The Washington Mystics are finishing the decade on as high of a note as any team out there. They are finishing the 2010s as reigning WNBA champions!
Still, their road to the championship wasn’t easy. And things looked really bleak at times. So let’s take a look back at the decade that was from 2010 to 2019!
2010: Mystics sign Katie Smith to bolster backcourt, call her “LeBron James” of free agency
The Mystics were entering the 2010s on a renewed sense of hope under General Manager Angela Taylor and Head Coach Julie Plank. They signed Katie Smith in unrestricted free agency from the Detroit Shock, who relocated to Tulsa that offseason. Originally, Smith was supposed to be a bench player behind Lindsey Harding and Alana Beard, but Smith started in the 2010 season because Beard suffered a season(S)-long ankle injury.
If there’s one memorable quote I remember from that presser, it’s that Taylor called Smith the “LeBron James” of free agency. In many ways, she was. Smith was a recent WNBA Finals MVP and Olympian. WNBA rules prohibited a lot of star movement, but still. This was one hell of a signing.
2010: Mystics win six consecutive games to finish the regular season 22-12
The 2010 Mystics were expected to miss the playoffs due to Beard missing the season. However, with Crystal Langhorne and Monique Currie having major seasons along with Smith and Harding, the Mystics still made the playoffs and finished first in the Eastern Conference.
Their playoff run was short since they were swept by the Atlanta Dream, but the Mystics ended that season with a lot of hope nonetheless.
2010: Mystics fire Angela Taylor and Julie Plank as General Manager and Head Coach respectively, hire Trudi Lacey to replace them
Yeah, there isn’t much to be said about this one. After the 2010 season, the Mystics made their most questionable front office move of the decade by letting go of their General Manager and Head Coach, consolidating them into one role for Lacey, who was an assistant on the 2009 and 2010 teams. Lacey was also the GM and Head Coach of the now-defunct Charlotte Sting franchise from 2003-05.
Ultimately, Lacey didn’t work out in Washington. You’ll read about some of the team’s moves in the sections below. She went 11-57 in two seasons with the Mystics, their worst two-year stretch in franchise history.
2011: Mystics trade 2012 first round draft pick for Nicky Anosike
If you thought Ernie Grunfeld was bad, Mystics fans will tell you to hold their ... Duvels.
The next two years of Mystics history is worth 1,000 blog posts, much of it which you will find on the DC Basketcases’ or Swish Appeal’s archives. In the interest of relative brevity, I’ll elaborate on things when needed.
Lacey traded for the center in exchange for their 2012 first round draft pick. Even without hindsight, fans just knew that the 2011 team would take a major step back from the team that won 22 games a year before. Ultimately, she traded for Anosike, a one-time All-Star center from the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for their 2012 first round pick.
Nate Parham of Swish Appeal wrote that it was a “win-win” at the time, but I still just had a dark feeling about it. From hindsight, I was right.
The Mystics ended up with a 6-28 record in 2011, in part due to Monique Currie tearing her ACL. But the team lost their killer instinct and still seemed shellshocked from the front office moves of the year before.
And if all that weren’t enough, Harding and Smith requested trades before that season began. Ultimately, Harding was traded to the Dream for a future draft pick and players who never worked out. Smith was traded to the Storm for more picks who didn’t work out. 2011 was a bad year to say the last.
2012: Mystics have the worst season in franchise history, cut a first round draft pick, lose out on the “Big Three” in the 2013 Draft
If 2011 was bad, 2012 was even worse. The Mystics were 5-29 with a veteran-laden roster. I even called for Lacey’s firing just five regular season games into the season. They had two first round draft picks in Natalie Novosel and LaSondra Barrett, the latter who didn’t even make the opening day roster. If my memory serves me right, Lacey wanted the Mystics to be a veteran-experienced team with a chance of making the playoffs.
Of course, everyone and their mother knew that a playoff appearance wasn’t happening. Washington had a worse record than the year before. And finally, even though they had the worst record in the WNBA for 2012, they fell from first to fourth in the following year’s draft. So even though the Mystics fired Lacey after the season ended, things looked bleak. Fans were openly talking about whether Ted Leonsis would fold the franchise or sell it off, even as the women’s basketball season was heading to an era around what ESPN likes to call ... “The Three to See.”
Baylor center Brittney Griner, Delaware forward Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins were bally-hooed to death in the 2012-13 college basketball season as they cakewalked their way toward getting drafted first through third in April 2013.
It was torture watching ESPN’s college basketball analysts go crazy on them .. and we knew NONE ... ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THEM would be the Mystics’ franchise player going forward.
I felt really, really bad during this time. Just ask Nate.
2012: Mystics hire Mike Thibault as their new General Manager and Head Coach
The Mystics hired the long-time Connecticut Sun head coach to replace Lacey, giving him a lot of autonomy to do what he felt was necessary. Thibault also stated early on that changes had to be made though he wasn’t clear at the time.
It is easy to look at things from hindsight now that Washington won a WNBA championship. But back then, even the news of Thibault’s hiring was rather tense. Yes, getting him was like drafting Griner, Delle Donne or Diggins. But, as you can see below......
2013: Mystics draft Emma Meesseman in the second round (with a draft pick via trade!)
I’ve written in the past that the Mystics have often had to pick the “best of the rest” in major drafts like 2013 among others. This was no different.
Washington selected Ohio State guard Tayler Hill with the fourth pick of the draft, ahead of some other players who attracted buzz like Maryland forward Tianna Hawkins and California guard Layshia Clarendon.
Ultimately, Hill played from 2013-18 with Washington and became a reliable starter toward the end, but she also had unlucky stretches with injuries and a team with veterans desperate to redeem themselves from such a poor 2012 campaign.
But given hindsight, the crown jewel of Washington’s draft was Emma Meesseman. The forward from French club ESB Villeneuve-d’Ascq was just 19 years old — and her selection was with a pick Washington acquired from the Atlanta Dream for Jasmine Thomas. I half-heartedly wrote that she would report to training camp.
Looking back at it now, I feel really silly. But really, things were very, VERY bad back then. I had no hope.
2013: Thibault wins WNBA Coach of the Year
In Major League Baseball, there’s the “Mickey Mantle rule.” Teams will look for any and EVERY reason NOT to give the one-time Yankee superstar a chance to get an MVP trophy. And in the WNBA, there’s the “Michael Thibault rule.” This man knows how to get any team to play above its weight. But the league will look for any reason NOT to give him the trophy.
2013 happened to be one of those years where the league just couldn’t pass Coach T over, even though they would if they could. Washington went 17-17 and earned a playoff berth after such a bad season the year before. A 17-17 record is the definition of mediocrity. But considering where Washington was in 2012, being mediocre is like ... winning a WNBA championship. Believe me, Mystics fans were there.
Thibault won the award that year and he deserved it! Like he does ... EVERY YEAR!
2015: Meesseman and Stefanie Dolson become WNBA All-Stars
Though the Mystics kept the veteran trio of Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon for 2013, I think most of us knew that they would all play elsewhere. By 2015, all three would play for different teams.
Meesseman quickly became the starting power forward and never let go of that position until her Belgian passport and national team got in the way. And 2014 first round draft pick Stefanie Dolson also blossomed, forming a solid frontcourt duo with Meesseman. Both became All-Stars in that season.
Washington certainly didn’t have the “box office names” most other teams had. The Storm had Sue Bird. The Sparks had Candace Parker. The Mercury had Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. The Sky had Delle Donne. But at the time, I was happy to see that Washington’s starting frontcourt was starting to turn heads.
2015: Monumental Sports announces plans to build Entertainment and Sports Arena, practice facility in Congress Heights
In September 2015, Monumental Sports & Entertainment and Washington, D.C. announced plans to build a new home arena for the Mystics and a future G League team (now the Capital City Go-Go) located in Congress Heights.
The arena also includes a practice facility for the Mystics, Go-Go and Wizards. At the time, Wizards fans (who weren’t enthusiastic about the WNBA) were just happy a new practice facility was FINALLY going to be built. Mystics fans were worried that the new arena was simply a way to marginalize the WNBA. We’ll get to ESA’s opening later in this piece.
2016: Elena Delle Donne demands trade to Mystics, becomes franchise star and Meesseman’s insurance (and vice versa)
In 2016, the WNBA changed its playoff format which effectively killed off the meaning of conferences. The Mystics finished 13-21 that season after having to play a more balanced schedule.
To this point, I’ve mentioned Elena Delle Donne as one of the ... enemies. Well, she was. Delle Donne was a member of the overhyped “Three to See.” She represented EVERYTHING the Mystics didn’t have: a surefire franchise superstar. At this point in 2016, I started noticing that Meesseman was putting herself in position to be mentioned in the same breath as stars like Delle Donne, but she was also a bit younger and under-developed at the time.
By the end of 2016, there were rumors that Delle Donne wanted out of Chicago and preferred to play closer to home. If she didn’t want to play for the Mystics, then the New York Liberty were the other realistic bet. Fortunately, she wanted to be in D.C.
Ultimately, the Mystics traded Dolson, Kahleah Copper and the second pick of the 2017 Draft for Delle Donne. The move immediately made Delle Donne Washington’s franchise star since Meesseman didn’t clinch it outright.
But for Meesseman, the Delle Donne move also gave her an out without feeling too bad for Washington. The Belgium women’s national basketball team started showing signs of becoming relevant within Europe after an extended absence, making EuroBasket after winning key games in qualifiers. Since Meesseman now had to miss games for her country, having Delle Donne is as good of an insurance policy as any!
2017: Mystics clinch semifinals for first time since 2002
The Mystics had a mediocre 18-16 season in 2017. But they clawed their way to the semifinals where they were ultimately swept by the eventual champion Minnesota Lynx. Elena Delle Donne showed her potential in a Washington uniform, but she was hampered by an ankle injury. Emma Meesseman was out part of the season with the Belgian women’s national team for EuroBasket where she won the bronze medal with them. Tayler Hill had a promising start but tore her ACL midseason and never looked quite the same again.
Ultimately, the Mystics came together for much of the WNBA playoffs. But it still wasn’t enough for them to show that they could truly be champions in the near future.
2018: Mystics make WNBA Finals, get swept by Storm
In the following season, the Mystics advanced to the 2018 WNBA Finals. But it was anything but easy. Washington lost Meesseman for the season because she wanted to fully focus on the Belgian national team now that they were in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. Despite some skepticism on how far Washington could go, the Mystics advanced to the WNBA Finals, but they were swept by the Seattle Storm, 3-0.
The funny thing was that the Mystics were one of the few (if not the only team) to look worse on paper in the 2018 season when everyone else improved. But their players all took their games up a notch. Natasha Cloud found her shooting touch. Toliver re-found her edge. Elena Delle Donne became more Meessemanesuqe with her previously non-existent passing game. Rookie Ariel Atkins was a lockdown force and was an All-WNBA Defensive team mention.
2018 was also the Mystics’ last at Capital One Arena as their full-time home. In Washington’s last regular season game, Cloud made a game-winning buzzer beater against the Los Angeles Sparks that will count as among the franchise’s best moments to date.
Though the end of the season didn’t go well, the Mystics had a very successful 2018 campaign. They finally earned their first Finals appearance when every other franchise previously did so. The team also defied expectations by going to the Finals without Meesseman. Now, all they needed was their longest tenured player to make one encore to seal the deal, even if it’s the last thing she’ll ever do.
2019: MYSTICS WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP!
In 2019, the Mystics made the term “Run it back” a theme. They wanted to face the Storm again in the WNBA Playoffs, but Breanna Stewart’s Achilles tear go in the way.
I’ll admit it. If Stewie was healthy in 2019, I just don’t think the Mystics would have been able to beat Seattle in a five-game series, even with Meesseman returning. But that will now be left to speculation, and to all Mystics fans’ benefit.
The new Entertainment and Sports Arena finally opened for Mystics games this season. Though I’ll admit that the space is a bit small for a WNBA contender, it is a very well-built facility and has a more raucous atmosphere than Capital One Arena. Washington went 14-3 at home this past season.
Also, let’s tie this back to Meesseman, their one remaining draft pick from the rebuild that started in 2013. She gradually grew into a world-class player but found herself in a dilemma, at least for most players of her caliber.
Even though she would start and be the franchise player on most other WNBA teams (especially if she were an American instead of a Belgian), she had to take a back seat to Delle Donne instead of playing alongside her. Most players of Meesseman’s caliber would have balked at backing up the eventual 2019 WNBA MVP, but she took it willingly, seemingly knowing that things will even out at the end.
Yes, Meesseman missed part of the season. Just enough so she couldn’t win an All-Star bid or even win the Sixth Woman of the Year Award only because ... she’s Belgian and had to play for her national team in EuroBasket. But in the playoffs, she delivered clutch performance after clutch performance, whether as a starter or off the bench. In the Finals, Meesseman played every game as a reserve and still won the Finals MVP award after Washington won the series, 3-2 over the Connecticut Sun! I am still not over it yet!
I NEVER WILL!