October 13, 2023
What’s next for Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics?
Delle Donne will be a free agent in January, and the Mystics are at a crossroads
When the Washington Mystics re-signed two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne in February 2020, general manager and then-head coach Mike Thibault was thrilled. He called Delle Donne “the most impactful player in the history of the Washington Mystics” and added, “This is an exciting time to be a Mystics fan.”
Now, with Delle Donne’s four-year contract up and free agency looming, it may be a stressful time to be a Mystics fan — or front office member.
In the past, Delle Donne returning likely would’ve been an easy yes on both sides. From the Mystics’ perspective, this is a player who has averaged 18.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in six seasons with the franchise. In that span, she has shot a remarkable 49.3% from the field, 40.2% from 3-point range and 93.7% from the free-throw line.
Delle Donne, meanwhile, requested a trade to Washington in 2017 in part because it was close to her home state of Delaware and her older sister Lizzie. Lizzie is deaf and blind and communicates using hand-over-hand sign language. Delle Donne also bought into Thibault’s vision for the team, which culminated in a championship in 2019.
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However, the decision this time is more complicated for both sides, and as a result, the franchise is at a crossroads.
Delle Donne is 34 and had two back surgeries in 2020, which limited her to 55 total games across her last four-year contract. The Mystics lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, which didn’t meet their expectations. Both sides might want to renew their partnership, or they might prefer to shake things up.
As an uncertain offseason begins, here are four takeaways about what lies ahead when free agency opens in January.
The Mystics’ path forward is less clear than in the past
In 2018, Delle Donne’s second season with the franchise, the Mystics made their first-ever WNBA Finals appearance. Though they were swept by the Seattle Storm, it was clear to Thibault and his staff what their next steps needed to be. This year, Thibault said, the situation is much murkier.
“We had a group [in 2018] that we knew was good enough to win,” Thibault told reporters on Sept. 21. “We really don’t know all of what we have right now necessarily. We haven’t played together long enough. And so some of the decisions that we’re going to have to make are being made a little bit in a gray area, just because you don’t have a way to evaluate your team at full strength.”
Thibault doesn’t have a good way to evaluate the 2023 roster because it was decimated by injuries. The Mystics had 28 separate injuries, the most in the WNBA, and lost an estimated 9.0 win shares over 40 games. Three starters missed over a month, including Delle Donne, who dealt with neck, ankle and hip injuries in the regular season.
The Mystics could decide to bet on fewer injuries in 2024, which would be reasonable given how star-crossed they seemed in 2023. But even when they were relatively healthy early in the season, they were inconsistent, making it hard to gauge their level of play.
In his exit interview, Thibault stopped short of saying his team has everything it needs to win. He also didn’t say that the Mystics would do whatever it takes to retain Delle Donne.
Asked what he thinks the next step is in the 34-year-old’s career, he said, “I don’t know that I really want to try to answer that right now. I think that’s more her in some ways. I think the starting point [for me] … is, ‘How do you feel, Elena? How long do you want to play? What goals do you still have?’ … Those are questions for her before we even get to the us.”
However, Thibault did mention the core, which is a process where a team can get exclusive negotiating rights with a would-be free agent by offering a one-year supermax contract. “That’s a tool that can be part of the process,” he said. He did not specify which of the team’s four free agents he might core, but Delle Donne would make the most sense on a supermax contract, which will be nearly $242,000 next season.
Delle Donne is still chasing championships
Delle Donne made it known in her exit interview on Sept. 20 that she isn’t planning to retire, despite her age and history of back problems. She said she felt healthy and strong, even though she’d experienced back tightness the night before in the final game of the season.
“I feel like I have a lot more basketball to play,” she told reporters, adding that she would train with USA Basketball this offseason.
However, Delle Donne said she needed time to think about free agency. She said she and her wife Amanda “will do what’s best for our family,” but she also noted how important competing for championships is to her.
“For me, when it ends without a championship, it’s a tough year, it’s a tough season,” she said to open her press conference.
Minutes later, she addressed her on-court priorities in free agency: “I just want to win. So that’s truly what I care about most. It’s been my whole career, but especially coming back from all the back stuff.”
The Mystics have starters Brittney Sykes, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin under contract for 2024, as well as reserves Myisha Hines-Allen, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Queen Egbo. Those are good pieces, and the Mystics were viewed as potentially the third-best team in the WNBA in the preseason, before the injuries mounted and the Mystics fell to seventh. “We were, in my opinion, a contending team but not the favorite,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on Sept. 21.
Delle Donne will have to determine whether she thinks this group — and anyone else the Mystics can add in free agency — has the ceiling she’s looking for.
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The Mystics will put a premium on flexibility
Though Delle Donne’s statistics are still elite, her age and games missed might give the Mystics pause. Eric Thibault made clear that the team viewed Delle Donne’s ankle, hip and neck injuries in 2023 as bad luck, not as carryovers from her back injury. However, regardless of the reason, her absences over her four-year contract have been deeply felt.
After playing just three total games in 2020 and 2021, Delle Donne was available for 63% of the Mystics’ regular-season games in 2022 and 2023. They won 65% of the games Delle Donne played in the past two seasons, compared with 36% of those she didn’t.
And even when Delle Donne does play, limited practice time with her can make it tough for the team to develop a rhythm. “There’s just no replacement for being able to get those reps together, whether it’s in practice or games,” Thibault said.
The Mystics may decide that the risk of making even a healthy Delle Donne the centerpiece and giving her a supermax contract again is too high. Instead, they may want more financial flexibility to sign other elite players who can help carry the load.
Mike Thibault has never been afraid as a general manager to make roster changes, and he said flexibility is especially crucial now, with a WNBA expansion draft coming before the 2025 season and potentially a new collective bargaining agreement entering 2026.
“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.”
In 2023, the Mystics were the second-oldest team in the WNBA, with an average age on July 1 of just over 29 years. Four players were at least 31, while only Austin and midseason acquisition Egbo were younger than 26.
“You can’t box yourself into a corner where you’re an old team and you have older players on long-term contracts,” Thibault said, thinking about his strategy going forward. “… You can have a couple players, but … you have to have enough flexibility to be able to move a piece, have a player that’s desirable to somebody else. Or have an open spot in free agency and not be locked in … You [need to] have multiple choice.”
If Delle Donne elects to move on, Thibault will have lots of financial flexibility to sign free agents. If she wants to return, he may try to convince her to take a discount, to give him salary cap space to sign another top free agent. That’s part of how the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty constructed rosters that got them to the WNBA Finals this season, and it would likely help the Mystics challenge them in 2024.
End of an era for Mystics’ Batman and Robin?
Like Delle Donne, starting point guard Natasha Cloud is a free agent in 2024. Cloud was drafted by the Mystics in 2015 and has been in Washington ever since. But the franchise’s all-time leader in single-game, single-season and career assists will likely be in high demand in free agency, and she put an exclamation point on her resume with a career-high 33 points in the season-ending loss to the Liberty.
Cloud was one of the few Mystics players who stayed healthy for most of the season, and in her exit interview, she said she’d only thought about “finally just allowing my armor to lay down,” not about free agency.
Ten days later, though, Cloud spoke about playing alongside Delle Donne for six seasons on “Sometimes I Hoop,” a podcast hosted by Atlanta Dream forward/guard Haley Jones. Cloud said that she solidified her own role in Washington by learning how best to feed Delle Donne and that Delle Donne then wanted Cloud as her point guard going forward.
“It has been the greatest blessing to my career to play alongside Elena Delle Donne … To me, this is the best player in the entire world,” Cloud said. “… A lot of my accolades, what I’ve been able to do in my career, are literally a direct correlation to Elena Delle Donne, and I’m so thankful for that.
“But it got to a point where it was just like, it was Batman and Robin. People really referred to us as Batman and Robin because you cannot stop us in the pick and roll. And regardless of [whether] Elena was involved in the offense or not, I was always gonna find her. … And we’ve done some really great things together that I’m really proud of.”
We’ll see whether the strength of that partnership influences either or both players’ free agency decisions.
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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.