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2018 Year in Review: The Mystics make progress as contenders while the Wizards regress into dysfunction

For the Mystics, 2018 was a year of progress. For the Wizards, it was a year of disappointments where they must re-evaluate their direction.

WNBA Finals - Game One
The brightest moment of 2018 for Washington basketball fans was seeing Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics make the WNBA Finals.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The year 2018 was a watershed moment for Washington, D.C. sports fans. Of the “Big Four” sports teams, the Capitals won the 2017-18 Stanley Cup after a decade-long wait that included first and second round playoff losses. They weren’t the only team to experience a high level of success. D.C. United signed English soccer star Wayne Rooney and made the MLS Playoffs after a rough start. The Ted Leonsis-owned Washington Valor also won the Arena Football League championship this year after missing the playoffs last year.

The Wizards and Mystics had varying levels of success in 2018 as well in the NBA and WNBA. For one of the teams, I can confidently say that things are going in the right direction. For the other team, I really hope 2019 is a time where significant changes happen.

The Mystics make the WNBA Finals in a historic 2018 season

I’d rather start on a positive note with the team going in the right direction. It’s the Washington Mystics, so let’s talk about their 2018 first.

The 2018 WNBA season was supposed to be a repeat of 2017. “Everyone” knew the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks would meet in the WNBA Finals. And the Mystics, who lost Emma Meesseman for the season because of her commitment to the Belgian national team, were expected to just make the playoffs but a return trip to the semifinals seemed to be a reach.

Washington managed to stay in the Top-4 of the WNBA standings but got into a slump in July when they fell to seventh at the All-Star Break. After the All-Star Break, Washington went on an eight-game winning streak which was capped off by a Natasha Cloud game winner against the Los Angeles Sparks.

That shot may have very well given the Mystics the confidence they needed to defeat the Sparks once again in the second round of the playoffs and the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA Semifinals once Elena Delle Donne had a knee injury.

In the Finals, the Mystics were swept by the Seattle Storm who are poised to be the next WNBA superteam with a young star cast of reigning MVP Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, and long-time veteran Sue Bird. It was sad to see that the Mystics couldn’t get at least one win in the Finals, but they also took a major step forward making the championship round for the first time.

The Mystics headed into 2018 as the only WNBA team without a single Finals appearance. Though they still have no conference championships, they also mean nothing today with the playoff format changing in 2016. But if you want to know which Eastern Conference team has done best in the postseason, it’s the Mystics. Washington has been shadow or effective Eastern Conference Champions for two consecutive seasons based on playoff results.

Delle Donne is the franchise player and she was a contender for the MVP award. She was an All-Star along with Kristi Toliver. Ariel Atkins was a surprise first round draft pick but she quickly became a starter and was named to the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team as a rookie.

The Wizards have a disappointing 2018 that should result in a major overhaul

Calendar years don’t fit in so nicely with NBA teams. In 2018, the Wizards played the second half of the 2017-18 season and the first half of the 2018-19 season. But for the Wizards, it was a disappointing year regardless of what season it was.

In January, John Wall had left knee surgery which sidelined him for nearly two months. Tomas Satoransky became the new starting point guard and orchestrated a Wizards offense that was more pass happy and was able to hold the fort. They ultimately went 20-21 with him as the starting point guard. It wasn’t .500 basketball, but the Wizards also appeared to look more enthusiastic when he was making plays than when Wall was there.

Marcin Gortat wrote this tweet about a great “team” victory:

And Bradley Beal said “Everybody eats. That’s our motto when we move the ball” in early February to Candace Buckner of The Washington Post in early February as well.

And Wall could have just said nothing if he took issue with Gortat’s tweet or the “Everybody Eats” style of play. But he did. Wall took offense to Gortat’s tweet calling him a “spoon fed” player in an ESPN interview and responding to the “team” victory tweet.

When he returned from injury in late March, Wall told Matthew Paras of The Washington Times that he had no plans to adjust his game despite the injury or the new style of play without him. Before Wall returned, Marcus Atkinson wrote about how Wall could help the Wizards improve by being a little more “Sato-esque” — and it’s clear that Wall felt that he didn’t need to change.

Ultimately, the Wizards were 43-39 in the 2017-18 season and lost to the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.

In the summer, the Wizards were able to make some significant improvements. They were apparently in the running for Kawhi Leonard, but he was traded to the Raptors. The Wizards did get Dwight Howard to shore up the center rotation. Gortat, whose relationship with Wall soured over 2018 and he was sent to the Clippers in exchange for Austin Rivers who was making gradual improvements. And after trading the 2016 and 2017 first round picks to clean up past front office mistakes, the Wizards drafted Troy Brown Jr. in the first round.

When it was all said and done, Ted Leonsis proudly claimed that the 2018-19 Washington Wizards was the deepest team he’s had. So the Wizards, or at least the front office and the players believed that the team had a good chance to go far the NBA Playoffs, especially with LeBron James now on the Lakers, right?

Wrong.

The Wizards started out 3-9 and are just 14-23 heading into 2019. Dwight Howard had a back injury and will miss the next couple months due to surgery, not to mention he had other things going on in his personal life. And in December, the Wizards made some trades. Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers were traded to the Suns for Trevor Ariza — AFTER a botched three-team trade because of Washington playing as the intermediary creating confusion. Jason Smith was traded for Sam Dekker in another three-team deal.

To cap off December, Wall decided to have left heel surgery to clean out bone spurs and heal his Achilles. He will miss the rest of the season. For now, it appears that the Wizards will go back to “Everybody Eats” basketball and hope for the best. But the reality is that things aren’t looking good at all for the Wizards as a whole. They’re in dysfunction and something has to give very soon.

I know the section on the Wizards was quite negative, and it there are some positive moments. Bradley Beal has taken a step forward in his game where he made his first All-Star team and continues to improve this season with games like his triple double against the Suns earlier this month (highlights above). Satoransky has truly become a multi-dimensional and positional player. And Beal, Wall, and several Wizards players had children over the summer. But again, there is more to be negative about with the Wizards than positive this year.

What do we expect in 2019 for the Mystics?

Emma Meesseman Belgium FIBA Women’s World Cup
Emma Meesseman could be that “last missing piece” for a Mystics 2019 championship team. It’s unclear what the best role is for her though.
FIBA snapshot

The Mystics are coming off a big season in 2018 and should have a great chance to make the Finals once again in 2019. Now that the Mystics have a 20-win season and two long playoff runs in the Thibault era, it is time to sustain that success year in and year out.

Though Washington should be a consistent playoff team going forward, the next big step for the Mystics is to see if they can add another superstar in free agency which starts in February.

On the one hand, Meesseman is that second superstar and her ceiling is higher than Delle Donne’s. After the WNBA season, Meesseman played some excellent basketball in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup where Belgium was fourth place. She was named to the World Cup’s All-Star Five. Delle Donne played for Team USA who won Gold, but her previous knee injury slowed her down.

But the WNBA schedule and international commitments with Belgium will neutralize Meesseman’s impact on the court and the Meesseman and Delle Donne frontcourt duo wasn’t the feared matchup I hoped it would be. That’s why multiple writers here believe Meesseman is best used as a sixth woman, not as a starter — at least until things change in the WNBA.

So it will be interesting to see if the Mystics are now a destination team for free agents. Howard Megdal of High Post Hoops has a database of WNBA salaries for every team, so we can now start doing some WNBA trade machine and free agency pieces like never before. I already have some ideas before February rolls around!

In summary, the future looks bright for the Mystics. I’m still concerned about a talent advantage the Storm has and some other rising teams like the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun. But again, the Mystics are in a very good place for 2019.

And what do we expect in 2019 for the Wizards?

Houston Rockets v Washington Wizards
The good news about John Wall’s 2018 was that he became a father. The bad news is how his team has otherwise regressed.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Wizards will also have an interesting January leading up to February. Teams will certainly try to see if Washington will part ways with Bradley Beal and/or Otto Porter. But the Wizards would probably rather get rid of Wall (and his supermax contract that kicks in next year) and/or Ian Mahinmi instead. If Wall was not injured and if Mahinmi wasn’t so ineffective on the court, perhaps there could be something done, even if the Wizards end up with less talent than before.

If we follow Ted Leonsis’ Ten Point Plan like a strict originalist, the Wizards should trade everybody and go into “The Process” like the Philadelphia 76ers did from 2013 to 2018. And to me, a rebuild is best when a team rebuilds like they did. “The Process” did work. So call me an originalist when it comes to that document. I believe that the Wizards have to start over. The Wizards’ top players are in their primes but cannot win much together. The teams at the top of the Eastern Conference are just built better in the short and medium term than Washington at this point.

That said, I also realize that Wall was signed to a supermax which kicks in NEXT YEAR. He is injured and no teams, barring one desperate for a superstar “just because” like the New York Knicks, are willing to trade for him. That effectively means that the Wizards will have to start over with John Wall as the foundational piece over the life of his supermax contract. They will just have to let Mahinmi stay on the roster until 2020 but also they’ll need to find new homes for Beal and Porter. That’s the quickest way for them to open cap space, rebuild, but also with the reality that Wall is going nowhere, barring a lopsided deal somewhere.

To be clear, Wall isn’t the primary one to blame. He did the right thing for himself and his family’s future by signing the supermax extension in 2017. He certainly isn’t a saint. And Wall had some unflattering news written about him. Things like his words about Gortat or the way he frequents the Rosebar Lounge near Dupont Circle and doesn’t care what you think about it.

The main people responsible for the Wizards’ dysfunction are Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld.

Sometimes, making a big front office change by giving “carte blanche” to one man to run the basketball operations, and seeing the team build with youth to become a contender over time is the right call. Leonsis deserves credit for hiring Mike Thibault to run the Mystics and seeing them become a WNBA title contender. Thibault more or less ran the Ten Point plan, adapting it to the way the league works while not compromising his will to win games.

But the Wizards in their current state aren’t working out. To his credit over thee years, Grunfeld certainly has helped the Wizards become a more consistent playoff team. But they are still not championship contenders because of numerous short sighted moves or draft blunders he made.

At some point, the team has to rebuild. I believe that time is now. I also believe that the rebuild cannot be under Grunfeld’s watch. He already rebuilt the Wizards twice: first in 2003 when he first came to Washington and then in 2010 when the Wall Era began. Grunfeld has made several draft blunders and the Wizards are in salary cap jail where they can’t make any changes to feasibly improve the team at this point. Unfortunately, they have peaked.

For Leonsis, he’s seen two of his teams win championships. And the Mystics have now solidified themselves as a legitimate WNBA championship contender even if they aren’t a “superteam.” Now that he has some hardware and has seen the Mystics make more progress, Leonsis may be a bit more impatient with the Wizards than he historically has.

In 2019, it’s my hope that Leonsis gets a new front office in place for the Wizards sooner rather than later. Until that happens, it’s hard to see how another Wizards rebuild will result in better results long term.


And that is my manifesto for 2018. What were your favorite moments from the Wizards and Mystics in 2018? What do you want to see them do in 2019? Let us know in the comments below.

Have a safe and Happy New Year everyone.