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Season Review: Injuries plagued the Washington Mystics in 2023 but there is still hope on the horizon

Eliminated from the playoffs by a Breanna Stewart-led team for the second-straight year, there is still optimism for the Washington Mystics’ future.

2023 WNBA Playoffs - Washington Mystics v New York Liberty
Throughout the Mystics’ injury-plagued 2023 season, Brittney Sykes, in her first season in DC, was a bright spot.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

For the second-consecutive year, the Washington Mystics were swept in the first round of the WNBA playoffs. This year was probably more painful simply because of how the team was eliminated—an overtime loss to the New York Liberty.

Despite an up-and-down season, here’s what went right, wrong, and what’s next for the Washington Mystics:

What went right?

2023 WNBA Playoffs - Washington Mystics v New York Liberty
Brittney Sykes.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s start with Brittney Sykes, who signed a three-year deal with the Washington Mystics back in February. No one could’ve expected her to have the season she did.

Sykes averaged 15.9 points, 3.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, all of which were career highs. She also shot a career high from 3 this year and carried the team’s offense for long stretches of the season. With the team decimated by injuries, Sykes often was tasked with guarding opposing teams’ centers, while also spending time as the primary on-ball defender and as a help defender—all in the same game. For the fourth consecutive season, Sykes was named to the All-Defensive Team.

Sykes established herself as a top-25 player in the league this season, and her impact on the Mystics this season went even deeper than the box score. For the more than 1,100 minutes she was on the floor, the Mystics nearly had a plus-five net rating. Without her, they sunk to an almost minus-eight net rating. That means, when Sykes was on the floor, the Mystics played at around a 27-win pace, but only at a 10-win pace when she went to the bench.

Obviously, there is noise in samples like this, as Sykes only rested for about 290 minutes the entire season, but her 13-point net swing would rank sixth in the entire WNBA among those who played at least 1,000 minutes. Simply put, Sykes was one of the most impactful players in the league this season, putting a depleted Mystics team on her back for most of the season and leading them to a playoff spot.

In an emotional end of season press conference, Sykes expressed how thankful she was for this season:

I’m just really grateful for this year… It’s humbly surreal because of course I knew the stuff I was doing I was capable of and I was doing it but it was so humbling that I’ve just been waiting for this year to finally happen and I’m just really grateful. I have a lot of gratitude towards Washington and my teammates.

After spending the last three years in Los Angeles, Sykes was given the opportunity to play for a contender again, which she was immensely thankful for:

I’m just really appreciative of people who have stuck their hand out when it feels like I was drowning. I’m just really appreciative that Washington gave me that opportunity and I’m proud of myself that I stayed ready and that Washington gave me the opportunity to do what I did this year and then some.

What went wrong?

Las Vegas Aces v Washington Mystics
Shakira Austin.
Photo by KeShawn Ennis/NBAE via Getty Images

They say the best ability is availability. In the case of the Mystics, this couldn’t be more true. The potential for this team was there, but injuries plagued the entire roster. Ariel Atkins missed 13 games this season, Elena Delle Donne missed 17 games and Shakira Austin missed 21 games. That’s three starters missing at least a quarter of the season. Longtime Mystic Kristi Toliver, who returned to the team after a two-year stint with the Sparks, suffered a torn ACL in the last week of the season.

Most critically, the Mystics were without Austin, their starting center, in their first-round playoff series against the New York Liberty. The missed rebound off a Ionescu free throw at the end of Game 2 left a resounding sting for Austin, who missed the series after re-aggravating her injured hip near the end of the season. Had the Mystics grabbed the rebound, there would have been a Game 3 played in DC.

The Mystics were forced to play undersized without Austin’s presence, starting Hines-Allen at the center position. Not many teams could have kept it a competitive series, but Washington made adjustments due to injuries all season. The Mystics almost never had a blank injury report—a big reason why they finished the season 19-21 as the No. 7 seed.

It’s easy to say “run it back,” but Washington has to evaluate their core this offseason and determine whether it best suits their timeline to extend their veteran players to large deals. Alternatively, the Mystics have the draft capital needed to add promising players from the upcoming draft classes.

What’s next?

Mike Thibault stepped down from coaching last summer to be the Mystics’ general manager. Perhaps the biggest challenge of his GM career awaits him. Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud and Tianna Hawkins are all unrestricted free agents this summer.

Although the Mystics will have cap space (around $639,809), they still have to fill five to six roster spots. If the Mystics want to be in a good situation longterm, they have to factor in age when negotiating with Delle Donne. Cloud proved her value this year when she helped keep the Mystics afloat during the season. In Game 2 of the playoffs, she was stellar. She also probably should have made an All-Defensive Team this year.

The tough decisions Thibault will have to make when negotiating this summer certainly will determine how potent this team can be for the next few years.

That means the 2024 WNBA Draft also is very important. The Mystics will have the sixth pick in this year’s draft, and there is a lot of talent that could help the team improve. The Mystics also traded their pick in last year’s draft for another first-round pick in 2025. It’s clear that a lot of young talent will be coming to the DMV in the coming years. What does that mean for the veterans?

Only time will tell.