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The Mystics are a WNBA champion built to last

Washington can be the WNBA’s next dynasty.

A collage of Mystics stars (from left to right): Emma Meesseman, Elena Delle Donne, head coach Mike Thibault.
The Mystics built a championship team with Elena Delle Donne as the centerpiece.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Aerial Powers wanted to be traded. It was July 2018, and despite playing for a Dallas Wings team loaded with talent like All-Stars Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith, Powers wasn’t having fun. Her team was middling around .500, she felt pressured to score on every possession, and in her third season in the league, the No. 5 pick in the draft wasn’t improving.

“The system we played in Dallas,” Powers said, “It felt like if you got the ball, you had to score or you weren’t going to get the ball back. There was no ball movement.”

The stagnation held Powers to shoot a career-low 18 percent from three-point range and score just six points per game in her final half-season in Dallas.

The Washington Mystics swooped in to save her. Powers fit the mold of every non-Elena Delle Donne or Kristi Toliver piece the franchise has embraced; someone under-appreciated, overlooked and misused.

“We thought some of the offensive stuff efficiency-wise was because Dallas kind of ran loose,” Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault said. “We thought putting her into our system, it’d be a little more obvious where the shots came from.”

Playing in the Mystics’ pace-and-space spread, Powers became an electrifying spark off the bench. Always one of the most athletic players in the W, Powers’ speed and shot-making ability suddenly became that much more dangerous playing alongside Washington’s shooters. Even when she struggled, she found a team that would build her up rather than tear her down. This is the type of confidence the Mystics instilled in their entire roster, from the biggest star in the sport to the supporting cast off the bench.

“The team all gets along,” Powers said. “There’s no drama. Everybody appreciates each other. If someone takes a shot and misses, it’s all good. We’re a mature team. We are taking good shots. It’s not like everybody’s going one-on-one all the time like it was in Dallas.”

Powers was in the locker room Thursday night popping a bottle of pineapple Ciroc after the Mystics had finally made good on their season-long goal. Washington was the best team in the W all year. This playoff run always felt like it needed to end in a championship, or it was a bust. With a decisive 89-78 Game 5 win over the Connecticut Sun, it finally happened.

In the middle of the party, Powers caught the attention of the closest rolling video camera. Her signature high-bun still in tact, she made clear contact with the lens.

“Thank you Dallas,” she said. “I appreciate you, Greg [Bibb, the team’s president and CEO] for trading me. This has been the best experience, and I don’t think I woulda got it with y’all, so thanks.”

The root of the Mystics’ 2019 success starts at the top. Head coach and general manager Mike Thibault is equal parts a basketball savant and player’s coach. He drafted his team’s Finals MVP, Emma Meesseman, with the No. 19 pick. He selected an All-Defensive guard from little-known St. Joe’s in Natasha Cloud at No. 15, and picked Ariel Atkins, a talent who wasn’t even invited to the draft, at No. 7.

But his most crowning accomplishment is bringing D.C.’s most talented basketball player ever, Delle Donne, to the Mystics via trade in 2017. The star wanted to move closer to her home in Delaware, and of course, she wanted a ring. But she wanted to do it in an authentically Delle Donne way. The 6’5 unicorn is as soft-spoken and humble as the face of a sports league can get.

“So many other coaches I’ve had said ‘you have to be meaner’ or ‘you need to yell at your teammates,’” Delle Donne said. “But [Thibault] said the exact opposite. He’s like ‘the best leader you can be is when you’re true to yourself.’ Whatever you’re comfortable being, be that for your team. That’s been a game-changer for me.”

For her Mystics teammates, Delle Donne has been the premier role model. In interviews, she’s quick to talk about how the team needs LaToya Sanders’ work on the boards, and how Meesseman was the missing piece the Mystics needed to win this championship. There’s a reason all season long, the Mystics’ locker room echoed a “Bahhh” sound like a goat whenever Delle Donne’s name was mentioned. Cloud even made her own sweatshirt to personally campaign for her MVP run.

“I don’t need to be the bad cop and cuss my teammates out,” Delle Donne said. “That’s not what I’m about.”

“If Elena was an asshole, everybody would still respect her because she’s that good,” Eric Thibault said. “But she doesn’t act that way. And because of that, nobody else acts that way. Why would you?”

In Game 5, Delle Donne led her team to victory with 21 points and nine rebounds despite a harrowing list of injuries. She was a fraction of herself, only able to move with the ball in straight lines, missing the lateral spring that typically moves her past defenders. Delle Donne had a mask over the nose she broke in June, a brace on the knee she deeply bruised in last season’s playoffs, and she was playing through a back injury that kept her out of all but three minutes of Game 2.

For the last week, she’d claimed to have a herniated disc in her back. But in the postgame press conference, Cloud went out of her way to “drop a bomb” — Delle Donne had actually herniated three.

“It’s important because when you’re talking about playing for the players to the left and to the right of you and being a leader on this team and pushing through to win us a championship,” Cloud said, “That’s a huge testament to her.”

Despite Delle Donne’s greatness in her first championship win, she wasn’t named Finals MVP. The honor went to Meesseman, who scored 22 points and dominated the Sun on fading hooks in the low block.

“When you went down with a herniated disc, Emma put the team on her back,” a reporter told Delle Donne after the game. “Correction,” Delle Donne interjected. “Emma put the team on her back in the first series, and she kept it rolling.”

2019 WNBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Mystics were tested to their limit across this five-game series with a rugged Connecticut Sun team. Alyssa Thomas was a bulldozer Washington never learned how to contain, Jonquel Jones was a nightly threat on the boards, Shekinna Stricklen was a flamethrower from deep and Courtney Williams’ mid-range prowess caught the Mystics offguard.

In Game 5, it looked like the Sun had cracked their code for good, leading by nine points with six minutes to play in the third quarter. A chess match all series, Curt Miller’s group threw Thibault’s into a tizzy, using Williams as a roaming defender. The Mystics were turnover prone, and their once-electric offense was reduced to iso-ball. Their record-setting offense only scored four shots from deep-ball range on 19 tries. But the Mystics’ greatness is more than their offensive system.

Washington works to perfection as a team, but its individual talent can overwhelm, too. Each player in their rotation is empowered to take over a game when the time calls. “No one on this team gives a crap about getting credit,” Delle Donne said. “Like the stat sheet, throw that thing away. Nobody cares.”

Sometimes it’s Cloud whose number is called. Most times it’s Delle Donne. On Thursday night, it was all Meesseman, who finished with 22 points on 13 shots.

The Belgian star cooked any defender thrown on her with an array of footwork so confounding it looked like she traveled. During her 11-point third quarter, she spun left and hung a fading two over Brionna Jones, faded over Morgan Tuck in the paint, and stepped through the side of Jonquel Jones. But that wasn’t it.

All life faded from the Sun on a Meesseman and-one late in the fourth. To put her team up three possessions, she dribbled past Jasmine Thomas, through the reach of Jones and clanked a runner on the left side home.

This was the year of Delle Donne and the WNBA’s first 50/40/90 shooter. It was the second year in a row that a modern, three-point centric offense pushed defenses to reinvent themselves. It’s the playoff run that put Meesseman on the map. And it showed the perseverance of a team that was swept in the Finals a year prior to claw its way back despite injuries to Delle Donne, Atkins and Toliver.

“There’s not just one way to beat us,” Toliver said. “We’re going to find a way.”

Next year, the WNBA is going to be a gauntlet. Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, the teammates who swept Washington last season, are expected to return fully healthy for the Seattle Storm. The Las Vegas Aces, who took the Mystics to a close four games, will have another year’s experience. Diana Taurasi, sidelined with a back injury for most of the year, will rise again. Maya Moore’s future with the Minnesota Lynx looms, too.

The Mystics already have their place in history. This championship run can stand on its own greatness, or it can be just the beginning of something even bigger.