With 28 seconds left in game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals, Kristi Toliver hit two free throws to extend the Mystics’ lead over the Connecticut Sun to 11 points. Head coach Mike Thibault, alongside assistant coach Marianne Stanley, subbed Toliver out for LaToya Sanders ostensibly to help on defense. After a Connecticut miss, Elena Delle Donne grabbed the rebound and Natasha Cloud grabbed her MVP for a hug. Sanders and Emma Meesseman joined for a beautiful expression of joy that made for an absolutely delightful photo. That was a mere 10 months ago. Now the Mystics enter the 2020 WNBA season without 5 of the 7 people I just mentioned.
The Mystics didn’t get to savor that moment in the way most champions can. They didn’t even have a championship parade because players had to fly out to their other jobs overseas immediately following the first championship in franchise history. In the offseason, EDD had to have back surgery, Toliver took a better contract offer from the LA Sparks in free agency, and Stanley became the Indiana Fever’s Head Coach. By the time players returned from overseas and the Mystics could have the parade, coronavirus had gripped the world and thrown our country into a lockdown. Coincidentally, the Mystics parade was planned for March 12th, the day after Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test triggered the NBA’s season pause.
Joy and celebration are always fleeting. But nowhere is it more temporary than in the WNBA. The league’s misfortunes and failures are shouted, while its successes and joy are whispered then passed over. The Mystics championship garnered a small fraction of the coverage that the bubble problems and Kelly Loeffler did. Their season ranks among the best basketball seasons ever and it’s not a stretch to say that more people will remember a mouse trap in a laundry room more than that spectacular game 5. Once the NBA starts, many big outlets will forget about the now infamous laundry room, about Kelly Loeffler’s ownership of the Atlanta Dream, and about the WNBA.
Those that stick around will see Washington defend its title in some form. But with many of the key characters absent and the championship overlooked. Not getting the parade, the banner night, and the rest of the joy we desperately need right is devastating for the team and the league. After all, the point of playing sports is to feel the joy of accomplishing something together as a team, organization, and fanbase. We, as a part of this league, were robbed of celebration. I’m not sure what my point here is, but the emptiness of the Mystics championship just stings. Let’s appreciate the next champion as much as we possibly can in the moment. Let their triumph linger as much possible. Because the parade is not always guaranteed.
Yet, the Mystics trudge forward into what will go down as the most bizarre season in league history. As Coach T explained in a press conference last week, the wistfulness for celebration and the longing for the players not in Florida will be subsumed by basketball.
“I think you’re going to have a new story every year. We’ll be part of the story because we don’t have something,” explained Thibault when asked if the team’s missing players will negatively affect the league. “But maybe we make our own new story too: ‘Hey, this team can still win and they’re doing it differently.’ So things happen. That’s just the way life is. I think there’ll be great talent out there every night and and so there just be a different story written a different chapter written in this league.”
If the Mystics succeed this season, they will certainly have to do it differently. The absent players—Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Kristi Toliver, LaToya Sanders, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (who was traded to Phoenix)—made up 54.6% of the team’s offensive possessions last year according to Synergy Sports Tech. You read that correctly: over half of the record-setting Mystics offense last season is gone. Oh and I have yet to mention that Tina Charles, a former MVP and the team’s biggest addition in the offseason, is likely sitting out as well pending a medical evaluation.
To put that in perspective, the Seattle Storm played all of last season without Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird to much fanfare. Stewart and Bird accounted for 34% of the team’s offensive possessions. The Mystics, in short, are dealing with an unprecedented calamity.
Granted, we all are dealing with an unprecedented calamity at the moment. Just like the rest of us, they will have to adapt.
“A lot of the offseason planning went out the window when you take Tina Charles and Elena and LaToya and Natasha out of the lineup,” said Thibault with a nervous chuckle. “You have to try to do some different things and I told our players to be prepared to do some experimenting.”
One of those experiments may be “firing at will” on three point shots, as Thibault went on to say. The Mystics attempted 50 more three point shots (864) last season than any other team in WNBA history. So it’s difficult to imagine them now having the green light to shoot even more. But, what Thibault is alluding to is that the team will have to be even more creative on offense this year without the full roster.
They will also need the entire roster to take a huge step up. When I asked Coach T who he was most excited to get an expanded opportunity, he listed pretty much every player on the team and made a reasonable case for them as a key cog in the machine.
The three crucial pieces will be Emma Meesseman, Aerial Powers, and Ariel Atkins. All three played massive roles on last year’s championship squad, with Meesseman winning Finals MVP, and are young enough to grow into All-Stars.
Emma is likely going to be the first option on this team and seems like she is ready for the challenge. She was able to assert herself last year and, as Coach T pointed out, just seems happy to tackle whatever the next challenge is. Aerial and Ariel bring so much on both ends of the floor that it’s hard to overstate their importance to this team.
Leilani Mitchell, a player that the Mystics have been trying to sign for years as assistant coach Eric Thibault told me in March, will also play a huge role. She has already thrived with a similar situation last season in Phoenix. Her veteran leadership and shooting should help stabilize the team. Ditto for Tianna Hawkins. Then, Myisha Hines-Allen, Kiara Leslie, and Alaina Coates will all be trying to find footing in this league with enough talent to do so. The team is especially high on Leslie, who missed her rookie season last year with a knee injury.
So the Mystics don’t lack options to help fill the void of the departed or missing players. But to suggest that a team can compete for a title under these circumstances would be foolish right now. It’s hard to even define what would be a good season for the Mystics until games begin. Regardless, Washington will not have the glorious title defense that many envisioned in January or February. They’ll just have to roll with the punches and take it one day at a time, like the rest of us.