Elena Delle Donne and the Mystics are taking over the WNBA
Historically, the Washington Mystics have been the WNBA’s worst team. They’ve qualified for the playoffs in just nine of 19 seasons, and are the league’s only franchise to have never made the Finals. Their last Conference Finals appearance was 15 years ago, and although the Mystics have flirted with success (they earned the Eastern Conference’s top seed in 2010), they’ve never been able to sustain it.
Last year was particularly difficult for Washington. The Mystics were unable to build off the success of their 2015 season, where they went 18-16. That season included a third consecutive trip to the conference semifinals and flashes of greatness from their young talent.
But they failed to make the playoffs in 2016, finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference with a 13-21 record.
Previously, any hint of success for the Mystics has been a mirage. But one offseason can change everything.
In February, the Mystics acquired 2015 league MVP Elena Delle Donne in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Sky. The move sent shockwaves around the league, and Mystics head coach Mike Thibault went as far as to call the acquisition "one of the biggest moves in the history of [the] organization."
The Delaware native averaged 21.5 points and seven rebounds per game last season, and was the league’s third-best three-point shooter. A bonafide star with a national profile since her days as a McDonald’s All-American at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., Delle Donne has proven herself to be one of the league’s most consistent and efficient scorers.
She joins a Mystics team that was 10th in the entire league in points per game, desperately in need of more offensive firepower. Delle Donne alone could provide that boost. Howard Megdal, who has covered the league for three years and followed it since its inception, said with Delle Donne at the helm, the potential of this Mystics’ offense is unprecedented.
"No one really knows how they’re gonna defend this Mystics team, we’ve simply never seen a team like this," Megdal said. " It’s gonna be must-watch television at every turn every time the Mystics go on the court."
Washington was willing to give up a lot to get Delle Donne: the No. 2 pick in 2017 draft, last year’s No. 7 pick Kahleah Copper and All-Star center Stefanie Dolson. But it’s obvious why -— if any player is capable of turning a franchise around single-handedly, it’s her.
Just ask the Chicago Sky, who Delle Donne led to a 24-10 record and the first playoff appearance in franchise history after a remarkable rookie season. The team made the playoffs in all of her four seasons in Chicago.
But the Mystics’ offseason didn’t end with Delle Donne. A few days later, the team signed veteran All-Star Kristi Toliver, fresh off a championship season with the Los Angeles Sparks. Delle Donne told SB Nation she had a hand in the recruiting effort to bring the shooting guard to Washington.
"I was in contact with her, and I was really hoping to get her to come to D.C., because not only is she really talented, but she’s won championships, and she knows what it takes," Delle Donne said. "To have a veteran leader like that automatically puts your team in a different level."
Toliver and Delle Donne join talented 2013 draft picks Tayler Hill and Emma Meesseman, who have each shown great promise in recent seasons. Last year, they both averaged over 15 points per game, and Delle Donne is excited to join them.
"Emma is amazing, and each year she’s improved so much — she’s by far one of the most efficient players I’ve ever played against," she said. "She’s able to do so many things on the court … and I think between the both of us being able to move around and play at different positions, we’ll be able to create lots of mismatches."
Offense will be the calling card for this Mystics team, which now features three of the league’s top four three-point shooters in Meeseman, Delle Donne and Toliver.
With talent from top to bottom, these new-look Mystics are a beacon of hope for the District of Columbia, which hasn’t seen a major championship in any sport since 1992. The past 25 years have been full of heartbreak for D.C. sports fans, and especially the Mystics.
One of the most painful disappointments came during the 2013 draft lottery, where a five-win season failed to produce a seemingly-guaranteed top-three pick in a draft that featured Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and Delle Donne. It was yet another devastating blow to a franchise that already had its fair share of letdowns.
"This franchise — they’ve just been unlucky," said Frank Hanrahan, who has done play-by-play announcing for the Mystics for nearly a decade. "Delle Donne was available and all those big names were coming out, and they came up short,"
But like many others, Hanrahanis eager to move on from the Mystics’ past tribulations. In a twist of fate that would’ve shocked fans in 2013, the Mystics finally landed Delle Donne after all. Seemingly out of nowhere, Washington has put together a superteam — a la the 2008 Boston Celtics — and the rest of the league is paying attention.
"[The league’s] contenders and everyone else is taking notice of these moves, you can’t ignore it," Megdal said. "It’s an atom bomb going off in terms of a roster, in WNBA history you’ve never seen a player the caliber of Delle Donne change teams in her prime."
Delle Donne’s potential impact on the Mystics is impossible to ignore. She’s a player that can hit big shots to close out games or, when needed, completely take over with her offensive prowess. Hanrahan says her arrival immediately shifts the expectations for Washington going into this season.
"It’s gonna be a different attitude to face the Mystics than it has been in the past," he said. "Now since you have one of the best players in the world, the fans’ expectations are ramped up."
The local community has taken notice, too. Tina Martin, who coached Delle Donne in college and has led the University of Delaware program for 21 years, said she’s seen the excitement firsthand.
"Since the announcement [of Delle Donne’s to the Mystics], all of our fans and everyone I’ve seen — whether it’s at the grocery store, at our arena or at our games — is talking about wanting to buy season tickets and wanting to see her play," Martin said.
Martin says Delle Donne has the potential to do something special as the new face of the Mystics. She specifically cited Delle Donne’s leadership ability as a reason she thinks Washington will be successful.
"Elena has grown leaps and bounds as a leader, and some who’s really taken charge," Delaware assistant head coach Jeanine Radice said. "I want them to try and win a championship — I know Elena’s dream is to win a WNBA championship, so I think they’ve brought some good pieces [to achieve that].
Delle Donne said that although the Mystics are talented, they’ve lacked veteran leadership. That’s something she thinks she and Kristi Toliver can bring to the table right away.
"I mean this team was pretty young, and I was talking to Tayler Hill a lot about it, they had a great culture but they just felt pretty young, and hadn’t had players that had been in the league for a long time and won championships," Delle Donne said. "I’m coming off a season of winning a gold medal with the Olympic team and I was able to gain so much knowledge through that experience, I can bring all of that experience as well."
Whether or not Delle Donne brings a championship to Washington, she’ll almost certainly redefine the Mystics’ place in this league.
With Washington’s unfortunate history, fans haven’t had many reasons to pay attention to the Mystics. But now with Delle Donne, a name recognizable even outside the WNBA, it’ll be impossible to look away.