Despite early playoff exit, Mystics made culture strides in right direction in 2022

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Despite playoff exit, Mystics made culture strides in 2022 originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Team culture is a trait that the Washington Mystics have prided themselves in over the years and prioritized in their pursuit of multiple WNBA championships. It's so important to the organization that when some of the players and coaches felt there were cracks in the foundation of what had been built through the years, they had to address it.

Twelve months after raising the red flag, with some roster adjustments and a new focus, everyone feels they are back on track after the 2022 season.

"I don't think people really put into perspective where we were last year at this time," Natasha Cloud said at her end-of-season press conference. "We were actually not even here this time. We weren't in the playoffs. Our culture had been just completely reversed from the year prior. We were in a really scary place. We had a talk with me, [Ariel Atkins] and [Elena Delle Donne] and we were in a scary place for where our culture was headed. So the fact that we were able to grab hold of our culture in our environment this year, rebuild it, bring it back to what it was, to kind of reset."

Last season's absence from the WNBA playoffs was the organization's first since the 2016 season. That was the year prior to them acquiring Delle Donne in a trade from the Chicago Sky.

But it wasn't just the act of not qualifying for the playoffs that concerned them. There were plenty of reasons that led to their down season; from Delle Donne only playing three games as she continued her recovery, to the team having players miss a combined 63 games due to injury.

Head coach Mike Thibault wanted a full-on "reset" of the culture last offseason. In just one year, they feel they accomplished that overhaul.

"We won 22 games after winning whatever it was the year before, 12 games?" Thibault told reporters last season. "We made huge strides. I think we had a good culture reset. I think our players like each other and like working together."

Related: Delle Donne opts out of Team USA due to schedule

Describing a culture reset isn't necessarily straightforward. As Delle Donne put it, "you can't really put a pause on culture." It's a constant process and something where multiple individuals have to make regular deposits.

One thing that was obvious to the players was the approach everyone would bring to the facility each day in 2022 was different than in 2021. The simple act of having a community where players enjoy coming to work every day to be with each other was constantly echoed throughout the year.

"I think that's number one," Delle Donne said. "Like if you don't have that atmosphere, and if you don't have an atmosphere where you want to show up and come to work and be around people, it makes it impossible to be successful. So I think we all know that that's like the forefront and the number one thing moving forward."

To do that some 'old faces' were brought in. Tianna Hawkins was signed after a brief stint with the Atlanta Dream. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough was given a one-year deal after playing the last half of the 2021 season on short-term contracts. It also helped to have Delle Donne and Cloud playing essentially full seasons for the first time since 2019.

There's also no ignoring the fact that the team did not re-sign former WNBA MVP Tina Charles a year after leading the league in scoring. Charles was signed to the team for two seasons, playing only one after receiving a medical exemption, in her chase for an elusive championship.

She came to D.C. to get her first ring alongside Delle Donne and other stars. What she got was not what she bargained for when she left the New York Liberty.

"I think everyone from players to coaches, to support staff, maybe to media, I don't even know but last year it was a dread, to be honest," Myisha Hines-Allen said. "So I think going into this season, Elena and Tosh knew we want to have that enjoyment coming to work every single day. Again, getting better, competing for a championship again. So I could definitely see the difference of just how everyone approached every day whether it was practice walkthrough, traveling days, it didn't matter. It was just different everyone approached them the way we came in."

But now, the core is set to improve further next year. There can be a return to operation within the team's championship window with the foundation set in place.

Consistency will allow the team to continue to build on that culture from a team that went 22-14 and returned to the playoffs. This time they won't be starting from square one to put things on the right path.

Any changes to the locker room won't be to the team's primary cast of characters. Delle Donne, Cloud, Atkins and Hines-Allen are in the middle of multi-year contracts - the four playing together for the first time as regulars last season. Shakira Austin will also be on her rookie deal in 2023. That's four starters and the top player off the bench, an outstanding starting point with camaraderie built in as Thibault builds the roster.

With the culture in place, their challenge is to keep it going through the offseason and free agency as the organization acquires talent.

"We got to find a way to be better with continuing conversation and staying in touch. It's hard like when people are going overseas and all that, like it is really hard to keep things going," Delle Donne said. "And that's why I'm excited that a lot of people will still be here. It's always much better when you can do it in person. But I'm sure me along with Ariel, Tosh, we're hanging around, we'll figure out ways to stay connected with the team a little bit better because you can't really put a pause on culture and then just come right back to it. It doesn't work that way. So we got to figure out a way to kind of keep it going through the offseason."