The Washington’s Mystics’ 2019 season was magical and fantastical.
Actually, not exactly.
Yes, Washington made the most three-pointers in WNBA history. Yes, they also were the best offense in WNBA history. Yes, Elena Delle Donne was named MVP. And she also became the first player in WNBA history to finish the season shooting 50-40-90. And, of course, the Mystics won the 2019 WNBA title, defeating the Connecticut Sun in the five-game WNBA Finals to win the organization’s first championship.
Yet, Washington’s season should be remembered for more than this impressive list of accomplishments. It also should be defined by how they overcame adversity, demonstrating toughness and fierceness.
In the Finals, Elena Delle Donne played through THREE herniated discs in her back, along with the lingering effects of her broken nose. Kristi Toliver came back from a knee contusion and strained MCL, refusing to sport a bulky knee brace. Ariel Atkins suffered from back spasms. However, the Mystics’ grittiness extends beyond the ways in which these players competed through obvious injuries.
As a team built around a finely-tuned offensive system with a superstar who (when fully healthy) seems to play with captivating ease, it was easy to wonder if the Mystics could thrive when all systems were not running so smoothly. What would happen when the system stalled? How would they respond?
In their semifinals series with the Las Vegas Aces, Liz Cambage did not hesitate to call out this perceived weakness. Bully ball could bust up Washington’s beautiful ball game.
Cambage may not have lit a fire under the Mystics, but she did cause their fire to inflame — moving from quietly burning to fully flourishing. Natasha Cloud embodied this fire, pumping out push-ups, guaranteeing a win and doing anything else necessary to incite her teammates. But, more than Cloud’s performative passion, Game 3 of the WNBA Finals was proof positive of the Mystics’ fierceness. Although they did sink a record-tying 16 threes, they dialed up their defense and dominated the glass. In short, they did the dirty work that is a prerequisite to greatness.
Then, in Game 5, just as it seemed that the Sun were poised to claim a double-digit lead, Washington responded with cut-throat confidence. The most placid member of the Mystics, Emma Meesseman, flashed her feistiness, demanding the ball so she could do work on the offensive end.
Soon thereafter, Washington would raise the trophy — a testament to their spirit of togetherness and toughness.
Here is only a sampling of some of the most enthusiastic developments in D.C. in the 2019 WNBA season, as well as some burbling, below-the-surface uncertainties.
Enthusiasm: EDD is going down in history
When Delle Donne exited Game 2 with back problems, a dark, depressing question soon arose. Might Delle Donne be branded with the sports world’s version of a Scarlet Letter? Would she end her career as the best player never to win a championship?
Fortunately, this darkest timeline did not and will not materialize. Delle Donne braved through brutal pain in order to cap off her historic individual season with the ultimate team accomplishment.
MVP. 50-40-90. Champion.
Really great for back support while you’re sleeping. Highly recommend. https://t.co/LWKlC00jfE— Elena Delle Donne (@De11eDonne) October 11, 2019
Uncertainty: Her knee, her nose, her back
Yet, to achieve this appropriate end to her season, Delle Donne sacrificed her body.
After playing through a knee injury during last year’s playoffs, she wore a brace throughout this season. Then, she broke her nose. And then, her back flared up, an issue that also beset her during her 2014 Finals run with the Chicago Sky. In addition, her battle with Lyme Disease always threatens to prevent her from being at her best.
With her pure stroke, Delle Donne seemingly could play forever. But her accumulating injuries raise serious questions about her longevity. How much longer can her body hold up?
Currently, Delle Donne has expressed her intent to participate in Team USA’s upcoming training sessions and exhibition schedule, as well as play in next summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Is this the best decision for her body? Mystics fans likely want to bubble-wrap here and demand that Wrigley not pester his mom but protect her for the 2020 title defense.
However, it is worth considering Delle Donne’s perspective of her somewhat unfortunate injury luck. Her sister Lizzie likely serves as a daily reminder of how very fortunate she is to be able to play basketball, even if her knee remains stubborn, her nose a bit sore and her back still stiff.
Enthusiasm: Powered up!
As her name suggests, Aerial Powers brought an atmosphere of energy to this Washington team. The 2018 mid-season acquisition flourished as an off-the-bench scorer and spot starter during her first full season in D.C. Her seemingly perfect fit serves as further proof of head coach-general manager Mike Thibault’s expertise as a talent evaluator and optimizer. In Dallas, Powers was an interesting player; in D.C., she became an essential contributor.
Uncertainty: Powers outage?
Her combination of ability and attitude should spark the interest of other teams. Powers is a restricted free agent who should receive a big offer sheet from opponents. Washington, of course, likely has every intention to match. However, with Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Emma Meesseman all due for new maximum contracts, the constraints of the salary cap could result in a roster crunch.
Enthusiasm: Playoff Emma
Emma Meesseman is right to resist the idea that she was the Mystics’ “missing piece.” Yet, while Meesseman’s humility encourages her to deflect this attention, calling her the “missing piece” does not give her the credit she deserves. I mean, she’s the WNBA Finals MVP!
Meesseman did not just fill gaps, occasionally stepping up as a scorer as the term “missing piece” connotes. She instead was a go-to player. She raised her game to carry her team. She showed herself to be the special type of player who thrives under pressure. In other words, Meesseman was Washington’s “missing star.”
️ ️ PLAYOFF EMMA BE TAMED pic.twitter.com/rzVtvjbTt8— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) October 11, 2019
Uncertainty: Olympic Emma
But, will this star again go missing?
It seems likely that Meesseman also will approach the 2020 Olympic Games with similar commitment. Her devotion is admirable, but an extended absence could jeopardize the Mystics’ title defense. Or, much to the satisfaction of Mystics’ fans, maybe she’ll return stateside just in time to reprise her performance of Playoff Emma.
Enthusiasm: A sold-out and swaggy ESA
The 2019 season marked the debut of the Mystics’ new home, Monumental Sports’ Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) in Southeast D.C. With ESA, the Mystics have their own facility, preventing them from having to be perceived as interlopers at Capital One Arena or the various local colleges where they sometimes played. Having an arena and court to call their own possibly contributed to Washington’s success, allowing them to enter each game with sense of self-confidence provided by the professionalized infrastructure.
ESA also served as a welcome home for the Mystics fan base, evidenced by their now-signature “Swag Surfin’.” In Southeast D.C., the Mystics established a distinctive WNBA experience that can serve as a model for other franchises.
You know we had to do the Stics Swag Surf ♀️ pic.twitter.com/Pn0sc4L6Co— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) October 11, 2019
Uncertainty: Is ESA a too-small space?
Yet, is ESA a bit too small?
The arena has a capacity for 4,111 basketball fans. According to Her Hoops Stats, Washington averaged close to 8,000 fans per game in 2017 and over 6,000 in 2018. It is imaginable that a defending champion 2020 Mystics team could attract more than 8,000 fans per game. The limitations of ESA make this impossible. Is Monumental Sports and Entertainment selling the Mystics short? Yes, they have a space of their own, but this space prevents the growth that is believed necessary for the survival of the WNBA.
Or, maybe the Mystics are establishing a new paradigm, demonstrating that a packed NBA arena does not have to be the arbiter of success in the WNBA. Just as the team revolutionized the WNBA on the court this season, they also can introduce a new way to understand franchise sustainability in the WNBA.
Enthusiastic uncertainty: #RunItBack2Back
For all the good feeling that the Mystics’ 2019 season has inspired, they are unlikely to enter 2019 as the unquestioned title favorites. Even if all key contributors return, any unexpected changes that come with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the overall disruption caused by the Olympics make the Mystics’ title defense more than a bit precarious. All the more, the league should be deeper than ever, preventing the emergence of a dynasty.
Yet, when it comes to the possibilities and probabilities of a second-straight title, the Mystics have done more than earn the benefit of the doubt. They deserve it. #RunItBack2Back.