Over the final 12 days of 2018, each day we will look back at the year that was for a WNBA team, reminiscing over some of the best moments from the past year and looking ahead to the upcoming year as well. Up next is the Washington Mystics, who advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2018.
Record: 22-12, a four-win improvement from 2017
Finish: 2nd in Eastern Conference, 3rd overall
Postseason: Lost WNBA Finals
Awards: Elena Delle Donne, All-WNBA First Team; Ariel Atkins, All-Rookie Team, All-Defensive Second Team
Leaders: Points (Elena Delle Donne, 20.7); Rebounds (Delle Donne, 7.2); Assists (Natasha Cloud, 4.6); Steals (Ariel Atkins, 1.3); Blocks (Delle Donne, 1.4); 3-Pointers (Kristi Toliver, 2.2)
Key Offseason Questions
Can the Mystics Take the Next Step?
Over the past three seasons, the Mystics have gone from missing the playoffs in 2016, to advancing to the semifinals in 2017 and advancing to the Finals in 2018. While the Finals did not go their way, they gained valuable experience on the game’s grandest stage and enter 2019 looking to take the final step in the championship journey.
“It’s been a great season for our organization, for our players, and we had a lot of growth,” said Mystics Head Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault after his team was swept in the Finals. “We’d like to have taken that one last step, but the window for us is open right now. We have a relatively young team. We have only played together with this core group basically for two years, and we have some reinforcements coming next year. And so we’re poised to get better.”
Will There Be Any Major Roster Changes?
While many key players are under contract for 2019, including Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver, Ariel Atkins and the returning Emma Meesseman (from a one-year hiatus to prepare for the FIBA World Cup with Belgium), there are some key role players that set to become free agents.
Considering the 2018 squad reached the Finals without Meesseman for the entire season and with Delle Donne missing five regular season games and one playoff game, the mindset could be to resign their own free agents and run it back. But with free agency coming up soon and the draft coming in April – Washington holds the No. 10 pick – there are opportunities to shake things up if the right player becomes available.
Best On-Court Moment
Advancing To First WNBA Finals
In 2017, the Mystics advanced past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in its 20-year history. So taking it one step further in 2018 and advancing to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history was a major milestone.
Especially after their hopes appeared to be dashed when Elena Delle Donne crashed to the court in Game 2 of the semifinals against Atlanta. After missing Game 3 and with her team facing elimination, Delle Donne returned to the court and played through the pain for the remainder of Washington’s playoff run. Washington would win Game 4 at home to force a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Atlanta.
While Delle Donne was held to 14 points in the decisive Game 5, rookie Ariel Atkins played like a seasoned veteran as she scored a game-high 20 points, while Kristi Toliver added 19 and Tianna Hawkins chipped in 17 off the bench to dispatch the Dream and advance to the Finals to meet Seattle.
Delle Donne Captains All-Star Team
The WNBA introduced a new playoff format in 2018, where team captains were allowed to choose their own teams from the pool of All-Star selections. Delle Donne earned the right to be a captain by being the second-leading vote getter during the All-Star balloting process.
Delle Donne made sure to select Mystics teammate Kristi Toliver for her squad, which faced off against Team Parker, led by captain Candace Parker. This was Delle Donne’s fifth All-Star appearance (all as a starter), while it was the second selection for Toliver.
Toliver finished with a game-high 23 points as she caught fire from beyond the arc (7-11 for the game) to lead a furious fourth-quarter comeback that ultimately fell short. Of the 23 All-Stars, only six were from the Eastern Conference and Washington was the only East team to have multiple All-Stars.
Game Winning Shots
The Mystics went 6-3 in games decided by five points or less during the regular season, with three of those wins coming on game-winning shots in the closing seconds or at the buzzer.
Elena Delle Donne: June 28 vs. New York
Kristi Toliver: Aug. 5 at Dallas
Natasha Cloud: Aug. 18 vs. Los Angeles
Best Off-Court Moment
Kristi Toliver Joins Wizards Coaching Staff
In October, Mystics guard Kristi Toliver was hired as an assistant coach for player development for the Washington Wizards during the 2018-19 NBA season. Toliver, who began working with the Wizards coaching staff during NBA Summer League, is the first active WNBA player to serve as a coach in the NBA.
With the Mystics finishing with the third-best record in the WNBA (22-12) and tying a franchise record for wins, it was fitting that the awards began to pour in at season’s end.
Elena Delle Donne earned third All-WNBA First Team selection (she also has one Second Team selection from her rookie season) and also finished as the second runner-up in the MVP voting behind winner Breanna Stewart and runner-up Liz Cambage
Ariel Atkins not only earned a spot on the All-Rookie Team, but was also selected to the All-Defensive First Team in her first season in the WNBA. Atkins averaged 11.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals in just 22.5 minutes per game. She finished ninth in the WNBA in steals per game, while playing the fewest minutes of any player in the top 15.
Preparing To Open New Home Arena
In January 2018, Mystics players, coaches and staff we on hand to commemorate the “topping out” of the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights, which will serve as the Mystics’ new home venue beginning with the 2019 season. The “topping out” ceremony recognizes the placement of the structure’s highest beam and celebrates the work that has been done to that point.
The Mystics will host their first regular season home game at the new arena on June 1, when the Atlanta Dream come to DC for a rematch of last year’s semifinal series.
GIF of the Year
Tianna Hawkins and the Mystics are sliding into 2019 like …
New Year’s Resolution
The Mystics got their first taste of the WNBA Finals in 2018. While the series did not play out in their favor, the journey to get to the Finals and the experience earned in that series should pay dividends in the future, beginning with the 2019 season.
“They’ve seen what this is like,” said Thibault after the Finals loss. “Last year we got swept in the semifinals, didn’t like the experience, learned from it, and got here and just didn’t play well enough, didn’t shoot the ball well enough. My hats off to Seattle for being better than us.”
After taking incremental steps over the past few seasons, the Mystics have just one more step to climb. And while it is a steep one, climbing that final step has to be the resolution for Washington in 2019.
“Obviously, this Finals didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I think the great thing is that we can still improve,” said Delle Donne. “We don’t feel like we’ve peaked and this was it for us. We feel like we’ve got a lot of young, great talent, and obviously, this isn’t how we wanted it to end, but it’s an experience that we can grow from.”