After winning a championship, the next goal for any professional sports franchise is very clear: "Back-to-back."
Pick up on the momentum where you left off and go and recreate the magic next year. Championship windows are so small so organizations have to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself.
For the Washington Mystics, who are coming off of their first-ever WNBA title, it isn't quite that simple in the season that has followed. Not only has the coronavirus uprooted every aspect of life, but the team has also drastically changed from what the roster should look like.
Four of the five most important players on the roster, Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, are not playing for one reason or another because of the pandemic. And without most of the starting rotation, head coach Mike Thibault has no goal of trying to repeat this season.
"Going forward, part of our process this summer is to develop players that will fit on our team next year, both in talent and position and salary cap," Thibault told reporters on Monday. "As part of our process, we need to figure out who fits on the end of our bench next year."
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That's not just the result of a surprising seven-game losing streak that completely thwarted a 3-0 start. This was the focus of the team as soon as the team realized they were going to be missing several pieces.
Even in the case of the WNBA not allowing Delle Donne to medically opt-out, the Mystics understood it wasn't about 2020, it was about 2021. That's why they paid her for the season and are not rushing her back from her recovery on her back injury.
"I'm in this and she's in this for the long haul," Thibault said in early July. "She just signed a four-year contract and our team, obviously looks different, without different players here and so our vision is 'let's do what's best for her and our team for the long run' and let's make sure that there's a long shelf life to our window of opportunity. And she's such a huge part of that, that we're not going to rush her back just to try to salvage a season right now."
Early on the results have been encouraging when you consider the goal is for next year. Thibault has said Leilani Mitchell will be the focus at the point guard spot next season since Kristi Toliver left in free agency in the offseason. Myisha Hines-Allen has been a fantastic story and showed she can shine when given the opportunity. Ariel Atkins has shown great growth and leadership as the team's only returning starter.
But this past week, the franchise further committed to turning the attention toward the future. In the last seven days, the team has parted ways with an aging player and signed two young rookie guards. The team has waived 13-year veteran Essence Carson and 31-year-old Shey Peddy while bringing on their third-round draft pick Alecia 'Sug' Sutton as well as Phoenix's third-rounder Stella Johnson.
"I felt it was important for us to make a move that allowed us to see some young guards for the rest of the season," Thibault said. "At some point, we will be signing Stella [Johnson to a guaranteed contract] here soon. So, between her and Sug will get a chance to kind of see how they fit our team, if they fit our team, going forward."
Part of Washington's success last year in their championship was how deep their team was. With everyone back and healthy in 2021, seven roster spots are essentially locked up. Delle Donne, Leilani Mitchell and Atkins are there, so iare Cloud and Sanders, who opted out and by virtue added a year to their deals. It is assumed the organization will try and re-sign Tina Charles, who earned service time from the medical opt-out but never played a second for the team, Emma Meesseman and use the team-option for the final year of Hines-Allen's rookie contract. That's eight of the maximum 12 roster spots accounted for.
There's no team, not even the Seattle Storm when fully healthy, that could compete against that. That's three MVP-caliber players and all eight of them with the potential to be All-Stars.
How they fill-out those final three or four positions and navigate the salary cap are what Thibault, who is also the general manager, will be trying to figure out for the final half of the season. While it means potentially sacrificing the unique 2020 season at the same time, he's okay with that.
"We're going to get frustrated with losing. Nobody likes to lose, but also when we walk in the door next year and those other players are back with us, have we done the work this summer to make us, potentially, the best team in our league again going into the next season," Thibault said.
"It's not giving up on the season, it's understanding the reality of where we are. We don't have three superstars here like the rest of the teams do. You need three stars, I think, at least to win a championship. If we make the playoffs and we can contend and beat some people, then great. And we will put every effort we have into it, we're still doing scouting reports, we're still doing all the things you can try to do to win every game, but no we've been dealt a tough hand so let's deal with it and get better."
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