When Mike Thibault joined the Washington Mystics three years ago, his job description as coach and general manager included multiple directives from owner Ted Leonsis.
The priority for the immediate future was to extract the most from inherited players who had won a total of 11 games over the previous two seasons. In the longer term, Thibault was to reshape the roster to replicate his winning blueprint that yielded four Eastern Conference regular season titles and two trips to the WNBA finals during 10 years with the Connecticut Sun.
The coaching upgrade has become immediately apparent with consecutive playoff berths. In 2013, Washington won a playoff game for the first time since 2004.
Entering this season, the personnel overhaul is complete as well, with no players remaining from the prior administration. The next step then is to get this youthful group at least to the Eastern Conference finals after first-round losses to the Atlanta Dream in each of the last two years.
“You know when it crossed my mind?” Thibault said of his first Mystics roster comprising only players he acquired. “When I was talking to college coaches who had taken over programs, and they had another coach’s recruits, and they finally had their recruits. Sometimes you can say mistakes or problems are someone else’s fault. Now it’s all on us.”
The last inherited player Thibault coached was Monique Currie, who started at small forward in 62 of 68 games over the past two seasons. The former Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year from Bullis was the Mystics’ third-leading scorer last season and one of the club’s most popular players among teammates and fans before departing via free agency for the WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury.
With Currie gone, the Mystics’ longest-tenured player is Ivory Latta. The starting point guard for the past three seasons was the first player Thibault signed in Washington, and she became the Mystics’ lone representative in last year’s All-Star Game following a breast cancer scare at the start of the season.
“Not only for me, but I know I can speak for the girls, to have a coach that actually believes in your ability and what you can do, I mean, it’s a special feeling,” Latta said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling, so it’s nothing for us to go out there and lay our bodies on the line for him every single night.”
Latta has been true to her word, leading the Mystics in scoring (12.8 points per game), assists (3.3) and three-point shooting (81 for 215) last year.
Despite Latta’s franchise-record production from beyond the arc, Washington finished eighth out of 12 teams in three-point shooting last season, so Thibault addressed that deficiency in part by adding Ally Malott in the first round of April’s WNBA draft.
The 6-foot-4 forward was second on Dayton as a senior in three-pointers made (43) and three-point percentage (.413) among players in the regular rotation. Thibault has indicated Malott will fill the role of a stretch-four behind starter Emma Meesseman, who is a more traditional post player .
“For Mike, what he’s always been good at through the course of his career is finding skilled players that fit his system,” said guard Kara Lawson, who’s heading into her second year with Washington. “I think that’s why he’s been so successful in this league because he has a system, and then he knows what type of players are going to be successful. He drafts those players that fit his system.”
Lawson played for Thibault in Connecticut from 2010 through 2012, so she’s witnessed first-hand his knack for assembling a championship contender. In 2012, the Sun won a franchise-high 25 games during the regular season and reached the conference finals, where it lost to the eventual WNBA champion Indiana Fever in three games.
That wasn’t enough for Sun upper management, who dismissed Thibault following that season, citing his failure to deliver a WNBA title. The Sun has not made the playoffs since Thibault’s firing.
The Mystics eliminated Connecticut from postseason contention last year with a 71-67 victory in the penultimate regular season game. Washington was able to hold off the Sun thanks to defensive specialist Kalana Greene deflecting a pass that led to a steal in the closing seconds.
Thibault had signed the guard, a three-year starter for the Sun, when Connecticut placed her on waivers several weeks before training camp last season. Greene was among the final players the Mystics released this week, but Thibault added another defensive stalwart in the draft in second-round pick Natasha Cloud.
“It’s painful but fun to go through the building process,” Thibault said, “and now start to see it step up another notch.”