“So other than our defense and our offense and our foul shooting and our turnovers, we’ve given Mike everything he needs to be successful,” said Leonsis, who also owns the Wizards and Capitals, as the room erupted in laughter.
Thibault, 62, who spent the previous 10 seasons as the head coach of the Connecticut Sun, became the 13th coach, and seventh general manager, in the 15-year history of the Mystics on Tuesday. A two-time WNBA coach of the year, Thibault led the Sun to eight playoff appearances and two WNBA Finals and has more career wins (206) than any active coach in the league.
Connecticut decided not to renew his contract after losing to Indiana in this year’s Eastern Conference finals, but that mattered little to Washington, which has seen its fortunes plummet during the worst two-year stretch (11-57) in franchise history. After the Mystics enjoyed their best season ever in 2010, managing partner and team president Sheila Johnson could not come to terms with General Manager Angela Taylor and Coach Julie Plank.
The oncourt product and fan support subsequently spiraled under former Coach-GM Trudi Lacey. Washington finished with a WNBA-worst 5-29 record in 2012 and the organization’s reputation within the league suffered as well.
“I needed to know from them that there was a commitment going forward that this was gonna be a long-term commitment on both sides . . . that they want this to be a successful franchise,” Thibault said.
Thibault, who has an extensive NBA resume on top of his experiences in women’s basketball, said Leonsis initially approached him about the job on the recommendation of Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld. Thibault was an assistant coach with Milwaukee when Grunfeld was the Bucks’ general manager.
Johnson said she was given “the freedom for the first time to really go and be able get the right person” and interviewed more candidates than two years ago. She added that Thibault would have “carte blanche” over the Mystics.
“My first goal was to find the right coach,” said Johnson when asked about hiring one person for the general manager and coach positions again. “When you find the right coach, it’s really up to them to make that decision of how they want to work with you. . . . I am giving him full rein. He knows what he’s doing.”
Thibault certainly gave off that impression Tuesday as he talked about the myriad problems Washington must solve. His initial focus will be on improving the team’s defensive effort, three-point shooting, rebounding and turnover issues.
He’ll also try to add veterans via trades or free agency, which begins Jan. 1, to a roster that includes Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon.
In addition, the Mystics have the No. 4 pick in next spring’s WNBA draft, although even that has become part of Washington’s recent bad luck. The franchise had the best chance to land the No. 1 selection in the league’s draft lottery, and presumably select Baylor star Britney Griner.
Johnson described her initial reaction to that news as “so disappointed,” but Thibault made sure everyone knows a new era has arrived.
“I told Sheila the other day: ‘Please don’t despair about the fourth pick in the draft,’ ” he said. “I know that there were a lot of long faces here when the lottery took place. It’s not all that bleak.”