After a historic start in which the Mystics scored the third-most points in WNBA history through the season’s first three games, the bottom fell out. Now they’re the first team in league history to drop at least four straight after starting 3-0 — and that skid has reached seven games.
“I don’t mean to sound like it’s not important to make the playoffs. It is,” Thibault said. “But at the same time, there’s a reality that somebody better grasp besides me on the outside about where we are. We are trying to develop players that are playing brand new roles.”
No one needed to tell Thibault about the epic proportions of the current losing streak. The seven games match the most consecutive losses during Thibault’s tenure with Washington, and he immediately noted the previous seven-game skid came in 2016, when the team was dealing with a litany of injuries. An eighth straight loss would be the longest such run since the 2012 season, the year before Thibault was hired.
The Mystics (3-7) entered Tuesday just two wins better than the last-place New York Liberty, which got its lone win against Washington. An awful record won’t even reap the benefits of a high draft pick, because the Mystics moved all of their 2021 picks in their trade this spring for Tina Charles. That’s why there is so much focus on the development of those already on the roster.
Charles, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted out before the season, and Elena Delle Donne continues to rehab from offseason back surgery. Emma Meesseman, Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers are proven veterans. Thibault wants to know how and where Myisha Hines-Allen, Tianna Hawkins, Kiara Leslie and Leilani Mitchell can blend in. The Mystics waived forward Essence Carson on Sunday and signed rookie guard Alecia Sutton. Thibault wants to give Sutton and fellow rookie guard Stella Johnson the chance to prove themselves before next season. Carson had underperformed and wasn’t in the plans for 2021.
Washington will have to re-sign Charles, who will be a free agent after receiving a medical exemption to opt out.
“I came into this summer understanding where we were,” Thibault said. “Player development is of utmost importance. It starts with our players who are going to be here for the long term. … That was my biggest focus coming into this, that we have to continue to make them better. Yes, we’re going to get frustrated with losing. Nobody likes to lose.
“But, also, when we walk in the door next year and those other players are back with us, have we done the work this summer to make us, potentially, the best team in our league going into next season? It’s not giving up on the season. It’s understanding the reality of where we are.”
Things have been ugly during the streak and, regardless of the standings, the Mystics need better individual play from everyone. Meesseman has been streaky and is averaging her fewest points since the 2015 season. She seems to be struggling with the extra attention as the No. 1 option and when to be aggressive. Hines-Allen was named the season’s first Eastern Conference player of the week but has averaged just 10.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in the past five games.
Thibault wants Mitchell to shoot more, and Powers has been out with a hamstring injury and is not expected to return soon. Hawkins has played well upon her return from a back injury and has moved into the starting lineup, but Washington’s bench contributes the fewest points in the league at 15.3 points per game. The roster is also small without a Delle Donne-Charles-Sanders frontcourt that was expected to be one of the best in the league.
A game shy of the midpoint of the 22-game season, the offense is the second worst in the league. The Mystics are in the midst of a three-day break between games, just the second such stretch of the season.
“Not necessarily throwing [the first half] out,” Hines-Allen said. “Everyone hates the feeling of losing. That first game we lost, we knew that feeling. Teams going into the locker room at the end of the game cheering, we heard that. So it’s just like: ‘All right, y’all, it’s a new season, second half. Let’s make this playoff push because that’s what we’re trying to do.’
“We know what that losing feeling is. We know what we’re doing wrong. We know how to get better. … It’s definitely going to be a new feeling this second half.”
Much of Monday’s practice centered on defensive basics, but that also allowed Thibault to address the offense. The team has lost its past three games by an average of 17.3 points, and getting stops has been an issue. Thibault wants the Mystics to play faster with better ball movement, and part of that is getting out quickly in transition. But it’s difficult to get out and run when you have to take the ball from out of bounds after a made basket.
The hope is that a few days of rest and time to practice will make a significant difference after playing every other day for almost two weeks.
“We’re tired of getting popped in the mouth first when we come into these games,” center Alaina Coates said. “We want to pop somebody first. We’re working on this mentality of just being more aggressive. Kind of having a bit more of a grittiness about ourselves.”
There’s a delicate balance to maintain over these next 12 games. Players need and want the gratification of victory, because losses can be draining even when development is the priority. But Thibault constructed a roster to contend for titles for the next several years. That plan has been delayed a year, but it remains his focus.
“My concern is the long term,” he said. “Every coach wants to win games right now. … There’s the short term and the long term, and for me the long term is more important than the short term.
“I don’t like to sell short any season, but for me, this is a long-term thing for our team. Our championship window is open provided we have everybody. Next year, when we have our whole group, I hope we’re one of the best teams if not the best team going into the season.”
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