October 18, 2021 

Answering six ‘Stics offseason questions

DC faces a crucial offseason

Thirty-nine percent would be a great result if it represented the Washington Mystics’ 3-point shooting percentage in 2021. Instead, it was their winning percentage over the past two seasons, which is unacceptable to a franchise that won a championship in 2019.

“We’re not in rebuild mode, but we’re in a reset button mode,” head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said on Sept. 20, the day after the Mystics’ season ended one win short of the playoffs. “We need to reset our culture and how we go about things, and we need to redevelop an identity. And I don’t think we had an identity of being good at anything this year. We weren’t a good shooting team. We weren’t a great defensive team … The fact of the matter is we weren’t great, no matter how you look at it.”

Indeed, the Mystics ranked only eighth in the WNBA in offensive rating, 11th in defensive rating and ninth in effective field goal percentage and total rebounding rate. Those pedestrian rankings were similar to 2020 but a significant drop-off from the historic offense and top-3 rebounding rate the Mystics had in 2019.

There were several reasons why the Mystics underperformed this season, but roster turnover and injuries both contributed. Just four players who took the court for the 2019 Mystics were on the 2021 opening-day roster, even though Thibault had originally hoped to keep the title team mostly intact. His big free agent acquisition in 2021, forward Alysha Clark, missed the entire season with a foot injury, and the other ten players who were with the team for the full season missed a combined 75 games due to injury, illness and personal reasons. Two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne missed all but three games as she continues to recover from two back surgeries.

As a result, the Mystics rarely got to put their best lineup on the court and constantly had to shuffle players around, which hurt their chemistry. The Mystics’ best five-player lineup (without Clark) played just 10 minutes together in one game all season, and the five-player lineup they used the most played only 96 minutes together, which represents 7.5 percent of the season. (Compare that to the Connecticut Sun, which had the WNBA’s best regular-season record and had its five starters play 375 minutes, or 29 percent of the season, together.)


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However, the Mystics’ problems don’t end at the training room door, and Thibault said that the solution must go beyond banking on a healthier roster and therefore better chemistry next season. “Obviously, if you put Elena and Alysha Clark into the lineup and you have some of those other players available for more games, yeah, it would look different,” he said, “but I can’t count on just that being the answer. … My evaluation is, through injuries and everything else, our talent wasn’t good enough to win enough games.”

Thibault will work on fixing that when free agency begins in January. In the meantime, here are six of the biggest questions facing the ‘Stics this offseason as they look to rebound from two disappointing seasons.

Will Alysha Clark be healthy?

Clark suffered a Lisfranc injury to her right foot when she tried to jab step and drive to the basket in a French league game on March 10. Lisfranc injuries, which impact the middle of the foot, can require several months to a year of recovery and cause lingering pain even after athletes return to play.

Clark had surgery on April 2 and was on crutches and in a walking boot for eight weeks. She recently posted an eight-minute video on Instagram of her arduous rehab process, starting with swimming and progressing to jumping off of two feet and then single-leg exercises. On Sept. 3, she practiced shots off the dribble for the first time since her injury, and a few weeks later, she had a planned surgery to remove the plate that had been placed in her foot.

Clark’s agent, WNBA legend Ticha Penicheiro, recently told The Next via email, “Alysha should be fully recovered by the end of the year and hopefully healthy and ready to go by training camp!! That’s the plan!!”

If Clark is healthy, that would be a huge boost for the Mystics because she is one of the premier two-way players in the league. The two-time All-Defensive team selection shot 52.2 percent from 3-point range in 2020 (on three attempts per game!) and averaged 10.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game.

What will the starting frontcourt look like?

Several big names have started in the Mystics’ frontcourt over the past few seasons: Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Emma Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen. All of them are question marks for next season.

Delle Donne, the only one of the quartet who is currently under contract for 2022, is expected to be healthy—though she was also expected to be ready for opening day in 2021. Instead, she debuted on Aug. 22 and played 52 total minutes in three games before experiencing nerve pain in her back and missing the rest of the season.

Treatments for Delle Donne’s pain, formally called radicular syndrome, can include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication and surgery, according to the Texas Back Institute. But Thibault was optimistic about her prognosis on Sept. 20:

“Despite her not playing these last couple of weeks, she has made progress this summer. Much slower than we thought, but she has made progress. … We think, based on all the discussion we’ve had, that it’s solvable. She is optimistic about it. … There’s a lot of optimism amongst everybody in the medical side that she will improve a lot this offseason and be a lot more prepared to play. There’s no guarantees obviously ever with that kind of injury, but I think everybody around it feels a lot more optimistic and, most importantly, she does.”

Meanwhile, Hines-Allen is a restricted free agent and Meesseman and Charles are unrestricted free agents. Thibault did not tip his hand regarding how he would prioritize those players, but because of Hines-Allen’s restricted status, the Mystics can match any contract another team offers her.

“I have thought about [free agency],” said Hines-Allen, the runner-up for 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player, on Sept. 20. “I know it’s going to be a big thing for me because it’s my first year being in this situation, and … having the season that I did in the bubble, and parts of this season, too, just showing what I’m capable of doing and what I can bring to the team. So, yeah, I’ve thought about it and I’m trying not to think about it as much. Before I left the gym, I was actually talking to [teammate Natasha Cloud] about this. But she’s like, ‘Don’t even stress about it; don’t even worry about it.’ So that’s what I’m going to do.”

Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP and a 2015 All-Star, has spent her entire seven-year WNBA career with the Mystics, but she sat out the 2018 and 2021 seasons to fulfill Belgian national team commitments and to rest. She will likely compete in the 2022 World Cup next September, but she could still play most of the WNBA season. And if she does return to the WNBA, it’s hard to see her leaving Washington, which she called “my home away from home” in August.

On the other hand, the question with Charles is more about where she will play than whether she will play in the WNBA next season. At her request, she was traded to Washington in April 2020 to try to win a championship, but as Thibault put it, “nothing she signed up for went right.” She was medically excused from the 2020 season due to asthma and missed the playoffs in 2021 despite leading the WNBA in scoring—a far cry from the role she expected to have around Delle Donne, Meesseman, Clark and others.

“I don’t know where that stands,” Thibault said of Charles’ impending free agency. “… Does Tina want to be here? … I’m sure she’s frustrated with some of what occurred this summer. We all are. And so we’ll have to figure that out over the next couple of months.”

Charles, who finished fifth in MVP voting this season, has said little publicly about her future, but she told The Washington Post toward the end of the season that she would “have to look into everything.” Immediately after the season ended with a loss to the Minnesota Lynx, Charles told reporters, “[I’m going to] keep it positive. I’m very thankful that [my teammates] came and showed up. I’m not going to express how I really feel. This is not the place.”

Mystics head coach Mike Thibault talks to guard Sydney Wiese during a game against the Los Angeles Sparks on Aug. 24, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Which role players will Thibault keep?

As Thibault looks to upgrade the talent on the roster, shooting is an area of concern, even with Clark and Delle Donne penciled in for 2022. He pointed out that five players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game shot between 32 and 39 percent from the field. “That’s not good enough,” he said.

Concerningly, that group includes both point guards, Cloud and Leilani Mitchell, as well as stretch forward Theresa Plaisance. And of that group, only Mitchell shot even 31 percent from behind the arc.

Cloud’s job is clearly safe, as she is the longest-tenured Mystic, the starting point guard and the undisputed leader (and her protected contract runs through 2023). But will the other four, who were all role players, return? Sydney Wiese, a player known for her 3-point shooting who nevertheless shot 29.1 percent from long range this season, is on an unprotected contract through 2022, and the other three players Thibault referenced—Mitchell, Plaisance and Shavonte Zellous—are unrestricted free agents.

It’s possible that some of them re-sign—all were positive sparks in the locker room, and Thibault conceded that some of their struggles were because they had to play larger roles than anticipated. “We have people playing big minutes this year that that wasn’t the intention when we signed them,” he said. “The intention was [for] them to be role players and to play 5, 10, 12 minutes, not to be playing 20-plus minutes as starters. That’s a fact of the matter, but we have to fix that.”

There were three other role players on the 2021 roster in Erica McCall, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Megan Gustafson, and Thibault will also evaluate their futures with the team. McCall is under contract next season, but like Wiese, her contract is unprotected. Thibault has said he appreciated Walker-Kimbrough and Gustafson’s contributions, but both were midseason signings, and a deeper talent pool will presumably be available in the offseason.

How much younger might the roster get?

“Every day, I almost dread looking at my phone when I get a call at night from our trainer or doctor,” Thibault admitted in early September. “And it’s like, ‘Okay, do I really want to answer this?’”

Unsurprisingly, he had big-picture conversations with the medical staff in addition the near-nightly calls, and he said after the season that injury histories and player age will be important considerations as he constructs his 2022 roster. The Mystics were the oldest team in the league last season with a minutes-weighted average age of 28.7 years, but Mitchell (36 years old), Zellous (35) and Charles (32) could all depart or retire.

Connecticut and the two teams in the WNBA Finals, the Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky, all also had average ages above 28, so that experience is not necessarily bad, but it can magnify injury concerns.

“There’s going to be some calculated risks when you talk about salary cap balanced with injuries, older players—how many of those can you have on a team?” Thibault said. “… How many of those players have past injuries that could crop up and be a factor? And almost every key player on our team had that …

“[So] an interesting part of this whole thing is … what kind of medical or injury risk we want to put with all the other decisions about talent and chemistry and financial.”

How will Thibault use a rare lottery pick?

Until now, Thibault had only had two lottery picks in nine seasons in DC. He traded the more recent pick, No. 2 in 2017, to bring Delle Donne to Washington, and he just missed out on drafting Delle Donne with the other pick, No. 4 in 2013. When he first discussed the current lottery pick with the media on Sept. 20, he referenced how he used that 2017 pick, which seemed to suggest he might trade it. But minutes later, he emphasized that both options were on the table.

“We need to use this chip that we have wisely,” he said. “… Missing the playoffs this time, while it’s tough not to be in it, I can see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel if we’re smart enough to make use of our resources and do the right evaluations. Whether the lottery pick becomes a young player in the draft or whether it becomes a trade chip like it was in [2017], that’s to be determined and I have no idea at this point.”

Whatever he decides, he will be aiming for lofty goals, not incremental improvement. “We have an opportunity to get back into the elite group [of teams] right now. And so that’s going to be kind of the opportunity we try to take,” he said.

Thibault draws up a play as Tina Charles (31), Leilani Mitchell (5) and Natasha Cloud (9) watch during a game against the Las Vegas Aces on June 5, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

When will Thibault retire?

After the now-71-year-old Thibault tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Mystics’ final two games, some observers speculated that he might retire and let interim head coach—and his son—Eric Thibault succeed him permanently. The younger Thibault has been widely considered a head coach-in-waiting for several years, and Mike Thibault said that Eric’s head coaching debut on Sept. 17 “confirmed what I already knew, that he’s ready.”

“But,” he added, “I’m not sure I’m giving it to him yet, either.”

Thibault’s decision to stick around is based on several factors. Although he called the 2021 season “the hardest year I’ve ever experienced in 50-plus years of coaching,” he said he still wakes up in the wee hours of the morning with ideas and enthusiasm. In addition, the on-court results weren’t good enough for him to step aside. “I don’t like the idea of walking away from something that needs to be fixed or repaired,” he said.

When Thibault does retire from coaching, he plans to stick around as the team’s general manager. He has what he called “kind of a working agreement” with majority owner and chief executive officer Ted Leonsis and president and managing partner Sheila Johnson that he can make that decision at any time. “One way or the other, this team is still going to have my imprint on it for the near future,” he said.

Retaining Thibault, the WNBA’s career wins leader, could be considered the first feather in the Mystics’ offseason cap, as his leadership will be critical in getting the team back to championship contention. And the turnaround could be swift, according to Hines-Allen.

“I think we’re really close,” she said on Sept. 20. “… We’ve got to work on [some things] in the offseason, just so we can get back up to Mystics basketball, which everyone knows, and what we strive for, and that’s a deep run in the playoffs.”

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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

3 Comments

  1. AP Williams on October 18, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    Informative. You covered alot in this short article. Thank you.

    • Jenn Hatfield on October 18, 2021 at 7:39 pm

      Thank you for reading, AP! 🙂

      • gregory peyton on October 22, 2021 at 4:42 pm

        i really feel that shatori walker kimbrough has always done well at play off time, and is reliable ,
        she should get a two year contract and boost to 60-65.000 because she earned it more than the paid players that kind of came on late, she was a instrumental factor. i think tia cooper guard of las and a budget friendly but capable center and forward in draft would support a greater return than wiese, zellous, plaisance, erica mcall and were none factors all season and waisted picks .
        if a trade for another number one plus picks and a player of choice is granted ,that is a deal,
        since the mystics are number four or three or maybe five at the lowest in draft. this game is not of
        sympathy but of profession and accountability and ability. the area teams all falter because they get retreads and past players that have lost their glow. iam hoping that we can begin a newer
        era in washington mystics history.

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