Mystics enter the offseason of uncertainty with Elena Delle Donne as a free agent

Mike Thibault sat on the entertainment floor of the Entertainment and Sports Arena Thursday after completing his first season as general manager of the Washington Mystics without coaching responsibilities and acknowledged that the organization has reached a period of transition.

The Mystics’ 2023 season ended in overtime against the New York Liberty on Tuesday night as Washington was eliminated in the first round of the postseason for the third time since winning the 2019 WNBA Championship. The loss could ultimately mark the start of a significant change in the way the team has looked since the arrival of franchise cornerstone Elena Delle Donne before the 2017 season.

“[Transition] is a word that can be used a little,” Thibault said. “I think we have to make a decision about what this will look like going forward. And it’s not easy.”

Mystics were edged by Liberty in OT in the WNBA playoff thriller

The Mystics have been working with a core group that they believe is championship-caliber since trading for Delle Donne, a two-time league MVP. This year’s roster included Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud, Myisha Hines-Allen, Tianna Hawkins, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Kristi Toliver. All seven were on the squad that made back-to-back finals appearances in 2018 and 2019 and won the title in 2019. Hawkins, Walker-Kimbrough and Toliver all went elsewhere and returned, but those have been the key pieces of the last six seasons.

Injuries have been a major obstacle for several years – players have missed a total of 53 regular-season games this season – but Delle Donne admitted that any season that doesn’t end with a championship is a disappointment. This is the standard that the mystics have set.

Decisions have to be made now. Delle Donne, Cloud, Hawkins and Toliver are unrestricted free agents, and both the players and the organization need to figure out how they want to proceed.

Delle Donne is the biggest question. She is a seven-time All-Star, including this season, and an Olympian who has long been considered one of the best players in the world. Two back surgeries as well as two ankle injuries and a hip injury this season have limited her to just 51 games since signing a supermax contract before the 2020 season. Delle Donne said she hadn’t given much thought to free agency when she met with reporters Wednesday, but she said she and her wife, Amanda, would do what’s best for their family.

Delle Donne had previously said she never planned to play for another organization, but she didn’t say that on Wednesday.

“I think you always have to take a little time to think and see what the next steps are going to be,” Delle Donne said. “I just want to win. This is truly what I care about most. That was my whole career, but especially when I came back from all the backback stuff and felt like I was truly the strongest I’ve ever been. Things are going great. I feel like I can play a lot more basketball and I want to win.”

Meanwhile, the Mystics must figure out how Delle Donne fits into their plans. She played well enough to earn an All-Star appearance and had strong efficiency numbers: 48.5 percent of her shots from the field, 39.3 percent from three-point range and 93.8 percent from beyond the arc Free throw line. But her 16.7 points per game was a career low for seasons in which she played more than three games. She averaged 11.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the Mystics’ final three playoff games from last season, and the team is 0-5 in the postseason since being crowned champions.

“I think the most encouraging thing is that she obviously believes she still has a lot of really good basketball left in her,” coach Eric Thibault said. “And that honestly gives me a lot of confidence that that’s true.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask her to carry the burden that she carried at 27, 28, 29. But she can still be a great player, there’s no doubt about that.”

But at 34, can the team still build around Delle Donne like it did when she arrived in Washington?

“I think that’s the discussion we’re having, and I really can’t give you that answer,” Mike Thibault said. “I would say that every time some of your players get older, regardless of whether she was a free agent or not, we need to make sure that we have other players that we can make the focus of our work.” It can Don’t just be a player.”

Cloud will also be a major factor this offseason as she is expected to draw significant interest from other teams. She made a strong impression in the end, scoring a career-high 33 points and adding nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in Tuesday’s elimination game. In doing so, she became the first player in WNBA history to score 30 or more points, five or more assists (five) or more rebounds and four or more steals in a playoff game. Cloud averaged 12.7 points this season, the highest of her career, after being forced to carry a heavier offensive load as the team was missing three starters for long stretches. Last year, Cloud led the league with seven assists per game. A starter since 2018, she is a leader in the locker room and in the community.

“I feel like I’m a player you want to play and train with,” Cloud said. “I’m fiery. I’m gloomy. I’ll run through a wall every night. I will do my best every night. I will lead. I will be able to orchestrate. I’m QB1.”

Tash & Slim: Mystics try to stay afloat behind the wild duo

The Mystics have missed the playoffs just twice since Mike Thibault’s arrival before the 2013 season, with six of their nine postseason appearances coming during his tenure since Delle Donne’s arrival. This season the championship ambitions remained intact before injuries derailed them.

Now the team is entering a phase that, according to Mike Thibault, will be difficult to predict. The team has three picks in drafts over the next two years that are expected to be rich in talent. Also on the horizon are possible changes to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, a possible expansion and a new media deal. All of these factors could impact team finances, and many players are expected to sign two-year deals to await possible structural changes in 2025.

The key word for Mike Thibault is flexibility, as the path to improvement isn’t as clear as in previous offseasons.

“We really need to spend this offseason picking out a lot of things,” Mike Thibault said. “There is no quick and easy solution to anything.

You can’t paint yourself into a corner when you’re an old team and have older players on long-term contracts. That’s the easiest way for me to answer that at the moment.” Mystics enter the offseason of uncertainty with Elena Delle Donne as a free agent

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