2021-2022 Washington Mystics Reflections and Forecast
After another injury-plagued season, where do the Washington Mystics go from here?
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Since winning the championship in 2019, the road for Washington has been rocky, and their last two seasons have both ended in heartbreaking fashion. In 2020, they made the playoffs and lost in the first round on a Shey Peddy buzzer-beater. In 2021, they missed the playoffs entirely by losing the last two games of the regular season. For the second year in a row, Elena Delle Donne’s season was derailed by her ailing back, key pieces like Alysha Clark missed the entire year, and the team had to fight tooth-and-nail for the 8-seed through injuries, coming up just short. While a lot of things went wrong, the team had plenty of bright spots including an MVP-level season from Tina Charles.
By the numbers
Record: 12-20 (0.375, worst since 2012), Failed to qualify for playoffs (first time since 2016)
Points Scored: 79.8 (7th), Points Allowed: 83.6 (9th), Margin Per Game: -3.8 (8th)
Offensive Rating: 98.1 (4th), Defensive Rating: 102.9 (10th), Net Rating: -5.0 (9th)
Pace: 81.1 (6th)
Worst in field goal percentage (41.0%) AND worst in opponent field goal percentage (46.3%)
The bad beats for the Mystics began well before the season and just kept coming. In March, Alysha Clark sustained a foot injury that would sideline Washington’s big free agent signing for the year. At the team’s media day, Mike Thibault announced that Elena Delle Donne may not be ready for the season opener, and that Emma Meesseman’s situation was still up in the air. Spoiler warning: Delle Donne would not play until August and only logged 52 minutes before her back injury caused her to sit, while Meesseman never joined the team. The season culminated in Mike Thibault missing the last two decisive games of 2021 due to COVID.
The fabled experiment with Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles playing together lasted 16 minutes in a loss to the Seattle Storm before Charles left the game with a gluteal strain. By the time Charles returned, Delle Donne’s back flared up and she would not play for the rest of the year. After missing the beginning of the season, Myisha Hines-Allen dealt with nagging injuries all year and never truly got going. Only three players played 30 or more games this season for Washington: Ariel Atkins, Leilani Mitchell and Theresa Plaisance.
To open the year, Washington got blown out by a combined 35 points against the Chicago Sky and the Phoenix Mercury, a harbinger of what was to come. The Mystics would struggle all year against good teams as they went 6-18 in matchups against eventual playoff teams. The most frustrating part of the 2021 Washington Mystics may have been how they would dominate the first quarter and lose a lead for the rest of a game. They were 7-9 in games they led after the first quarter. Washington had the league’s second-best net rating in the first quarter (7.0), but finished 10th in net rating for the second quarter, last in the third quarter, and 10th in the fourth. The team didn’t have answers for this beyond the fatigue of playing with so many injuries.
The Mystics’ young player projects also did not pan out, as the team released 2019 first-round selection Kiara Leslie and free-agent pickup Stella Johnson, who impressed in 2020. Washington’s depth failed them as well. Sydney Wiese, who DC traded a second round pick for, had the worst season of her career. Theresa Plaisance and Erica McCall had bright spots but were ultimately asked to do too much. Leilani Mitchell couldn’t quite find her rhythm. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who signed with the team in August, ended up with the best PER and win shares of any DC bench player in 2021.
It wasn’t all bad for the Mystics, though. The 2019 WNBA championship banner finally went up and the remaining members of that team got a long-overdue ovation. Tina Charles had one of her best seasons ever and put the team on her back for long stretches. She deserves a ton of credit for adapting and expanding her offensive game in addition to some solid defense. Elena Delle Donne did actually play! Her time on the court didn’t last long, but she looked like her old self for a hot second. The Mystics had a 29.5 net rating in the 52 minutes that EDD played, y’all! There’s at least a glimmer of hope that the two-time MVP can still carry this team. Despite regressing statistically, Ariel Atkins made All-Defense Second Team and had some legitimate superstar games. Similarly, Natasha Cloud excelled as a distributor, defender, and on-court leadership despite struggling to put the ball in the basket.
Most importantly, the 2021 Washington Mystics never gave up on the season. I asked Mike Thibault how the team was reacting to whatever bad injury news broke before almost every game in the second half of the season. Thibault was consistently happily surprised to see no change in the energy or fight of his team. Things didn’t go Washington’s way this year, but there’s the bones of a good team if fortune ever favors them.
Cap Situation by Richard Cohen
With four expensive players already under contract for 2022, the Mystics are a little complicated for next season. Retaining unrestricted free agent Tina Charles, keeping restricted free agent Myisha Hines-Allen and talking Emma Meesseman into returning to play in the WNBA never really looked feasible. They have six players under contract and only $456,900 in space remaining. They could add $30,000 or so to that by swapping minimum players in for Wiese and McCall but even then they couldn't afford to pay two of Charles, Hines-Allen, and Meesseman near-max money, never mind all three of them.
In interviews at the end of the season, Charles seemed unsure about whether she'll return. The Mystics can't core her (she's reached the allowed limit), so she's free to leave if she wants. You have to imagine that they'd like to retain her, given how central she was to everything they did in 2021, but it may be out of their hands. Charles walking away would at least make re-signing Hines-Allen more viable. She's likely to have plenty of offers from other teams, but Washington will have the right to match. They'll hope to at least have Charles's situation sorted out before having to make that decision.
Meesseman, like Charles, is an unrestricted free agent who could play anywhere she wants. Unfortunately for WNBA fans, there's a chance that she may not want to play anywhere in the US any more. Given the other players they'll be trying to retain, Washington may need a definitive answer on whether she wants to play earlier than they appeared to get in 2021. Keeping lots of space open for the possibility of her signing later on may not be an option this year.
One disappointing possibility that may have to be faced at some point is an early retirement from Elena Delle Donne. She's played three games of basketball in over two years now. An announcement like that obviously isn't something Washington or basketball fans in general would want to see, but it would change the calculations for their roster. This is a team that's only going to have money to spend on any free agents if they lose key pieces from the previous roster - so the math depends on who they manage to keep.
Looking to 2022
Last year, we were all clearly too optimistic about Elena Delle Donne’s health. This time around, there’s a clear need for caution. It’s now been two full seasons since EDD played substantial basketball. Hopefully, the former MVP comes back and is ready to go. But best to plan for the chance that she may not play.
What does that mean for Tina Charles? She wants a ring badly to cap off a great career and can still contribute to a good team. The Mystics will have to show Charles that they’re closer to a title than their record suggests. Realistically, her best chance to win that ring may be elsewhere at this point as perhaps on a richer contract than the Mystics may have to offer.
The core of EDD, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, and Alysha Clark will return. By all accounts, Clark is recovering from her injury well. Myisha Hines-Allen will be a priority despite a dip in production this season. She’s a restricted free agent and we’ve seen the restricted market dry up in a hurry for players in previous years. Emma Meesseman should also be a huge priority. If she’s playing in the US, it seems like it will be for Washington and they desperately need her.
As Richard said, it’s complicated for the Mystics right now. If everything goes perfectly, this team is a title contender. If everything goes wrong, they’ll be right back here next season. Washington needs to figure out which outlook to take soon because they have a top 4 pick in the 2022 WNBA draft. An optimist might trade that pick for a player to help DC win now. A pessimist would use the pick on someone to build around in the future.