Are the Mystics really rebuilding?

Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

After the disastrous Trudi Lacey era in Washington (11-57 record in two seasons), many fans believed that the best thing for the next Washington head coach/general manager to do was to "blow the whole thing up". But is that what really happened?

The luck (or lack thereof) of the draw

Unlike the previous year (2011), the Mystics did not foolishly trade away their 2013 first round pick for a player who would fall well short of expectations. They kept the pick and headed into the September 26 draft lottery with the best odds of winning, thanks to a dismal at best 2012 season (5-29). They had their eyes set on one of three big prizes--Baylor C Brittney Griner, Delaware G/F Elena Delle Donne, or Notre Dame G Skylar Diggins--and would have been satisfied with any of the three.

The outcome of the draft lottery was a big deal for the future of the franchise. Management had just fired head coach/general manager Trudi Lacey two days before the big event, and that move alone gave them reason for great optimism. Grabbing one of the "three to see", in addition to the Lacey firing, would give the disgruntled fan base something to cheer about again. Having a great young superstar to build a team around was going to re-energize the franchise.

But they were not prepared for what would ultimately happen. The Mystics, the team with the best odds to grab the #1 overall pick, would pick 4th. What now?

Mike Thibault hire

Mike Thibault was unexpectedly fired last year by the Connecticut Sun just short of Thanksgiving Day. After a 25-9 regular season and a trip to the WNBA Eastern Conference Finals, he likely thought he'd be looking for a player or two who could help the Sun get back to the WNBA Finals. Instead, he was looking for a new team to coach.

He lasted less than one full month on the market without a job, as the Washington Mystics hired him to be their head coach and general manager. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time due to Thibault's success with an Eastern Conference foe. But his hiring led to a series of moves that one would find hard pressed to consider part of a rebuild.

Making moves

One of the first moves Thibault made was to secure the services of the talented and entertaining PG Ivory Latta. Latta, the well-traveled 28-year-old (29 in September), was looking for a new team (though she never said it publicly, she probably had very little interest in staying with a team that was going to draft a new PG in Skylar Diggins) that would give her a better chance to win. Thibault would later send young G Jasmine Thomas (24) to the Atlanta Dream for a draft pick he would later use to acquire Kia Vaughn (who turned 26 in January). This move to acquire Vaughn, along with the decision to keep veteran C Michelle Snow (33) and All-Star PF Crystal Langhorne (27 in October) likely meant that the chances of Maryland star Tianna Hawkins landing in DC were slim. Although Texas A&M redshirt junior Kelsey Bone would surprise a few by declaring for the draft a year before her eligibility ran out, she was also unlikely to land with the Mystics. It looked more and more likely that Washington would use its lottery pick on a guard.

And that's exactly what happened. The Mystics drafted Tayler Hill 4th overall in last April's draft. Hill had a strong individual season with the Ohio State Buckeyes, but she was unable to lift her team into the NCAA Tournament as a senior (meanwhile, we all watched Griner, Delle Donne, and Diggins reach at least the Sweet 16). Though she was deemed the "best of the rest" by many and is expected to be a "future star" per Mike Thibault, the pick seemed underwhelming. And with the Latta acquisiton and decisions to retain veterans Matee Ajavon (27) and Monique Currie (30), it wasn't clear if a player who appeared to be so underwhelming compared to the "three to see" would get many minutes to prove her worth.

Is this rebuilding?

Can a team claim itself to be in rebuilding mode when

  • not one of its current starters has less than six years of WNBA experience?
  • two of them (Currie and Snow) are at least 30 years old?
  • all but one current starter played in Washington last year?
  • the decision was made to hire the all-time winningest head coach in WNBA history?

This doesn't look like rebuilding. As of July 13, the Mystics are in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference with a 7-8 record (already surpassing the win totals of 2011 and 2012 with 19 games remaining) and would have to experience a major drop-off in play to miss the playoffs (though it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility). During a late June swoon, rookie G Tayler Hill and new Mystics C Kia Vaughn lost their starting jobs to more experienced players at their positions--Ajavon and Snow, respectively. These don't seem like moves a rebuilding team would make, at least not so early in the season. While it's true that they have filled out their roster with solid rookies who are doing an admirable job in their roles, but none of the four (Hill, Emma Meesseman, Nadirah McKenith, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt) is playing a major role on this year's team (full-time starter, true sixth man). At least two of them might not be in Mystics red in 2014.

What the Mystics are doing now is running full-speed on the mediocrity treadmill. They don't have huge stars at any position (though Latta and Langhorne rank in the top half of starters at their positions league-wide and are likely All-Stars in 2013) and don't have any young players who they would feel uncomfortable not bringing back in 2014 for basketball-related reasons. They have a couple of nice young pieces in Hill and Meesseman, but they lack that one young building block around whom to build the franchise. They are good enough to make the playoffs but aren't good enough to compete for a WNBA championship. They are 7-8 and may need only 10 more wins to reach the playoffs this year. They are mediocre.

So no, this isn't rebuilding. Teams who rebuild don't start the process by signing a 29-year-old player as their feature free agent or by bringing in a coach who just won 25 games last season. Those moves are made by teams who want to win as many games as soon as possible.