There is not another WNBA championship banner to raise, at least not yet, but the Washington Mystics go into 2022 with a 25th anniversary season to celebrate.
To be sure, another title run is more than a possibility. It is expected. When general manager and head coach Mike Thibault was asked about expectations for the upcoming season, he responded with a one word answer, “championship.”
This is where the Mystics are in 2022, an elite franchise in the WNBA that helps set the standard of excellence on and off the court in professional women’s basketball.
When the Mystics open the season Friday at home against Indiana, it will be the team’s fourth year in the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights. Not only is the arena the Mystics’ home court, but it is their training facility and they are afforded the same resources as the NBA’s Washington Wizards. From the same film room as the Wizards to a chef on site for the players, the Mystics are treated in a major league way.
Back in 1997, the first year of the WNBA, there was a lot uncertainty. At least two professional women’s basketball leagues had tried and failed. The financial and marketing muscle of the NBA gave the WNBA a chance. Still, of the original eight franchises, only three are still operating. New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury are still around, but only Phoenix is still operated by an NBA team.
The Mystics joined the WNBA in 1998 and then Wizards team owner Abe Pollin and president Susan O’Malley made a commitment to attract fans. At the gate, the Mystics were an instant success, but they struggled on the court and did not make the playoffs until the 2000 season.
In 2005, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson became president and managing partner of the Mystics. Monumental Sports and Entertainment Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ted Leonsis had added Johnson to his group that at the time owned the Washington Capitals. Johnson instantly became actively involved in the Mystics and with her passion for basketball worked hard to connect with a fan base still yearning for consistent success.
The direction of the Mystics on the court changed in 2013 when Thibault was brought in to guide the team. Thibault’s NBA resume included working with the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson and was director of scouting when the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. But before he was hired by the Mystics, Thibault had spent 10 seasons in the WNBA with the Connecticut Sun with eight playoff appearances and two trips to the WNBA Finals.
Now Thibault is the winningest coach in WNBA history. In nine seasons in Washington, Thibault has coached the Mystics to seven playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the WNBA Finals in 2018 and 2019, winning the franchise first title in the latter season. In short, the Mystics now have a winning culture and Washington is a destination franchise for WNBA free agents.
The Mystics did not make the playoffs last season, but 6-foot-5 forward Elena Delle Donne is back from injury. That is not to say the Mystics are a one-player team, but having Delle Donne healthy is a season changer. She has been recognized as one of the 25 greatest players in the WNBA’s first 25 years and is the only WNBA player to join the 50-40-90 club, which is 50% shooting from the field, 40% shooting from 3-point distance and 90% shooting from the free-throw line.
Last season, Delle Donne did appear in three games, but it was her only time on the court since the Mystics won the WNBA title in 2019. In a preseason victory over Minnesota, she scored 21 points in 18 minutes and looked like the Delle Donne Mystics fans remember. Still, Thibault said he might rest his star player for six or seven games this season.
Delle Donne returns to a frontcourt that now includes Myisha Hines-Allen, who at 25 should be coming into her prime. In the Mystics championship season, she was a reserve who averaged about eight minutes per game. However, over the last two seasons, Hines-Allen has started 39 games and averaged around 15 points and eight rebounds per game.
For the Mystics, it is encouraging that Alysha Clark is back in the mix. The 5-foot-11 forward has been out since March 2021 after suffering a foot injury while playing in France. Clark’s last WNBA season was in 2020 with Seattle, and it was her best when she averaged 10 points and close to five rebounds per game. Former Maryland star Tianna Hawkins is back with the Mystics as well.
The Mystics won the WNBA Draft lottery but traded down to get Ole Miss Center Shakira Austin. The Fredericksburg, Virginia, native was selected third overall and will have the luxury to develop because she is joining a veteran team. Free agent acquisition Elizabeth Williams will anchor the post position and will be counted on to continue her reputation as one of the league’s best defenders.
On the subject of defense, Ariel Atkins is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and forms a backcourt with Natasha Cloud. In addition to her on-court ability, Cloud, who has talked about running for political office one day, is one of the WNBA’s most vocal leaders. Adding intrigue to the guard position is the addition from Japan of Rui Machida, who with her elite passing skills and ability to knock down 3-pointers will open up space on the court.
On paper, the Mystics have what it takes to make its 25th anniversary special on the court. The talent and coaching are not questions, but as always, good health and even some luck will be required.
Editor’s Note: WTOP’s Dave Johnson works for Monumental Sports and Entertainment as the radio voice of the Washington Wizards.