With free agency now in full swing and free agents now able to sign contracts, WNBA teams are now examining their options on how to succeed, whether to go for a title in 2015, or plan for the future.
We've given a brutally honest take -- or a brutally pessimistic one -- depending on your views on the Washington Mystics, their rebuild, and where they stand. These points however, aren't in dispute: They don't have a superstar to build around. They don't have particularly desirable draft picks position-wise on their roster. And they have nine players under contract for 2015 for a team that went 16-18 the year before. Because of this, we believe that the Mystics need to focus their 2015 season on positioning themselves for the 2016 WNBA Draft, more than focus on wins for 2015.
I get that writing off a season before the preceding offseason begins can rub people the wrong way because it implies that they shouldn't try to be competitive. But I never said that GM and Head Coach Mike Thibault should just sit all of his top players and have them fake injuries, so let's get that out of the way.
What I said is that the Mystics need to get as young as possible, by any means necessary this offseason because they are not built to be a consistent winner at the present time. Doing so will likely mean that they may have a bad season in the standings in the short term. But the team would remain very young, and there should be some star draft picks in following years who can help take things to the next level over the next several seasons.
Which 2014 Mystics players are not under contract for 2015?
More on Free Agency
More on Free Agency
Currently, the Mystics have one unrestricted free agent in Monique Currie who can sign wherever she wants. Expect multiple teams to court her given that most other desirable unrestricted free agents play for contending teams who should easily re-sign them.
The Mystics have one restricted free agent in Kalana Greene, who can sign an offer sheet with any team, but the Mystics can match them. They also have one reserved player in Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who had a two-year contract and doesn't have enough playing experience to be a restricted free agent -- and the Mystics are the only team she can sign a deal with.
Now that we know which players are not under contract, it's easier for us to make five suggestions on what specific things the Mystics need to do for the 2015 season in order to get even younger than they were last year:
1. The Mystics must focus their 2015 team around these "Core Four" younger players: Bria Hartley, Tayler Hill, Stefanie Dolson, and Emma Meesseman.
I'm not 100% convinced that all four of these players will be with the Mystics long term. But I believe that they are safer bets to be with the team long term if they're properly developed. As a rebuilding team, these four players must be their highest priorites.
The 2015 season is a prime opportunity to see these four play as a starting unit, with no restriction on their roles, barring injury or an unforeseen locker room cancer attitude. We have seen promise from all of them at some point in their young careers. However, everyone except Meesseman has had some type of role restriction in 2014, mostly because of veteran players who also play their positions.
Of the four, Tayler Hill is the biggest question mark. She effectively missed the 2014 season and is spending the WNBA offseason overseas to be by her boyfriend's side in France where he plays and taking care of her son instead of playing. This raises questions on whether her heart is in basketball anymore.
However, we'll give Hill the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the Mystics do whatever it takes to light a fire in her belly so she can live up to the expectations we have for her, which is very high. Hill is the highest draft pick on the current roster, so she is someone that they can't pull the plug on as quickly like they could with someone like Ruffin-Pratt, who was undrafted.
Labeling these players as key pieces doesn't mean that they are untradable. If a trade offer comes up where a team will give up future draft picks and/or equally talented prospects for one of the "Core Four" players, the Mystics need to consider it. But I doubt that the Mystics will be able to find such a deal. At a minimum, Hill's not going to yield a Top-3 pick in the 2015 Draft. Besides, one of those Top-3 picks went to the Seattle Storm, who already has the #1 pick in the same draft, and they're also kickstarting a youth movement.
2. Let Monique Currie and Kalana Greene go to other teams in free agency.
In Part 2 of our Mystics Fan Roundtable back in December, the consensus was that Currie is a replaceable player, and most, including me, believe that she should leave. With Currie as an unrestricted free agent, Thibault should say, "Thank your for your service over the years, but I'm moving in a new direction."
The small forward position is a weak area for the Mystics, especially when you see players like Angel McCoughtry, Tamika Catchings, Maya Moore, and Elena Delle Donne start there. Consequently, Currie was outmanned quite often because her position just happens to be loaded among starters. To be fair to Currie, she has always been a reliable player over the years. But I think it's time for her to go somewhere where she can win a championship while she can. It's just not going to happen anytime soon in D.C. With Currie gone, that opens up one more spot for a rookie draft pick or a young training camp pick-up.
As for Greene, she didn't produce much on the court last season, and her spot is best used for a rookie draft pick.
3. Trade Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn for additional draft picks and young players if at all possible.
If they leave, we'll miss them
If they leave, we'll miss them
I'm grateful for what Latta did in Washington. Without her, the Mystics could have been a bumbling team without energy. And if Bria Hartley (or another good young guard) never came to D.C., I would say that Latta needs to be a leading veteran presence on what could be the WNBA's youngest team in 2015. I'm also glad that Kia Vaughn has also been a solid addition to the Mystics lineup since she arrived.
While both players have helped turn the Mystics around from a punchline into a playoff team, they also play the same position that at least one of the "Core Four" play, and that restricts their roles and growth. Therefore, the Mystics must actively look to trade Latta and Vaughn for draft picks, and/or other young players who are under 25 years old. Even if they start this season in a Mystics jersey, Washington should still do whatever it takes to trade them anyway by the midseason trade deadline.
There won't be a shortage of contending teams who would want Latta as a sixth man to give a starting point guard a breather and to make long range shots. There are contending teams who can use an additional post like Vaughn, either to start right away or off the bench. Sure, the Mystics may not get much in return by dealing Latta and/or Vaughn, but the development of the "Core Four" and a high pick in the 2016 Draft should make up for that in the long run.
4. Don't sign any veteran free agents or trade for veteran players. Save those spots for draft picks and training camp signings.
Most of the top unrestricted free agents aren't seriously considering leaving their teams anyway. Even if players like Penny Taylor and Erin Phillips were interested in playing for the Mystics, they would play roles that Hartley and Hill are supposed to fill anyway. The rest of the free agents aren't worth picking up in a rebuilding year. There also may be veteran players who could be available in a trade to help the Mystics win more in the short term. But again, it's not worth it in my opinion.
Even with the 2015 Draft Class looking weak, I'd rather see departed 2014 veterans' spots used for 2015 rookies, rather than on new veteran players who may want to threaten the "Core Four." In fact, I'm even more stubborn about it now. Even if the Mystics' 2015 rookie players aren't long term fits in D.C., at least with the current coaching staff in place, perhaps they could use this season as an opportunity to show that they are able to play effectively at the WNBA level.
5. Do NOT trade the 2016 First Round Draft Pick away under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!
If the Mystics miss the 2015 playoffs, they had better be in the running for the two folks in this picture - Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports
The 2016 first round draft pick is the Mystics' most valuable trade asset in theory. But considering that there are some potential superstars available in that class and that the Mystics are one of the safer bets as a 2015 lottery team, they just can't pull off another trade like the Nicky Anosike deal in the 2010-11 offseason where the 2012 first round pick was dealt away... That's why this point is explicitly written and not assumed.
On the record, no team is going to say that they are tanking for 2016. But at the same time, some teams will miss the playoffs, and the Mystics are a team who could realistically be in the conversation for someone like Breanna Stewart, or Jewell Loyd. Therefore, they cannot risk trading a possible lottery pick, even if the goal is to make the playoffs.
What if the Mystics make the playoffs despite building a roster around unproven players?
In the WNBA, two thirds of the teams will make the playoffs. The Mystics could very well make the playoffs, especially in a conference where one only team was above .500 in 2013 and 2014. I don't have a problem with the Mystics making the playoffs, but it is heavily dependent on how the 2015 roster looks.
If Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn are the primary catalysts of a hypothetical Mystics playoff team this year, while "Core Four" players play complementary roles, though you can expect most of the national media to praise it, it really is a red flag. If they remain .500-ish and have another one-and-done playoff appearance, the Mystics would be back on the "Treadmill of Mediocrity."
Though we don't see such a scenario being any good for them, there are at least some Mystics fans who would rather see them treadmill anyway. This is because they don't want to see their team be at the bottom of the standings and because of past draft lottery mishaps. However, the Mystics can't improve much with a roster of just mid first round picks and expect that every one of them to play better than their draft position would suggest. At some point, the lottery odds will get in their favor. I'm not one who believes in rigged draft lotteries.
On the other hand, if the "Core Four" develop together and are the foundation of a 20-win team in 2015, then that's different. If at least one of these players can be All-Stars and/or All-WNBA players in 2015, then perhaps going for wins isn't such a bad thing after all. But at the same time, it's hard for us to expect this to happen, which is a major reason why the Mystics need to double down on their youth movement, even with a weak 2015 rookie class.
The Mystics have a tough few months ahead where they can accept being mediocre, or make a decision to go even younger and prepare for 2016. What would you do if you were in Mike Thibault's shoes? Let us know what you think in the comments below.