Rarely in sports do you see teams that could very easily be either out of the playoffs or winning the championship. The 2020-21 Los Angeles Lakers (42-30) come to mind because they dealt with injuries, fell to the No. 7 seed and then were not considered an underdog against the No. 2 seed Phoenix Suns in the first round, though they lost in six games.
Similarly, the 2021 Washington Mystics are a loaded team, like the Lakers, that hasn’t had its loaded roster completely available. Two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne didn't play her first game until Aug. 22 because she was recovering from back surgery. Another former MVP, Tina Charles, led the league in scoring in Delle Donne’s absence, but her efforts were not enough to bring winning basketball to DC. Now, Charles is out with a gluteal strain and the Mystics are 2-2 during their latest stretch without her. In addition, Myisha Hines-Allen, also expected to be a star for Washington this year, has missed 10 of 26 games.
However, the interesting thing is that Delle Donne, Charles and Hines-Allen could all be healthy for the playoffs and the Mystics (10-16) are currently in playoff position in spite of all the craziness. The New York Liberty lost Thursday night, dropping them a half game below the eighth-place Mystics.
Washington snuck into the playoffs last year and was commended for making the postseason without Delle Donne, Charles, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders, who all opted out. However, they weren't expected to go far and lost to the Phoenix Mercury in the first round on a Shey Peddy buzzer-beater. This year, things could be different as the Mystics would be beyond scary if Delle Donne and Charles are healthy. A roster with those two healthy, especially the 2021 version of Charles who is playing some of the best basketball of her career, would face the obstacle of not being in full-swing form, but could beat any team in a single game, even the Connecticut Sun, Las Vegas Aces or Seattle Storm, and make a series a series.
However, Delle Donne has re-aggravated her back and it’s not clear when she will be able to play again or how healthy she will be. So we can’t run away thinking that there will be no problems for the Mystics even if Delle Donne and Charles play in the playoffs. And then there’s the issue of making the playoffs.
Washington still has to face the Minnesota Lynx (17-9) twice and the Storm (19-10) and Chicago Sky (14-14) each once. Those will all be difficult contests. The Mystics’ other two remaining games are against the Liberty (11-18) and Atlanta Dream (6-20).
If Washington misses the playoffs, it will be hard to fault head coach Mike Thibault or any of the players. In addition to Delle Donne and Charles’ injuries, the team has been without Alysha Clark and Emma Meesseman for the entire season. Clark is out with a Lisfranc injury and Meesseman has had overseas commitments. Charles has been an MVP candidate and Ariel Atkins is an apt co-star, but without the firepower of Delle Donne, the Mystics were not expected to stack up against the other super teams in the league.
Still, it would be a major disappointment for Washington to miss the playoffs because they were looking at a potential dynasty when they signed Charles after winning the 2019 championship. Charles and Delle Donne playing together then got postponed because of COVID and now more misfortune has the Mystics staring at potentially two lost opportunities at a second title.
Charles will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and Hines-Allen will be a restricted free agent. Meanwhile, Meesseman’s contract has expired. We’ll see if Washington can find a way to maintain a super team roster for next year, but there is no guarantee that they will.
As far as making the playoffs this year, it may come down to whether or not Charles and Delle Donne, or at least one of them, can contribute during the remaining six regular-season games. If the Mystics want to make a miracle run through the playoffs, they’re going to need some of the magic to start now because the Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks (10-18) are breathing down their neck.