Don’t fret is the message from Coach/General Manager Mike Thibault.
“From Day 1 in all this, her intent with the medical opt-out, she has said she is coming back,” Thibault said. “She feels like this is where she wants to be. It’s a tough situation. She knows we got kind of the bad end of the deal with all this. There’d be no reason to want to go anywhere else when she had the choice in coming here in the first place.”
The Mystics have a little more than two weeks remaining in the 22-game schedule being played in the league’s bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. This has not been the title defense the organization expected; the roster Thibault envisioned in the early spring was not present when the team flew south. Two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne has missed the entire season while rehabbing after back surgery. Charles opted out because of extrinsic asthma. Natasha Cloud opted out to focus on social issues, and LaToya Sanders did so because of medical issues in her past.
The Mystics were already shorthanded, and then they lost leading scorer Aerial Powers for the season with a hamstring injury. And Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP, is dealing with a shoulder sprain and has missed the last two games.
All of that has led the Mystics to a 4-9 record and 10th place in the 12-team league, with a young, inexperienced roster being asked to shoulder new responsibilities.
Thibault has preached that much of this season is about preparing for 2021, when he expects to have one of the best rosters in the league. But there is some trust that comes into play. The Mystics moved Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, their 2020 first-round draft pick and all three of their 2021 picks for Charles. She chose to continue her career in Washington in a sign-and-trade, but she has yet to sign a long-term deal.
“The trade only occurred because she agreed to come here,” Thibault said. “So this is where she wants to be. When you have a chance to have a Hall of Fame player on your team, I don’t think we gave up much. … At the end of the day, if you have the best player and the best player by a lot, there was zero trepidation about doing it. None.”
The rest of the roster is mostly set, but there will be some details to work out. Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, Leilani Mitchell and Kiara Leslie are under contract for next season. The Mystics control the rights to Sanders and Cloud for 2021, though they need to re-sign. Powers, Meesseman and Tianna Hawkins will be high-priority free agents. Thibault said the Mystics would probably use the core player designation on Meesseman, which gives them exclusive negotiating rights.
If those 10 players and Charles all return, that would leave one open spot, which would probably be used for a guard. That’s why Thibault has said now is the time for Stella Johnson, Sug Sutton and Jacki Gemelos to prove themselves. Center Alaina Coates falls in a similar category as an upcoming free agent, but she may no longer fit if Charles, Sanders and Delle Donne are all back.
Making things even more difficult for those trying to make the roster is the fact that salary cap complications could force the Mystics to keep just 11 players. Hawkins and Powers will draw interest from other teams and would have decisions to make.
Even though there has been a focus on the future and on individual growth, the Mystics are firmly in the mix to make the eight-team playoffs this season with nine games remaining. The Mystics entered Tuesday one game behind the Indiana Fever for the final playoff spot. Thibault said Tuesday’s practice was the first time in a while that they had mentioned the playoffs and how despite all of the struggles “we kind of control our own fate.” The Mystics still have a game against the sixth-place Phoenix Mercury (7-7), seventh-place Connecticut Sun (6-8) and ninth-place Dallas Wings (5-9). There are also games remaining against the Atlanta Dream and New York Liberty, who entered Tuesday a combined 4-13. Those are a lot of winnable games and opportunities to move up the standings.
Washington faces the Dream on Wednesday.
“I don’t think anyone has forgotten that we’re still in this playoff run,” Hines-Allen said. “The games, recently, we’ve been in. And we’re learning from them.
“This next push is really important for us. I’ve been saying it since we got here: I think this team can still make the playoffs, even when we were losing all those games. It was about refocusing and dialing in. … The team that you saw when we were losing those seven straight, I don’t think we’re the same team that we were.”
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