Back in their offices at Capital One Arena on Thursday morning, the Washington Mystics went about the quotidian details of breakdown day before disbanding for the offseason. There was a team meeting before Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault conducted a handful of exit interviews. Players handed in playbooks and filled out paperwork. If it all sounded a bit mundane a day after the end of the best run in team history, “that’s kind of how it goes when you have a good season,” Thibault said.
The coach’s priority was speaking with the team’s young players, who will leave within a week to prepare for their seasons in overseas professional leagues. He will schedule postseason conversations with the veterans in the coming months — after all, almost all of the Mystics are expected to return next year. There is plenty of time to break down the season once the sting dulls from Wednesday’s 98-82 loss to Seattle in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals.
Those conversations probably will be upbeat. Getting swept by the talented Storm was disappointing but nowhere near catastrophic for a young team that made it to the franchise’s first Finals without one of its linchpins, Emma Meesseman, who did not play this season because of burnout.
“A successful one,” veteran guard Kristi Toliver said when asked to evaluate the Mystics’ season. “You can’t be unsuccessful if you’re in the Finals. You have to think big picture. This team made a lot of great strides from last year to this year.
“That Seattle core has been together for a while outside of [forward Natasha Howard]; it kind of reminds me of Minnesota and how they had their core together when they had those runs. We’re still new. We’re still getting to learn one another. We’ll have another year next year, and we’ll continue to get better and see if we can get back.”
The Mystics can measure their growth by postseason progress. They overhauled the roster after missing the playoffs in 2016, then reached the 2017 semifinals before getting swept by a Minnesota team playing at its full dynastic power. This season marked another step forward.
Washington used a late-season push to set up its run to the Finals, winning eight of its last nine regular season games to move up to the No. 3 playoff seed with a 22-12 record. When Thibault offered specifics as to how the Mystics can continue to build next year, a better start was at the top of the list.
“It took us a lot of experimenting throughout the year to find our best groove, and we didn’t really get it until after the all-star break, and it carried over into the playoffs,” he said.
He hopes the team’s move to a new, 4,200-seat arena in Southeast Washington will help. Washington’s Entertainment and Sports Arena is scheduled to open Sept. 22 and will house the entire Mystics operation, offices for Thibault and his staff included.
Moving out of Capital One Arena, with its packed calendar of three other pro sports teams as well as concerts and other events, should give the Mystics more control over their schedule. The aim is that they won’t have to go on the road for a month in the middle of the season because of a convention or switch arenas during the playoffs because of a concert or renovations.
But a new home won’t fix the on-court issues that revealed themselves during the Finals. The Storm outshot the Mystics in all three games. On defense, Washington lost focus far too often against a team that has enviable chemistry and ball movement.
Adding Meesseman back in the mix should help on offense — the Belgian national was the team’s second-leading scorer in 2017. The Mystics fared well enough without her in the regular season, ending with the league’s fifth-most productive offense, but she was sorely missed when Washington was pitted against Seattle’s polished sharpshooters.
Rookie Ariel Atkins stepped up behind Elena Delle Donne and Toliver, averaging 11.3 points in the regular season and 15.2 in the playoffs, but the experience gap between Atkins and Meesseman is significant.
“We spent a lot of our time this year relying on a rookie player as our third scorer,” Thibault said. “What she did this year was ahead of schedule for us — you talk about optimism, I see a whole bunch of different things we could do.”
A disappointing Finals aside, reviews of the 2018 season were positive up and down the roster.
Center LaToya Sanders, who sprained her left ankle diving for a loose ball Wednesday, spoke of her teammates’ dedication to the success of the franchise.
Players such as point guard Natasha Cloud, who ascended to become the team’s starting point guard, and Tianna Hawkins, who lost 20 pounds before the start of the season so she could play more effectively off the bench, give Sanders confidence.
“I’m super proud of this team. I know in the preseason poll we were picked to finish eighth,” Sanders said. “For us to make it to the Finals, we can look at the positives of just being here.”
The Mystics also gained critical experience. Toliver and Delle Donne were the team’s only players who had reached the Finals before this year. Now Washington has seen what it takes to win a championship.
“We feel like we have a lot of young, great talent,” Delle Donne said. “Obviously this isn’t how we wanted it to end, but it’s an experience we can grow from.”