The Mystics entered the Olympic Break on a seven game losing streak, the longest since Mike Thibault started coaching them in the 2013 season. Washington is 9-15, tied with the Seattle Storm for the eighth and last playoff spot.
That ultimately makes me pop the question: Is it worth going for a playoff appearance when there is little to no hope of making the WNBA Finals? Or is it better to “tank” and hope that they get a higher draft pick?
In the WNBA, there is an unwritten rule that a legitimate franchise player has to be on the team if it is going to be relevant. Multiple superstars are needed to win a title. Most people don’t think the Mystics have such a player.
Even if Emma Meesseman is a legitimate WNBA franchise player — and we have no shortage of pieces to explain why — the last seven games are a stark reminder that the Mystics just don’t have the talent to be a contender. If they are going to get additional talent, the only way is with a high draft pick and by missing the playoffs this season.
The Mystics’ coping mechanisms for the 2013 WNBA Draft Lottery’s outcome are running out
The first three picks of the 2013 Draft: Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins have all made All-Star teams and were first-team All-WNBA players at least once during their young careers. The Mystics were the worst team in 2012, yet ended up with the fourth pick. At the time, it was essentially viewed as a death blow for them to be terrible for years to come.
Mike Thibault was hired as the GM and Head Coach for the following season. He’s done a good job improving the performance of the team over the following three seasons when they were playoff bound every year. Drafting Meesseman in the second round and seeing her development is his best move by far.
To Thibault’s credit, he has also built the Mystics with homegrown draft picks to the point where most of the current team is a Mystics draft pick now. The players like each other and can more than hold their own when things are going their way. That’s why I think they are the anti-Wizards and still stand by that.
The problem with a team in the Mystics’ situation back when Thibault took over is that he has tried to get his teams in playoff position every season during his tenure. In Washington, the Mystics have implemented a “plug and play” type system where there is no overt franchise player — at least until this season with Meesseman breaking out. You should give him and the Mystics credit for winning a lot more games than most expected.
But the unfortunate consequence is that with three .500-ish seasons so far, the Mystics are only able to get mid-first round picks. These players aren’t going to be superstars or even “second options” for a championship level team. In addition, the Mystics have gradually become the only WNBA team where no player is a Top 3 draft pick in any year. Teams without such a pick are going to find it very hard to go far in the playoffs.
With another Top-4 pick in hand, the Mystics should be able to get another player who can start from Day 1 but not necessarily be burdened with “being the franchise” since that role is Meesseman’s.
The Mystics don’t have many assets to improve with a trade
When teams are made up almost entirely of mid-first round picks and below, that lowers their collective value on the trade market. If you’re another WNBA team’s GM, sure many of the Mystics’ players may be producing in D.C., but in most cases, that may be because there isn’t anyone else better to play her role.
Realistically, the only legitimate trade asset who can yield a significant player in return for Washington is Meesseman. But after signing her to a maximum-level contract extension this past winter, it makes no sense for them to trade her. And this rebuild is going to rely heavily on her development.
As for most of the rest of the team’s other young players, most of them will likely yield lateral-moves that wouldn’t improve the team much for the long term.
The one player who could be attractive as a midseason trade option is LaToya Sanders. Sanders was one of the Olympics’ best performers for Team Turkey over the past few weeks and hasn’t suited for Washington yet because of the Games.
Teams who are looking to get an edge in the postseason and are willing to trade a younger starter in return may be attractive options for the Mystics. But I’d be wary about any trades when there are just ten games left in the season. If Washington wants to trade her, it’s best to do so in the offseason.
The Mystics shouldn’t change their starting lineup in the last nine games, but they should play their younger reserves as much as possible
Most teams that are on the Treadmill of Mediocrity would have many veteran players who are at the tail end of their primes (or later), and some young players who aren’t getting enough playing time.
The Mystics unfortunately are also on the Treadmill of Mediocrity. It really hurts me to say it, but it’s true. Their record over the last three seconds has hovered around .500, which is the very definition of mediocrity, and the team hasn’t improved enough to be in the conversation for a WNBA Final Four appearance.
But they aren’t built like most treadmill teams. They are very young, and haven’t hit their ceiling yet, even if it isn’t very high. All of their five regular starters (Meesseman, Tayler Hill, Stefanie Dolson, Natasha Cloud and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt) are on their rookie-level contracts and are 25 years old or younger. This is also the first year in the Thibault Era that the Mystics have had all of their starters be so young. Also, all but two players — Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn — are on rookie contracts, so the lineup’s going to be young no matter what happens.
A typical treadmill team that decides to “tank” would bench veteran starters and play younger players more. In Washington’s case, it’s probably easier to just keep the starting lineup the way it is. However, Latta and Vaughn are still two of the key players on the second unit. At this point in the season, it wouldn’t hurt to cut their minutes down a little since a deep playoff run is not happening.
Now wouldn’t be a bad time to experiment with seeing Tianna Hawkins getting more rebounding opportunities, or seeing Bria Hartley get some more time at the point guard position. In addition, Ally Malott and Jamie Weisner have regularly been the two “last resort” options all season. If the Mystics are first place in the Eastern Conference, I’m fine with them getting spot minutes in garbage time only. But with the season looking lost at this point, it’s better to see what they can do with meaningful minutes and for us to see if they have a future in Washington.