2017 was a big year for Washington D.C.’s professional basketball teams. We saw both the Washington Wizards and Mystics achieve their highest accomplishments in their franchises’ history since Ted Leonsis owned both teams in 2010. Was everything smooth sailing? Of course not! But now that I reflect back on the year that was, I think it was a positive year for both teams nonetheless.
Here’s a trip down memory lane.
The Wizards won their first division title and homecourt advantage in the playoffs since 1979
Some Wizards fans, especially those old enough to remember the Bullets’ glory days of the 1970’s, often still call their team as the Bullets. One of the reasons why is because they don’t believe the team name should have changed in the first place. But another reason is because the Wizards just haven’t won any actual “hardware” as the Wizards.
They did make several playoff appearances, and they did advance in the playoffs multiple times. But the Wizards failed to win any division titles since 1979.
The 2016-17 season started on a very cold note as the Wizards fell to 6-12 early in the season. But thanks to a franchise record 17 home game winning streak, the Wizards ultimately finished with a 49-33 season, their best finish since 1979.
Along the way, Washington also won the Southeast Division after they beat the Lakers 119-108 on March 28. The Wizards also received homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since, you guessed it! 1979!
It is true that winning a division title has no added value anymore. A team doesn’t get an automatic playoff spot or homecourt advantage by doing so. However, for a hardware-starved team like Washington, any title matters. In many ways, it’s a sign of validation after a rebuild that took several years to come to fruition.
Elena Delle Donne’s arrival catapults the Mystics into win-now mode
For most of the Mystics’ 20 year franchise history, they were a lot like the Wizards for most of theirs: mediocre at best. If anything, their luck in the draft lottery is even worse, which largely explains why they were effectively superstar-less for over a decade. In recent years, they’ve drafted well with the picks they had and even made the playoffs a franchise-record three straight times. But it was hard envisioning the team contending anytime soon — if ever.
That all changed in February 2017 when Washington acquired Elena Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky in exchange for Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper, and their 2017 first round draft pick. Delle Donne was the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year, led the Sky to the Finals in 2014, was the 2015 WNBA MVP, and won an Olympic Gold Medal with Team USA in 2016. She’s one of the Top-5 overall players in the WNBA and any team would love to build their franchise around her.
Usually, the only way to get a player of Delle Donne’s caliber is by being in the right draft position in the right year. The Mystics however defied that, in part because Delle Donne specifically wanted to play for this franchise since last year, if not longer.
If D.C. was disappointed that Kevin Durant wouldn’t “come back home” to wear Monumental Red in 2016, seeing Delle Donne “come back to her home region” to wear Monumental Red in 2017 is nothing but an excellent moment indeed.
The Wizards and Mystics made big playoff runs in 2017
The Wizards made the playoffs three of the last four seasons in the John Wall Era. And in all three seasons, they also made the second round of the playoffs. However, we never saw John Wall or Bradley Beal have a true clutch moment when the season was on the line. We also saw each of the Wizards’ 2014 and 2015 playoff runs end at home. We didn’t want to see that yet again this time.
That changed on May 12 in Game 6 of the Wizards’ second round playoff series against the Celtics. The Wizards were down 91-89 with less than eight seconds to go, and Wall made a game-winning three to preserve Washington’s undefeated postseason record at home and extend the series to a Game 7.
Yes, Washington lost the last game of the series. But I was encouraged seeing that clutch play. It echoed sentiments of Paul Pierce’s game winning shot against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of their 2nd round playoff series in 2015.
So on that day in May of 2017, JOHN WALL CALLED GAME!
Later in the summer, the Mystics made the WNBA Playoffs themselves, securing homecourt advantage for the first time since 2002. They became the first Monumental Sports team to advance two rounds in the playoffs after making the WNBA semifinals for the first time since ... 2002! Once they were in the semis, they were swept in three games by the eventual champion Minnesota Lynx. That said, the last two games in that series were truly hard fought.
Unlike the Wizards, the Mystics secured their run to the semifinals with clutch performances off the backs of their role players. This isn’t to say that Delle Donne or Emma Meesseman weren’t providing big impacts themselves. They were. But the Mystics’ role players made their defining moments during key wins.
In the Mystics’ first round win against the Wings, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt dominated both ends of the ball for two minutes in the fourth quarter. She only scored four points, but her defensive tenacity and refusal to back down to opponents stopped a late Dallas run that could have turned the game the other way.
And in the Mystics’ second round win against the Liberty, Kristi Toliver scored 32 points made nine threes, a WNBA record — to send Washington to the semis. Without her hot shooting, I don’t think they would have gone as far as they did.
The Wizards and Mystics made long term commitments to their drafted players
One of the key components of a Ted Leonsis-led team is committing long term to core, drafted pieces. The Wizards signed Otto Porter to a four-year, $106 million maximum level contract extension (via an offer match started by the Nets) while John Wall signed a “supermax” deal worth $170 million over four years, starting in the 2019-2020 season. Along with Bradley Beal, who signed a five-year, $128 million last year, the Wizards are committed to these three for the foreseeable future.
The Mystics also did something similar in their own right in February right while the Delle Donne news was in full effect. They re-signed 2013 first round draft pick Tayler Hill after her breakout 2016 season. They also re-signed Ruffin-Pratt, who was an undrafted rookie in 2013. Along with Meesseman, who signed her contract extension in 2016, there’s little doubt that the Mystics intend to build around these three and Delle Donne for years to come.
Both the Wizards and Mystics still had their share of regular season tribulations
Not everything was easy for either team. The Mystics did make the semifinals in 2017, but their regular season was just 18-16, and they lost six of their last eight games. The Mystics were essentially three different teams last year.
First, the Mystics were led by Delle Donne and Hill who led Washington to a 10-5 record by the end of June. Once Emma Meesseman came back from her commitment to EuroBasket Women 2017, they had difficulty integrating her into the team given that all three are high usage players (over 20 percent), among a number of factors.
In July, injuries to Hill and Delle Donne forced the second iteration of the Mystics with Meesseman once again as their primary centerpiece. Then in August, Delle Donne returned from injury, when we finally got a more extended look at what the two forwards can do together. The injuries and mixing of team roles certainly played a major reason why Washington was barely above .500 in the regular season.
For the Wizards, there are two seasons in a calendar year. We have the latter half of the 2016-17 season and the first half of the 2017-18 season to take into account. The most disappointing thing about the 2016-17 season was that the Wizards only won 49 games. Sure, they won the Southeast Division. But this is when that 6-12 start hurts. If the Wizards a couple more of those early season games, they could have had a higher seed AND get that magical 50 win season that has eluded them since ... 1979.
So far in the 2017-18 season, I’m disappointed in the Wizards’ apathetic play against so-called “bad” teams. For example, they lost twice to the Brooklyn Nets this season and the Lakers on the road earlier this fall. And finally, they played very poor defense in a late December loss against the Atlanta Hawks which prompted analyst Christy Winters-Scott to give some tough love. Hopefully this trend changes, though I think it’s probably too late to see if a 50-win season is realistic.
The Wizards and Mystics have a lot more expectations than before. Now, can they meet them?
After the 2016-17 NBA season ended, the Wizards were predicted to be a legitimate Eastern Conference contender in the 2017-18 season. The Wizards even got 18 games on national television this season.
However, the Wizards haven’t fully capitalized on their additional national exposure. Though they were predicted to be a Top-3 or even Top-2 Eastern Conference team this season, the Wizards are currently fifth with a 21-16 record, 7.5 games behind the conference-leading Boston Celtics on this New Year’s Day.
The Mystics faced a bigger jump in expectations than the Wizards from one season to the next. Again, much of that was because of Delle Donne’s arrival. In fact, some analysts believed Washington would make the WNBA Finals before the season began. However, they fell short because of multiple player injuries.
Still, expectations for the Mystics are high. They aren’t just well coached. They also have a lot of talent at the top of their roster now. And the Mystics were effectively the 2017 WNBA Eastern Conference Champions because they advanced further in the playoffs than any other Eastern Conference team.
The road to win a championship for either team will not be easy. But it will be worth the wait when that happens. Here’s hoping for a successful second half to the Wizards 2017-18 season, and for a successful 2018 Mystics season this summer.