Mike Thibault knew things had to change.
Before the Mystics became one of the best teams in WNBA history, before their first championship series appearance or the 48 wins over the past two seasons, a roster that produced the most consistent stretch of quality basketball in franchise history had to be rebuilt.
Go back to Thibault’s first three seasons as Washington’s head coach and general manager. On the surface qualifying for the WNBA playoffs three straight years from 2013 to 2015 seemed like a success. This was an organization, after all, that went 3-27 in its inaugural season, won just one playoff series in 15 years and had four times as many head coaches (12) as winning seasons (three).
The bar wasn’t very high. But losing three straight times in the best-of-three conference semifinals wasn’t anything to celebrate. There were a few pieces in place to build around. But Thibault’s team needed a reboot, which began in earnest after Washington missed the playoffs entirely in 2016.
It took some good fortune, some hard work and a keen eye for unproven talent. But when the Mystics aggressively landed WNBA stars Elena Delle Donne via trade and Kristi Toliver in free agency just four days apart in early 2017 the pieces were almost in place for a championship run.
“I feel like so many people forget where the Mystics came from before [Thibault],” Delle Donne said. “I think people need to be reminded about the team he has put together. How he knows how to find great basketball players, but even better people. It makes for a phenomenal locker room with awesome chemistry that just translates onto the floor. That’s really hard to do and he’s really talented at it.”
Washington fell just short of its first title last season in a three-game WNBA Finals sweep by the Seattle Storm with Delle Donne, the 2015 MVP who finished third in the voting last season, fighting a bone bruise in her knee. It finally gets to run it all back tonight at the Entertainment and Sports Arena with Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces.
The Mystics finished with the best record in the league this season (26-8) and only the legendary Houston Comets – the original WNBA dynasty – have ever posted a better point differential than Washington’s 12.0 this year. Houston did that in 1998 (12.6) and 2000 (12.8) during a run of four consecutive championships in the league’s first four seasons.
How did Washington get here? It took patience for Thibault’s group to take shape and the ability to admit when bold moves weren’t working. Delle Donne was a special circumstance, a unique talent whose love of family led her to abandon her scholarship at the University of Connecticut to play close to home at the University of Delaware near her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf and has cerebral palsy and autism.
The same dynamic played out in the WNBA with the Chicago Sky. Delle Donne won WNBA rookie of the year in 2013 and MVP in 2015 and led Chicago to a Finals appearance in 2014. But she wanted to be closer to home again and Washington is less than two hours from her hometown of Wilmington and Lizzie.
Stars like Delle Donne don’t switch teams often. It meant parting with key players Stefanie Dolson, the third-leading scorer on the 2016 Mystics, and Kahleah Copper, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft after a brilliant college career at Rutgers. Washington also traded what became the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft.
They never even flinched. Delle Donne is just that good. Toliver, who played college basketball at Maryland, saw the team was serious about winning and signed on, too, after winning an NCAA title at Maryland and in the WNBA with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016. But they weren’t joining a barren roster. Thibault had already put in four years of work to make sure the complementary pieces were in place. Getting the No. 2 pick in the WNBA draft lottery despite the lowest odds was his chance.
“We weren’t going to be a lottery team every year so you’re not going to get that kind of pick,” Thibault said. “The one time we were we turned it into Elena. And so you have to do that. That’s being prepared for the moment, having assets to give in a trade. The idea is to get as many good players as you can and figure out how they can work together.”
Three key Mystics were on the 2015 playoff team – Emma Meesseman, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders. None were expected to amount to much. All of them have done so under vastly different circumstances.
Meesseman was the first to arrive. The Belgium native was a throw-in draft pick in a big pre-draft 2013 trade when Thibault dealt local product Jasmine Thomas (Oakton High/Duke) to the Atlanta Dream for first and second-round picks. Washington then flipped that No. 7 overall pick to the New York Liberty for center Kia Vaughn.
The trade worked – but not for the reason anyone thought. Meesseman blossomed in her second season and would start every game from 2014 to 2016, a campaign where she averaged 15.2 points per game. She missed a chunk of the 2017 season – the first with Delle Donne – but still averaged 14.1 points, good for second on the team. Meesseman spent all of 2018 in Europe due to commitments to the Belgium national team and the Mystics missed her. Now she’s back, but Thibault has turned Meesseman into a super-sub with 13.1 points and 4.2 rebounds mostly off the bench.
For her part, Kia Vaughn became a common example of a Thibault theme: Fix your mistakes. Keep building. Vaughn was really only a full-time starter for one year in 2014 and by 2017 the Mystics traded her to New York for the No. 6 pick in the 2017 draft. Meesseman was the real gem of that original trade even if Thibault is too smart to say he called his shot.
“There’s no doubt that we got a little bit lucky on Emma Meesseman,” Thibault said. “Because we really didn’t know what we were getting. We knew we had gotten a style of player that we wanted. But you don’t know with a 19-year-old player what they’re going to turn out to be. You only hope.”
Another example: Bria Hartley was supposed to be a cornerstone for the Mystics. A two-time national champion guard at UConn, Seattle drafted her No. 7 overall in 2014 and immediately traded her to the Mystics for center Crystal Langhorne. She joined college teammate Dolson, chosen by Washington one pick earlier that same day. A plan was coming together.
But Hartley went from a starter as a rookie to a reduced role the next two seasons before leaving with Vaughn in that 2017 trade to New York. The heart of the 2013-15 Mystics was gutted. The original plan was off-kilter. In return during that three-way trade came salary relief for adding Delle Donne and Seattle’s No. 6 overall pick, which Washington turned into Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, a guard from Maryland who now averages 17.1 minutes per game and provides quality depth.
The real key to that 2014 Hartley trade was actually Tianna Hawkins, another local product who played high school basketball at Riverdale Baptist and then for Maryland. It took a while. Again, patience has long been crucial for these Mystics. But they always seemed to know when to cut bait and find the value in the lesser-known part of a trade.
Hawkins was pregnant with her son in 2015 and missed that season and a concussion limited her in 2016. But she carved out a role as a key reserve in 2017. Then she did it again in 2018. This year she might be the WNBA’s best reserve averaging 9.5 points and 4.2 rebounds and shooting 36.3 percent from 3-point range, which is third among the nine rotation players. Not bad for someone who wasn’t considered an integral part of the trade that brought her back home to D.C.
Hawkins is behind only Meesseman in games played with the Mystics on the current roster. But Sanders has them both beat in tenure. Washington traded for Sanders before the start of the 2012 season. But her father was dying of cancer and she took that year off to be with him in his final days.
Born in Germany to military parents, Sanders played basketball in Turkey during the winter because it paid better than the WNBA. She eventually became a naturalized citizen and helped the Turkish national team qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But back home in the summer, she wanted time off so in 2013 and 2014 she passed on the WNBA.
But as Sanders’ family life stabilized, Thibault decided to check in with her agent and see if she was ready to come back. Sanders did in 2015, but again patience was a necessity. She spent most of 2016 preparing and playing for Turkey at the Olympics. A foot injury then cost her almost all of 2017.
But at age 31, Sanders, a rail-thin center, returned with a vengeance in 2018. She started 25 games, was a wrecking ball defensively and averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds. This year she’s started all 34 games and kept up her elite defense. Thibault is still annoyed she wasn’t named to one of the WNBA’s All-Defensive teams. Her offense has dropped some thanks to offensive growth from younger players, but she’s still the glue that holds Washington together.
Sanders, Meesseman and Hawkins are the mainstays but there is one more player left from that 2015 team that made the playoffs but needed to be broken up. Natasha Cloud was a rookie then, yet another diamond in the rough picked in the second round of the WNBA draft from St. Joseph’s.
Cloud started 22 games as a rookie, but put up modest numbers. She started 28 more in 2016, but became a reserve in Delle Donne’s first season. Last year she started again and her offense bumped to 8.6 points. In 2019 she has started every game again and is at 9.0 points and second only to Toliver in assists (5.6). She was also a WNBA All-Defensive second-team selection with 1.03 steals per game and 2.3 defensive rebounds. How indispensable is Cloud? No one plays more minutes (32.1). Not even Toliver (29.5) or Delle Donne (29.1).
The final member of the starting lineup is the youngest player on the team. Ariel Atkins was the No. 7 pick in the 2018 draft from the University of Texas. She was an instant offense as a rookie with 11.3 points. This year she still averages double figures (10.3), but leads the Mystics in steals (1.5) and also earned WNBA All-Defensive second-team honors. Atkins is maybe the only key player on the roster not named Toliver or Delle Donne who required little patience at all.
A different Aerial joins Meesseman and Hawkins on a lethal bench. Looking for offense last summer with Meesseman gone, Washington traded its highest recent homegrown draft pick to get Aerial Powers.
Tayler Hill was Thibault’s first draft pick, No. 4 overall in 2013. But Thibault realized that Atkins had made Hill disposable as she recovered from a torn ACL in 2017. Looking to add a bigger wing, he again didn’t hesitate and flipped her to Dallas for Powers, who has been a perfect fit.
Now 25, a star at Michigan State, Powers averages 11.4 points and is yet another quality 3-point shooter (36.2 percent). But she’s too versatile to really call a reserve. She and Meesseman are two of the Mystics’ top four scorers yet they don’t start.
In a league where mini-dynasties in Minnesota and Phoenix and Los Angeles were built through multiple home-grown lottery picks, the Mystics built the foundation slowly. They chose players for unselfishness and three-point shooting and a willingness to be coached, eliminating players entirely from their draft board who didn’t fit the criteria or passing on trades for players who didn’t have those traits. When Delle Donne and Toliver became available, they pounced.
But Thibault learned plenty of lessons during his 10 years coaching the Connecticut Sun from 2003 to 2012, twice winning WNBA coach of the year honors, but always falling short of the ultimate prize. In Washington, the plan was started and scrapped and reformed and adapted until the Mystics finally had a seamless roster. They appear poised to win a championship. But they are not there yet. No work of art is ever really complete.
“From Day One when I came in this league the idea was to be an up-tempo team,” Thibault said. “We got to that point in Connecticut for a while and we worked toward where we finally got Kristi and Elena as some of the last pieces were starting to come in. But it wasn’t done. We had to get Ariel Atkins. We needed to get Emma back. We needed [Cloud] to become a different player. Trade for Aeriel Powers. Those were all part of the targeted kind of players that we wanted.”
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