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Mystics Hiring Process Could Send The Wrong Message To Fans

<em>Photo by <a href="http://www.112575.com/" target="new">Craig Bennett/112575 Media</a>.</em>
Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

I was just as baffled as anyone else by the Washington Mystics' announcement that they had parted ways with Julie Plank and promoted assistant Trudi Lacey to coach and general manager.

I actually had to double check just to make sure that I was remembering correctly that Plank was a strong candidate for Coach of the Year behind Seattle Storm coach and director of player personnel Brian Agler.

Perhaps only proving that I'm not clairvoyant, I expected that announcement about as much as I expected them to win the Eastern Conference this past season: the thought never crossed my mind and quite honestly I was pretty set on the exact opposite outcome.

The thing is that usually in a situation like that a team strives to maintain momentum and take the next step rather than changing direction.

So my first impulse when I heard the media teleconference was not so much the outrage that Mystics fans may justifiably feel, but moreso a feeling that this was really bad for business, not in a dollars and cents way but a public relations way. The conversation was odd, the coach was not made available for comment as they usually are, and fans were left in the dark about what was going on in the organization even prior to the announcement.

Mystics brass baffles fans | ESPN - Mechelle Voepel
Here's what is actually not good for business: failing to use basic communication courtesy with the fans who are spending their money to keep your franchise going. We're not even asking the Mystics to abide by the old staple, "the customer is always right." We're saying the customer is worth a return e-mail.

And it's not just what's communicated to customers, but potential customers.

Try to imagine the scenario of persuading a basketball fan who had heard a little something about the team to go see a game: how exactly would you explain to someone on the fence about the WNBA why the team let go a Coach of the Year candidate that led the team to its best record in franchise history and an Eastern Conference title?

Sure, times are tough and it's not hard to believe that they "weren't successful on the business side" as Mystics president and managing partner Dr. Sheila Johnson said during her chat with the media. And it's also hard to critique the process without knowing exactly how things unfolded. So this is not about their decision to hire Lacey: she very well could build on the momentum the organization was building as someone who has already been there as an assistant.

This is about the process of getting to that decision - it's not that hard to imagine that from an outsider's perspective, the move screams instability after the organization finally appeared to find something strongly resembling it.

With a struggling economy, news of a NBA lockout looming, and the WNBA's current status as a niche league - a women's niche league - it's not very difficult to imagine someone making the leap from Mystics instability to identifying this particular move as evidence that time is almost up on the nation's longest running women's professional sports league. If WNBA haters paid attention, they'd be all over this. Thankfully, they're not paying attention (which makes it easier to be a hater).

Unfortunate as such a leap would be, perception can be everything and even if evidence of the WNBA's imminent demise is not necessarily clear - WNBA losses are only a fraction of a NBA owner's overall losses and the number of sponsors partnering with the league is a sign that there is some reason for optimism within the league's financial data - this situation almost demands questions about the actual fiscal state of the league.

But for now we don't have those and because the details of the Mystics' situation remain unclear it's difficult to use this as evidence of much of anything.

That said, within that narrative of financial hardship is the context for the decision to combine the coach and general manager positions.

Dishin & Swishin: Dr. Johnson Hands the Mystics to Trudi Lacey
"You have to understand that across the league a lot of the teams are starting to move into this model. You have to understand we have been in a recession, and it is really hurting all teams across the board and we have budget constraints now that we have got to start looking at and everyone is fully aware that we have got to make decisions, business decisions, that are going to keep our league alive, um, and keep the Mystics alive.

"This is about business, and of course we’re going to have to continue to tweak to make things work, and that’s what people have got to understand. It’s not a black and white issue. This is about business. It’s that we’re trying to put best foot forward in our front office in order to make everything work, but we also have to keep the team on the floor, we have to keep the business model alive. In this recession it’s not just us, it’s all businesses across the country that are having to tweak and make very hard decisions and this is a decision we decided we had to make."

With the Mystics' hiring of Lacey, the number of teams in the league with a combined coach and "general manager" - the function and label of the position vary across the league - increases to six, with the Liberty also moving from two positions to a combined position last month with the hiring of orphaned Sacramento Monarchs coach John Whisenant.

If the San Antonio Silver Stars choose to name Dan Hughes as coach and GM as ESPN's Mechelle Voepel suggests - if they don't choose to seize the opportunity to pick up a coach of Plank's caliber - that number will increase to a simple majority of seven.

The immediate impulse might be to wonder how much harder it would be to do both jobs, but Whisenant was (unsurprisingly) optimistic when asked exactly that during his media conference. He even sees combining the positions as an advantage.

John Whisenant returns in dual role | ESPN - Mechelle Voepel
"Because our season is in the summer, and our offseason is basically when the GM work is done, I see it as an advantage," Whisenant said. "I evaluate my own players, do my own scouting with my staff. The reality is you've only got one or two players out of each year's draft that are possibly going to make your roster.

"The only disadvantage I see is I don't have anybody to blame. I can't blame the coach and I can't blame the GM, because I'm both of them."

However, you're not going to find much evidence that one is inherently better than the other: yes, WNBA champion Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler serves as coach and "Director of Player Personnel" but two of the three previous championships were won by the Phoenix Mercury who had some separation between coach and GM. And for what it's worth, former Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer - who won championships in 2006 and 2008 - also had Cheryl Reeve working as a "Director of Player Personnel" and was involved in roster decisions.

So if someone like Whisenant - or Agler or Laimbeer or the Chicago Sky's recently hired coach Pokey Chatman - wants to combine the positions, that's great. But if Gaines or Laimbeer would prefer to win multiple championships as coach alone, it's hard to argue that's any worse. It depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the person filling the role.

On the one hand, it's not inconceivable that something similar happened in New York -- although coach Anne Donovan's departure was expected, general manager and president Carol Blazejowski's was not (despite her being the subject of intense criticism over the years).

However, what makes the Mystics' situation so unfortunate is that other teams that have gone this route have done so because of someone who was willing to fill both vacancies; they didn't have to explain severing ties with a successful duo to get there.

So even if the Liberty's logic was similar, there appeared to be a progression that was easier for people to follow. The other teams that have gone this direction haven't needed to explain letting go of a Coach of the Year candidate who when she chose not to take both roles after the previous GM had already left.

Rather than appearing to walk in lockstep with the league, the Mystics teleconference made it sound like they're scrambling for answers, which is not the message we've been receiving from the league. The combination of a sign of instability and a guarded information cycle doesn't exactly help people build faith in an organization that has appears to be caught in a cycle of recycling coaches. Like it or not, fans who were tired of losing and thirsty for success are going to start asking questions when they get long silences and then a convoluted message from their team.

Of course, this is not necessarily a disaster and the WNBA's long off-season might just work in the Mystics' favor for this to blow over when media attention is extremely low. Lacey could come in, do a great job, and take the Mystics deeper into the playoffs, especially given that the team will have a full roster with guard Alana Beard back from injury.

However, the issue here is not about right or wrong but how people perceive the situation.

If indeed the team - and league - is struggling as badly as Dr. Johnson suggests, then the perceptions of those who pay for tickets as well as those who cover the game are important. And the uncertainty around this situation doesn't necessarily support the rhetoric that the league is headed in the right direction.

For a partial transcript of the press conference: Dishin & Swishin: Dr. Johnson Hands the Mystics to Trudi Lacey.