Thing is, the WNBA already has a super team. They’re called the Minnesota Lynx, and they made quick work of the Mystics in this WNBA semifinal series, winning three straight games, all by double digits. Although super team really isn’t a grand enough term for a team about to play in its sixth WNBA Finals in seven years. Call ’em a super duper team, and Washington’s not quite there yet.
Sunday’s 81-70 home loss was capped by an appreciative ovation from a home crowd that just saw its first league semifinal game in 15 years, and there are plenty of things to admire in this season. The Mystics played without one of their top players for a month, due to Emma Meesseman’s commitment to the Belgian national team. They lost Delle Donne at various points to various injuries, including an extended late-season absence after surgery on her left thumb. Second-leading scorer Tayler Hill tore her anterior cruciate ligament in July and missed the rest of the season. That’s a lot for any roster to endure.
But by this week, the Mystics were mostly in one piece. And then they played a team that had two former league MVPs, four all-stars and an experienced core that has recorded 37 playoff wins since 2011. The Mystics have four. Maybe that sweep wasn’t a super shock.
“You can’t just fake experience,” Delle Donne said. “You really have to live it and get it, and that’s what we got.”
They got it good from the end of the second quarter until early in the third Sunday, when the Lynx rattled off 17 straight points. Twelve of them came from Seimone Augustus, one of those all-stars. Four came from Sylvia Fowles, another all-star and the reigning league MVP. In fact, every point the Lynx scored during the decisive third quarter came from an all-star. That’s a pretty good indication that you have a team that’s … what’s the word again?
“I mean, it’s like the problems teams are facing with the Golden State Warriors,” Delle Donne said. “When you’ve got a super team, it’s really difficult to compete with them.”
Whatever these Mystics become — and there was plenty of optimism even after the loss — they’re not yet elite. Coach Mike Thibault’s rule of evaluating opponents is disarmingly simple: imagine putting both teams on the court and then deciding how many players you would want from each roster.
“If you went out and chose sides, you know?” he said, following an emotional news conference in which he lavishly praised his team and its growth this summer. “If you took a basketball observer that didn’t work for either team and you start picking sides, you know? That’s the reality.”
He didn’t have to be more explicit. It’s obvious that a neutral observer would wind up with more players from that dynasty in blue, green and silver. The Lynx have world-class talent spilling off their bench. Meesseman was Washington’s third-best offensive option in this series; she went 4 for 21 from the field in the final two games.
Which means that Thibault might want to deliver a message to his general manager: If you’re going to fully realize the potential of having a former MVP on your roster, you need to surround her with more talent. That general manager, as it happens, is a guy named Mike Thibault.
“Minnesota’s players, if they all come back, they’re still among the cream of the crop,” Thibault said. “Same with L.A. I would take most of what’s in our room, but we may find something to add to it, to take the pressure off those guys. That’s just the reality of getting better.”
There’s also a faith that these Mystics will improve almost inevitably just by spending another season together. Think less of Steph’s Warriors and more of LeBron’s Heat; the first season of throwing a bunch of new talent in the same uniform showed the potential, but the trophies came later.
“You’re really seeing a finished product with Minnesota, and that’s why they’re such an elite team,” Natasha Cloud said.
“That chemistry that they have is totally amazing,” said Ivory Latta, Washington’s veteran point guard, who was held out with a knee injury.
“I mean, we’ve got great pieces of the puzzle, but we don’t have nearly the experience that comes with a team like Minnesota,” Delle Donne said. “But that also means they’re older, and we’re younger.”
She isn’t wrong, which is why there may eventually be a real opening for this Mystics core, if the right buttons get pressed. Four of Minnesota’s’ five starters are in their 30s; the youngest is 28. The Mystics started four players in their 20s. Their best player, Delle Donne, is 28 and still in the prime of her career. (She was the league’s fourth-leading scorer this season, after being second and first the previous two years.) There was uncommon optimism Sunday for a team that had just been swept out of the playoffs, and it’s because of a sense that this was a start more than an ending.
“Take a pecking order of talent in this league,” Thibault said. “We’re in the top three or four right now. But you don’t get to sit still.”
I thought this particular team had a chance to be the most popular Mystics team D.C. has seen, one that would actually grab the casual sports fan. That didn’t exactly happen; I had brunch on Sunday with a D.C. sports fan who had no idea the Mystics were even in the playoffs and wasn’t certain the franchise still existed.
But I still think if Washington assembled a super team — like the one they faced on Sunday — people would know about it. They took a one step in that direction last offseason, and it led to a breakthrough campaign. Now it’s time to see if they can take another step.