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The 2010 Washington Mystics were a big underdog and the franchise’s “what-if” story of the pre-Mike Thibault Era

The Washington Mystics had brief periods of relevance before their recent run of dominance. The 2010 team went 22-12 and won the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

New York Liberty v Washington Mystics
The 2010 Washington Mystics were generally considered to be a borderline playoff team, if that. But they ended up being to the Atlanta Dream in the first round of the WNBA playoffs.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

During the last couple months, I have reflected a bit on the Washington Mystics, including their ups and downs. With SB Nation’s “What If?” week last week and “Underdog Week” right now, I certainly felt that at least one team would check both of these boxes very well.

That team was Washington’s 2010 squad. They went 22-12 in the regular season before losing in the first round to the Atlanta Dream, the Eastern Conference champions this year.

Why were the 2010 Mystics an underdog?

Atlanta Dream v Washington Mystics
Crystal Langhorne (L) gives Katie Smith (R) a high five during a 2010 Washington Mystics game.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

In the previous season, the Mystics went 16-18, earned a playoff berth and lost in the first round to the Indiana Fever. Starting power forward became the WNBA’s Most Improved Player that season, just one year after a rather unremarkable rookie year in 2008.

But before the 2010 regular season began, Alana Beard had ankle surgery that sidelined the four-time All-Star for the entire season in mid-April, just a month before the season was supposed to begin! That could have very well ended Washington’s hopes for another playoff appearance.

The preseason polls certainly thought so. In the 2010 season’s WNBA General Manager survey, Washington wasn’t projected to finish first in the Eastern Conference like they ended up doing. Instead they were tied for fourth. And their head coach, Julie Plank wasn’t perceived to be a game-changer nor was she seriously considered a top head coach. The top vote-getter at the time was Mike Thibault of the Connecticut Sun. I think we know where he is now, right?

Anyway, people weren’t particularly positive about the Mystics’ chances.

However, Washington signed superstar guard Katie Smith in free agency, who left the Detroit Shock as they were headed to Tulsa. That franchise is now known as the Dallas Wings. Smith was already in the twilight of her career as she would be 36 years old in the 2010 season.

Smith took what would have been Beard’s place in the starting lineup where she would average 9.5 points and 2.6 assists per game. These averages weren’t particularly great, but Smith provided veteran poise to a team with a young core that consisted of power forward Crystal Langhorne, forward Monique Currie and guard Lindsey Harding, all three of whom were named to play for the WNBA All-Star team in a one-off WNBA vs. Team USA midseason friendly before the FIBA Women’s World Championship (now the World Cup) that year.

Langhorne would go on to make the All-WNBA Second Team after averaging 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds that season while starting all of Washington’s games.

Washington’s run to win the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs was just as remarkable. They went a then-franchise-best 22-12 where they had to win six consecutive games to finish the season. The Mystics managed to do all of this with a stout defense where they were second (97.0 points per 100 possessions) in team rating, though their offensive was just sixth (101.8 points per 100 possessions).

If there was one downer about this season (besides the unpopular postseason firing of both Taylor and Plank which I’ll address later), it was regarding how the Mystics’ 2010 season ended. Washington faced the Atlanta Dream in the first round of the playoffs where they would get swept, 2-0. The Dream would go onto the WNBA Finals where they were swept by the Seattle Storm.

Why are the 2010 Mystics the biggest “What if” of the pre-Mike Thibault Era?

Washington Mystics Media Day
If the Mystics kept then-General Manager Angela Taylor (L) and Julie Plank (R) after the 2010 WNBA season, it’s reasonable to assume that they would have more playoff consistently. But it’s improbable that Mike Thibault would be in their spot right now.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Like my post last week regarding the consequences the Mystics faced if Thibault were never fired by the Sun after 2012, the 2010 Mystics also present a major fork in the road for the franchise.

If the Mystics kept Plank and then-General Manager Angela Taylor, I think Washington would have remained a playoff caliber-team for another year or even two. perhaps with some good free agent signings, like Smith’s. Plank made more out of her talent than her successor, Trudi Lacey, who was an assistant on the 2010 team.

But I think fans would have also gotten worrisome about Taylor’s draft choices, which would have brought the team to another rebuild situation, especially if they couldn’t get Beard to re-sign with them for 2012. In real life, she missed the 2011 season due to the same ankle injury and procedure from 2010.

Taylor oversaw two drafts in 2009 and 2010. In the first year, she picked Maryland forward Marissa Coleman with the second pick which overloaded the small forward position. Coleman was primarily a bench player during her time in D.C. with Currie entering her prime. Then in 2010, Washington drafted Jacinta Monroe with their first round pick, who only lasted two seasons in the league and played sparingly.

It’s hard to say exactly how long Taylor would have lasted in Washington as the GM if the Mystics continued to have little success with their draft picks. But I’m also not sure if she would have been fired after 2012 like Lacey was in real life.

That said, I’m certain that 2010 was also Washington’s best chance of making a Finals run before Thibault became Washington’s head coach three years later. That’s because they were able to beat the Storm at home, 80-71 on Aug. 15 and played competitively on the road against them as well in an 82-76 loss on May 25.

That leads me to a question that still lingers with some fans to this day. Could the Mystics beat the Storm in a five-game series? I’m of the mindset that the team with the most talent will win a longer series, so I don’t think the Mystics would have pulled it off. Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson and Swin Cash were at their collective primes then, while Washington’s core was either young in the case of Langhorne, Harding and Currie ... or perhaps underwhelming like Monroe and Coleman were.

So while I am certainly appreciative of the Taylor and Plank Era from 2009-10, I don’t think they would have brought a championship to Washington. And though the next two years in real life were absolutely miserable, I think we’re all even happier to see that the Mystics are champions today.