Many can point to several reasons why the Washington Mystics failed to live up to their championship aspirations in 2021. However, head coach Mike Thibault is not making any excuses for this past season for why the team missed the playoffs and is ready to make some changes.
Washington is not entering a rebuilding period, but Thibault's priority this season is resetting the team's culture. A move that some would perceive as drastic just two years removed from a dominant championship roster.
"I'm a big believer in the old Bill Parcell's [saying] 'you are what the scoreboard says you are' and we're 12-20 and we have a lot of reasons," Thibault said at the end of the season. "Some are good excuses and some are not. But the fact of the matter is, we're not in rebuild mode but we're in a reset button mode. We need to reset our culture and how we go about things, and we need to redevelop an identity. And I don't think we had an identity of being good at anything this year."
The 71-year-old head coach is not one to hold back his criticism of his team and players. With the Mystics taking this big of a step back and not accomplishing what a team with far fewer playmakers did in 2020, he senses the ship is heading in a direction opposite of the team's goal.
After winning it all in 2019, Thibault said the franchise was entering a championship window. The goal was to keep that window open as long as possible. With Elena Delle Donne at the focal point of the roster, many believed that was going to be the future of the WNBA. Now, that window is completely shut while 'resetting' the culture.
"Obviously, if you put Elena and Alysha Clark into the lineup and you have some of those other players available for more games, yeah, it would look different, but I can't count on just that being the answer. We have to fix some other things too," Thibault said.
There are two big prevailing issues: the inconsistencies from those who played and the injury history of those who didn't play.
Two years ago - en route to winning the title - Washington shot 46.9% from the field and 36.6% from three, which ranked first and second respectively. This season those percentages fell to 41.0% (a WNBA-worst) and 32.8% (10th). Five players were below 40% from the field. Tina Charles - who had the best 3-point shooting mark on the team - would have brought the 2019 down average by shooting 36.5% from long range.
When you have 3-point specialists Leilani Mitchell and Sydney Wiese shooting in the lower-30s, that's a problem for the rest of the roster.
Part of it has to do with injuries, but it's still not a recipe for a championship squad. And as for those injuries, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Megan Gustafson and Leilani Mitchell were the only players that didn't face a notable ailment this season. Nine out of 12 did.
A couple of players with an injury history is manageable. A repeat of the injury troubles (in terms of tweaks and such) could be detrimental to the franchise. Already no fewer than three players have a notable recovery coming (Delle Donne and Clark) or a repeating nagging injury (Natasha Cloud). They are among the six players under contract for next year. Other injury-plagued free agents probably won't make the 2022 roster simply for that reason.
"We [had] people play big minutes this year, that wasn't the intention when we signed them," Thibault said. "The intention was them to be role players and to play five, 10, 12 minutes, not to be playing 20-plus minutes as starters. That's just a fact of the matter, but we have to fix that this offseason."
"At the end of the day, you have to have enough talent to win games and my evaluation is through injuries and everything else, our talent wasn't good enough to win enough games, it just isn't," Thibault continued.
So how do they improve this offseason? The salary cap will prevent them from making a splash in free agency this year. It's evident that some of the role players aren't going to be re-signed in lieu of options that are more likely to fit the culture the team wants to build.
Trades are never out of the question either and with a piece as valuable as a lottery pick, Thibault is confident they could make it work.
"I can see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel if we're smart enough to make use of our resources and do the right evaluations," Thibault said. "Whether the lottery pick becomes a young player in the draft or whether it becomes a trade chip like it was in 2016, that's to be determined and I have no idea at this point."