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2022 was about the Mystics’ transition to a post-Mike Thibault Era

The Washington Mystics spent 2022 making a triumphant return as one of the WNBA’s teams. They also began making strides toward what a post-Mike Thibault future would be like.

Washington Mystics v Connecticut Sun
The 2022 Mystics season was a bounceback year for Washington. They will have to continue next year with more changes.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2022 Washington Mystics season (and year) was about a team in transition. For two years, fans were hoping to see Elena Delle Donne come back to full strength most days, that Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud would form one of the WNBA’s best defensive backcourt. But most of all, fans wanted to see the team make a deep playoff run with some of the key players of the 2019 championship run.

Did all of these things happen? No. But overall, I’d say that 2022 was a successful year for the Mystics, as they threaded a needle between having a successful season, saying goodbye to some figures of the past and getting a look at what future teams will look like.

The things the Mystics should be proud of in 2022

I gotta say, after re-watching the Mystics’ 2022 season and reviewing things over the past couple weeks, here is what stands out in a positive way.

  • The Mystics use their No. 1 pick in the 2022 Draft to trade down to No. 3 AND get a second lottery pick in 2023 — Conventional wisdom tells GMs to keep their No. 1 draft picks and only trade for a superstar. The 2022 Draft featured multiple players who could have been No. 1 depending on whom Washington would have wanted. The Mystics ultimately picked Shakira Austin from Mississippi at No. 3. Given how she fit with the Mystics, perhaps she may have been their No. 1 selection all along. I’ll get into Austin in another bullet point.
  • The Mystics had the No. 1 defense in the WNBA — For the entire season, Washington held opponents to 97.8 points per 100 possessions. This helped them get a 22-14 regular season record. After the season, starting guards Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud were named to the All-WNBA Defensive First Team. Cloud also was tied for fifth place for votes for the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Elena Delle Donne returned as the Mystics’ top per-game scorer in her first full season since her back injury — Delle Donne the entire 2022 season from start to finish. In 25 appearances, she averaged 17.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. She generally missed games for load management reasons. She also averaged 19 points per game in the playoffs. While she didn’t make an All-Star appearance or the All-WNBA team, let’s keep in mind that she came back from a back injury in the 2019 WNBA Finals and was limited to spot duty last season. It was good to see her mostly back to her dominant self this past season.
  • Shakira Austin makes Team USA for the FIBA Women’s World Cup — Austin wasn’t expected to start in 2022. But GM-and-then-Head Coach Mike Thibault is always willing to trust his young players when an opportunity arises. Ultimately, Austin started 32-of-36 games for Washington, averaging 8.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Austin also averaged these numbers in about 21.5 minutes per game. After the season, Austin was named to the WNBA All-Rookie Team and the USA Basketball women’s national team, winning the Gold Medal. Austin came off the bench in most games, but she had big performances in the group stage, including a 19 point, 10 rebound performance against Puerto Rico.
  • Ariel Atkins asserts her place as one of the WNBA’s best guards — Atkins had always been known as a tough defender and a solid scorer throughout her professional career. In each of the last two seasons, Atkins stepped up her game and a more central scorer to her team. She averaged 14.6 points and 2.3 assists per game, made her second straight All-Star appearance and was also on Team USA with Austin.
  • Sweeping the Las Vegas Aces in the regular season, 3-0 — If the Mystics had to face the Aces in the first round of the WNBA Playoffs instead of the Seattle Storm, I guarantee that they would have advanced to the semifinals (though I don’t think they would’ve won it all). Instead, the Mystics were the lone-20+ win team that was one-and-done in the playoffs. And the Aces won the WNBA championship.

The Mystics’ lost opportunities

  • Rui Machida wasn’t the backup point guard she could have been — The Japanese star of the 2020 Olympics was never expected to be a double-double thread in the WNBA. But I hoped she would be a solid 15-minute per-game player who could set up teammates and keep defenses honest with her own scoring. As a passer, she was 10th in the league for assist percentage (and she averaged 2.6 assists per game). But Machida only averaged 1.8 points per game and shot 31 percent from the field, which just aren’t good enough for a team that’s looking to get back to the WNBA Finals sooner rather than later.
  • Myisha Hines-Allen declines for the second straight season after a breakout 2020 campaign — Hines-Allen averaged 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in 34 appearances but started just 15 games. Perhaps she will bounce back in 2023, but she is entering the second year of a guaranteed contract that is paying her $175,100 this season and $180,200 in 2024.
  • Alysha Clark’s drop off in three-point efficiency — Clark averaged 8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 29 appearances after missing the 2021 season due to a Lisfranc injury. She remained a strong defender, but Clark declined significantly with her three-point shooting. She barely made 30 percent of them (30-of-99 attempts). In 2020, her last WNBA season, Clark made 35-of-67 threes for the Seattle Storm. And in 2019, she made 51-of-106 threes.
    Clark played with long-time franchise player Sue Bird as the point guard in Seattle, so could Bird’s absence be why Clark’s long-range shooting dropped so much? Not exactly, because Bird missed the entire 2019 season due to arthroscopic knee surgery. My feeling is that the recovery from Lisfranc surgery MAY be part of it, but this is something Clark will need to fix for next season.

The Mystics say goodbye to Mike Thibault as their head coach, but he laid the foundation for the team to succeed after him

After the 2022 WNBA season, Mike Thibault continued to coach as an assistant for Team USA in the World Cup on Cheryl Reeve’s staff. After the tournament, he announced that he was retiring as their head coach but would remain as their General Manager. Associate Head Coach Eric Thibault was now named the Mystics’ new head coach.

While Thibault will continue to run the front office for the Mystics, it marks the end of an era in Washington. Before Thibault came to D.C., the Mystics had limited postseason success and were known as one of the WNBA’s most poorly-run teams. After coming to D.C. and rebuilding the team over several years, they were ultimately able to win the 2019 WNBA championship. And for that we are thankful.

Many key players from the 2019 team like Emma Meesseman and Kristi Toliver departed for other teams. But the Mystics have drafted Austin this season and Cloud has grown into her own as Washington’s sole primary point guard. As Delle Donne heads toward the twilight of her career, they and Atkins appear to be the core that Eric Thibault will work with to build on last season’s success.

How do you all think the 2022 Mystics season went for you as fans? Let us know in the comments below.