Tina Charles came to the Washington Mystics in her quest to win her first championship. In her first (technically second as a result from the coronavirus pandemic) year with the team, the Mystics actually performed worse in the league standings than when she wasn't on the roster.
And now two years removed from a blockbuster trade that sent Charles to D.C., there should be some concern that Charles may decide to pursue that elusive title elsewhere in free agency this year.
One thing is clear on how one of the 25 greatest players in WNBA history wants to end her career. Charles wants a title, bottom-line. It didn't matter if she had to leave her hometown New York Liberty to do so.
For her, she needs to weigh if Washington is the place she is best positioned to accomplish that check on her to-do list while remaining in her prime.
"I just know I need to win a championship before I retire. Obviously, some decisions are going to have to be made and I have to look into everything," Charles told the Washington Post.
To no one's surprise, there was some frustration on Charles' part with the 2021 Mystics season. What the 2012 WNBA MVP signed up for was not how the season transpired. The roster she was presumably joining was going to have two WNBA MVPs on it, a WNBA Finals MVP and have a championship pedigree that is difficult to find throughout the league.
The disappointment wasn't without a lack of effort on Charles' part, claiming her second WNBA scoring title with 23.4 points per game. Elena Delle Donne's recovery from her back procedures limited her to an unexpected three games. Emma Meesseman, due to workload with the Belgian national team and coronavirus strains, decided not to play this year's WNBA season. And for the most part, the rest of the roster failed to deliver with a myriad of injuries.
So it's fair that the all-business Charles was clearly frustrated on the final day of the season, when the Mystics lost a game that would have put them in the postseason.
"(I'm going to) keep it positive, I'm very thankful that people came and showed up. I'm not going to express how I really feel, this is not the place," Charles said.
"It was good to see Natasha Cloud having that will to win, it was good to see that," Charles continued later referencing the team's mentality for the final game of the year. "That's the personality that you need every night on the floor. That's how you have to come into your practices. That's the habits that you have to develop. You can't turn it off and on. You don't want to be the front-running team. Minnesota, they're a well-coached team, they come down, they get into their sets, their defense, just everything that they do, Cheryl Reeve. I'm not taking anything away from this organization at all but when you're going against a team like that, a franchise like that, that has that history, it's going to be hard. It's going to be tough and that's why you gotta set in a foundation from the beginning of the season, when you do get in these situations, because these types of teams, you have something to fall back on. You don't want to be lucky."
These themes Charles referenced were consistently an issue throughout the season. Fellow veteran Leilani Mitchell voiced similar concerns at her end-of-season press conference. Even with five players from the championship team - four if you remove Delle Donne - some of those intangibles weren't there.
Of course, the plethora of injuries was a major factor in the 12-20 record, as well as the longing hope of Delle Donne's return and the rollercoaster that came with it.
"When you have a season like this I always find it amazing, everybody wants to have exit interviews right away," head coach Mike Thibault said the day after the season. "And I think for some of your key players, they are better served to have exit interviews when you have time to step away from it and have a maybe more calm perspective about the whole thing. Trying to make all your decisions the day after you get eliminated is a pretty tough thing to do."
Her rapport with Thibault is going to be a huge factor on whether she stays or goes. This was their fourth season together, with the prior three coming with the Connecticut Sun after he drafted her from the University of Connecticut. It was a reason why she came to D.C.
But where Washington stands from when it was coming off a championship in the 2020 offseason and this upcoming 2022 offseason is drastic. Charles essentially created the trade to join a championship roster that was trying to run it back before the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans. Now, Thibault admitted that his staff has to "reset our culture," not rebuild, after this season.
Is that a one-year process? Two? But the biggest question is, does that give Charles the confidence to return for another year?
"I don't know where that stands. I think time away from the end of the season is the first part of it, for her to get away from the emotion of losing. She came here to win a championship and nothing she signed up for went right," Thibault said. "And I think that she probably needs some time to think about what she wants out of her future."
When New York was clearly heading to a rebuild, she left. It's not exactly a rebuild situation in D.C., but contending in 2021 against the likes of the Sun, Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm may not be in the cards. Years are hard to come by as Charles enters her age-33 season. Each season gets a little bit harder to remain the best at her game and leading the charge for a championship.
"Yeah, I think I'll do what I always have to do each and every single year, it's just to get better. It's just, like I said to someone before, it's the players like a Jonquel Jones, your [Breanna Stewart], your Naphessa [Collier], these talented players where I know I have to stay on top of my game in order for me to still be relevant and respected," Charles said. "So I don't take that lightly. I'm very thankful for the talent and the skill level that has evolved within the league and I'm always gonna be in the gym and working on my game but I like to think that every year I do get better. I like to think that every year I come in and add something to my game and I take pride in that."
The courtship this offseason begins now for Washington. A decision by the Mystics staff won't be made this week or the next, likely it will go into the winter. Salary cap concerns remain a component of the situation with the abundance of talent on the roster, so Charles' choice to stay or not will likely sway the immediate future of the team as well.
"Does Tina want to be here? Yeah, we probably have to go through that process again," Thibault said. "But at least right now she has an idea of what her teammates are like, the organization is like and I'm sure she's frustrated with some of what occurred to summer. We all are."