Many teams, fans and pundits alike perhaps were overlooking the Washington Mystics in the first half of the season. They were without three of their top four stars for that entire stretch. They also battled injuries that once left them with only six healthy players and had to get creative on who was going to be the focal point of the offense.
It resulted in an 8-10 record entering the Olympic break and holding the last playoff position in the standings.
Needless to say, no one will be underestimating the Mystics as the WNBA restarts play this weekend.
"This is about to be a new season for us, when we come back and we get everyone back, this is a new season," Myisha Hines-Allen told reporters when asked what teammate Natasha Cloud's message was to the team. "We are capable of winning a championship, we have all the pieces to win a championship. Players on this team know what it takes to win a championship."
Those injured players are now getting healthy. Add them into the fray and this team will take a huge step forward. Of the 18 games played, Elena Delle Donne (back) missed all of them. Hines-Allen (knee) missed ten, Erica McCall (knee) missed eight, Cloud (ankle) five and Sydney Wiese (ankle) was out for four.
All those players are now practicing and most are fully back - a former MVP, three more potential starters and one of the top bench pieces. All but Delle Donne will probably play on Sunday when they restart their season. Delle Donne's season debut is likely not too far off either.
For a year and a half - essentially ever since they won their first championship in 2019 - no one has seen this team at full strength. Yes, a lot of the pieces and contributors are different; there are only five players remaining from that group. But since, the team has added a former MVP in Tina Charles, who is pacing the WNBA in a record-setting fashion, and a lot of the younger players have stepped up into huge roles like Ariel Atkins and Hines-Allen.
"I mean to me (we're) one of the best teams if you have everybody healthy," head coach Mike Thibault said. "Whether we're the first or fourth, right now I couldn't say, but clearly, every time you add talent back to the team, you take a step up."
Balanced scoring will be the biggest addition. Right now they sit at seventh in the league in points when leading the WNBA just two years ago. Only Charles, Atkins and Hines-Allen, in her limited games, averaged double figures in the first half. To put it in perspective, five players averaged 10 or more points in 2019.
Most of the non-injured players were initially signed for depth, not high-scoring roles.
The length of Delle Donne and the All-Defensive team prowess of Natasha Cloud will be welcomed too as they're allowing the fourth-most points in the league. When looking at how many players were out, it's incredible how far the Mystics went in the first half.
Things could get even better if 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman returns. As of Monday, the team had not heard back on her intentions to play this season or not. For now, the team is planning on going forward without her.
"Emma would be like frosting on the cake for us in a sense," Thibault said. "I mean, takes a little pressure off of Elena. All those players take pressure off Tina."
Playoffs are one thing, but to be a championship contender is another. It's going to be no easy task to get back to the WNBA Finals. Washington does control its own destiny to earn a playoff berth for the fifth season in a row. However, there are only 14 games left on the docket. Players coming back, especially Delle Donne, haven't fully been ingrained with the rest of the roster.
And to get to the upper echelon of the league, like Thibault said they are, will be an uphill climb. They're 5.5 games out of second place and a bye to the semifinal round. They're 3.5 back of the top four and the first-round bye.
Under this WNBA playoff format, no team that didn't receive a double-bye has gone on to win a championship.
"It's 0-0, it's going to be the tale of two seasons for us," Cloud said. "The first half I think a lot of people are counting us out but we haven't been healthy, we haven't had a full squad. We've made changes to our team, had players come in and only have about a month or so to play with us but just kind of getting thrown into things.
"Our team is really, really close, we genuinely love and care about each other. So this second half of the season with healthy bodies is going to be a completely different season."