Today is New Year’s Eve before we ring in the year 2021. In general, I’m looking forward to a new year because 2020 was just horrible.
In almost any other year, at least some of you will be going out to parties downtown at a restaurant or nightclub. You’ll be celebrating with champagne and dance the night away once the clock hits midnight! Whether it’s to classics like “YMCA”, “Get Ready For This” or the “Macarena,” or whether you prefer to go “Swag Surfin’” like we do at Mystics games or the “Dougie” like John Wall, or even if you want to dance to today’s K-Pop hits like BLACKPINK’s “Ice Cream,” you party like a rock star! (There’s a song to that too!)
But unfortunately, that won’t (or at least shouldn’t) be the plan this year. Instead, we’ll be in our homes, on Zoom calls with friends and family and wearing masks while outside.
Before I even summarize the Washington Wizards’ and Mystics’ calendar year, I once again have to talk about the thing that bothers me the most: the coronavirus. It has now affected nearly 20 million Americans, killing over 341,000 as of midnight on New Year’s Eve while I type this. The coronavirus stopped us from going to games at Capital One Arena and the Entertainment and Sports Arena, stopped us from going to bars and other entertainment establishments. And while vaccines are on the way, it’s unlikely that 2021 will be close to a pre-pandemic normal.
The coronavirus has also affected both the Wizards’ and Mystics’ seasons in various ways. First, let’s talk about them on the court.
The Wizards do just well enough to make the Orlando bubble, but go into free fall afterward and move on from the John Wall Era
NBA seasons never fall into a clean-cut calendar year, but 2020 was a year where the Wizards and their new General Manager Tommy Sheppard were looking to build a young core around the All-Star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Wall missed the entire 2019-20 season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, while Beal shouldered the load, averaging 30.5 points and 6.1 assists per game and coming close to an All-NBA team mention.
The young core throughout the year ultimately was formed around center Thomas Bryant, who is in the second year of a three-year contract, 2018 first round draft pick Troy Brown, 2019 first round pick Rui Hachimura and 2020 first round pick Deni Avdija.
Washington would ultimately finish ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 24-40 record before the coronavirus pandemic and a positive test by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert forced the league to suspend operations into July when 22 teams, including Washington finished the regular season in a bubble based in Orlando, Fla.
And that’s when the Wizards’ record fell apart.
Without Beal, who sat out the bubble to rehab a shoulder injury or Davis Bertans, who wanted to prevent an injury before his unrestricted free agency, the team had a league-worst 1-7 record, getting their lone win at the very end of their time in Orlando. Despite the bad record, in some ways, qualifying for “bubble play” was like making the playoffs since not every team qualified.
In a delayed and virtual 2020 NBA Draft, the Wizards selected Avdija No. 9 on Nov. 18 and acquired Cassius Winston with the No. 53 pick after a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for Vit Krejci, whom Washington selected with the No. 37 pick for the trade. While Avdija was expected to add to the young core the Wizards wanted to build around Wall and Beal, and while Bertans was re-signed in free agency, even bigger news was on the horizon.
John Wall was on the trade block for Russell Westbrook from the Houston Rockets in mid-November. Part of the reason why? Westbrook wanted out of Houston. This report and Sheppard’s comments about building around Beal ultimately got Wall to request a trade from the Wizards. And on Dec. 2, the deal was finally done. Wall and a future first round draft pick were traded to Houston for Westbrook, the 2016-17 NBA MVP.
Once the games began for the 2020-21 NBA season, the Wizards may have a better individual performer like Westbrook, but the team is off to an 0-4 start. Whether it’s due to poor fourth quarters or simply letting their guard down, it’s difficult to see Washington bouncing back unless they hit a hot streak, very very soon.
I predicted that the Wizards will make the 2021 postseason, but I also get that the odds of an 0-4 team getting there are slim to say the least.
The Mystics fight back to make the 2020 WNBA Playoffs after losing most of their starters from their championship team
If the coronavirus didn’t exist, the Washington Mystics would have celebrated the 2019 WNBA championship with a parade in downtown D.C. this past May. They would have had a championship banner raised and a ring ceremony in front of fans at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
Finally, the would have had a roster that would contend for a championship, giving the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm a run for their money. Washington re-signed Emma Meesseman and Elena Delle Donne to supermax contracts last February and traded multiple draft picks for Tina Charles last April.
But COVID-19 changed all that.
Regarding the championship parade? The already delayed original date of May 12 was indefinitely postponed. Most of the Mystics’ 2019 roster was able to get their rings at Salamander Resort in Loudoun County, Va, but it was only in a private, socially distanced ceremony. Some people no longer on the Mystics, like then-assistant coach Marianne Stanley received their rings before games that summer. And in Kim Mestdagh’s case, she had to wait until late September.
The Mystics had a lot more roster turnover than they originally anticipated. Charles received a medical exemption and skipped the season because of asthma. Delle Donne was denied a medical exemption, putting the Mystics in a weird spot. But she also skipped the season because she was rehabbing her back and is immunocompromised. That was just strange.
And if that weren’t enough, starting guard Natasha Cloud and starting center LaToya Sanders sat out to focus on social causes and personal reasons, respectively. Four starters from the 2019 championship team didn’t show up to the WNBA’s summer bubble in Bradenton, Fla.
When the season started, the Mystics finished with a 9-13 record, earning the No. 8 seed after going on a four-game winning streak to earn it. They would have made the second round of the playoffs if it weren’t for a buzzer-beater by Shey Peddy, who actually played for them earlier that summer and was a midseason cut.
As for the players’ individual performances, it was a mixed bag. On the bright side, Myisha Hines-Allen stepped up big, turning from a seldom-used reserve in 2019 to being their go-to option, averaging 17 points and 8.9 rebounds in the 2020 season. She was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and was runner up for the Most Improved Player award.
In addition, Ariel Atkins was also named to the All-WNBA Defensive Second team for the third consecutive season.
Other players had disappointing seasons, most notably Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP. Her efficiency dropped significantly and she missed a couple games due to injury. Aerial Powers started off the season hot, averaging 16.3 points per game in six appearances, but a hamstring injury forced her to miss most of the season.
The Mystics persevered in 2020 and will be in good shape to contend for another title in 2021 with most of their key players like Delle Donne, Charles, Cloud, Sanders and Powers looking to return. However, it’s far from a given that they will make the Finals given how stacked other top teams like the Seattle Storm, Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun are.
Both teams unite on social justice causes
The coronavirus pandemic was the number one story of 2020, but it also brought up other issues in American society that haven’t been properly addressed yet, most notably, issues like systemic racism, in particular against African Americans.
After the killings of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor in February before the pandemic, numerous protests sprung across major cities, including Washington. And on June 19, the Wizards and Mystics held a “Together We Stand” march.
While Wall (who was on the Wizards at the time) and Beal were the most notable players who participated in the march, Cloud was the one who initially led the effort. As mentioned earlier, she skipped the 2020 WNBA season. She would spend the summer as a featured guest on news channels to focus on social justice causes, including getting the Entertainment and Sports Arena to be a voting super center because of the pandemic.
From there, the teams, especially the Mystics became more active on social causes when their summer seasons began. After Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisc. in late August, the Mystics were the first team to refuse to play on Aug. 26 because of it and it ultimately got the whole league to stop playing that day. NBA playoff games, which were on at that time, were also stopped. It also was a moment where Atkins and forward Tianna Hawkins spoke out on a personal level regarding the decision not to play and issues in society at large.
The Wizards have also taken more time to be more involved in their civic duty to vote. Beal admitted that he would vote for the first time this past November recently. According to NBPA President and Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, 90 percent of American NBA players are registered to vote.
The year 2020 has been rough for a lot of us because of the coronavirus pandemic. And we didn’t see too much winning basketball on the court this year. Here’s hoping that the Wizards and Mystics have a more positive 2021.