How the Washington Mystics can win free agency in 2021

One eye on 2019, the other on the years ahead

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Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman (center) high-fives teammates Leilani Mitchell (left) and Myisha Hines-Allen (right) during a game against the New York Liberty on August 7, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

There’s a school of thought in sports that says, “You can never have too much talent.”

On the surface, that seemed to be the Washington Mystics’ strategy in free agency for 2020, when they added 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles and Australian national team point guard Leilani Mitchell to a core group of returners from the 2019 championship team. And when health and social justice concerns prompted many Mystics players to opt out of the 2020 season — including both MVPs on the roster in Charles and Elena Delle Donne — the team needed every bit of the remaining talent to stay afloat.

However, if you look deeper, the Mystics didn’t actually try to maximize talent at all costs. General manager and head coach Mike Thibault let three-time All-Star Kristi Toliver leave in free agency because she wanted a three-year contract, but Thibault was only willing to offer two.

“We have four or five other players that are going to become free agents over the next two years,” Thibault told The Washington Post’s Ava Wallace. “And we needed to make sure that … we can try to keep as many of our good young players here on our team.

“As a GM, you just can’t jeopardize the long-term future of your team in that situation.”

Free agency opened this year on January 1 with the extension of qualifying offers, and in many ways, Thibault’s calculus this year looks like a redux of last year, with many veterans to re-sign and a budget to balance. His first order of business was to exercise the team option on guard Kiara Leslie, who started 10 games and averaged 5.5 points as a rookie in 2020.

The first players up are the reserved players, all of whom were role players in 2020: center Alaina Coates and guards Jacki Gemelos, Stella Johnson, and Sug Sutton. The Mystics have exclusive negotiating rights with all four, and on January 8, they announced that they had re-signed Gemelos, Johnson, and Sutton to training camp contracts.

The Mystics also have exclusive negotiating rights with point guard Natasha Cloud and center LaToya Sanders, two starters who opted out last season in the final year of their contracts. Both are expected to re-sign for about the same salary they would have earned in 2020, $117,000.

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Things could get more complicated for the Mystics with their unrestricted free agents. Guard-forward Aerial Powers and forwards Charles, Emma Meesseman, and Tianna Hawkins are all in this category, though Charles has verbally committed to re-signing with the team. 

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Thibault would like to re-sign the other three as well, but it’s easy to imagine scenarios where each of them depart. Powers could potentially get more money and/or a larger role on another team, and Meesseman, a native of Belgium, could skip the WNBA this summer due to COVID-19 concerns or a desire to train with her national team ahead of the Olympics. Hawkins, whose statistics dipped somewhat in 2020 after a career year in 2019, is a DC native and University of Maryland alum, but she could be the odd woman out in a crowded Mystics frontcourt if Thibault can’t make the math work.

Fans shouldn’t panic if the Mystics lose one unrestricted free agent, especially given the other talent on the roster. Even losing two doesn’t mean that the sky is falling, particularly with the emergence of forward Myisha Hines-Allen, the runner-up for WNBA Most Improved Player last season. As Thibault acknowledged in September, shortly after the Mystics’ season ended, “No team is able financially to keep their whole team together with [the] salary cap that there is.”

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Instead, the worst-case scenario for the Mystics would be if Thibault abandons the stance he took with Toliver and decides that he cannot have too much talent for 2021. If he spends too much money to try to retain all the talent on his past two rosters, he will not have enough to keep that team together in 2022, when Hines-Allen and three-time WNBA All-Defensive Second Team guard Ariel Atkins become free agents. That approach would also likely make it hard to afford quality role players or have sufficient depth for a few years.

By all indications, Thibault continues to appreciate the importance of balancing short- and long-term needs. “We have some real balance to our roster that needs to be decided,” he said in September. “And I don't mean just balance in position but in salaries going forward and planning our salary cap … That's going to be probably our most difficult thing is prioritizing those things and making it all work.”

After all the dominoes fall in free agency, the Mystics figure to be a talented team behind at least Delle Donne, Atkins, and Hines-Allen, and almost certainly Sanders, Charles, and Cloud. The key questions are, how high will their ceiling be in 2021 and how much flexibility did Thibault retain for the future? A winning hand for the Mystics in free agency won’t be determined by whether the entire roster remains intact. Instead, Thibault and the Mystics need to remember that it is possible to have too much talent if it challenges the team’s long-term competitiveness.