Mike Thibault has told the tale plenty of times before, about first taking over as coach and general manager of the Washington Mystics ahead of the 2013 season. He absorbed the franchise’s misfortune after it finished the year before with a 5-29 record yet still missed out on a top lottery pick in the draft. He saw the scant, apathetic crowds at home games during that first year. He thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
But asked to reflect on how far the Mystics have come in those seven seasons, ahead of a two-game homestand that will close a record-breaking regular season, Thibault had no desire to look back.
Washington has made history this year thanks largely to its once-in-a-generation offense: The Mystics have won eight games by at least 25 points, the most in a season in WNBA history. They average more made three-pointers per game (9.3) than any team since at least 2003.
Their star, Elena Delle Donne, is shooting 51.6 percent from the field, 43 percent from the three-point line and 97.1 percent from the free throw line, meaning she probably will become the first WNBA player to join the ultra-elite 50-40-90 club, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In NBA history, only eight players — Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Malcolm Brogdon — have been members of the club.
Former all-star Emma Meesseman would be joining Delle Donne — she is shooting 57 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from three and 90.2 percent from the free throw line — if she hadn’t taken off a month this season to play with the Belgian national team, which kept her from meeting the minimum number of shots made in each category.
Yet with only two home games remaining before Washington’s historic regular season is sealed — against Dallas (10-22) on Friday and Chicago (19-13) on Sunday — even the team’s most loquacious members aren’t keen on talking about history.
“I ignore it,” Thibault said. “Mainly because none of that matters if you don't win at the end."
The Mystics (24-8) have shifted from following the standings and tracking every other top team in the league, as they did almost all season, to focusing on winning a WNBA title. It showed during their intense Thursday practice ahead of a game against playoff-ineligible Dallas. They were on court for longer than usual this late in the season, fine-tuning their team defense.
Having secured a double bye to the best-of-five semifinal round of the playoffs, their first postseason games will be Sept. 17 and 19 at Entertainment and Sports Arena.
By then, they will officially be the best Mystics team ever, with the most wins in franchise history (at least 24), the highest scoring average (89 points per game, well ahead of the mark of 84.5 set last season), best field goal percentage (47.0) and most assists per game (21.8). They already have logged back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time.
Though the Mystics aren’t lingering over those benchmarks, they acknowledge they matter for those fans who supported the team during what Meesseman calls “the depressing times” — the 10-24 and 16-18 seasons of the late 2000s and, even worse, 6-28 and 5-29 seasons earlier this decade.
“I haven’t even really thought about it in terms of records. It’s more like just a complete turnaround to the whole aura and atmosphere of the organization,” Thibault said, “from being on the verge of not having a team maybe seven years ago to now being one of the best teams in the league. Every night we walk in the gym we feel like that, and that’s just a different feeling, you know, the crowd vibe and the support and the respect that we’re getting. It was almost zero when I showed up, and it’s fun to see all of that change.”
Said Meesseman, who was drafted in 2013: “After all these years of rebuilding, there are finally some results. I came here at the moment the rebuild started. … I’m happy I got to see the growing process and could be a part of it. I’m happy. I’m happy that it’s this team and all the staff around it because they deserve it. And especially the fans, everybody that stuck with it.”
The reason the Mystics are racking up record after record, the team says, is because of their chemistry.
“Every year there are some pieces of the puzzle that came to us or left, and now it's a puzzle that's complete,” Meesseman said.
Starting guard Natasha Cloud, who needs four assists to break the franchise season record of 183 set by Nikki Teasley in 2006 and who already owns the team’s career record with 606, said the team assembled at the beginning of the year with the understanding that a big leap could happen if every player improved just slightly.
Delle Donne, the leading candidate to win the league MVP award, which would be another franchise first, worked on her defense. Backup guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough tried to become more assertive in her play and got comfortable playing light minutes at point guard. Aerial Powers, acquired from Dallas last summer, changed the way she thought about offense after previously playing in a more selfish system.
They also found motivation in the memory of losing the WNBA Finals last year in an ego-bruising three-game sweep against Seattle.
“When we rebuilt three years ago and brought Kristi [Toliver] and Elena in, we weren’t a bad team. We were just a young team at that point,” Cloud said. “We needed some puzzle pieces added, some franchise players added. We won our first year, but we weren’t great. Last year, we were kind of happy to get to the playoffs and almost like — ‘Whew! We got to the Finals.’ Coming in this year, we just had a different mind-set. We understood we have all the pieces of the puzzle and everyone just had to be 1 percent better.”
That mind-set doesn’t include room for dwelling on statistics and franchise records. Not with a different kind of milestone lingering on the horizon — Toliver, the guard who has missed nine games with a right knee bruise but is expected to be back for the playoffs, is the only player on the roster with a WNBA championship. She won with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016.
Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history, has never captured a title despite making the finals three times with two teams.
“Those franchise records and everything are cool, but I couldn’t even tell you [the records] we’re going out for this weekend,” Cloud said. “We set out with a goal. We want a championship, and whatever comes in between is just that. It’s cool.”