By Jon Gallo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The Washington Mystics began rebuilding in early February with the signing of free agent small forward Crystal Robinson and continued a few weeks later when veteran forward Latasha Byears agreed to a training camp contract.
On March 1, Washington made one of the biggest trades in franchise history, acquiring all-star point guard Nikki Teasley and the eighth overall pick in last month's draft from the Los Angeles Sparks in exchange for forward Murriel Page, guard Temeka Johnson and the fifth overall pick.
The Mystics drafted small forward Tamara James of the University of Miami in the first round and added Nikki Blue, a point guard from UCLA, in the second round.
The result is a roster that the Mystics believe is more talented than any other in franchise history -- a belief that will be put to the test starting tonight, when Washington plays its season opener against the New York Liberty (0-1) at 7 p.m. at Verizon Center.
"I think this is the best team we've ever had here," General Manager Linda Hargrove said. "I think on paper we are very strong, and in the preseason our team really came together like we'd hoped. I think there's no reason why we shouldn't be good this season."
How good? The Mystics feel they can contend for their first league title a year after finishing 16-18, one victory from making the playoffs.
"The word we've always used a lot has been 'playoffs,' " shooting guard Alana Beard said. "But having seen the team we have, which is by far the best we've had since I've been here, we need to start talking about 'championship.' We know what the playoffs are like. Now it's time to set the bar higher, and if we don't it would be an insult to the players we have this year."
Everyone in the Mystics organization -- from President Sheila Johnson on down -- knows this is a pivotal year for a franchise still trying to establish itself in the D.C. market. It is Johnson's first full season running the team and she's well aware attendance dropped for the third straight season, from an average of 12,615 in 2004 to 10,088 last year. In 2002, the Mystics' average attendance was 16,202, still a league record.
Johnson attributes the decline to several factors: the arrival of the Nationals, the turnover in ownership and the Mystics' slow start and eventual losing record.
"It was a culmination of all of those things," Johnson said. "So now it's like we're starting over. I feel there are more than enough fans for both the Nationals and the Mystics. I'm not scared of the Nationals. We want to give people a reason to come here to the Verizon Center to see our team."
Johnson hopes to make attendance at a Mystics game as much about entertainment as it is about basketball. The Mystics will have a festival outside of Verizon Center prior to Saturday's game against Minnesota. They also hope dance teams, giveaways and a new mascot -- a panda named "Pax" -- will increase ticket sales.
"But it will still come down to winning," said Coach Richie Adubato, the team's eighth coach in nine years. "Winning means two things. First, people jump on the bandwagon and games become a social event that everyone wants to go to. Second, it gives you more exposure on television and people in the neighborhood see you. If you can impress them, they'll be more interested in your team. If we can win, there will be kids who watch us on TV and they'll become fans and they'll stay with you as they grow up. Once you start to win, everything mushrooms from there."
The Mystics had plenty of problems to address during the offseason after ranking near the bottom of the league in rebounding (27.7 per game), three-point shooting (34.6 percent) and opponents' field goal percentage (44.5) last summer. Washington expects to have a more formidable inside game with the acquisition of Robinson, whom Adubato calls one of the league's premier defensive players. With Robinson on the roster, DeLisha Milton-Jones will be able to move from small forward to her natural position of power forward. And the 5-foot-11, 206-pound Byears gives the Mystics a physical presence coming off the bench that they lacked last year.
"And don't forget about Chasity Melvin," Adubato said of the starting center who averaged 11.7 points and 5.8 rebounds last year. "She has a lot of help this year and doesn't have to get every rebound. She won't have to fight through two defenders anymore to get the ball. I expect her to be one of the league's leading rebounders."
James, a prolific scorer in college, has a reliable mid-range jump shot and she, along with Robinson -- a career 38 percent three-point shooter -- should prevent defenses from keying on shooting guard Beard, who averaged a team-high 14.1 points last year.
The Mystics also have depth, which was sorely lacking last year.
Adubato said he's confident Blue can run the offense almost as effectively as Teasley, though Teasley is a better scorer. He also said he believes reserve guards Coco Miller and Byears could start for other teams. If the Mystics play against a zone defense, Adubato will insert guard Laurie Koehn and let the league's most efficient three-point shooter last year (46.7 percent) fire away.
"There's no question that Washington is a better team right now than they were last year," Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault said. "They have more athleticism with Crystal Robinson, more size and experience with Teasley, and I saw DeLisha play overseas and she played as well as anybody."