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The Mystics hope to avoid more free agency surprises with Natasha Cloud and Emma Meesseman

Free agents Emma Meesseman and Natasha Cloud have not announced decisions on whether they will rejoin the Mystics for the 2021 season. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Mike Thibault’s vision for 2020 was basically to run it back with the same roster that won the 2019 WNBA championship. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and opt-outs took away three starters and another, Kristi Toliver, left in free agency.

Still, the goal remained the same for 2021 — bring back the core of that 2019 roster for another run at a title. And again, that has been easier said than done thanks to free agency and complications with Emma Meesseman.

Out are Aerial Powers and Tianna Hawkins. In are former league MVP Tina Charles, two-time champion Alysha Clark and Erica McCall. Two final pieces are likely to determine the true success of this offseason — Meesseman and Natasha Cloud.

Tina Charles re-signs with Mystics to set up one of the best frontcourts in the WNBA

Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP, has overseas commitments this year with the Belgian national team and has yet to inform the Mystics of her plans. The ideal scenario for the Mystics would be for Meesseman to agree to return but wait to sign her contract until she is ready to be with the team full time, which could be after the Olympics, which are scheduled for July 23-Aug. 8.

The Mystics, however, would like to know as soon as possible so they can work through a tight salary cap situation. Thibault, the Mystics’ general manager and coach, said he may have to give Meesseman a deadline.

Meesseman declined an interview request through her agent.

“We’re in a position where we can’t get strung out on this,” Thibault said.

The “strung out” language is interesting considering the organization felt that way during negotiations with Powers before she decided to sign with the Minnesota Lynx.

Powers received an offer from the Mystics and the organization believed they had a verbal agreement, but she later changed course. The 2016 No. 5 overall pick credited her relationship with Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve as the biggest reason she chose Minnesota.

“It was the feeling I got from talking with Coach Reeve,” Powers said during her introductory videoconference. “I’ve talked to many coaches throughout my life. And the only coach that really, really I had a really good connection with, that I can say for sure, was Coach [Suzy] Merchant from Michigan State. … If you have a disconnect with someone, you feel it and you feel it through the calls you have and the talks you have.”

The Mystics were able to sign Clark quickly after things fell through with Powers and are better equipped to lose Meesseman than Cloud considering the frontcourt depth. The 6-foot-4 Belgian started every game she played in the Florida bubble last season, but she probably would move back to the bench with the roster constructed as is. Elena Delle Donne, Charles, LaToya Sanders and Myisha Hines-Allen bring a ton of high-quality depth to the frontcourt.

Cloud is a 5-9 scoring guard who was named second-team all-defense in 2019 and is a vocal leader on and off the floor. Leilani Mitchell probably would go back to the starting lineup without Cloud, but she was originally signed to provide upper-echelon depth, not to be a starter as the shorthanded roster forced her to become in 2020.

The Mystics are in talks with Cloud for a long-term deal, and the organization has exclusive negotiating rights with the six-year veteran. Cloud declined an interview request by The Washington Post.

Assuming Cloud’s contract gets worked out, the Mystics should contend with a roster that has a bit of a different feel. That championship team set single-season WNBA offensive records for assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and three-pointers made, according to Her Hoop Stats. The addition of Clark, a 2020 defensive player of the year candidate, and Charles, a four-time all-defensive team selection, gives Washington added versatility on defense.

“They have some good individual defenders,” ESPN analyst Holly Rowe said. “Elena Delle Donne can be a good defender when she’s healthy, for sure. I think she’s got a good feel for blocking shots. But I think it gives them a better ball pressure. Tina is a big, physical presence that can really cloud the paint.

“Mike Thibault is like the smartest person I know in basketball, probably. So anything he does I don’t question because I just know how smart he is, and he has a plan for all of this.”

Thibault added, “When you have Ariel [Atkins], Alysha and Tasha out there on the perimeter, you can really mess with matchups … depending on who you want to be miserable on the other team.”

The offseason ended up with more movement than expected within the Mystics’ ranks, but that also allowed Thibault to make a move with an eye on the future. He acquired McCall from the Lynx in a sign-and-trade for a 2022 third-round pick and now has the 25-year-old locked in through the next two years. She hasn’t averaged more than 10 minutes per game since her first two seasons, but Thibault had eyed her from afar and then up close in the Florida bubble and believes the Mystics’ depth allows McCall time to grow into a larger role in the future.

The 6-2 Stanford product brings some physicality and rebounding to the post and has been working to develop a perimeter game.

“The roster that they already have is stacked with legends and up-and-coming players,” McCall said. “So I was like super hyped to hear.

“My first three years at Indiana it was a struggle for me to really try to find my identity and who I was as a player in this league. And I think last year with Minnesota, I was able to establish that, people could really see the type of player that I was. So for Coach Thibault to acknowledge that just makes me super encouraged for the future and also just encouraged for this year as well, knowing that I’m molding myself for the future with being with this team for this year.”

The Mystics know they’re in the middle of a championship window that won’t stay open forever and lost a year to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Cloud and Meesseman are two final pieces that could help determine how long they remain true contenders.

Read more on the WNBA:

Aerial Powers hesitated, so the Mystics signed a two-time champ and defensive stopper instead

The Mystics overachieved in 2020. They’ll be title contenders in 2021.

Former Mystics coach Nancy Darsch dies at 68

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