Mike Thibault, current head coach and general manager of the Washington Mystics, is the winningest coach in WNBA history. My most notable athletic achievement in the span he’s been a coach is falling over in a dizzy bat competition at a Minor League Baseball game. This comparison is best expressed through a meme phrase: We are not the same.
With that in mind, I should probably trust him when it comes to his comments about his team and the direction he sees his franchise going, correct? Well, the short answer is that I can’t. Let me explain.
On draft lottery night, after the Mystics unexpectedly won the rights to the number one pick in the 2022 draft, Thibault told reporters what acquiring the top pick means for the franchise: “This actually gives us a lot of clarity now.”
On the surface, that doesn’t doesn’t seem like a stretch. Most teams are (rightfully) elated when they win the lottery even if they’re not happy with the results that got them to that point. However, for Washington, clarity is difficult to come by at the moment regardless of which pick they ended up with.
The Mystics started the 2021 season with championship aspirations. Despite Emma Meesseman opting out, the team was ready to return to their winning ways with both Natasha Cloud and Elena Delle Donne returning and newcomer Tina Charles providing additional offensive firepower. However, despite an MVP-level effort from Charles throughout the season, things never really got off the ground for the Mystics, which was partially due to a litany of injuries that prevented us from seeing what this team was capable of.
The few months between the 2021 season coming to an end and today have not done a lot to give Mystics fans hope that next season will be a return to championship glory. Charles has hinted that she is open to playing elsewhere in 2022, Thibault has expressed doubts that Meesseman will be playing in the United States soon (if at all), and whispers continue to swirl about Delle Donne’s health.
So, how does a number one pick provide clarity in this situation? You get my confusion.
Given that there’s no indication that the Mystics organization wants to do anything other than win games in the near future, I think we can safely assume that there’s no plan to use this pick to press the reset button on the club’s current roster situation and start over with a new face of the franchise. Instead, the pick is likely to be used in a way that injects some new firepower and stability into a franchise that’s in need of both.
The potential scenarios in this situation are probably endless. But because I’m not Doctor Strange and can’t see millions of possibilities at once, I’ll focus on three options Washington could play out this offseason.
1. Keep the Top Pick and Re-sign Charles, Hines-Allen and Meesseman
A roster featuring two of the top 25 players in WNBA history, a Finals MVP winner, and a talented group of role players and young talent seems like an ideal scenario for a team with championship aspirations. That’s exactly what the Mystics would have if they are able to bring back their free agent targets and pair them with their current roster while adding one big draft pick.
However, this comes with its own set of challenges. If they were to re-sign, expect Charles, Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen to eat up the bulk of the Mystics’ roughly $400,000 in cap space. With the addition of a rookie contract over $70,000, the organization would be stretching itself pretty thin to fill out the remaining one or two roster spots.
However, that spending would yield a lot of talent. A starting lineup featuring Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Charles, Delle Donne and Meesseman would be fearsome. The ability to pair that group with a second unit anchored by Hines-Allen, Alysha Clark and a talented young player like Rhyne Howard would undoubtedly have Mike Thibault salivating.
2. Lose Charles in Free Agency, Re-sign Hines-Allen, Hope for the Best With Delle Donne’s Back and Keep the Number One Pick
Does Thibault believe that 2021 All-Star Atkins, 2020 All-WNBA Second Team member Hines-Allen and multiple-time All-Defense Clark are enough to support a healthy Delle Donne through a playoff run? In a more likely scenario, can they do enough to put Washington in a position to win while Elena works her way back from injury?
There are no clear answers to these questions. What type of player will Clark be coming back from the foot injury that kept her out all last season? Even Atkins and Hines-Allen have some mystery surrounding their games after an up-and-down 2021. Hines-Allen averaged fewer points per game compared to the 2020 campaign, and both players experienced struggles in their shooting. Atkins posted a career-worst field goal percentage, and Hines-Allen took a significant step backwards in both her field goal and three-point efficiency. The duo’s shooting trouble contributed to the team sporting the worst field goal percentage in the league. You can point to a number of factors that influenced those results, including incorporating a player like Charles into the team’s offense and each player taking on more of a responsibility to manufacture points with all the injuries the Mystics were dealing with. Either way, while there’s reason to believe Atkins and Hines-Allen can bounce back, there’s no guarantee they can return to the form that got them to the playoffs in the 2020 Wubble.
3. Trade the Number One Pick
This doesn’t seem like the likeliest scenario, but considering that the New York Liberty sent away their top draft pick for Natasha Howard prior to the 2021 draft, it’s worth at least exploring this possibility.
There are certainly no shortage of trade options for the Mystics. Take the Dallas Wings as an example. The Wings currently have 13 players signed for the 2022 season and are getting quite a bottleneck in their frontcourt rotation with Isabelle Harrison, Satou Sabally, Charli Collier, Awak Kuier and Bella Alarie all potentially vying for playing time. If Dallas was willing to trade some combination of Harrison, Sabally or Collier along with a wing like Marina Mabrey, that might make a compelling case for Washington to part with its pick and bring on players ready to contribute right away.
Heck, the last lottery pick Washington had was traded in exchange for Delle Donne, so maybe it would be worthwhile for the Mystics to go back to the well with that strategy.
Whatever the team decides to do with their draft pick, they surely hope it provides the clarity Mike Thibault mentioned. Among the many options lies a scenario that could positively change the Mystics’ fortune.