As the managing editor of a site that covers multiple professional basketball teams, it’s hard to write about them around one common theme. If the NBA team is doing well, the WNBA team in the same city may be terrible.
But the reality in the D.C. area is that the Washington Mystics, the DMV’s WNBA team, has done more than its fair share of holding Washington’s reputation as a basketball city. They won a WNBA title just four years ago. And they are still riding off the coattails of that title,
But the Washington Wizards have effectively done all they can to turn the nation’s capital into a hockey town while the Washington Capitals enjoyed their heyday in the 2010s.
Where I live in Loudoun County, Va., my perception of the DMV is that it’s an ice hockey area now. I see many more Capitals jerseys and hats than Wizards ones. I can go to Ashburn Ice House or ION in Leesburg to see Loudoun County high schools play each other in competitive varsity-equivalent competition. And I’d imagine that Ashburn and Aldie will produce some NHL players in the years ahead, if not already.
But I also get that in other parts of the DMV, especially east of D.C. proper, the Wizards and the Mystics are still followed more than the Capitals ever will be.
And that leads me to how 2023 went for both teams, with their natural trajectories.
The Mystics faced the reality that they may have to rebuild after another blown season under the Elena Delle Donne era
Let’s start with the Washington Mystics because their entire season was played this calendar year. They have a roster that COULD be a dark horse championship contender. If a few injuries to other teams happen, they could steal a title, like in 2019, though few here would like to admit that that’s how they won the title.
Again, in 2019, if Breanna Stewart hadn’t torn her Achilles and if Maya Moore hadn’t retired from the WNBA in hindsight, the Mystics would have never sniffed the WNBA Finals. That’s even if Emma Meesseman found her inner beast that she apparently could never find in seasons past.
Yeah, I said it then, and I’m more confident saying it today. Here’s why.
In the 2023 calendar year, Elena Delle Donne was supposed to be healthy for the year, Shakira Austin and Ariel Atkins were coming off FIBA Women’s World Cup gold medals, and that could give the Mystics reason to be better than other WNBA teams like the Dallas Wings, To be fair to the Mystics, all three started the year healthy and were playing very well. But all three missed significant time in the middle of the season due to injuries, ultimately preventing them from playing a home playoff game for the first time since ... 2019!
And of all the injured players, it feels like an insult to injury to see that Austin, the youngest player, won’t be 100 percent until the middle of the 2024 regular season!
Going back to last year, there’s something about the Mystics’ 2023 roster that seems to scream complacency to me. That’s because the Mystics went out of their way to bring back Tianna Hawkins and Kristi Toliver in the last two years, perhaps to relive that 2019 seaon. Today, Toliver, is no longer in the league, deciding instead to be the Phoenix Mercury’s new associate head coach.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Aces won their second consecutive WNBA championship and the New York Liberty aren’t far behind. Even the Dallas Wings are built for long-term success where they can be that dark horse should the Aces and/or Liberty face some health-based headwinds.
The Mystics need all three teams (and perhaps more) to even be a dark horse to begin with in 2024. I’m happy to see that some players, including Natasha Cloud, have developed into strong players in their own right. But I think the Mystics are staying the course for 2024, and there won’t be much success to go along with it — unless the Aces, Liberty, Wings, and perhaps another team like the Connecticut Sun have injuries and/or chemistry issues.
It’s one thing to jump up the standings because of one or two teams not getting their house in order. But it looks like the Mystics have to hope that three or four teams face major injury woes to be contenders. So that mean they shouldn’t be in that conversation to begin with, right?
That’s what I’m thinking as the Mystics enter 2024. I’m not particularly sure if they will make major changes to the roster, even if that means starting a complete rebuild. So the safest bet for 2024 is for the Mysitcs to stay the course and hope that every star player somehow defies the injury bug.
Even if the Mystics manage to do that, I just don’t see them making a deep playoff run. So in my opinion, they’re facing the reality that it’s time to start thinking about a rebuild and a post-Delle Donne era right now. Not when it’s too late like the other major basketball franchise in town. I don’t think it’s too late for the Mystics, but they’re getting there.
The Wizards decide to rebuild AFTER a generational draft. At least it’s better late than never.
Few people would say that the Washington Wizards were playoff contenders in the 2022-23 NBA season, except maybe then-General Manager Tommy Sheppard and then-franchise player Bradley Beal. The team went about a facade thinking that a core of Beal, Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis would get them to a Top-8 finish in the Eastern Conference, where they could shock the world from there.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But the Wizards legitimately thought that Beal, Porzinigis and Kuzma could do it with room to spare. There were moments in the 2022-23 NBA season where I thought this could happen. But ultimately, the Wizards didn’t finish in the Top 10 in each of the last two NBA seasons, resulting in Tommy Sheppard’s dismissal.
The Wizards took their time and decided to hire Michael Winger as Monumental Basketball’s new President. Winger then hired Will Dawkins to be the Wizards’ new General Manager. The new front office decided that the Beal-led Wizards had to be part of the past, and started a rebuild. Of the 2022-23 core, only Kuzma remains, where he re-signed to a larger deal.
The toughest part about the Wizards’ rebuild starting in the 2023-24 NBA season is that they never had a true statistical shot to get the top pick in Victor Wembanyama, who plays for the San Antonio Spurs. Washington did select another high-risk, high-reward candidate in Bilal Coulibaly. But even given Coulibaly’s upside, it would have been better to see the Wizards have more options with a higher draft pick for 2023.
Barring the Wizards becoming a true contender in future years, this may be a big what-if that haunts fans for the short and medium term.
Ultimately, this year was when both the Wizards and Mystics saw where they ranked in the league hierarchy. Unfortunately, neither team is on the right path to being a contender.
After re-signing some 2019 championship team heroes from the past couple of years, the Mystics haven’t been able to rekindle that fire while other teams remain on top. And the Wizards finally decided to make major changes after a draft where they could have picked a player who, to this point, is consequential.
At first glance, 2023 seems to be a classic “#SoWizards and #SoMystics” year. But again, only time will tell if that really is the case. I just hope that I’m a victim of this kind of pessimistic thinking.