Delle Donne, 30, has chronic Lyme disease, flare-ups of which have caused her to miss significant playing time throughout her career. The reigning MVP also had back surgery Jan. 24, and her rehabilitation probably has been interrupted during the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear why Charles, the 2012 MVP, was placed in the protocol.
“Many of you know about my ongoing battle with Lyme Disease and a compromised immune system," Delle Donne tweeted Wednesday night. “For now I’m following protocol and waiting for a risk assessment from the league medical panel. Missing my teammates but health and safety are the priority.”
Delle Donne and Charles could join starting guard Natasha Cloud, who opted out to focus on social justice work, and starting center LaToya Sanders, who opted out for personal reasons.
None of the other 11 teams in the WNBA are expected to be as shorthanded as the Mystics when the 22-game season begins. Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage is expected to miss the season, as is Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones. Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver, a starter for the Mystics last season, and forward Chiney Ogwumike also opted out.
If Delle Donne and Charles receive medical exemptions from the league, both will be paid for the shortened season. Their contracts will count against the Mystics’ salary cap, and the team won’t be able to sign replacement players. Charles, 31, is not under contract with Washington beyond 2020.
After Cloud and Sanders opted out, Washington signed guard and former Mystics staff member Shay Peddy, center Alaina Coates and swing player Essence Carson as fill-ins for the season.
Forward Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP who is also playing under a one-year deal with the Mystics, and guard Ariel Atkins would be the team’s only returning starters. Forward Tianna Hawkins, who saw significant time in nearly every game last year, also traveled with the team to IMG Academy and would bolster the team’s veteran presence.
Still, Delle Donne and Charles would be nearly impossible to replace — both on the court and in terms of the buzz Washington had entering the season. The Mystics appeared poised for a title repeat after Charles arrived in a blockbuster three-team offseason trade that saw Washington give up three draft picks and guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to acquire the seven-time all-star. With Charles, Delle Donne and Meesseman, most pegged the Mystics as odds-on favorites for a second consecutive title.
Delle Donne, a six-time all star, averaged team highs of 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds on the way to winning her second league MVP award. She also became the first WNBA player to shoot at least 50 percent from the field (51.5), 40 percent from long range (43 percent) and 90 percent from the free throw line (97.4 percent) in a regular season.
Delle Donne signed a four-year max contract with the Mystics in February.
Charles ranks 10th on the league’s all-time scoring list with 5,982 points and fifth all-time in rebounds (3,133).
Even without his full roster, Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault views the 2020 season as something of a proving ground for the Mystics’ younger players and those such as 29-year-old Hawkins, a Washington stalwart who will be a free agent when the season ends.
“The pressure is off in many ways because we’re not playing a normal season. If we’re the defending champs playing a normal season and we have everybody, I think we’d feel a little differently,” Thibault said in a phone interview last week.
“Right now, for some players on our team, it’s an opportunity to make a statement about the future of their careers. . . . I think there’s a lot of motivation for players throughout the league. Certainly ours. And sometimes it’s to prove doubters wrong. It’s — it’s not just somebody else’s team. We have a collection of good players, so let’s go be the best we can be. Let’s be the team that competes the hardest and see what happens. I’m looking forward to coaching them.”