The 2021 season was not the pleasant year envisioned for the Washington Mystics where their stars coalesced for another run at a championship. Instead, it was a constant battle for all their stars.
One who took it hard from the start all the way to the end, with an injury in-between, was Natasha Cloud.
Cloud was the last leader standing on the floor from the Mystics' title run two years prior. Yes, Elena Delle Donne is still the franchise player but she only saw the floor in three contests. Yes, Ariel Atkins established herself as a vocal member of the organization in the bubble a year prior, but she's still finding her voice and learning to translate her lead-by-example mantra to verbal motivation.
Cloud is the point guard - on and off the court she steers the Mystics organization. And when the team hit some early woes in 2021, it became personal for the Saint Joseph's product believing she needed to do more.
"Obviously I want to be the best version of myself that I can be every day for this team and I know that a lot of weight falls on my shoulders, and heavy is the head that wears the crown," Cloud told NBC Sports Washington. "So that mentality of going in and just wanting to be the best version of myself for this team, regardless of what I need to do day in and day out, whatever this team needs to me that's what I want to be able to do."
This season forced Cloud to change her leadership style in the Mystics locker room. That should not come as a surprise after head coach Mike Thibault called the team's injury situation the worst he's had in 50 years of coaching. Players were rotating in and out due to those injuries. Only one player was available for every game - Theresa Plaisance - and she still battled a back injury for the last half of the season, resulting in a DNP for the final game. Through it all, the team used 18 different starting lineups in a 32-game season.
There was never a chance where the team was settled (except the 16 minutes where Tina Charles and Delle Donne were on the floor together). While that's hard for a coach, that's equally as difficult for a point guard whose leadership style is like Cloud's.
Already Cloud was dealing with the biggest roster turnover for the franchise since she assumed her role as the top point guard. From when she was last on the floor in 2019, to the start of 2021, there were only five players on the roster that she was familiar with and, of course, one wasn't playing.
"(Having an) understanding every person is different on this team, so everyone needs something different from me as the leader, and I feel like I finally have kind of a grip on what every single person on this team needs especially with all the roster changes, bringing new people in and out," Cloud said told the media in the final week of the regular season. "It was kind of hard for me but since coming back from this second half of this Olympic season, then I feel like those three weeks of training camp really gave me time as a leader to put in deposits so that when it comes to this time and these moments I can make those withdrawals on the court, and they're understood."
The Olympic break is where a change was made. The sixth-year player realized what had worked in the first half of the season wasn't cutting it. Three weeks in the abridged training camp helped matters as bodies got healthy. Cloud was included in that recovery as a right-ankle sprain sidelined her for five games.
The biggest change was altering her mentality to control what she could control. She had to be present in the moment and not focus on the obstacles they've faced to that point. Every day is a new challenge and it cannot be tackled if worrying about the day prior. Owning her role helps display to others that they need to own theirs as well.
"I learned a lot about myself and who I am as a person, who I am as a leader, and how relentless I am in the pursuit to just be that person for everybody," Cloud told NBC Sports Washington. "Sometimes it can be extremely draining for me. But I think that's just who I am and you can see it in my activism, you can see it on my leadership for this team, but I'm really proud of myself because I don't hide from anyone. This has been a year that I've definitely struggled through and fumbled through at certain points but I feel like overall I've held it together pretty well. So I'm just really proud of myself for remaining the same and consistent."
Changing her approach wasn't enough for Washington to make an ultimate playoff push. The hype leader known for proclaiming guarantees didn't quite want to go that far toward the end of the season when victories were dire.
The end of the season hit everyone hard, it wasn't a sigh of relief that the tsunami of challenges was over. And even though Cloud didn't will the team to a nearly insurmountable playoff appearance, her teammates noticed the effort.
"She's a fiery leader and I really appreciate that about her because she knows how to light a fire under her players, under her teammates, and I think she got better this year as a leader," Atkins said. "I think she was tested a lot this year as a leader. And I do think, she rose to the occasion. I think she stepped up - I know she stepped up and I think she became a different type of leader this year than what she probably thought she would have had to be at the beginning of this year."
A season from "hell," as Cloud called it, may not have been for nothing. There is solace in the fact that despite the dramatic hardship, they still were in a position on the final day of the year to make the postseason.
But Cloud also has another feather in her cap as a leader. It is going to be one needed going forward for Washington because the near future is going to be more reflective of this past season than the championship season.
As Thibault and the coaching staff are looking at resetting the culture, there will be a couple mainstays. Cloud is notably one of those and is now the longest-tenured Mystic on the roster. Rising from this season is just another obstacle that she'll have to guide the Mystics through.
"This year has been one for the history books but I am constantly re-reading this quote that Chadwick Boseman said actually at the Howard [University] commencement," Cloud said. "And it just talked about purpose and the challenges that you face, the adversity that you face along your journey is only intended to shape you for your purpose. And in that, it kind of recenters me like, 'okay, we've been hit with a lot of adversity this year, but still we stand. And here we are, and we've continued to rise despite."