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Roundtable: How long is the Mystics’ championship window?

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Washington Mystics v Minnesota Lynx - Game Two Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

With the WNBA offseason now in full swing, we chatted about what’s in store for the Mystics this summer. I started with three points and it went on from there on this core question:

How long is the Mystics’ championship window?

Albert Lee: Let me preface this long ramble by first saying that the Mystics’ short term future is bright. I believe that the Mystics CAN win a championship very soon. But forgive me because I’m rather pessimistic about their long term championship hopes.

I give the Mystics two years (2018 and 2019) to make the Finals (and win a title) as constructed for three reasons:

1. The Mystics will not be a true juggernaut WNBA team in the near future

Minnesota Lynx v Washington Mystics - Game Three
The Mystics had a strong playoff run last year, but they didn’t have the depth that the Minnesota Lynx had. Even with Elena Delle Donne now, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever have that level of talent.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Most WNBA teams that win titles are juggernauts with at least 2 or 3 Team USA players. The 2017 Minnesota Lynx had four Team USA players. But the Mystics only have one -- or two of that caliber if you believe Emma Meesseman has a shot at Team USA if she was an American. No other Mystics player is in consideration for Team USA’s World Cup or Olympic rosters.

So, the Mystics have to rely on Mike Thibault out-coaching Cheryl Reeve of Minnesota or Brian Agler of L.A. in the semifinals and Finals. And they’ll have to see the chemistry of their role players shine like we saw the 2012 Fever championship team do, except that they’ll have to do this in two five-game series, not one.

We saw positive moments last season, but the main reason why they have Delle Donne is because she wanted to be in D.C., and they parted ways with a lot of their young players to get her via trade. The Sparks and Lynx didn’t have to get their franchise players by trading multiple key players which allows them to be deeper than the Mystics will ever be.

To be fair, we saw some great moments from most of the Mystics’ supporting cast as Kristi Toliver and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt carried Washington to critical playoff wins. If the Lynx and Sparks miss a step while the Mystics benefit from their own continuity, then that could help them get to the Finals in 2018 and maybe 2019 as well.

2. Seattle, Las Vegas, and Connecticut stand to be the WNBA’s next super teams

Chicago Sky v Seattle Storm
The Seattle Storm got a new lease on life with Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. They have the WNBA superstar status to lead the next wave of super teams when the Lynx and Sparks decline.
Photo by Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

The Mystics were one of the youngest teams in league until last season when Delle Donne arrived. Now, the Mystics now have some of the top draft picks I’ve griped about for years. But again, they got her by giving up much of their bench depth.

The Storm has two very young #1 overall picks in Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart. The Aces should still have Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum, and Moriah Jefferson to build around or use for future deals. And the Sun was better than the Mystics last season thanks to Jonquel Jones’ breakout year.

Delle Donne is as good as she’ll ever be in the next couple years, and so will Tayler Hill and TRP. Toliver is now entering the twilight of her career, so the window is closing faster than some may think. In two years, I anticipate seeing some combination of the Storm, Aces, and Sun being among the elite, while the Mystics may face a moment of reckoning if they continue having mediocre regular seasons.

3. The Belgian national team’s ascendance will limit Emma Meesseman’s availability for the Mystics

As Belgium catapults from being one of Europe’s historically weaker teams to one of its stronger ones, it will take more of Emma Meesseman’s time away from Washington.

It goes without saying that Emma Meesseman is the Mystics’ best homegrown player in the Mike Thibault Era. And it’s still possible that she could be the Mystics’ best player (again) because she’ll be just 25 years old this summer if she stays in Washington until her 30’s. But EuroBasket Women 2017 took her out of commission for a third of the season because she played for Belgium. It’s something that will probably keep happening for awhile.

Belgium truly has one of the greatest “rags to riches” stories in FIBA women’s basketball last year to those who weren’t familiar with them. But to FIBA’s Paul Nilsen, he saw this coming for quite some time. Belgium’s ascendance unfortunately hurts the Mystics’ championship window. That’s because the WNBA season won’t pause for international tournaments unless the United States is involved. Nilsen and I believe there must be changes to make the WNBA and FIBA better partners, not adversaries.

Until the rules change, we have to accept that Meesseman won’t be playing full time for the Mystics anymore during EuroBasket years, or all odd numbered years now that Belgium has a stronger roster. Then, if Belgium makes the Olympics in 2020, Meesseman may be out until after the Games conclude in those years.

I don’t want to sound like I’m fear mongering, so I’ll be clear on this point. I expect Meesseman to play the entire season in 2018 because she’s been very dedicated to the Mystics, especially for a player from Europe. But 2018 may be Meesseman’s last full WNBA season where she plays 34 regular season games and the playoffs when you take the Belgian team commitments and their general talent level into account.

Meesseman and Delle Donne can be a super scary frontcourt duo once they get a lot of time to play together. But it’s just theory if they don’t get to play together that much in 2018 since 2017 didn’t start on the right foot for them.

Washington Mystics v Los Angeles Sparks
The Sparks may have a juggernaut squad, but the Mystics now have the potential to beat them in a five-game series, even if they aren’t favored on paper.
Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Diamond Holton: On your points:

On Point 1: I totally agree with you the Mystics will not be one of those juggernaut teams. But can they be that underdog team that everyone has to keep an eye on? Yes, I feel they will.

I value potential over anything. The Mystics can beat today’s super teams like the Sparks and Lynx if they set their mind on it. The Mystics are the only team without a Finals appearance unless you count the new Las Vegas Aces. I’m not sure of that’s just the curse of the Washington teams or what.

I’m confident the Mystics can compete for a title, even if they aren’t going to be a favorite. So I’m not confident as to whether they will ever be championship caliber or even win one any time soon.

On Point 2: What’s truly missing for the Mystics to be elite and contend long-term is the question. But I don’t have an answer to how they can fend of the next possible super teams (like the Storm among others), just yet.

On Point 3: I’ve always considered Emma Meesseman playing overseas during regular season an issue only because while the team tries to mesh together without her and develop a good system. When she returned, everything had to be changed up midway through the season, though injuries to Delle Donne and Hill didn’t make things easier.

Meesseman is an asset who’s needed especially if Delle Donne gets hold of the injury bug again. No shade toward Krystal Thomas though, who I feel has made big strides of her own.

Washington Mystics v New York Liberty
Kristi Toliver may be in her 30’s, but many WNBA sharpshooters are effective into their mid-30’s. Toliver is one of those sharpshooters.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Lyndie Wood: I’m going to take a contrary position on this. I won’t argue that the Mystics are guaranteed to win a title, or even be overwhelming title favorites in any particular year. Nevertheless, I think they are in a very good position.

The Mystics are almost certainly going to get a lot better. There are only 34 games in a WNBA season. That’s less than half an NBA season, and a few games longer than a college basketball season. We rarely bat an eye at talented NBA or college teams who underperform while they learn to play together.

Continuity matters a lot in the WNBA, and I think the Emma Meesseman-Elena Delle Donne-Tayler Hill-Kristi Toliver quartet will continue to get better for years to come. I know last season’s regular season was disappointing, but the Mystics were only a few games back from the 3 seed. I think we’ve only just barely scratched the surface of how good they can be.

It’s true that Toliver is getting older since she’ll be 31 this year. But a lot of WNBA guards - especially ones who can shoot - stay productive well into their 30s. Mike Thibault has also done a good job managing the team’s assets, so they can be opportunistic about trading for younger guards if any become available. I’m also not sure she is even the best fit for Delle Donne and Meesseman, who might eventually benefit more from a more pass-first point guard.

But from an age perspective, I actually think the Mystics might be in a good position to thread the needle between the Lynx/Sparks dominance and the next wave of super teams. The Aces have young talent but have also been really bad (and there have already been signs of dysfunction with the Kelsey Plum-Moriah Jefferson-Kayla McBride trio).

The Wings, Mercury, Sun, Liberty, and Dream have less talent at the top than the Mystics. The Sky and Fever are in the early days of tanking. I think you’re right to identify the Seattle Storm as the next big powerhouse Albert, but they also have a lot to prove. If we’re in a situation in a couple years where the Mystics are the second best team in the league after Seattle, well, it’s hard to be too mad about that.

I’m not saying I’d take them over the field to win a title over the next five years. But I also think the Mystics had a successful rebuild when they came out of it five years later with players as good as Delle Donne and Meesseman (not to mention Hill, Toliver, and all the bench depth this team has). If the Lynx and Sparks release their strangle on the league in 2018, I’m not sure there is another team I would trade places with when it comes to medium-term upside.