The Washington Mystics won the WNBA championship in 2019, the last time it had franchise-altering superstar Elena Delle Donne on the court. Now Delle Donne will be joined by another former league MVP in Tina Charles after both players opted out of the 2020 season, a season in which the Mystics were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The Mystics have high expectations, but are flying under the radar compared to some of the other top teams.
Here is a roundtable discussion on the team entering 2021:
1. What are the Mystics’ strengths heading into this season?
The Mystics obviously have a lot of strengths. The last time they had their best player, Elena Delle Donne, on the court they won the WNBA championship and had one of the best offenses in WNBA history.
3-point shooting was a major strength in 2019 and I think it will be a strength again in 2021. It may not be as much of a strength, but it will still be there. They will be without Kristi Toliver (1.6 threes per game in 2019), Aerial Powers (1.4), Tianna Hawkins (1.1), Emma Meesseman to start the season (0.8) and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (0.6). However, Delle Donne returns, Myisha Hines-Allen showed that she can shoot the three and I expect Ariel Atkins to be among the top 3-point shooters in the league, improving upon the fantastic 41.1-percent, 44-make performance she had in 2020. Only Julie Allemand (44) had as many or more threes than Atkins and shot a better percentage.
Rebounding should also be solid for the Mystics this year with the addition of Tina Charles.
The other key strength for the Mystics is top-end talent. It’s a superstar-driven league and they have both Delle Donne and Charles, two of the all-time greats. Add 2020 All-WNBA Second Teamer Hines-Allen to the mix and you realize that the Mystics have a better big three than Minnesota and one that can rival Chicago’s combination of Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and Diamond DeShields. Las Vegas and Phoenix are ahead of the Mystics in this area, but Delle Donne, Charles and Hines-Allen could be better than those big threes on any given night.
Zack, I agree with your point about top-end talent, but I’ll broaden it to the full starting lineup. When Delle Donne recovers from offseason back surgery, a starting lineup of Delle Donne, Charles, Natasha Cloud, Atkins and Leilani Mitchell (or swap Mitchell for Hines-Allen, depending on how big head coach Mike Thibault wants to go) could actually be better than the 2019 starting lineup of Delle Donne, Cloud, Atkins, LaToya Sanders and Kristi Toliver. So that starting-caliber group will be a huge strength and will likely play a ton of minutes this season.
On a related note, the Mystics have plenty of veteran leadership. That starts with Delle Donne and Cloud, who are two big reasons why the Mystics won the title in 2019. Add in Atkins, whose leadership role grew tremendously last season after those players opted out, and that’s a stellar trio. Then consider that Charles and Mitchell are also vets, along with reserves Theresa Plaisance and Shavonte Zellous and the injured Alysha Clark. The coaching staff is experienced, too: Thibault has been leading Washington since the 2013 season, and Sanders is still around as a Mystics assistant. Everywhere you look, the Mystics have a lot of experience to draw from.
I totally agree with what you wrote. In terms of raw talent, the group is very good. Tina Charles and EDD, they are a golden duo. Ariel Atkins and Myisha are getting better season after season and Leilani Mitchell fit in perfectly last season. The qualities of the coach are not to be denied either.
Without repeating the same strengths everyone has said above, I will say that the Mystics’ biggest strength above all is player development. Most WNBA championship teams throughout league history had the benefit of drafting numerous top picks to build their teams. Washington never had that benefit.
Since Thibault came to Washington in 2013, he has consistently found younger players who could provide an impact right away, whether it was Emma Meesseman in his first season, the now-departed Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson in 2014, Natasha Cloud in 2015, Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen in 2018, etc., the Mystics have consistently punched above their weight with player development, in particular with younger talent.
2. What are the Mystics’ weaknesses heading into this season?
The Mystics have the big three and can round out a potential starting lineup with two other great players in Atkins and Natasha Cloud. But Alysha Clark being out with an injury and Emma Meesseman not being around to start the season hurts the Mystics’ depth. Leilani Mitchell, Kiara Leslie and Erica McCall are Washington’s bench players under contract and that group, highlighted by Mitchell who is a solid sixth woman, isn’t among the best in the league. Shavonte Zellous isn’t too far removed from being a solid WNBA player and the Mystics need her to energize the bench if she makes the team. Theresa Plaisance could be a weapon at 6-foot-5 on the perimeter and could have a breakout year, but has never averaged more than 7.7 points per game in a season. Leslie was good for 5.5 as a rookie last year and McCall has never averaged better than 3.3.
The Dream may not have the top-end talent that Washington has, but they have the best depth in the league. Their 10th- and 11th-best players are arguably Tianna Hawkins and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, two key members of the Mystic bench that won the title in 2019. I don’t think the Mystics’ depth will be as strong as a team like that. Of course, if Meesseman returns, the Mystics could improve in that area come playoff time, when it really counts.
I think Hawkins is better than the 10th-best player for Atlanta, but otherwise I think you’re spot-on. The depth is a question mark, especially at guard, where Thibault has said he is looking for a fourth guard behind Cloud, Mitchell and Atkins. If no one separates themselves and claims that role, Thibault will consider plugging the hole by playing three forwards together more often.
However, he can only play those big lineups if he has enough bigs. In the Mystics’ two preseason scrimmages, they had just four available post players: Charles, Plaisance, G’mrice Davis and Jillian Alleyne. (Delle Donne did not play due to injury and Hines-Allen and McCall are arriving late from overseas play.) McCall should be available for the season opener, but both Delle Donne and Hines-Allen could miss at least the first three games, and they are arguably the two players best suited to slide to the small forward position in those lineups.
Cap space. Despite the development of many young players and the acquisition of several star players like Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Tina Charles in recent years, the Mystics can’t keep everyone long term. That’s a reality for every team, but Washington has to be more vigilant about who they sign over the next couple seasons than the average team.
According to Her Hoop Stats, Washington has nearly $1 million in cap space tied to eight players not on training camp contracts this season and that figure isn’t going down significantly in 2022 when Atkins and presumably Hines-Allen are on higher paying contracts.
This season seems like a “last hurrah” of the remaining 2019 core.
What scares me the most are the injuries and the fact that the two star players, Delle Donne and Charles, have not played for one year. Neither has Tasha Cloud, who is an important part of the team.
3. What is the best-case scenario for the Mystics this season barring injuries?
Winning the championship. Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles on the same team? Add a reigning All-WNBA player who is on the rise and maybe Meesseman for the playoffs? Sounds like the Mystics could be a superteam.
Agreed! I can’t think of a different best-case scenario.
Yes, several players have stated that a championship is the goal this season, and I think that’s realistic assuming that Elena Delle Donne does play at some point this season. (Back injuries can be really tricky, so I’m not 100% counting on it.)
The title! It’s not an evidence and it will not be simple but if on top of that Emma comes back after the Olympic Games, a trio EDD – Tina – Emma is still incredible! If Myisha can fit into that with the same talent as last season, the team will be great.
4. What is the worst-case scenario barring injuries?
Semifinals exit. The improvements made by Chicago and Minnesota allow one of those teams to knock out the Mystics and go on to face the Aces. The Mystics may fall below the 4-seed due to Delle Donne and Hines-Allen missing the start of the season. But I still think they will make the semifinals when everyone is together.
I will say a first or second round exit. The Mystics may have Cloud and Delle Donne back, but as you mentioned Zack, the Sky and Lynx are much improved and have the talent to finish higher than Washington. Same goes for the Las Vegas Aces. I also wouldn’t rule out the Sparks and Storm finishing higher in the regular season standings than Washington, which would force them to be in the single-elimination first and/or second rounds. Also, while Leilani Mitchell, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud make up a great backcourt rotation, they don’t have much proven depth behind them.
I’ll also say a first-round exit. The Mystics have looked shaky in their two preseason games, losses to Atlanta and Minnesota, and only Tina Charles (18 points per game on a combined 54% shooting) shot the ball well. I think they may also struggle early in the season without Delle Donne and Hines-Allen, which could make it difficult to avoid the single-elimination rounds. And in those games, anything can happen.
A first round exit. I don’t see the Mystics not qualifying for the playoffs. But getting out earlier than the semifinals would be a very big disappointment.