How far have the Mystics really come along since Mike Thibault was hired and how far can they go?
We are now in the last part of our Mystics Roundtable, with Andy Livingston, Ebenezer Famutimi, Sara Flannigan, and myself. Read Part 1 here on questions regarding the backcourt. Read Part 2 here for questions regarding the frontcourt.
In this final part, we now focus on Mike Thibault, and the big picture surrounding the team’s direction, in particular for the 2015 season. To this point, we have agreed on most things. But now, our differences start to show more.
1. Mike Thibault has done an excellent coaching job over the last two seasons in Washington given the talent they have. Still, they haven’t won 20 games a season yet. When should we start holding him accountable for the team’s record and its talent?
Andy: I think this year would still be considered a transition year, but by the end of next year if they haven’t figured it out, it would be time to start making some drastic decisions.
Ebenezer: The Mystics’ record hinges on the amount of talent, and talent has been scarce of lately in the WNBA. unless the likes of Emma Meesseman and/or Stefanie Dolson and/or Bria Hartley blossoms into that ‘it’ player, or we acquire a star player via free agency or overseas.
But I believe that Coach T should not be judged merely on wins and losses but mainly on post season performance. The Mystics have not advanced beyond the Conference Semifinals (first round of the playoffs) since 2002!!! Improving in this area would all but nullify a sub-20 win season, but such a feat (by Mystics standards of course) will indeed require talent.
If it’s deemed that Thibault’s coaching is in some way hindering the growth of his most important players, then yes he must be terminated ASAP. But otherwise, I don’t think that even Phil Jackson can accomplish more than what Thibault has done thus far.
Sara: Thibault should already be accountable for what he does. If it weren’t for him (and Ivory Latta and Meesseman, somewhat) the Mystics would probably finish with a 12-22 record. His coaching skills are stellar, and should be recognized.
AL: Thibault inherited a very tough situation in December 2012 and turning this team around is going to take multiple seasons. Now that he has turned over nearly the entire roster since arriving, he must be held fully accountable for the talent he can bring and develop on his team.
I’m not going to say that Thibault must win a championship by 2016 because they don’t have a franchise player who can carry them right now. But if Thibault can’t get that franchise star within the next couple seasons because he’s simply going for short term wins, then he must be terminated immediately.
Don’t get me or Ebenezer wrong. We don’t want Thibault fired. Quite frankly, we want him to stay and win a title with the Mystics because he is the best head coach in the WNBA, let alone the best head coach the franchise has ever had. However, if he isn’t putting this team on the right track, he must pay the price, which is his job.
2. The 2016 Draft has a particular prospect or two (Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd) who could very well make the Mystics a WNBA contender, should they play for them. Irrespective of your opinion on tanking, is it better for them to miss the 2015 Playoffs than to make them given their lack of star talent?
Andy: It’s an interesting question. I don’t think the Mystics have enough talent right now to get that far in the playoffs. So is another year of playoff ball for a young squad more valuable than getting a chance to draft a potential young franchise player?
I tend to side with going for the player over a first round exit, because the potential for that player could really raise the ceiling for the team. And under .500 records, sneaking into the playoffs year after year just doesn’t do much to retain a fanbase. If it’s one or the other, I say go for the draft.
Ebenezer: Magic Johnson just recently said that if the Lakers are going to lose, they should lose as many games as possible to ensure a top pick in the subsequent draft. Yes, I loathe the shameless idea of tanking, but I also oppose the scheme for another reason: What guarantee do we have in snagging the #1 overall in 2016?
Every Mystic fan remembers the shock and awe experienced in the 2013 draft after LEGITIMATELY ending the 2012 with the worst record in the league. No Elena Delle Donne, no Brittney Griner and no Skylar Diggins. Can we risk an ‘intentional’ 5-29 season to come up empty come draft day? That may well be the final straw for our fans…including myself.
Sara: No. The team keeps improving, and should just try to win. I also think a bad season wouldn’t be good for ticket sales. And of course, their chances are just as good that they will get the third or fourth pick who ultimately becomes a bust. That could be a complete disaster.
AL: Yes, they are better off missing the 2015 WNBA Playoffs. Even if they strike out in another draft lottery, the Mystics are better off making a choice to potentially improve the outlook of their team than settle for the “Treadmill of Mediocrity” which I believe will exhaust their fanbase even moreso than striking out in a draft lottery.
You can’t be mediocre in the WNBA (or the NBA) and expect to win big. The Mystics have tried doing this time and time again and expected a different result, especially after draft lotteries when they struck out on getting a franchise player. They need to quit doing it and take a page out of the Wizards and Capitals’ past rebuilds. Being bad in the standings is what gave the Wizards John Wall and the Capitals Alex Ovechkin, both of whom are among the best players in the NBA and NHL.
The Mystics have NO ONE to go toe to toe with Wall and Ovechkin in terms of league significance, and fans wonder why they aren’t getting more exposure or ticket sales, so I disagree with Sara to some degree. Even when the Mystics were making playoff appearances the last couple seasons, there weren’t many fans in the stands.
3. How far along are the Mystics in their rebuild?
Andy: I would say that the 2014 season was the second year of a three-year plan. They have some valuable cornerstones and are still missing one piece, but if you have a backcourt of Hartley and Tayler Hill plus a low post duo of Dolson and Meesseman, you can either go harder on defense, or look for a pure shooter to put in that three spot. Even if they don’t get a star player in the draft at the end of the 2015 season, they should have a clear vision and direction of where their ceiling is.
Ebenezer: It depends on how far the players Andy mentioned develop, and when we can finally fill the void in the small forward position. Assuming all goes well; players step up and we find a decent player to replace Monique Currie, methinks a championship in 2016 is not unthinkable.
Sara: The Mystics have come a long way in their rebuild. They have acquired a great veteran leader in Latta; a very good 21-year old power forward in Meesseman; a promising young combo guard in Hartley; as well as a young center in Dolson who could turn out well, but probably won’t be a star. Hill still might turn out well because it’s still early in her career, and she showed promise toward the end of her rookie season. Overall, the future looks good.
AL: The Mystics are going through two rebuilds, not just one. The first is with organizational culture, and the second is with the team’s talent.
With organizational culture, they made a lot of progress. The players Thibault has brought in are all coachable and known hard workers. The team also plays with the expectation that they could win any game, any night.
In regards to team talent, that’s a much harder question. On the one hand, they have a lot of young talent that could be here for a long time … IF they have the right superstar as the centerpiece. But on the other hand, I don’t think they have done that much because that star isn’t in D.C. yet, if ever. After two seasons, the Mystics are still the least talented WNBA team, but they now are a team of Mike Thibault players, not Trudi Lacey ones.
Though we know the younger players, like Hartley, Hill, Dolson, and Meesseman are high priorities, we still don’t know if they will REALLY be players who will stick around for the next five years or more. If a superstar is drafted sooner rather than later, these four are probably make up that star player’s supporting cast. But if not, I don’t know if they really accomplished that much besides simply improving their franchise perception to fans around the league.
4. The Mystics have been going through a youth movement during Thibault’s tenure. Should this movement continue in 2015?
Andy: 2015 should be the last year of that youth movement and they should turn to developing what they have instead of going the way the Philadelphia 76ers have in the NBA and just stockpiling assets.
Ebenezer: Youth mixed with a couple of veterans. To go ‘full youth’ is a recipe for disaster due to lack of experience and leadership. Latta and Kara Lawson were very pivotal during the latter stage of the 2014 season as Washington made a run for the postseason.
Remember that the Washington Wizards’ youth movement before their very recent success went a bit too far in terms of getting young. There were some clowns like Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, and Nick Young running their locker room. I don’t think the Mystics have any players who are clowns, but a team can only get so young before it becomes a disadvantage.
Sara: I feel like the youth movement should continue, but Washington still needs a veteran presence to guide them, which is why Latta is there to this point. Therefore, I believe that the Mystics have a great balance.
AL: Yes. Young players are more prone to making mistakes than veterans, even if the young players are very talented and skilled. But the youth movement should go on for at least another couple seasons, dependent on what happens in 2016. This is because even though this team has acquired a lot of youth, they still don’t have any lottery picks recently besides Tayler Hill. They need at least a couple more lottery picks before they move on to a phase where we start expecting more wins.
Since WNBA rookies are older when they enter the league than their NBA counterparts usually are, I disagree with Ebenezer that a team that goes all-out with youth would be a disaster. I think a hypothetical 2015 Mystics team made entirely of rookies, sophomores, and third year players could be fun to watch with their current coaching staff, even though they would likely be a lottery team. Furthermore, Thibault himself is worth two or three battle tested veteran stars, so if you need a veteran to lead the young players, it’s him.
5. What should the Mystics do if they cannot draft either Breanna Stewart or Jewell Loyd in 2016, regardless of the specific circumstances why?
Andy: If the Mystics miss the playoffs AND fail to get either Stewart or Loyd, the Mystics should give the youth movement one more year and then adapt a new plan. Otherwise, at some point, you have to see how far they can go as constructed.
Ebenezer: You don’t want a rebuild to be totally dependent on one player. If they get Stewart or Loyd, then great! But if not, Thibault should continue to have a chance to develop the young players he already has, and I’m confident that good things will come.
Sara: If they don’t get Stewart or Loyd, I hope the Mystics further develop the players they have right now and make them an even tighter unit. Hopefully we can see their team play as more cohesive unit next season.
Albert: If this happens, it’s dependent on the circumstances of their 2015 season, but I think each of these outcomes warrants a different action:
1. If we see the Mystics make the playoffs because one or more of their young players (you can pick whoever you want) plays at an MVP level, win 20 or more games, and make a deep playoff run, I think it’s worth saying that the team now needs to start getting into more of a “win-now” mode. At this point, they should try to add some more veteran talent to accelerate a potential Eastern Conference championship run, or better. But I find this to be unlikely.
2. If the Mystics miss the playoffs but get a low draft pick (third or fourth) in the lottery, then I’ll go with what Andy recommends. Thibault should continue with the youth movement and build through the draft.
3. If the Mystics make a one-and-done playoff appearance and play like they did in 2013 and 2014 with no one looking like a true star while remaining healthy, then it’s time for them to look for a new GM and head coach because they’re clearly back on that treadmill.
6. What are the chances of the Mystics’ rebuild being a success? Put another way, what are their chances of acquiring a legitimate franchise player and having the talent that can realistically win a championship while Mike Thibault is their GM and head coach?
Andy: I think the rebuild is contingent on who that new third piece will end up being. The fact that they have a number of options and could either go defensive heavy or offensive heavy is a huge step in the right direction.
It’s hard to say how well they can match up against a stacked Western Conference, but given two years with full health and development, seeing them in the Finals is realistic if the right player comes along.
Ebenezer: The Mystics’ chances of having a successful rebuild are just as good as the Minnesota Lynx’s chances were some years ago before Maya Moore was drafted. Thibault is a far better coach than Cheryl Reeve in Minnesota or Sandy Brondello in Phoenix. But it takes time to see how things will shape out given how bad they were right after Lacey was fired in 2012.
Sara: The Mystics should develop their current crop of young players. While they may not be franchise star-caliber (although it’s possible), and when they’re good enough, they could trade them for a legitimate franchise star who wants to play in Washington.
I still think it’s possible that the Mystics can win a championship with no franchise star if their starting five players are all relatively good, like the Detroit Pistons in 2004. This Pistons team did so with an elite defense, and well-functioning offense with a starting five made up almost entirely of All-Stars.
The Mystics already had one of the best defenses in 2014, and it could very well be even better for years to come as the young group eventually develops into a veteran one. I don’t think we HAVE to bank the Mystics’ championship hopes on Breanna Stewart playing there, even though she would obviously be a welcome addition to the team.
AL: I won’t totally rule out Sara’s point that the Mystics could contend without a franchise superstar, simply because Thibault is the head coach. Maybe he pulls out a rabbit out of the hat, and they win it all with what they have. If they do, that championship run would be a Cinderella run for the ages. But that said, this is unlikely. I believe a Pistons-type championship team must be considered an exception to championship team building, not a rule.
That said, I strongly believe that the outcome of the Mystics’ rebuild depends on whether they have a franchise player within the next couple seasons. If they can get that player, they will have a real shot to make a WNBA Finals appearance or more within the next several seasons. Maybe even better.
But without that star, whether she’s drafted in the future or developed from the current roster, it’s going to be nearly impossible to see the Mystics in the conversation for a championship, let alone the Eastern Conference Finals.