Mike Thibault
Mike Thibault Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Mystics guard Leilani Mitchell came to a realization when talking with her teammates recently: Only three Mystics players were available for every game during the 2021 WNBA season. Many of the key players like Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Natasha Cloud, and Myisha Hines-Allen dealt with injuries that caused them to miss a portion of the season. Delle Donne, the 2019 WNBA MVP, only played in three games as she continues to recover from back surgeries. On Sunday, the Mystics lost a must-win game and failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016, finishing the season with a 12-20 record and forcing the team to consider a reset. But Mitchell, one of the three players who played 30 or more games this season, doesn’t want to use injuries as an excuse.

“I think we still underachieved for who we had on the court most of the time,” she said. “I guess that just goes to being inconsistent, and I think that’s a big word for this team. As bad as it sounds, it’s the truth. And we were just way too inconsistent.”

Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault agrees. In his end of the season virtual press conference Monday, he referenced former NFL coach Bill Parcells’ quote of a team being what its record is. In June, Thibault told City Paper he believed the Mystics could contend for another WNBA title “if Elena’s healthy and Emma Meesseman is back.” Delle Donne has been dealing with radicular symptoms related to her back injuries, Thibault said Monday, and Meesseman, a star for the Belgian national team, opted to rest after the European Championships and Tokyo Olympics.

The team Thibault tried to put together for 2021 never materialized and the Mystics struggled to form a specific identity. The injuries also prevented the players from building chemistry on the court. Just two years removed from their first WNBA title, the Mystics now have plenty of decisions to make about their short- and long-term future.

“We’re 12 and 20. And we have a lot reasons, some are good excuses, and some are not,” Thibault said. “But the fact of the matter is, we’re not in rebuild mode, but we’re in a reset button mode. We need to reset our culture and how we go about things, and we need to redevelop an identity. And I don’t think we had an identity of being good at anything this year. We weren’t a good shooting team. We weren’t a great defensive team; there were days we were good defensively. We weren’t particularly a dominant rebounding team; we were a better rebounding team earlier in the year. And so the fact of the matter is we weren’t great, no matter how you look at it.”

For Thibault, culture isn’t just how the players operate on a daily basis or their relationships. “It’s style of play. It’s the pace you do things. I think it’s how you do your workouts,” he said. “I think it’s all of that.” Thibault emphasized that even though the Mystics won the championship two years ago, the current roster only has a handful of players from that team.

“Everybody wants to keep talking about 2019 and yet the reality is that the only players on our team this year that had any connection to 2019, there were only four of them. I mean, Myisha, Natasha, well five, I guess, Elena, and Shatori [Walker-Kimbrough] when we brought her back. Nobody else was a part of that culture.” Ariel Atkins also played on that team.

Thibault missed the last two games of the season after testing positive for COVID-19. The 70-year-old is fully vaccinated and said Monday he is “feeling much better.” His son, Eric, the associate head coach of the team, took over head coaching duties for those games. Asked about his future plans, Thibault said he believes Eric is “ready” to be a head coach, but that he is still “engaged mentally” and said with a laugh that he isn’t sure he’s ready to hand over the reigns quite yet.

“One way or the other, this team is still going to have my imprint on it for the near future,” Thibault said. “And I don’t like the idea of walking away from something that needs to be fixed or repaired. My job right now is to address immediate concerns with our team.”

Hines-Allen is a restricted free agent, while Meesseman and Charles are unrestricted free agents. Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, came to D.C. to play with Delle Donne and contend for a WNBA title that has so far eluded her. She didn’t join the team, Thibault said, expecting to be the the go-to scorer. He expects to have conversations with Charles soon to get a better of idea of her future plans.

“We have salary cap decisions to make just like a couple other key teams do that will impact us not just in the short term, but in the long term,” Thibault said.

But with free agency not starting until January, Thibault and the players can only reflect on the season that didn’t go their way. Despite how it ended, it wasn’t all negative. Mitchell praised the team’s resiliency on Monday, and forward Theresa Plaisance sounded optimistic about the team’s future.

“I feel like this group has a lot of potential,” Plaisance said. “We have a bunch of really talented players here and a great staff. And I think that finding the pieces that cohesively work with things that we can do, that we can control outside of injuries and things of that nature is as important for us to do to move forward. And I think that’s something that’s easily fixable on the offseason.”