What Will Tina Charles Do In Washington?

Remember when the Washington Mystics traded for former MVP Tina Charles before the 2020 season? Well, the Charles era in the nation’s capital never got going, as the former MVP opted out of the 2020 season. But after signing a one-year deal with the Mystics this offseason, it looks like we’ll finally get to see how she fits in with the 2019 champs.

Opinions on what we’ll get from Charles are pretty mixed on social media, with a lot of the negatives coming due to her struggles at the end of her New York Liberty tenure:

While Player Impact Plus/Minus (PIPM) is no longer a public stat, which means I can’t look up where Charles actually ranked in the stat during her final year in New York, you can find remnants of the data on Twitter, like this chart that Peter Kilkelly took from the old Wins Added site before it went dark. And this chart definitely shows that Charles’ rank in the impact stat really, really fell off a cliff over the last 50ish games of her career.

But like Peter also says in the tweet, improved circumstances for Charles should lead to improved play. That Liberty team that she led in 2019 really struggled, posting the league’s worst defensive rating. Charles put up 17.2 shots per game, shooting just 38.9 percent from the floor and 18.6 percent from three. Spacing issues contributed to that.

Per WNBA WOWY stats from AddMoreFunds, Charles had a usage rate of 29.6 and averaged 0.87 points per shot, with a 43.8 true shooting percentage. If you look exclusively at minutes with Brittany Boyd off the floor—a point guard whose lack of shooting allowed defenses to key in more on the inside—and we see Charles had a higher usage rate in those minutes at 30.1 but scored 0.95 points per shot with a 47.4 true shooting percentage. Having shooters at more positions allowed Charles more space to work in, which led to her putting up more efficient numbers.

This is why I’m tentatively high on Charles in Washington. While I think it’s clear that Charles isn’t the dominant player she was earlier in her career, she’s still a smart, talented veteran who can take advantage of mismatches and will find more success playing with the better spacing that this Mystics team will enable.

In particular, pairing Charles with Elena Delle Donne in the frontcourt should give Charles plenty of one-on-one chances. Delle Donne didn’t play in 2020 either, but she remains a top-five WNBA player, someone who is capable of drawing defenders to wherever she is on the floor and forcing opponents to double her.

When was the last time that Charles played with someone who was close to as good as Delle Donne? In New York, Charles has an All-Star teammate three times: Kia Nurse in 2019, Sugar Rodgers in 2017, and Cappie Pondexter in 2014. None of those players were in their primes then, and Rodgers spent most of that season as the Sixth Woman in New York. Renee Montgomery and Allison Hightower made All-Star teams as reserves while Charles was there, but it’d be impossible to argue those players approach the level of prime Delle Donne. This is something that can’t be ignored when it comes to projecting improvement from Charles: she’s never had a player like EDD to take that pressure off her.

And the Mystics are also much more than just Delle Donne. Even if Emma Meesseman doesn’t come over this year, Washington has Myisha Hines-Allen and LaToya Sanders in the frontcourt to take pressure off Charles and keep her from needing to play serious minutes, as well as wing pieces like Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark to help with the spacing. Charles gets to be a role player for the first time in her WNBA career.

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Of course, it’s fair to have concerns about how Charles will fare in a lower-usage role, because we’ve never seen her in that position. Adjusting to not being a team’s star can be tough. I don’t usually go for cross-league references, but I’m reminded of Dwight Howard, who struggled at first to adjust when he lost a step. Howard demanded too many post touches relative to his ability to succeed on those touches, which ultimately led to his departure from the Rockets.

I don’t think that will happen with Charles, who has shown herself to be an unselfish player during her WNBA career, but it’s just another thing to keep in mind when trying to understand what Charles brings to the Mystics.

Look: it’s no secret that Charles struggled over her last two years in New York and to simply write that off as a fluke would be wrong. Yes, the teams during the Katie Smith era weren’t very good and the talent surrounding Charles wasn’t either, but we’ve seen her post elite numbers in the past in less-than-ideal scenarios.

But it also wouldn’t be fair to say that Charles is washed. She’s only 32. She’ll enter 2021 better rested than she’s arguably ever been. To say that Charles is going to struggle in Washington and can’t still be a very good player in the WNBA player is just as wrong as ignoring her struggles since 2018.

The reality is that this is a good move by the Mystics. The WNBA is a talent-driven league. They’re betting on talent. They have enough strong frontcourt pieces to be fine if Charles can’t return to form, while Charles looking like 80 percent of her peak form would be huge in terms of helping the Mystics win their second title in three years.

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