Mike Thibault sees opportunity to turn Washington Mystics into 'elite franchise'

Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

Newly hired Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault says he will focus on free agency before making any decisions about whether or not to break up the core of the WNBA-worst Mystics.

Mike Thibault was let go after 10 years of coaching the Connecticut Sun with considerable success, including leading them to the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs this past season.

He is right back in the WNBA because he says the Washington Mystics "seemed like a good fit."

"I was comfortable with what I had done in Connecticut," Thibault said on a conference call Tuesday. "If that was the last day I ever coached in the WNBA, I was fine with what I had accomplished. Obviously I want to win a championship. That was the only thing I felt didn't happen and clearly Connecticut thought it was the only thing that didn't happen. But I would have been ok with that. I would have moved on to do some other things."

However, despite his satisfaction and potential interest in jobs outside the WNBA, Thibault describes the opportunity with the Mystics as difficult to turn down.

"The opportunity with a long-term commitment from Ted Leonsis and Sheila Johnson to make this a great situation in Washington and turn this franchise into an elite franchise was something I couldn't pass up," Thibault said. "I'm excited to get started; a lot of work to be done here. Obviously when you only win five games the year before there's a fair amount of work to be done. But it's something I'm looking forward to."

As far as it being a long-term commitment, Thibault said that according to Mystics policy he isn't supposed to release terms of his contract, but he would say that he was given a multi-year deal and gave the impression that the team wanted him to stay around awhile. Said Thibault: "They want this to work."

In the immediate future, Thibault will be focusing on adjusting a roster that produced the WNBA's worst record last year. He has to make the best of the franchise missing out on one of the top three draft positions, which will prevent them from selecting one of the "Big 3" (Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne or Skylar Diggins) unless they trade up. That would likely require giving up their best player and career-long Mystic, forward Crystal Langhorne. Whether or not Thibault will make a move like that is uncertain.

Here's Thibault's main message on where things stand and the plan moving forward:

"The core group may still be here. I'm not sure, but I think obviously in winning only five games, there's changes that need to be made. Whether the changes are just in additions to the core group or using that group to get us something else, remains to be seen. It kind of depends on interest by other teams in doing a kind of a deal. Free agency will be the first thing that we're looking at to try to bring in a couple players that can help with the chemistry and the culture of this team. We obviously need to improve the shooting on this team, so that will be part of it. But what the final roster looks like come the start of the season - I don't know. But it's safe to assume that there will be probably somewhere between a 25 percent and 45 percent turnover to the team. I just can't put an exact figure on it until I see what we can get done in free agency. That will probably precipitate what we can do later on in trades or the draft.

"But the opportunity is here. I know when you look at a team with five wins, it looks like a lot of doom and gloom. But I've told the three or four key players that I've talked to that they can be better right away defensively if they want to be and that's a good starting point. They can stop turning the ball over, they can stop missing block outs - those kinds of things - and stop fouling people. And if you do that, then you give yourself a chance to win in close games. So I'm starting with a laundry list of things we can do with the players we have, things that we can do with the ones we don't have yet and things that we can do to get other ones to come in."

"The three or four key players" he's talked to could be Langhorne, forward Monique Currie and guard Matee Ajavon, who are the team's three best players and the longest tenured Mystics. If Thibault has talked to them or other players about how to get better, perhaps that could indicate he is considering keeping them around. However, the harsh reality is that there is going to be some turnover to this team and to get the best in return the Mystics may have to give up some of their core players.

There is one thing Mystics fans know for sure: they are getting a general manager who knows what he's doing. Thibault's resume of scouting and evaluating basketball talent in men's leagues is pretty impressive, and while by title he has never been anything but a coach in the WNBA, he says in reality he made many, if not most, of the basketball decisions in Connecticut. He only expects a slight adjustment now that he is officially a GM.

"The difference will be that l have to be on top of all the things proactively about contracts and free agency and just making sure that we don't miss the boat on the little stuff that has to be done with the league," Thibault said. "The job itself really, on a day to day basis, won't change that much."

Thibault also feels that being in the front office in the WNBA is going to be easier, or at least more convenient, than his experiences in the CBA and NBA.

"It's a little bit different," Thibault said. "In [the CBA and NBA] the coach doesn't get a chance necessarily to go out and see college players play because you're playing at the same time. The luxury that the WNBA has is that the college game is in our off-season so we can be on hand and do a fair judgment on players ourselves as opposed to having kind of two factions in the front office dealing with those issues."

But even with Thibault's experience, building a contender overnight isn't going to just happen. Thibault, who believes his track record with the Sun can give Mystics fans hope, has a long way to go with Washington. But he has already made a gesture to the fans that could go a long way.

"I know a lot of people have jumped off the bandwagon over the last couple of years," Thibault said. "We're willing to have them jump back on; it's big enough for everybody to get back on."

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