Was bringing Delle Donne back this year the right decision?

/ by Tyler Byrum
Presented By Sandy Spring Bank

The benefit of hindsight allows one to look at the timing of the Washington Mystics bringing back Elena Delle Donne from injury - and subsequently being shut down after three games - and draw conclusions. With how complex the former two-time MVP's back recovery has been, however, it definitely allowed her health team to reevaluate where some of the issues exist.

The answer to whether it was the right decision to bring Delle Donne back in the midst of a playoff hunt, is more nuanced than a yes or no response.

At the time, bringing Delle Donne back was just part of a process that was going to be the 2021 season. When the year began, the uncertainty began on if she would be available for opening night. Expectations did not have her still recovering for three more months and making her season debut two-thirds of the way through the year.

But for the information that was provided (in a process that was hush-hush from the beginning), playing time was naturally the next step for her. Some, understandably, just questioned the timing.

The team was 8-13 and half a game out of the playoffs when she made her 2021 debut. Why bring the franchise player back on an underperforming team? A championship was going to require something never seen before in WNBA history.

And then she exited her third contest in a precautionary move. Who knows if she would have been pulled out in normal circumstances, but something did not feel right at the time. It seemed she was due to return at some point later in the year. That never came to fruition.


"[The play that gave her pause] was a trigger point at that time," head coach Mike Thibault said in his end-of-season press conference. "But I think there were still some other issues going on and she was just trying to test and see where she was. I don't think that's particularly why we shut it down."

Related: Mystics showed heart, fire down to the bitter end

When Delle Donne returned, she wasn't fully unleashed, although there were times you wouldn't have known. She was on a minutes restriction. Every gameday she was essentially questionable. Thibault was hoping that when he walked into the facility, she would wake up feeling great.

Minutes weren't going to be drastically extended for a must-win contest. She wouldn't play in an important contest if she didn't feel well. The decision to play, as Thibault said at the time, was left to the doctors. 

What's being handled now by the team's doctors isn't a matter of her re-injuring her back. It was something new. It stemmed from radicular symptoms in her nerves where pain radiates from your back and into your legs and spine. 

"We think, based on all the discussion we have, that it's solvable," Thibault said. "She is optimistic about it. Doctors are optimistic about it. But we were in a position the last couple of weeks that, just didn't feel comfortable putting her back in that position and having a setback that was needless."

Through it all, let's not ignore her drive to get back on the floor either. In her first press conference since the procedures this August, there was visible frustration on her not being a part of the U.S. Olympic team. She admitted she struggled to watch those games. Delle Donne wants to be back on Team USA and wants to have a long career once this phase of getting back on the court is over. 

As pandemic restrictions at both the local and league level are reduced, this offseason of recovery will likely be far better than the last. Thibault wouldn't commit to what that entails for 2022, whether it's full availability or something in-between for her. 

So yes, bringing Delle Donne back was the proper move at the time. There was always the possibility that it wouldn't be a long-term solution to the season. Hopefully, the additional back issue was more of a red flag rather than a true setback. If anything, it hopefully helps prepare her further for next year.

"I do know this, despite her not playing these last couple weeks, she has made progress this summer. Much slower than we thought, but she has made progress," Thibault said.

"I think we have a better grasp on some of the issues that can be addressed but I think there's a lot of optimism amongst everybody on the medical side that she will improve a lot, a lot this offseason and be a lot more prepared to play," he added.