In the days immediately after the Washington Mystics’ final game last year, Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault began an accounting of just the second losing season in his career. For the winner of more games than any coach in WNBA history, missing the playoffs was unacceptable.
Upgrading the roster, perhaps with a blockbuster signing, was a priority. The approaching free agency period would have done little to alter the Mystics’ lot.
At that time, one of the best women’s basketball players in the world was set to challenge collectively bargained rules designed to keep the league’s superstars in one place. Thibault sensed an opportunity.
“Mike came and said, ‘Look, there’s this opportunity. It’ll have a high cost,’ ” said Ted Leonsis, founder and chief executive of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates the Mystics, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards.
Weeks of negotiations later, the Mystics landed arguably the most prominent acquisition in franchise history: Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 WNBA MVP and a 2016 Olympic gold medal winner.
“We just felt, and I just felt, to get to the next step, it’s about stars,” Leonsis said. “The way she plays, and how I believe she will fit into this offense, will bring us to another level as a team. I also think it’s going to help us on the go-forward in recruiting players.”
The Mystics, who open training camp Sunday, have advanced to the conference finals only once, in 2002, since being founded in 1998. Delle Donne, in her introductory news conference, made certain to mention bringing a championship to the District as soon as possible.
Said Delle Donne in an interview earlier this month at her family home in Wilmington, Del.: “Right when I spoke to Coach T, that was when I was like, I knew exactly where I want to be.”
Delle Donne, a 6-foot-5 guard-forward, averaged 21.5 points per game last season, when the Chicago Sky advanced to the playoff semifinals before losing to the eventual champions, the Los Angeles Sparks. The year before, she led the WNBA with 23.4 points per game and was named league MVP.
But she was unsettled. Thumb surgery ended her 2016 season five games before the playoffs started. In October, the Sky dismissed Pokey Chatman as head coach and general manager. She longed to play closer to home, given she is particularly close to her older sister Lizzie, who has autism and cerebral palsy. In December, three days after Amber Stocks replaced Chatman as coach and general manager in Chicago, Delle Donne made public her willingness to sit out the 2017 season if a deal to move her closer to Delaware could not be completed.
“I didn’t let my mind wander while in season,” Delle Donne said. “I don’t feel like that’s fair to the team that I was on. It was more when the season was over and wrapped up that I realized I was kind of a free agent. I wanted to weigh some options and see what else was out there.”
Delle Donne became a restricted free agent when her rookie contract expired Feb. 1, but leaving would not be simple. Chicago had leverage to keep her for the long term even if she elected to sign with the Sky for one more season and then become an unrestricted free agent in 2018.
Under the CBA ratified in 2014, WNBA teams are permitted to designate one core player, similar to the NFL’s franchise tag. The Sky likely would have applied that classification to Delle Donne.
In exchange for the guarantee of a maximum contract in the neighborhood of $107,000 per year, Delle Donne, 27, would have been barred from negotiating with any other franchise.
Clubs are free to use the core tag on the same player up to four times, which in theory may have kept Delle Donne in Chicago through 2021. Had Delle Donne followed that deliberate route to true unrestricted free agency, she would have been 33.
The Mystics, however, were intent on making good on Thibault’s pledge to transform the team into a contender.
“I’ve had my eye, we’ve had our eye, on Elena for a long, long time,” Leonsis said. “This is just one of those once-in-a-generation players who has this natural charisma.”
On Feb. 2, the deal was announced. Thibault dealt the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, center Stefanie Dolson and guard Kahleah Copper to the Sky in exchange for Delle Donne. Four days later, the Mystics used salary space cleared through two other trades to sign free agent Kristi Toliver, a former all-star and the point guard for the Sparks’ title run last season.
“The proximity to home was obviously a pull, but I wanted the basketball to be great as well,” Delle Donne said. “I wanted it to be a really great opportunity to escalate my career even further and do something the Mystics haven’t done.”
Delle Donne was scheduled to begin individual workouts at Verizon Center with Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault this week. Before launching into the season, when she has countless media obligations as one of the WNBA’s most in-demand players, she appreciated the serenity of her family home set on several acres off a twisty, tree-lined road roughly 115 miles from the nation’s capital.
There, she can spend time out of the spotlight with her fiancee, Amanda Clifton, her parents and siblings. She can jog at her whim with her beloved dog Wrigley, named for the iconic ballpark in the city where she helped the Sky reach the playoffs in each of her four years and the 2014 WNBA Finals.
In Delaware, she had been increasing both the frequency and vigor of her training over the final weeks of March, knowing camp was on the horizon. She also played pickup basketball against male competition roughly four times per week.
Delle Donne’s typical offseason program at home stands in sharp contrast to that of players leaguewide who spend those months participating internationally because salaries abroad are far more lucrative than in the WNBA.
“For us, it’s a positive,” Thibault said of Delle Donne choosing not to compete overseas. “It’s a mixed thing. Sometimes they can be a little stale because they haven’t played. Sometimes they’re stale because they’ve played too much, so I don’t know what the happy medium is right now, but she’s done it before.”
This past offseason, Delle Donne went to China with the intention of joining the Shanxi Flame for the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association playoffs, but a recurrence of Lyme disease brought her back home from her first non-Olympic international foray. Delle Donne has endured symptoms of the painful bacterial disease since 2008, including missing 17 games with the Sky in 2014.
Delle Donne said she has learned over the years how better to manage Lyme disease, adding she is far enough along from the most recent episode that there is no doubt she will be ready for the season opener May 14.
In the more immediate future, Delle Donne said she is eagerly anticipating forging closer bonds with her new teammates and meeting some for the first time in training camp through face-to-face interaction. With teammates currently playing internationally and scattered throughout the country, texting has been Delle Donne’s primary mode of communication with them since her signing.
“It’s all the off-court things that you do together to build that camaraderie and learn more about each other than just the X’s and O’s on the basketball court,” she said. “You want to know about people’s families, what they’re into outside of basketball, because we’re not just basketball players and robots who do that. We have a lot more going on.
“When you get to get into that depth of people and learn about them, I think that’s when teams become so much closer.”