Column: Mystic’s injury-plagued season prevents team from returning to title contention

Despite the success of newcomer Tina Charles, injuries and absences led to a disappointing season

Column: Mystic’s injury-plagued season prevents team from returning to title contention
"Elena Delle Donne" by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

All signs pointed towards the Washington Mystics having a redemption season this year, following a 2020 derailed by injuries and COVID-19 opt-outs, but this season instead leaves them in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.

Just two seasons ago, the Mystics won their first Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) championship behind the superstar leadership of power forward Elena Delle Donne, who also won the league MVP in 2019, and the accompanying overwhelming offensive power of Natasha Cloud, Kristi Toliver and Emma Meesseman.

The Mystics only seemed to be improving during the 2019 offseason when they traded Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and three other draft picks for 2012 MVP center Tina Charles from the New York Liberty. This demonstrated a willingness to focus on immediate success, even if it meant sacrificing the future stability of the team

The 2020 season immediately endangered those plans. The pandemic caused the recently required Charles and Delle Donne to opt out, while Cloud and forward LaToya Sanders also decided not to play in order to focus on raising awareness of social justice issues. This resulted in the team finishing with a 9-13 record and a first round lost to the Phoenix Mercury. 

However, it was expected that this season would be an anomaly and the Mystics would return to their championship status yet again for the 2021 season. Then the injury and player opt-out problems from the 2020 season returned and their plans to return back to the top of the league were yet again derailed. 

It began when Delle Donne underwent surgery during the offseason in order to heal her lingering back problems. Delle Donne's recovery lasted much longer than expected, and she was only able to return for three games in August before being sidelined, yet again, due to lingering nerve issues from her back for the remainder of the season.

Alysha Clark, their newly acquired defensive star from the Seattle Storm, was diagnosed with a Lisfranc foot injury that will keep her out for the entirety of the 2021 season. Then Meesseman, the former Finals MVP for the Mystics in 2019, decided not to return to the team after playing for the Belgian National Team in the Olympics. In fact, only guard Ariel Atkins and forward Theresa Plaisance have played the entirety of the season this year. 

In an interview with NBC Sports reporter Tyler Byrum, head coach Mike Thibault commented on the injuries his team endured this year.

“[The injury situation] has been the worst in 50 years of coaching,” Thibault said. “This has been the worst I’ve ever been through.”

The losses of these key players made it almost impossible to be consistently successful throughout the season. The Mystics opened the season with two blowout losses to the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury and were never able to develop a significant winning streak as they never won more than three games in a row throughout. 

Unable to establish a rhythm due to the constantly changing starting lineup, the team was officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since 2016, after two losses to the New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx. 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the season is that it proved the Mystics had made many of the right personnel decisions following their 2019 championship season. Charles has been every bit of the MVP-caliber player that she was expected to be, and is currently on pace to have the most successful scoring season in WNBA history with a scoring average of 26 points per game. Cloud is also having one of her most successful seasons and is leading the league in steals per game (4) and is second in the league in assists per game (6)

When Delle Donne returned for that brief three game stretch, she dropped 16 points in her season debut and appeared to successfully coexist in the paint with Charles throughout the game. Younger players, such as Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen continued to build on success they had during the 2020 season when both Charles, Delle Donne and Cloud were absent. 

If all players had been able to remain healthy, they truly did have the potential to be title contenders. 

aerickson@theeagleonline.com

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