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Four reasons why the Crystal Langhorne trade was still the right thing to do

It is fair to say that the Mystics got the “bottom end” of a deal with the Seattle Storm in 2014 in light of yesterday’s news. However, I disagree.

Crystal Langhorne of the Seattle Storm attempts to make a shot in a game against the Washington Mystics. Stewart W. Small

Saturday was a day of surprising news for Mystics fans. The team announced that Bria Hartley was pregnant and will miss the rest of the 2016 season and signed Leilani Mitchell to take her place. In addition, Tianna Hawkins was waived because of a concussion she recently received.

It should be known that both Hartley and Hawkins came to Washington at the same time before the 2014 season. In a draft day deal, the Mystics traded starting power forward Crystal Langhorne to the Seattle Storm in exchange for Hartley, the Storm’s first round pick, and Hawkins, who was coming off her rookie season. At the time, many people saw this as a trade where Washington got the bottom end of a deal by trading an All-Star for two unknowns. Hartley had yet to play a game as a pro and Hawkins played limited minutes for the Storm the year before.

Yesterday’s news is surely going to draw some comments along the lines of saying that the Mystics should have kept Langhorne during Mike Thibault’s entire tenure. In Seattle, her 2014 and 2015 raw production per 36 minutes remained consistent with her 2012 and 2013 numbers in Washington.

This season, her scoring has gone down considerably, but she is shooting at a career high 63.2 percent. Give her and the Storm organization credit for her performance this season.

After the Mystics made the deal, Hartley looked like a future All-Star in 2014 as she averaged nearly 10 points a game and earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team. However her 2015 season was hampered due to a foot injury, and this season, she still had yet to fully return to the starting guard role she had as a rookie. Some people were wondering if Hawkins had a faster path toward becoming a starter herself with Langhorne’s departure. But that ultimately didn’t happen.

And in a strange coincidence, both Hartley and Hawkins became pregnant while on the Mystics. Hawkins missed the entire 2015 season to give birth to and take care of her child, while Hartley will miss the remainder of this season and likely some part of next season as well .

It sounds like Washington ultimately received the bottom end of the deal with the Storm. I strongly disagree. Here’s why.

The Mystics needed to clean house when Mike Thibault arrived. This deal helped them move on to the future.

Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Stars drives against Jasmine Thomas of the Washington Mystics in 2012.
Jasmine Thomas (R) was the Mystics starting point guard for much of their 2012 season. Since then, she has contributed to other teams but Mike Thibault decided to trade her before the following season.
Stewart W. Small

The Mystics were awful in 2012 when they had a 5-29 record. The face of their team at the time was Langhorne.

General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault wanted to build the Mystics around a group of younger, homegrown players who fit his system. Though Langhorne was still relatively young at the time (she’s still 29), he wanted to build this team his way. By trading her to Seattle before the 2014 season, it allowed younger players to compete for a role they otherwise would have had little chance of getting.

Though some other WNBA fans, writers, and analysts may think otherwise, I wasn’t surprised that everyone on the 2012 roster was gone by the 2015 season. There are some players who have never played in the WNBA again after that season like Natalie Novosel, the lone rookie on that team. But others like Langhorne or Monique Currie deserved to get a fresh start somewhere else because Washington’s ongoing rebuild is still taking multiple years to fix.

Langhorne’s game in D.C. wasn’t conducive toward making others better.

Crystal Langhorne Washington Mystics vs San Antonio Stars 2012 Stewart W. Small

There’s no doubt that Langhorne enjoyed her best years in Washington. While in Washington she was the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2009, represented the WNBA in a USA Basketball vs. WNBA scrimmage in 2010, and made two All-Star teams in 2011 and 2013. In 2010, she was part of the Mystics’ best season ever when they earned the number one seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

However, it’s important to note that Langhorne’s role as “Face of the Mystics” came to her by accident. When she was drafted in 2008, she was a reserve player and had a lukewarm season. Her ascendance to becoming a number one option was the result of her improvement as well as then-Mystics guard Alana Beard’s ankle injuries that sidelined her completely in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. By this time, Langhorne became the Mystics’s clear number one option. Being a University of Maryland alumna also made her a fan favorite.

But Langhorne’s game offensively predicated on solid guard play and others consistently giving her the ball for more touches. She wasn’t exactly known for being a major defensive force because she is an undersized power forward as her individual defensive rating was never below 96 in any of her seasons. And on offense, she hasn’t been known for dishing the ball to others for assists.

Ultimately, Langhorne is known as a finisher of plays on offense, not one who helps develop them. So if a backcourt is as good as the Lindsey Harding-Katie Smith duo back in 2010, Langhorne can produce AND be part of a winning team. But if Langhorne is surrounded with a backcourt like those in 2011 and 2012, she may produce numbers, but will be less likely to be on winning teams.

Langhorne and the MeesseMANIA movement cannot coexist in Washington.

Crystal Langhorne of the Washington Mystics defends Courtney Paris of the Tulsa Shock. Emma Meesseman, also of the Mystics looks passive. This is Meeesseman in ... 2013 by the way. Stewart W. Small

With trades, we often think about which team fared better based on the players who were exchanged. It’s fair to say that the Storm won the 2014 trade with the Mystics because Langhorne has remained a reliable starter while Hartley and Hawkins haven’t.

But trades are also about how a departed player’s replacement does, even if she wasn’t traded. That’s what we have here.

After the trade, Emma Meesseman replaced Langhorne in the starting lineup where she played alongside Kia Vaughn in the low post. She averaged 10.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, but also led the Mystics in win shares in that season and ever since. She also had a very nice 110 individual offensive rating versus 95 for defense in that season.

The Langhorne trade may have involved Hartley and Hawkins directly, but this trade may have very well been more about Meesseman and her development.

I was so impressed with her performance in 2014 that I once asked if Meesseman was better than Langhorne then. I got mostly side eyes at the time. But fast forward two years, and you’ll get a side eye for suggesting that Langhorne is better. Again, she isn’t 30 yet.

But let’s take a step back for a moment and ask a quick what if. What if the Mystics never traded Langhorne in 2014?

To me, I believe Langhorne would have remained the starting power forward while Meesseman would have been her backup. I’m sure that Meesseman herself wouldn’t have complained about it and she probably viewed herself as a WNBA backup until at least last season. But I don’t think that Meesseman’s development would have been as significant if she had to be a bench player.

Let me put it this way. Meesse is as selfless as anyone out there. But this is the most assertive Instagram I have ever seen from her.

'Working on myself, by myself, for myself'

A photo posted by Emma Meesseman (@emma_meesseman) on

I can guarantee that that would have never happened if she was a backup this entire time.

The door is far from shut on Bria Hartley’s career.

Mystics guard Bria Hartley is dribbling the ball Stewart W. Small

The title mentioned her name, but I don’t want to make this a piece solely on Crystal Langhorne. So let’s pivot this piece back toward the players who the Mystics received in exchange for her.

Hawkins is no longer on the team, so that appears to be a loss at this point barring a training camp invite next season. But even among the two players in that 2014 deal, I believe Hartley was still the “bigger name” choice. We already have seen what she can do over the course of a season. Her rookie campaign was better than I expected, and her sophomore year was hampered due to injury.

Now, she has a pregnancy, so let’s get to that for a bit. What effect will it have on Hartley? We don’t know 100 percent for sure because every woman’s body is different during and after a pregnancy. However, I think she’ll be just fine in the long run for these reasons:

  • Hartley is a world class athlete. It doesn’t take long to realize that she works out for hours a day. Even during her pregnancy, she won’t be sitting at home watching YouTube cat videos all day and eating whatever she wants, whenever she wants. She’ll still be in and around the game of basketball.
  • She will have access to great doctors. They will do their best to make sure her pregnancy is complication-free. And they will help her get back into playing shape quickly and safely.
  • The Mystics have experience with moms on the roster. Hawkins had her child last year. And Tayler Hill had her child and missed most of the 2014 season. The Mystics certainly know what works and doesn’t work during this part of life. Much better than I do or ever will.

Hartley is expected to be back in 2017, however don’t expect her to be in 100 percent form. She will have to gain some weight over the course of her pregnancy, and it takes time to lose that weight. Because of that, she may be a bit winded in her first games back and we shouldn’t be too harsh on her for that. Just ask Tayler Hill who plays a very similar role. It took her two seasons to reclaim her starting guard position AND play her best basketball after having her son.

As long as Hartley does the same, she’ll still be more than able to do plays like this,

this,

and this,

by 2018. For my own selfish interest, I hope that she does it in D.C.