January 10, 2024
2024 WNBA free agency preview: Washington Mystics
Is Elena Delle Donne done in D.C.?
The Washington Mystics could go in several directions when free agency opens this month, but which way the dominoes will fall depends in large part on Elena Delle Donne.
The two-time WNBA MVP is an unrestricted free agent after completing a four-year supermaximum contract, and it’s uncertain whether she will stay in Washington. She and the team had the ability during the 2023 season to extend her contract and did not do so. And two league sources tell The Next that Delle Donne is expected to move to another team this offseason.
At age 34, Delle Donne is still extremely impactful on the court, averaging 16.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game last season on 48.5% shooting from the field. But she appeared in only 53 total games over her full contract after a back injury limited her from 2020 through 2022 and multiple injuries interrupted her 2023 season. In those four years following the Mystics’ championship season in 2019, the franchise’s best regular-season finish was fifth in 2022, and it went 0-5 in playoff games.
In 2023, the roster still featured seven players from the 2019 championship team, but it had its ups and downs, in part because of a league-high 28 injuries. The team finished seventh in the regular season with a 19-21 record.
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Mystics general manager Mike Thibault declined to comment for this story, but he told reporters on Sept. 21 that he would talk with Delle Donne this offseason about her goals. He mentioned the core — a process where a team can get exclusive negotiating rights with its would-be free agent by offering a one-year supermax contract — as a possibility. But he also stressed the need for financial flexibility and roster balance.
“Any time you have some of your players getting older, whether [Delle Donne] was a free agent or not, we need to make sure that we have other players that we can make focal parts of what we do,” Thibault said. “It can’t just be one player.”
Delle Donne, meanwhile, insisted on Sept. 20 that she felt healthy and strong, and she said her priority in free agency would be finding a place where she can compete for championships.
“I just want to win. So that’s truly what I care about most,” she said.
Another player whose return is uncertain is Delle Donne’s running mate, 31-year-old point guard Natasha Cloud. Cloud is the franchise’s all-time leader in single-game, single-season and career assists, and in 2023, she averaged a career-high 12.7 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game.
Cloud had signed a three-year contract with the Mystics in 2021 that paid her a near-maximum salary, including $190,000 in 2023. But with few elite point guards available in free agency this offseason, her price may have gone up — especially after she capped her 2023 season with a 33-point playoff performance against the New York Liberty.
“I’m one of the best point guards in this league. Period,” she said after that game. “And I don’t get the respect that I deserve.”
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The Mystics’ other free agents are guard Kristi Toliver, forward Tianna Hawkins and guard Li Meng. Toliver will not return: The Phoenix Mercury hired her as their associate head coach this offseason, and after tearing her ACL in September, she likely wouldn’t have been healthy for some or all of next season anyway.
Hawkins, who started 21 regular-season games and had arguably her best season since 2019, could be due for a significant raise from her veteran minimum salary of $74,305 last season.
And Li is a reserved player, giving the Mystics exclusive negotiating rights if they want to bring her back. She was an All-Rookie Team performer last season and shot 36.4% from 3-point range, and she was on a team-friendly rookie minimum contract of $62,285.
“I know that our core is special — been here for years,” Cloud said on Sept. 20. “But that’s just the reality is [some] contracts are up and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The Mystics have six players under contract already for 2024, including three on protected contracts.
|G Ariel Atkins ($200,000)
|G Shatori Walker-Kimbrough ($97,850)
|G Brittney Sykes ($190,000)
|C/F Shakira Austin ($80,943)
|F Myisha Hines-Allen ($180,200)
|F/C Queen Egbo ($74,398)
The Mystics also have the No. 6 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, and that player will earn $73,439 on an unprotected contract next season. Assuming the Mystics keep that pick and the six players who are already signed, they’ll have $566,370 left for four or five players, according to salary data from Her Hoop Stats.
That’s enough to comfortably re-sign both Delle Donne and Cloud at the maximum salary of $208,219 for 2024. That would leave just under $150,000 for two players, and at least one of those contracts would need to be for less than the minimum for players with at least three years of service. This could mean a second- or third-round draft pick or a free agent without much experience in the league. In this scenario, Hawkins could be the other player and receive roughly a $10,000 raise from 2023, and the Mystics could try again with essentially the same roster from 2023.
If the Mystics core Delle Donne and pay her the supermaximum salary of $241,984, they may start to feel the squeeze of the salary cap. Cloud and/or Hawkins would likely get more lucrative offers elsewhere than what the Mystics could manage, and the Mystics might also struggle to afford top-tier free agents to replace them. (However, the Mystics can offer protection to two free agents in addition to Delle Donne, which could be valuable in negotiations.)
If one or both of Cloud or Delle Donne doesn’t return, or if they take discounts, that gives the Mystics more flexibility to reshape the roster.
“I think we are well positioned,” head coach Eric Thibault said about free agency on Sept. 21. “We’ve got good players under contract. We’ve got multiple first-round picks going forward. [We] should have some cap space. And I think we have players who can get better that are here … [It’s] a little bit of an unclear offseason, but I think we have good options available.”
The Mystics may need to prioritize adding another frontcourt player, either through free agency or the draft, because Delle Donne and Hawkins could leave and starting center Shakira Austin may not be healthy to begin the season. Austin underwent hip surgery this fall, with a projected recovery time of four to six months, and the team will likely be cautious with her rehab.
One encouraging sign is that backup center Queen Egbo will compete in Athletes Unlimited from Feb. 29 to March 23. In September, she told reporters that she had had knee surgery before the 2023 season, hadn’t been fully healthy all season, and planned to use the offseason to rehab. But this month, she told The Next‘s Howard Megdal that she has been doing physical therapy and will be healthy for Athletes Unlimited. That will give her an opportunity to develop and play against live competition.
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However, before Mike Thibault can decide who he might target in free agency or which college player he might draft in the first round, the question of what Delle Donne will do has to be resolved. She was one of the final pieces Thibault acquired to bring Washington a championship in 2019. Now, she’s the first domino in free agency for the Mystics, and her decision will likely dictate whether the Mystics try again to recreate their 2019 magic or set out in a new direction.
Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.
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, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.