Mike Thibault keeps 2021 in mind during Washington Mystics' losing streak

Player health and development are the priority right now, not the playoffs

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Washington Mystics guard/forward Aerial Powers talks to head coach Mike Thibault before a game against the Chicago Sky on September 8, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

When Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins walked into the room for her postgame press conference on Saturday afternoon, she was focused on the short term. “This sucks to lose,” she said. “We've lost seven in a row, so that's tough.”

There haven’t been many bright spots for the Mystics lately, as the team’s 88-73 loss to Las Vegas on Saturday dropped the Mystics to 3-7 this season. Their last victory was on July 30, when they routed the first-place Seattle Storm in a game that feels like ages ago. Since then, they have averaged 71.1 points per game, the fewest in the league, on just 39% shooting and been outscored by over 10 points per game. Beyond the stars who are sitting out this season, injuries have also decimated the Mystics’ roster during the losing streak. Guards Aerial Powers (hip), Kiara Leslie (ankle), and Shey Peddy (hip) all missed Saturday’s game.

Despite having just eight healthy players, there were positives for the Mystics in Saturday’s game. The Aces led the league in rebounds per game through Friday, but the Mystics outrebounded them by 10 and got a season-high 15 offensive rebounds, including six from Emma Meesseman. The Mystics also got a much-needed 22 points off the bench from center Alaina Coates and guards Stella Johnson and Essence Carson, which is the second-most bench points the team has scored during its losing streak.

In his postgame remarks, head coach Mike Thibault singled out Atkins (17 points), forward Tianna Hawkins (12 points, 7 rebounds), and Johnson (7 points, 5 assists) for their positive contributions. He commented at length about Atkins’ development and potential: “Ariel Atkins is growing in front of us … We're trying to get her to attack the basket a little bit more, not settle just for jump shots, and I saw that a little bit more. … She had that mindset to be aggressive … You saw her make the right reads on passes, just she didn't execute it a little bit, but that's part of the growth process for her.”

Thibault’s desire to help Atkins improve goes beyond needing her to be a leader on the court this season, though she is the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.4 points per game. Before the game, he revealed that the Mystics’ staff talks about long-term player development on a daily basis.

“In the big picture, we need each of those players who's going to be on our team next year,” he said. “There's five or six or seven of those players that have to keep getting better and fit in. Ariel Atkins and Aerial Powers and Emma Meesseman are going to play a lot of minutes and so they need to continue to be better so that they can be better suited to take on an increased role not only now but in the future. … We need to find out where Myisha Hines-Allen and Kiara Leslie and Tianna [Hawkins] and those guys fit in the future. We know Leilani [Mitchell]'s going to be a part of it next year.”

For Thibault, the Mystics’ results this season, including their three-year streak of making the playoffs, are secondary to that bigger picture. “I don't mean to sound like it's not important to make the playoffs,” he said. “It is, but at the same time, there's a reality that somebody [outside the team] better grasp besides me … about where we are. We are trying to develop players that are playing brand-new roles, and so hopefully over the course of the next couple of weeks, we will get better at that and it will put us in playoff position.”

But Thibault’s long-term vision isn’t much solace right now to Atkins. “As a coach, he can look ahead, and I know he's trying to get me to a little bit, in a sense of adding things to my game,” she said. “But as for me and our team, we're just trying to find ways to win a game right now.”

Ariel Atkins, wearing a Say Her Name t-shirt, addresses the media after Saturday’s loss. Photo credit: NBA Content Network

“I don't know if I sound negative or not, but I'm not down by any means; I just hate to lose,” Atkins added. She said that she and her teammates have been trying to “be neutral in our thinking” and look at “the facts” of what areas of the game the Mystics need to improve, rather than feeling negative about their situation.

Hawkins, who like Atkins is one of the Mystics’ leaders this season, said that she has been telling her teammates to “work towards progress and not perfection.” She admitted that the losing streak has been “rough,” but she still believes that this group can engineer a turnaround.

Thibault said postgame that he needs “some of the veterans to see” the bigger picture beyond this season, and Hawkins appears to be one player who has embraced that. This season, the 6’3 Hawkins has played some small forward in the Mystics’ bigger lineups, which may ultimately help her get minutes in a loaded frontcourt in 2021. “Short-term, of course you want to continue to improve as an individual player,” she said, “but me being in a different position right now is definitely preparing me for the long-term goal [of] ... being comfortable on the wing offensively with what we have coming back next year.”

In the most immediate term, Saturday’s loss ended a stretch of six games in 11 days for the Mystics, and they now have a break until they face the Atlanta Dream on Wednesday night. During the losing streak, Thibault has been trying not to be “a broken record” for his team, harping on the same things and producing the same results. The Mystics hope that the time between games—including a socially distanced, league-approved beach trip on Tuesday—will help them wipe the slate clean.

However, when Wednesday rolls around, 2021 will remain a reference point for Thibault and his staff. “I don't like to sell short any season, but for me, this is a long-term thing for our team,” he said before Saturday’s game. “Our championship window is open, provided we have everybody. And so next year when we have our whole group, I hope we're one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the league going into the season.”

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