January 4, 2023
2023 WNBA free agency preview: Washington Mystics
Improving the offense is top priority for GM Mike Thibault
The Washington Mystics will enter free agency this offseason in an enviable position: Most of their key players are already under contract, yet they also have the financial flexibility to add players who can help them improve on last season’s fifth-place finish.
The Mystics’ top five scorers from last season will all return in 2023: forward/guard Elena Delle Donne, guard Ariel Atkins, point guard Natasha Cloud, forward Myisha Hines-Allen and center/forward Shakira Austin. All but Austin, a rookie last season, have been with the franchise since at least 2018. Their contracts will take up about 60% of the Mystics’ salary cap space, leaving $572,466 to spend.
That continuity comes with a caveat, though: Delle Donne, Atkins and Cloud have only one season left on their contracts, so 2023 might be the last opportunity for the Mystics to win another championship with their current foundation. In addition, general manager Mike Thibault has made it clear that, even with this much talent in their top five, the Mystics need to improve the roster.
“We can’t go back into next season with the same roster,” he told reporters on Sept. 7, almost three weeks after the Mystics’ loss to the Seattle Storm in the first round of the playoffs. “It’s not good enough. It’s not bad. It’s a good [roster]; it’s a playoff team roster. … But they need a little bit more help.”
The Mystics have the No. 4 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, and that player will earn $74,305 as a rookie. That is a very affordable contract, slightly more than the $62,285 minimum salary for players with under three years of WNBA experience and equal to the minimum for more veteran players. Assuming the Mystics don’t trade that draft pick, that contract plus those of the five returners would give the Mystics just under $500,000 to spend on five or six players to fill out the roster.
Those players could be later-round draft picks or acquired via trade, but it’s likely that at least some will be free-agent signings. Thibault called this year’s free agency class “pretty significant,” and it’s headlined by players including Breanna Stewart, Nneka Ogwumike, Diana Taurasi, Courtney Vandersloot, Emma Meesseman and Candace Parker.
Thibault could go in several directions to build his 2023 roster, but here are two scenarios. For simplicity, both assume that he will not trade any of his top returners and will keep the No. 4 pick.
|5 players, $848,034 total salary
|5 players, $848,034 total salary
|1 player, $202,154 total salary;
No. 4 overall draft pick, $74,305 total salary
|2 players, $144,000 average salary;
No. 4 overall draft pick, $74,305 total salary
|4 players, $74,000 average salary
|3 players, $70,000 average salary
Scenario A is to “go big”: Sign a marquee free agent for the maximum salary of $202,154 for 2023. Any of the aforementioned headline free agents could command that salary (as could Brittney Griner, but Griner recently stated her desire to return to the Phoenix Mercury). The Mystics would then need to sign four other players whose salaries average $74,000, which mathematically would need to include some less experienced players who are eligible for the lower minimum salary.
Scenario B could give the Mystics more depth by signing two high-level players who are not superstars. In this scenario, those players’ average salary is $144,000, which is roughly the amount that Phoenix’s Diamond DeShields, Las Vegas’ Riquna Williams, New York’s Rebecca Allen and Atlanta’s Monique Billings made last season. (Of that group, only Billings is a free agent this offseason; that list is intended to show what level of player is attainable at that price, not identify potential Mystics targets.) The Mystics would then need to sign three more players to an average salary of $70,000.
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Though Thibault declined to be interviewed for this article, he shared some of his thinking about free agency in two press conferences after the 2022 season. Offense is expected to be the top priority after the Mystics finished seventh in the WNBA last season in offensive rating. Surprisingly for a franchise that has generally taken and made lots of 3-pointers under Thibault, the Mystics ranked just sixth last season in 3-pointers attempted per game and 10th in 3-point shooting percentage.
“We have to be way more consistent offensively,” Thibault said in September. “We need to be a better 3-point shooting team. We need to take more threes. We need to have people take the load off of Elena and Ariel; [we] can’t be dependent on two people every night. … We’ve got to go look at every possible way to change some things.”
New head coach Eric Thibault, Mike’s son and former associate head coach, added that the Mystics want to maintain their defensive prowess after leading the league in defensive rating last season and pick up the pace on both ends.
“We’re just going to try to find a little bit more balance,” he said in his introductory press conference on Nov. 16. “… We’re gonna play with a little bit more pace. We’re gonna get back to having great spacing and sharing the ball and try to keep some of that defensive edge that we’ve found more recently and really hang our hat on that end of the floor as well. So yeah, just a brand around being unselfish, sharing the ball, shooting the ball, and being really tough to play against.”
The Mystics will likely target a mix of veterans and younger, less experienced players to round out the roster. Mike Thibault has alluded to potentially re-signing guard Christyn Williams, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2022 who tore her ACL in training camp. If healthy, she could provide perimeter scoring and shot creation.
Thibault was also pleased with 27-year-old guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough’s development in 2022, as she contributed 6.9 points per game and made a leap defensively. She could be in line for a small raise from her veteran minimum contract. “I can see her role expanding offensively on our team,” Thibault said, adding that he expects her to be interested in returning.
Thibault also discussed the team’s highest-profile free agent, 35-year-old wing Alysha Clark. Coming back from a serious foot injury last season, Clark led the Mystics defense but struggled offensively, shooting her lowest percentage from 3-point range since 2014 and her lowest percentage from the field since 2018. But Clark is training in D.C. this offseason, and Thibault seems open to betting that she will rediscover her shot-making in 2023. (She may need to take a pay cut from her 2022 salary of $183,000, though.)
“She, obviously, in free agency has a lot of choices that she can make, but we had a very positive conversation [after the season ended],” Thibault said in September. “… So we’re going to proceed this offseason trying to see if we can keep her in D.C., but I don’t have — you know, that’s a long way off … No matter what we do, we’re gonna have to manage our salary cap, and that affects all of our players that are free agents, how it fits and where they fit in and what else is out there in free agency.”
Besides Walker-Kimbrough and Clark, the Mystics’ other unrestricted free agents are frontcourt veterans Elizabeth Williams and Tianna Hawkins, both of whom had somewhat underwhelming seasons compared to past years and may or may not return. Restricted free agent and backup point guard Rui Machida is also a question mark. Though she was a fan and player favorite last season, her biggest weakness is what Thibault is most looking to improve in free agency: scoring.
One other thing to watch in free agency is the contract length for the Mystics’ marquee addition(s). With Delle Donne, Atkins and Cloud’s free agency looming in 2024, it could make sense for Thibault to avoid having more high-profile free agents next year by signing a new player to a multi-year contract. On the other hand, he could offer them a one-year contract and have closer to a blank canvas for 2024.
However the Mystics go about it, expect them to do more than tinker around the margins of the roster this offseason. The front office isn’t satisfied with making the playoffs after challenging 2020 and 2021 seasons; it wants to get back into championship contention.
“We come in every day to work looking at our roster and other rosters, and the overlying factor every day is, how do we get better?” Mike Thibault said on Nov. 16. “… Whether it’s, can we do something better on the court that day? Can we tweak our roster? Do we need to do something else? But that’s got to be the overriding [principle].”
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.