Washington Mystics put long history of 'Mistakes' behind them

The Mystics were so bad at one point their own disappointed fans called them the "Mistakes." But Elena Delle Donne and Washington are now playing in their second consecutive WNBA Finals. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON -- Mike Thibault watched the lottery for the 2013 WNBA draft, shaking his head. It was late September 2012, and his Connecticut Sun started the postseason the next day. The Washington Mystics' problems weren't Thibault's concern back then. Still, he wondered how their luck could get any worse.

"You have the worst record for two years in a row, and you get the fourth pick in the 'Three to See' lottery," Thibault said with a bemused smile. "I thought, 'Those poor people in Washington; they can't get a break.' And two months later, I'm the guy who's got that job. It was like, 'What the hell have I just done?'"

What he did was help revitalize a franchise that for years was plagued by a revolving door of coaches, questionable decisions and misfortune. The Mystics are tied 1-1 with the Sun in the WNBA Finals. No matter how this series ends, they've separated themselves from their past.

The Mystics have gone from a team that even their own disappointed fans sometimes called the "Mistakes" to a group that is playing in its second consecutive WNBA Finals, has the league MVP in Elena Delle Donne -- whose jersey is the league's bestseller for the third straight year -- and has its own new home arena.

The year 2012 marked both the pit of misery for the Mystics and the beginning of their rise. Connecticut lost in the WNBA playoffs, and the Sun fired Thibault. Washington fired Trudi Lacey after she'd gone 11-57 in two seasons. A very experienced WNBA coach was available. It was perfect timing for the Mystics.

"When I got here, I thought: They've hit rock bottom; we're just going to get better," Thibault said. "It couldn't get worse."

Mystics: Their ups and downs

The Mystics were the first of two WNBA expansion teams, along with Detroit, in 1998, the year after the league launched. In their first 15 seasons, they had 12 different head coaches. Thibault was coach No. 13.

The Mystics did have some highs before Thibault arrived. After a dismal inaugural year of 3-27 -- their first coaching switch came just 18 games into the season -- they had the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft. They selected Chamique Holdsclaw, who was coming off three championships in four seasons at Tennessee. She had a good career, numbers-wise, for the Mystics. She played six of her 11 WNBA seasons with Washington, averaging 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in 162 regular-season games there.

But Holdsclaw also struggled at times to maintain her mental health, which she has been open about, and was away from the team in 2004 during part of the regular season and all of the playoffs. She was subsequently traded to Los Angeles for the 2005 season.

Washington also drafted well with Alana Beard as No. 2 in 2004. She averaged 16.2 points in her six seasons at Washington, but her career was sidetracked for two years due to ankle injuries. Other Mystics draft choices could be second-guessed, but overall consistency was a bigger issue, and it wasn't helped by all the coaching change. In a stretch from 2000-2007, the Mystics made the playoffs every other year, advancing as far as the Eastern Conference finals once. But they had seven different coaches during that eight-season stretch.

They hit some stability in 2009 with the hiring of coach Julie Plank. The Mystics went 16-18 that year, losing in the conference semifinals. The next year, the Mystics finished first in the Eastern Conference for the first time with their best record, 22-12. But then Atlanta swept Washington in the conference semifinals. And then Plank and general manager Angela Taylor departed, as the Mystics' ownership had wanted to consolidate the coach/GM jobs with Plank after Taylor and the team couldn't reach a contract agreement.

Lacey, a Mystics assistant and former head coach with Charlotte, took over both roles. But the team plummeted, finishing 6-28 in 2011 and 5-29 in 2012. The Mystics lost games, and some longtime fans.

"We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows; it was truly devastating to the long-term fans," said Judith Schaeffer, who for several years wrote a fan blog called the D.C. Basket Cases. "And there are some people who have never come back."

But the struggles of 2011-12 meant the Mystics had the best odds to get the No. 1 pick in 2013, dubbed the "Three To See" draft. Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins were the big names in that senior class. But the Mystics ended up with the No. 4 pick, taking Ohio State's Tayler Hill, who is now with Dallas.

"The year before, they were in the lottery, but had traded the pick for Nicky Anosike," Thibault said of the former Tennessee player who was with the Mystics just one season. "They had some bad luck, but you can't do many more things wrong than they did."

A new era

When Thibault took over as coach and GM, he called Marianne Stanley, who had been a Mystics assistant in 2001, their head coach in 2002-2003, and then an assistant again from 2010-2012. Things had gotten so bleak in the 2011 and '12 seasons, Stanley was ready to leave the franchise.

"I remember standing in the locker room after our last game in 2012 saying to myself, 'I refuse to let this be my last taste of basketball,'" she said. "I was then asked to go to China to work with their under-20 national team. And the day I got home, I was in the airport and got a call from Mike, asking me if I wanted to come back."

Stanley returned, but there was a lot of work to do.

"The group I inherited, they were so beaten down," Thibault said. "That's why I brought in players like Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn, who came in and were so positive. They were like, 'You're better than this. We played you guys; you can do this.' Lots of self-empowerment stuff. We had to start bringing a different kind of player here."

Thibault said his philosophy has stayed the same wherever he has been.

"You've got to let people blossom," he said. "One thing I've learned from the best coaches is that you'll never as a team reach your potential until your players take ownership. The best teams are run by the best players."

Thibault has always tried to have scoring threats at all five positions, something he accomplished to its highest degree this season, when the Mystics had the best offensive rating in league history. In his early years with the Mystics, they had to grind more, but they still won games. Washington has made the playoffs six out of Thibault's seven years.

They also did better in the draft. Two players taken in the first round of the 2014 and '16 drafts, Stefanie Dolson and Kahleah Copper, were good enough to be sent to Chicago in one of the biggest trades in WNBA history: the January 2017 deal that brought Delle Donne to the Mystics.

Before the 2017 season, the Mystics also signed guard Kristi Toliver -- who was coming off a championship with the Los Angeles Sparks -- as a free agent.

Two of Thibault's second-round draft choices, Emma Meesseman in 2013 and Natasha Cloud in 2015, have turned out to be key players for the Mystics, and another, Myisha Hines-Allen in 2018, is on the roster. A first-rounder in 2018, Ariel Atkins, became a starter as a rookie. And a trade midway through 2018 sent Hill, whose career has been hampered by injuries, to Dallas for Aerial Powers, who has been a strength off the Mystics' bench. Thibault also stuck with LaToya Sanders through injury and illness, and the past two seasons, she has been a valued starter.

Thibault -- who guided Washington to its second consecutive WNBA Finals appearance with a franchise-record 26 victories in the regular season -- has been able to create a winning atmosphere and positive environment in Washington, which was helped by the Mystics' ownership, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, building a new facility. The Entertainment and Sports Arena is small -- about 4,200 seats -- but provides an intimate home-court advantage with state-of-the-art training facilities, including a practice gym used by both the Mystics and the NBA's Wizards.

"Basically, they've let me do what I want," Thibault said of Mystics' ownership. "As long as I could explain it to them and how much it would cost, they've never said no to me. I gave them a clear vision of what we had to do to win. And they bought in."

Mystics fans, along with the team, currently are worried about Delle Donne's back injury, and whether she'll be able to compete for the rest of the Finals. But they can feel good about the franchise's future, and that's a big leap from where the Mystics once were.

"I've had some fans tell me they'd seen some hard times here," Delle Donne said. "And I tell them, 'Thanks for hanging in there; we're doing this for you.' This season has been so fun for them; the past couple seasons have been. It's nice to see they get to enjoy it, too."