Washington

Mike Thibault remains optimistic despite hardest year of his coaching career

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This calendar year has been a trying one for everybody across all walks of life. 

But even a difficult 2020 has carried over to Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault's coaching duties. From a season that began with having to figure out just how to coach a WNBA franchise through the coronavirus pandemic and within the confines of a newly created 'bubble,' the obstacles that he has had to overcome is mounting.  

"This has probably been the hardest year I've ever had coaching for a lot of reasons and it's for most people that way," Thibault told reporters on Sunday. "We are going through a pandemic. We are going through a social climate of unrest that is necessary. But when you compare those two things together, there's a lot to go with it."

Thibault, 69, has coached professional basketball since the 1980s. He was a Lakers' assistant in the early years of the 'Showtime' era of the franchise and on the staff of the Bulls when they drafted Michael Jordan.

Once he flipped over to the WNBA coaching ranks in 2003, his success was instantaneous. Thibault has only coached three years since where his team had a sub-.500 record, His teams have 14 playoff appearances in 17 seasons.

Just because he traded in his suits and ties for polos and t-shirts on gameday this year does not mean the typical coaching stress has gone down. 

Navigating a series of opt-outs and medical waivers, with a ton of uncertainty was the first challenge - after the virus. There was also a lot of external pressure on the status of defending league MVP Elena Delle Donne for this season and then the team's ultimate decision to pay her despite not suiting up. 

 

Throughout the year he has worked with his team and had the difficult conversations on how to make statements while within the 'wubble.' How they can continue the conversation for social justice despite being restricted due to the nature of the season. 

That leadership was further amplified this past week when the WNBA decided not to play games after the shooting of James Blake. The Mystics were the first team to make a decision that they wouldn't be stepping on the court. And while Thibault didn't stand in the way of the conversation, he kept his role as an elder statesman for the team. 

"What I said to them was, as the older person there, that just understand that what you do has ramifications in a lot of different ways. And be willing, if you're willing to do things, to understand that you accept whatever consequences come with that and that you don't make your decisions in a vacuum," Thibault said after the WNBA postponed the first day of games last week.

None of those obstacles have much to do with what's happening on the court with Washington. At 4-11, the Mystics are on pace for the worst record in Thibault's tenure as a WNBA coach. They've lost 11 of their last 12 games with only seven contests remaining on the schedule.

"And then you add in just the basketball part where we're coming off a championship with high expectations of the roster we would have. A lot of the players here were excited about playing with the ones that are not here. And so you have that emotion that goes with it," Thibault said. "It is a letdown because you have to recalibrate about what kind of team you have and what you'd have to do to win. That's a major factor and then you start the season and you start out pretty well. And then you're going into a losing streak and you lose players along the way and injuries and so it's a lot to deal with."

With the atypical season, players have to play essentially every other day. It's led to several injuries (an accumulated 17 games lost) from the active roster, not including games lost from the players who never went to the IMG Academy bubble or once they left.  Thibault, as the team's GM, had to find players at the beginning of the year just to field a team and continued to scour for free-agent players. His daily work office being his hotel room. 

The record, while not entirely surprising, is disappointing in the manner of how the team is losing. Turnovers and misreads defensively have been a common theme throughout the year and especially frustrating for a coach who demands the best from his players. 

 

Nevertheless, he is still trying to find ways to push his team forward. While it may be the most difficult season of his career, Thibault is still staying optimistic. After all, once the 2021 season tips off he'll have pretty much everyone back from the 2019 title run.

"But you know what, here we are. We're making our way as best we can," Thibault said. "And my job is to be a positive influence every day to come in upbeat and as down as I have looked after games or felt or tired, I make sure that when I go to the gym the next day with my players that they don't see that part of it. They see you know the preparedness and the optimism and the ready to get on with the next day and I think that's how you have to approach life in general anyway."