How Washington Mystics Can Run It Back in 2020

The Washington Mystics built on 2018’s WNBA Finals appearance and won their first title in franchise history. Mission accomplished.

One of the most terrifying offensive attacks in league history won’t take the floor for another seven months, (new collective bargaining agreement pending), but the Mystics have the ingredients of a group that could collect a few more championships.

As WNBA fans anxiously await the outcomes of CBA negotiations and look ahead to an Olympic year, let’s run through some of the key questions facing the champs.

Rematch?

The Seattle Storm swept the Mystics in the 2018 Finals but played this entire season without All-Star point guard Sue Bird (knee) and reigning regular season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart (Achilles).

The 2019 Mystics (14.8 net rating) and 2018 Storm (9.2) were the two dominant teams of the past two seasons. Stewart and Bird returning at full strength will bring Seattle back into the championship picture—as their absences also allowed the Storm to develop an even stronger cast overall—while many of Washington’s core pieces won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Back-to-back Finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx (2015, 2016) were regularly praised as some of the best basketball the league has ever put on display. Several clashes between Seattle and Washington, led by two undisputed top-five players—Stewart and Elena Delle Donne—would draw similar praise while raising the league’s profile and commanding the attention of more first-time and casual viewers.

What will full strength look like? 

Oct 6, 2019; Uncasville, CT, USA; Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne (11) shoots for three points against the Connecticut Sun during the second half in game three of the 2019 WNBA Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena. Washington defeated Connecticut 94-81. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Both Seattle and Washington need to get healthy.

The Mystics were pushed by the Connecticut Sun to a Game 5 and prevailed amid some injuries to key players. Delle Donne admitted to lingering pain from last postseason’s bone bruise even though she didn’t play in the offseason aside from the World Cup. She exited Game 2 against Connecticut with what was later revealed as a herniated disc in her back. (After Game 5, Natasha Cloud revealed that Delle Donne had actually been playing with three herniated discs.)

Kristi Toliver returned for the 2019 playoffs after missing about a month with a bone bruise in her knee, which made for some bleak comparisons to the 2018 postseason. She discarded the knee brace during the semifinals and immediately looked sprier, putting more pressure on the defense with a live dribble—inching closer to the player that performed at an All-WNBA level in 23 regular-season games.

Even starting wing Ariel Atkins (back) was listed as questionable for Game 3.

As constructed, the Mystics have plenty of firepower to repeat amid a more crowded field of title contenders. Getting Toliver and Delle Donne completely past those ailments must become their top priority, but how much can they actually control in those cases?

Toliver was an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards last offseason. A return to that role means the star guard won’t be rushing into overseas play, putting her at risk of further injury or more complications next season.

Delle Donne was one of eight players listed in USA Basketball’s new women’s national team training plan. USAB will be paying those players to participate in a tour this winter that will include some exhibitions against college teams and two qualifying events. The initiative incentivizes those eight players to remain stateside during the WNBA offseason while helping in USAB’s efforts to drum up excitement for the 2020 Olympics.

In a perfect world, USAB will take the initiative to honor their financial commitment to Delle Donne while doing what’s best: Ensuring she takes as much time off as necessary—even if she doesn’t suit up for USAB until the Tokyo games begin next summer—to rest and rehab her knee and back.

Delle Donne has made her standing abundantly clear as one of the best players in the world. Her roster spot for Tokyo should be set in stone. The U.S. has already qualified for Tokyo. Functionally replacing Delle Donne on the fall/winter tour would also create an opportunity for another (healthier) player to benefit from the accompanying exposure and experience.

But what about 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman? What will her next 18 months look like?

She’s the centerpiece of Belgium’s national team. Waiting to see if they even qualify for Tokyo will likely be her first order of business. But if Belgium does qualify, will Meesseman miss the start of the 2020 regular season to prepare for the Olympics? She sat out the entire 2018 regular season in part to train with Team Belgium as they geared up for the 2018 World Cup.

The time away and wear-and-tear endured are both understandable for a national cornerstone like Meesseman, but it certainly won’t help Washington’s title defense.

More crowded at the top?

Oct 6, 2019; Uncasville, CT, USA; Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman (33) drives the ball against Connecticut Sun forward Morgan Tuck (33) during the second half in game three of the 2019 WNBA Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena. Washington defeated Connecticut 94-81. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Meesseman’s plans, especially for the start of the regular season, tie right in with the stiffened competition for top-two seeds we can expect next year.

Start rattling off the teams:

  • Seattle will be more of a player if healthy
  • Phoenix may leap into that conversation with a healthy Diana Taurasi
  • Los Angeles and Las Vegas were knocking right on that door this past season
  • A Maya Moore return would vault Minnesota right back into top-tier contention
  • Chicago may have one more leap in them after locking down the No. 5 seed.
  • Connecticut deserves a huge amount of credit for their Finals appearance. They’re likely not going anywhere from this conversation.

Thibault effect? 

Sep 29, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault gestures during the second quarter against the Connecticut Sun in game one of the 2019 WNBA Finals at The Entertainment and Sports Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, ignore the name. That was forced.

It’s no secret. The Mystics generated 25.4 3-point attempts per game in the regular season—the highest mark in league history. Funny enough: Seattle posted the second-highest average (24.0) in 2018.

Will offseason personnel moves around the league focus on adding players that can help teams generate and knock down more triples?

However, teams can’t blindly pursue the 3-ball at all costs thinking that they can realistically replicate Mike Thibault’s offense. There’s only one Delle Donne. She and Meesseman together are a tremendous luxury both as creators and spacers.

Las Vegas has finished dead-last in 3-point attempts per game for two seasons in a row. A complete overhaul there would be overkill. Their bread is buttered with two dominant post players. But there’s no doubt the Aces (and several other teams) would benefit by adding more quality spot-up shooters to space for those posts.

The question for other teams becomes more about what they may be sacrificing elsewhere to get more shooting on the roster. Who are you taking off the floor? Whose development are you short-circuiting? Can you just count on some internal development instead?

There’s no doubting the importance of Washington’s Big Three. But the players stationed around them knock down enough of their open looks and bring so much more to the table, led by All-Defense selections Cloud and Atkins.

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough hit some big shots in these Finals, flashing the improved off-the-bounce chops seen in the regular season. Cloud gets to the rim and can collapse a defense to create for others. Atkins crashes the offensive glass with force and can stick a one-dribble pull-up. Aerial Powers excelled in extended minutes when Toliver went down.

Sep 29, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud (9) leads a break against the Connecticut Sun in game one of the 2019 WNBA Finals at The Entertainment and Sports Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

And there lies the beauty of these Mystics.

The shooting may grab most of the headlines, but they have the weapons and system to generate great looks while also being skilled enough to make the next play when run off the line. (We didn’t even get to the shooting and offensive rebounding of Tianna Hawkins, the promise of Myisha Hines-Allen, LaToya Sanders’ place as the foundation of their defense or injured 2019 first-round pick Kiara Leslie.)

Is it too soon to think about repeat potential?

Of course not. Flip that on its head.

The Mystics were that good, and a rematch with Seattle would be electrifying. But if this injury-riddled 2019 season taught us anything, we know the eventual 2020 champs will be challenged. The Aces and Sun gave Washington all they could handle this season.

We’ve had four different champions in the last four seasons. Regardless of what you’re rooting for or expecting next season, worthy challengers will emerge—likely even including at least one we didn’t see coming.

Note: Contract and free agency status for players derived from the High Post Hoops salary database.

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