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WNBA Free Agency: What Kristi Toliver’s departure to LA means for the Mystics and Wizards

The Washington Mystics now must focus on young players improving while Toliver now has an “out” from the Wizards if their performance doesn’t improve relatively soon.

LA Clippers v Washington Wizards
Kristi Toliver is entering uncharted waters as she leaves for the Los Angeles Sparks while remaining as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Washington Mystics guard and Washington Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver signed a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Sparks on Monday. The news surprises many. Toliver went to college at nearby Maryland. She is from Harrisonburg, Va., just a two-hour drive from D.C. And she’s an assistant coach for the Wizards. What does this all mean for the team she played for and the team she works for?

The Mystics probably didn’t have the cap room to keep Toliver knowing that they were keeping Emma Meesseman and Elena Delle Donne.

2019 WNBA Finals - Game Five
Yes, the Washington Mystics are taking a risk by keeping Emma Meesseman since Belgium is now a women’s basketball world power. But keeping her is their best path toward another championship run.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Toliver’s three-year contract suggests she’s not planning to end her playing career any time soon. Financial considerations are also likely to be important to both Toliver and the Mystics.

According to Howard Megdal of High Post Hoops, the Sparks had about $719,000 in committed salaries for the 2020 season before free agency. Furthermore, most of their key stars like Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike are under contract. With a salary cap of $1.3 million this season and most of their core under contract, the Sparks would have been able to offer Toliver a maximum level contract for three years.

The Mystics on the other hand, had about $600,000 in cap space BEFORE re-signing Meesseman and Delle Donne, who are both probably getting max salaries north of $200,000 per year. And they have multiple younger players who will hit free agency themselves.

In other words, the Mystics couldn’t make a comparable offer to keep Toliver. According to Ava Wallace of The Washington Post, Mystics General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault indicated that salary cap dynamics played a part toward the team not re-signing Toliver, though he indicated that he wanted to re-sign Toliver for two seasons instead of three.

The Mystics can now give their younger backcourt players more minutes and larger roles. That isn’t just a good thing. It’s necessary to keep their championship window open.

2019 WNBA Finals - Game Three
Aerial Powers is bound to get a larger role with the Mystics with Kristi Toliver departing.
Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Now that Toliver is going to L.A., the Mystics can address one of their weaker points: Their core is aging. Toliver is 33 years old and is declining at this point. Even if the Mystics had the cap room to sign her to a maximum-level contract extension, it may be prudent for General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault to let her walk in the long run.

Why? Natasha Cloud is coming into her own and can now be the Mystics’ starting point guard outright. She is 27 and in her prime. Ariel Atkins is ready to take a larger role, and she is under consideration to make the USA Basketball women’s national team. She’s just 23.

And let’s get to the bench. Aerial Powers has been a major spark for Washington’s reserves since she arrived in the middle of the 2017 season. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough appears poised to get a larger role as well. The cupboard is far from empty when it comes to the Mystics’ backcourt talent (and their frontcourt for that matter).

Ultimately, letting Toliver depart can allow these players to grow into All-Star talents on their own accord. Think back of the time when Thibault traded Crystal Langhorne for Bria Hartley and Tianna Hawkins so Emma Meesseman could start games. She was relegated to the bench last season, but there’s a good chance she’s back in the starting lineup with this move, assuming she’s a “full-time player.”

Toliver may find it easier to leave the Wizards if Scott Brooks gets on the hot seat now that she’s not playing for D.C.

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks
Scott Brooks is entering the last year of his five-year contract in the 2020-21 NBA season.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Before he became a WNBA head coach, Thibault spent many years as an NBA assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks. Along the way, he has openly said to me and many others that when NBA head coaches get fired, it’s not uncommon to see every assistant lose his job as well. (Keep in mind there were no female NBA assistants when he was coaching).

As we all know, the Wizards are probably going to the NBA Draft Lottery, even if they are within striking distance of a playoff spot at the moment. But with Bradley Beal cantankerous about recent losing spells and John Wall entering the second year of his supermax contract, this team is going to be under pressure to compete for the Eastern Conference championship next season, whether it’s realistic or not.

Brooks, who was hired in 2016 to take the Wizards to the Eastern Conference Finals, hasn’t come close since his first season.

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Brooks could be entering a lame duck year, assuming he makes it that far. If the Wizards do not start off on the right foot in 2020-21, it’s realistic to see him get fired. Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington noted on Monday that Brooks’ job isn’t necessarily that stable, even if he isn’t on the hot seat at this exact moment.

If Brooks is fired after this season or midseason this fall or winter, it certainly puts Toliver’s job situation with the Wizards at risk. She too, can be fired by a new head coach just because she was associated with the previous regime.

Sure, I can see a hypothetical situation where Brooks is fired midseason this fall, Thibault takes the Wizards job on an interim basis and keeps Toliver and the development staff. But I also think that such a scenario isn’t realistic, even though it would provide some interesting narratives if all of those things came to be.

The reality is that Brooks is running out of time to show that he’s the right coach for the Wizards at this time. So I think Brooks is a “dead man walking” barring a playoff run this season.

With that in mind, if you’re Toliver, do you want to gamble on your coaching future with the Washington Wizards knowing that Brooks’ future is in doubt? Signing with the Sparks can allow her to potentially find a position with other NBA teams like the Los Angeles Clippers or Lakers, teams that Sparks owner Magic Johnson does NOT have a stake in. It could be a win for Toliver’s long-term professional development as well.