Their record in the playoffs? Uh, that would be 6-18. The Caps have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals as often in the last 20 years as the Mystics have won a playoff series.
Strange way of introducing a giant scoop of optimism, but you have to understand the context, with the Mystics now trotting out their most talented roster in franchise history, led by former MVP Elena Delle Donne. They’re still feeling each other out — “It’s like when LeBron went to Miami; those things don’t necessarily work smoothly right away,” said their coach, Mike Thibault — and yet strangely positive things are already happening.
The Mystics have the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio. (The Warriors have led the NBA in that category two years in a row.) They are at least hinting at the mathematician-approved modern style of basketball, taking and making the most three-pointers in the WNBA, scoring the highest percentage of points from three-point range in the league, and scoring the least percentage of points on two-pointers.
They’re winning, too, five in a row after Wednesday’s 101-point outburst on national TV. They have the league’s second-best record at 6-2, are off to their best start in 15 years, and play the league’s top team at Verizon Center on Friday night. A win against the Minnesota Lynx would give the Mystics their first six-game win streak this decade, and, dare I say, a bit of genuine buzz, though Delle Donne is questionable with a left groin strain..
So what would it be like if the Mystics were elite?
“It would be awesome,” said Thibault, the winningest coach in league history and the architect of this rebuilt roster. “I think the place would be jumping, because people like to follow a winner. … In all fairness we’re competing for an entertainment dollar with a lot of people: the Nationals, D.C. United. You have a lot of choices to make. But you still want to follow a winner.”
That’s why Thibault ripped apart his team after a disappointing 2016, aided by Delle Donne’s desire to play in Washington. He turned over half the roster, brought in a pair of former Maryland stars (veteran Kristi Toliver and rookie Shatori Walker-Kimbrough), asked his team to play faster, and then flipped on the blender.
“It felt refreshing,” he said of the overhaul. “Because there was a ceiling on some of the things we could get good at.”
The new Mystics would have a superstar to turn to when their offense stalls, “somebody that can make plays that no one else can,” Thibault said. They would also be able to spread the floor, fielding a new-age offensive lineup in which all five players could shoot from three, making it harder to double-team Delle Donne. When Emma Meesseman returns from her duties with the Belgian national team, the Mystics will have three bigs who are threats on the perimeter.
“Pretty much anybody in this gym can shoot the three,” veteran guard Ivory Latta said. “I mean, look at the three-point shooters we have on this team. [The strategy] explains itself.”
Adding one of the league’s most marketable players also changed the profile of a sometimes forgotten franchise. Washington loves its stars, and yet the Mystics haven’t had a true boldfaced name since Chamique Holdsclaw left more than a decade ago. Combine that with the lack of success, and you’re forgiven for not planning your social life around Mystics broadcasts. Although it wouldn’t be hard; they’ve been on ESPN2 exactly three times over the last four regular seasons.
“That’s pretty terrible,” said Delle Donne, whose team will appear on ESPN2 at least three times this season alone. “Unfortunately, the Mystics haven’t been visible. … It’s exciting now that we’re starting to get that visibility that this team deserves. And obviously that comes with winning games.”
Please don’t assume the Mystics are already cruising toward juggernaut status. This team hasn’t shot well, hasn’t always been in concert defensively, and has sometimes looked like the revamped unit it is. (“You can’t rush chemistry; it only comes with time,” as Tayler Hill put it.) The finished product might not arrive this month, and it might not arrive this season. (“You don’t get to open a new Christmas present and say the whole package is there; you’ve got to put together the kit,” Thibault said.) Anyhow, it’s early June, and getting excited about a WNBA team in early June is like getting excited about the Caps in October. Or November. Or December. Or January. Or February. Or March.
But from the national exposure to the appealing style to the five straight wins, you can at least wonder. What would it be like if the Mystics consistently finished near the top of the standings? What would it be like if they won in the playoffs? This franchise has one postseason series victory in 19 years, one series victory in 10 attempts. Even in a city of playoff catastrophes, that’s mayo-smeared-in-a-sauna upsetting.
“One playoff series? Oh, wow,” Latta said. “Hey, we need to change that. With the team we’ve got, we can definitely change that.”
How would the city respond? We have no idea, but maybe it’s time to find out.