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2023 WNBA Preview: Mystics focused on their pursuit of a championship, not super teams

Mystics focused on championship, not super teams originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON -- The Mystics' pursuit for a second championship begins when they welcome one of the league's proclaimed "super teams" to the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Friday night. It will be a mammoth clash between two of the league's talent-loaded teams and the first look at a New York Liberty roster that includes Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu.

Needless to say, it is quite the way to start the season.

But for Washington and first-year head coach Eric Thibault, it will be an important barometer for what those outside of the building think of the team. Primarily, if the Mystics can back up what they've been preaching since free agency.

D.C. is not concerned about what other teams did this offseason.

They believe that have all the tools they need to match-up against the Liberty and the other "super team," the Las Vegas Aces.

"I mean everyone's talking about the two teams, but I look at our roster and I even just look at it generally and I'm glad on this side," Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said this week. "Our roster's stacked. For us, it's just all about coming together and that word commitment, and consistency keeps coming up when we talk in practice. So just able to build off those words and hold each other accountable for that."

Part of the hesitation that some may have including Washington into that "super team" discourse is what's been missing from the team over the past three seasons. Two-time MVP and franchise superstar Elena Delle Donne has missed 61 games over the past three years. That's just playing 31% of all games since their championship and since completing multiple back procedures.

This year, though, there's no leash on their star. Delle Donne said it herself to kick-off training camp, "I don't plan to miss any games."

That's notable, because when she did play last year the Mystics record was tied for the league's best. And this year she's determined. No restrictions and her sights are set on a singular goal.

"For me, I have the same drive and appetite each season so it really doesn't change with who's on whatever team but obviously, yeah, there's a lot of hype around New York and Vegas," Delle Donne said. "I think there's some people that would think just fast forward to the end of the season and let those two compete for the championship, but that's something we're excited to make our mark on and do what we got to do. You know the best movies, the underdog ends up on top so remember that."

An underdog story doesn't exactly fit the Mystics, though when you look down the roster. On the court with their MVP, Washington will boast three all-league defenders, two of which piloted the No. 1 defense in the league in 2022 and the other, Brittney Sykes, leading the WNBA in steals.

The combo guard was the star addition brought in during the offseason. She fits right into their defensive identity and adds another element that was missing in previous years: a transition game that has not been seen since the 2019 title team.

But aside from Sykes, eight of the other 10 players on the roster have played with the Mystics in the past four seasons. Seven of those eight won a championship. It's a lot of chemistry to have on one group in a league that makes it real difficult to have that depth of connectedness. Over the course of a 40-game season - the longest season in league history - that chemistry could give them an edge.

"[It's s]omething so small as just having fun. I remember [the championship year] specifically as us just like- not saying that any other year was I didn't want to be here- I look forward to practice," Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. "Elena said it before, this doesn't feel like training camp. It just feels like another season because we have so many familiar faces. The faces that are even new, it's like they fit right in... everybody just genuinely enjoys being around each other. So we enjoy making each other better and then building on top of that, being consistent and being disciplined with what we know and what we need to do to get to the championship and just building off that."

New York is simply just the first of 39 challenges on their docket. Even though the attention is all on those franchises, the fact of the matter is the Liberty and Aces just make up seven games (or 17.5%) of Washington's total schedule. Plenty of opportunity for them to rise above the competition. Plenty of chances for them to establish why they deserve to be in that discussion.

Still, everyone knows that the opening night will have national pundits making it a referendum on the season, with either result.

That's why Washington has one lone concern in 2023: themselves.

"We got to prove it. There's no like belonging in the conversation or getting respect or- you got to prove that you're a good team by winning games," Thibault said. "That's all that it really matters at the end of the day, and how people evaluate you or what they think about you doesn't really matter because there's a scoreboard and the standings. So we just got to worry about ourselves for right now."