When Mike Thibault got the call last December to come to Washington to try revive the stumbling WNBA franchise, he knew it would be a challenge. The Mystics had just completed two horrendous seasons, finishing with a combined record of 11- 57. Not since the inaugural season’s 3-27 mark back in 1998 had the organization seen such futility.
Thibault, a veteran coach who had just ended a 10-year run with the Connecticut Sun, was available. And the Mystics, wisely, grabbed him. The one question the beleaguered fan base in Washington wanted to ask: Could the two-time WNBA Coach of the Year (2006 and 2008) turn the Mystics around in one short season?
Thibault laughed at the question.
“I told everybody I could,” he said.
As it turned out, Thibault was as good as his word. The Mystics finished 17-17 this season, earned the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and will begin a best-of-three playoff series against the Atlanta Dream on Thursday.
How did Thibault do it? He rebuilt the roster, drafted smartly and brought a new mindset to the formerly floundering franchise.
“I didn’t know if it would be the playoffs the first year but I thought we could at least be in contention,” Thibault said. “I thought that they could correct some of the mistakes that they had made last year, that an infusion of new players would give us a different energy and feel to the organization.”
The current Mystics roster has four rookies and just three players from the last Washington team to make the playoffs back in 2010 – Monique Currie, Matee Ajavon and Crystal Langhorne. The best move: the acquisition of veteran point guard Ivory Latta, an All-Star this year for the first time in her six year career.
“It feels good, the energy is great,” Currie said of the team’s return to the playoffs. “Everybody has bought into this new system we have, the new organization, new staff. We have a lot of support from D.C. and our fans and it feels good to give them something to be proud of.”
The turnaround is that much more impressive considering Washington’s dreadful lottery luck. In 2012 the Mystics had a league-low five wins—giving the team the best chance at the top pick of a draft that featured three potential superstars: Brittney Griner, Elena Della Donne and Skylar Diggings.
But the Mystics wound up with the fourth pick and selected Taylor Hill, a 5-10 guard from Ohio State. Hill turned out to be a good fit, averaging 17.4 minutes and 6.5 points, per game this season.
“We got dealt a bad hand, you deal with it, that’s the way it goes,” Thibault said. “Tayler’s turning out to be a good player with the fourth pick.”
Now the winningest active coach in the WNBA, a mark he achieved in July with his 212th victory, Thibault’s philosophy has had an immediate impact.
“I think that you start with being honest with them about everything. You can’t sugarcoat stuff,” said Thibault whose son, Eric, is an assistant coach. “I think you have to tell them the truth about when they’re doing well and when they’re doing poorly. Tell them how to get better, then show them how to get better.”
It didn’t hurt that Thibault came to the Mystics with past success as a coach.
“He just brought in a winning mentality,” Langhorne said. “I think he expected things of people and I think we’ve done a great job of doing that. It’s totally different now.”
With wins in the last three games of the season, the Mystics enter the playoffs with momentum. And with wins in the last two games against the Dream, the Mystics approach the series with confidence.
“They’re a team that’s going to try to outwork you and we’ve just got to put our metal suits on and go to work,” Ajavon said. “We’ve worked hard enough this year to be in the playoffs and we’re contending against great teams, but obviously teams that we’ve beaten throughout the season so we’re very anxious and ready.”
Carla Peay is a contributing writer for BlacktopXchange.