had injured in the 2019 WNBA Finals. In the third episode of her YouTube series “Beyond the Game,” which chronicles her rehabilitation process, Delle Donne said that her first few days after the second surgery went much more smoothly than after the first:
“I’m way better than my last surgery … Last surgery I remember for like the first two weeks I did like one-minute walks in the house. I just took a very long—not very long, but a nice outdoor walk. I’m thriving.”
Several months later, at the Mystics’ media day on Apr. 26, Delle Donne revealed that she had been working with her medical team to “learn to move properly, to even walk differently, sit differently … [in order to] not put pressure on my spine.” She added, “I’m working with a new back, hopefully a better back.”
Delle Donne had hoped to be ready for the season opener on May 15 against Chicago, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. She did only individual workouts through the first two weeks of training camp, and the Mystics want to see her take contact in practice before she plays in a game. On May 8, Thibault said that she would likely miss at least the first three to six games of the season.
Whenever Delle Donne debuts this season, Charles is excited to play alongside her. They have played together with USA Basketball and could both be on the Olympic team this summer, and they were also slated to be college teammates at UConn before Delle Donne left and eventually transferred to Delaware.
“We joke around saying, ‘I guess it was meant to be,’” Charles said. “… It's always been great to take the court with her. It's always been natural. So I’m looking forward to that.”
They fit so well together in part because of their versatility: both players can post up, pass, block shots and score from all over the court, so they don’t crowd each other on offense and can help one another defensively. Delle Donne, at 6’5, has such good guard skills that Thibault has occasionally mused about playing her at shooting guard in uber-big lineups. She will likely play primarily at the three and the four for the Mystics, while the 6’4 Charles—one of the best rebounders in WNBA history—will spend a lot of time at the five but can also play the four.
How often will the Mystics go big?
In 2019, the Mystics used a three-big lineup to torch opposing defenses so badly in the playoffs that forward Emma Meesseman became the first reserve in WNBA history to win Finals MVP. Thibault had hoped to deploy it again in 2020, but injuries and player opt-outs dramatically changed the roster. He ended up only using it for 74 minutes in the regular season and less than a minute in the Mystics’ first-round playoff loss to Phoenix.
This season, the lineup could again be a major weapon, but it may be a while before we see it on the court. With Delle Donne injured and forwards Myisha Hines-Allen and Erica McCall arriving late from overseas, the Mystics had just four forwards available for the preseason games, and Charles said after the second game that Thibault hadn’t implemented that aspect of the offense yet.
“I look forward to it,” Charles said. “You know, he is notorious for having big lineups. My first years playing with him [with the] Connecticut Sun, he would play myself, Asjha Jones and Sandrine Gruda at the three at times. So I know it’s something that he’s into and I do think it could work to our advantage, especially with Elena and Myisha and myself … and maybe hopefully Emma. We’ll see.”
(Meesseman is currently a free agent and could re-sign with the Mystics after she finishes playing with the Belgian national team this summer. If she does, that will surely qualify as one of the most impactful midseason signings in league history.)
Who will get minutes off the bench—especially at guard?
An argument can be made that, when healthy, the Mystics’ starting lineup in 2021 could be better than that of its 2019 championship team. Returning starters Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins are good bets to be improved versions of their 2019 selves, and—without any disrespect to the perennially underappreciated LaToya Sanders—Charles is likely an upgrade at center. That constitutes improvements at three out of five positions, even if we concede that Delle Donne will likely not match her historic 2019 season and that Leilani Mitchell may not beat 2019 starting guard Kristi Toliver.
However, the depth on this year’s team is significantly less established than in 2019, in part because veteran Alysha Clark is out for the season with a foot injury. If Hines-Allen isn’t starting in a big lineup, she will likely be first off the bench, and new signees McCall and Theresa Plaisance will also contribute up front. But Thibault is still looking for someone to assert themselves as the team’s fourth guard behind Cloud, Atkins and Mitchell.
That player could be Zellous, who has averaged 8.9 points and 1.9 assists per game in 11 WNBA seasons. It could also be a younger player such as Leslie, Stella Johnson or Sug Sutton. Leslie is an adept defender who was also the go-to offensive player for her Russian team this offseason, while Johnson, a midseason pickup last season, has been labeled the Mystics’ 2021 draft pick after they gave up all of their picks to acquire Charles. And Sutton, a young point guard, has been studying Cloud’s game in camp and trying to emulate her. None of those players have separated themselves yet, so the final week of camp will be pivotal in determining which guards make the opening-day roster and continue to battle for minutes.
Despite the question marks, the goal is a championship
It will take time for the Mystics to get everyone healthy and on the court together, and they may look somewhat disjointed at the beginning of the season. That is unavoidable given Delle Donne and Clark’s injuries, the fact that some players are still not in camp and the amount of roster turnover over the past two offseasons. But the Mystics are playing the long game.
“The goal is to be at our best when you need to be the best,” Thibault said at the start of training camp. “… I've watched other teams come out kind of blazing at the start and then be beat up and hurt, and it's not worth it.” Before the preseason games, Thibault said that winning was “not a priority” and that experimenting with different lineups was more important.
But don’t mistake the Mystics’ slow build-up for a lack of competitiveness. In fact, it’s the opposite: The Mystics are doing it to give themselves the best chance at another championship.
At media day, Delle Donne insisted that a championship is still the goal this season: “That's the Mystics way. We always say gold standard. It's just how we carry ourselves, how we approach each day, each practice, moments with one another in the locker room. So that is certainly always the goal. … We have some incredible pieces to this puzzle.”
For Charles, a WNBA championship is seemingly the only prize she has yet to win, and that was a major reason why she wanted to join the Mystics. It is also a motivator for her teammates. “I'm fully aware of that,” Cloud said recently. “… As her point guard, that's what I want to bring her. I want to bring her a championship.”
And Cloud—always one to bet on herself—likes her team’s odds, even if others aren’t talking about the Mystics as a favorite.
“Even though we have some people out [and] we’ve lost some people to injury, we still have a really scary team on paper,” she said at media day. “ … But I think we're being kind of swept under the rug, which I like that because the last few years, we've had a target on our back.
“But I think we're going to shock a lot of people in this league.”