PG: Kelly Miller/Jasmine Thomas
SG: Alana Beard/Matee Ajavon
SF: Marissa Coleman/Karima Christmas
PF: Crystal Langhorne/Victoria Dunlap
C: Nicky Anosike/Ta’Shia Phillips
Bench in street clothes because they refuse to waive her: Monique Currie
Head coach: Trudi Lacey
Significant additions: Return of Beard, Anosike, and the host of rooks.
Significant losses: Lindsey Harding, Katie Smith, Monique Currie, Nakia Sanford, Chasity Melvin, head coach Julie Plank, and GM Angela Taylor. And the faith of many supporters.
Some fans may be disappointed that their teams didn’t make many changes over the offseason; to those people I can only say be careful what you wish for – you could be a Mystics fan. After putting together the most successful regular season in the franchise’s history, finishing top of the conference for the first time ever, what did Washington spend the offseason doing? Why blowing everything up, of course. Would it be the Mystics if they did anything else? The general manager and coach who were supposedly building the franchise’s future are both gone; the starting point guard demanded out, swiftly followed by last season’s starting off-guard; the starting small forward tore her ACL and is done for the season; and the two players who platooned as last season’s starting center are both gone as well. What a mess. There’s still some talent on this roster, but we saw last season what happened to all those Western Conference teams who were starting out with new coaches, new systems and a new player or two – we ended up with one of the most epically terrible conference-wide performances in WNBA history. So what’s going to happen when you’ve got a new coach, new system, and only three players who were even on the roster last year?
Trudi Lacey took over the GM/head coach role when the Mystics dispensed with Julie Plank and Angela Taylor, and in all fairness to her, she’s done the best that she could from a horrible situation. It was time to move on from the two-headed monster of Nakia Sanford and Chasity Melvin at center so she made the move for Nicky Anosike from Minnesota. She got picks and players for Harding and Smith that’ll hopefully help build this franchise back up. And it was hardly her fault that Monique Currie went and blew out her knee (although I still think they probably should’ve waived her by now). It’s just such a shame that a franchise which seemed to have turned the corner and was heading in the right direction has found itself starting all over again.
The one bright spot for Mystics fans to grasp on to in all this is that their best player from last year is still in town and still in one piece. Crystal Langhorne was 4th on my (theoretical) MVP ballot last season and continues to develop into a dominant force in the paint. Nimble footwork for someone her size and good rebounding instincts produced 16pts/10reb per game last season at 59% from the floor, and while most of her scoring is done within inches of the rim she continues to develop a mid-range jumper which forces teams to guard her outside the paint. Alongside Langhorne, the inconsistent production that they’ve gotten from Melvin and Sanford in recent years should be comfortably improved upon by Anosike. Nicky never quite fit in with Cheryl Reeve and her system in Minnesota last year, but in a more relaxed situation in Washington (Lacey appears to be more of a “just let ‘em play” kind of coach than Reeve) she should bounce back to her 2009 form. At her best, Anosike was a double-digit scorer and one of the top post defenders in the WNBA, which should only help Langhorne flourish further (and cover up her holes, considering Lang isn’t exactly famed for her defense). The one thing they might miss with their vets gone is depth, because all the backups are completely unproven at this level. Center Ta’Shia Phillips and forward Victoria Dunlap might ultimately prove useful, but at least with the old girls you knew what you were going to get.
Out on the perimeter, questions abound about what the Mystics can expect to piece together. Alana Beard was an All-Star calibre scoring guard – two years ago when she last played a meaningful basketball game. She’s sounded cautiously optimistic in preseason interviews about her comeback from a serious ankle injury, but with the stress on the ‘cautious’. At small forward, Marissa Coleman gets another chance to impress in the absence of Currie, but after two years of very minimal production you have to start wondering if it’s ever going to happen. At point guard, God only knows what they’re going to end up doing. Kelly Miller has looked terrible ever since leaving the run-and-gun system in Phoenix, and there’s no real reason to expect her to be any better in Washington than she was in Minesota or Atlanta. Duke product Jasmine Thomas was acquired in the Smith trade, adding to the clutch of ACC players on the Mystic roster. She may eventually be of some use, but watching her in the NCAA tournament, the name Nikki Blue came to mind. That’s not a good sign for a WNBA career. Ultimately, Beard may well play a fair amount at the point, which was never a good thing even back when she was playing with two fully healthy ankles. She’s significantly better off the ball, but if they run out of alternatives she may be the only option remaining.
Waiting in the wings as another perimeter option is Matee Ajavon, who’ll bring her own brand of bull-in-a-china-shop me-first offense off the bench whenever given the opportunity. Yet another Duke player also made the roster in 2nd round pick Karima Christmas, and if Coleman is as disappointing as last year she’ll certainly have the opportunity to make an impression. Essentially, everyone is likely to get a chance, because no one is anywhere close to being a sure thing. It’s a matter of throwing a handful of things against the wall and hoping that at least a few of them stick.
If you want to look on the bright side, all of us supposedly ‘expert’ prognosticators thought Washington were going to suck last year as well. Beard got hurt before the season started, no one thought Currie would produce like she did, and Langhorne wasn’t expected to make the leap, but they pulled it off. This season, however, it’s hard to be positive unless you’re really holding on to those rose-coloured Mystic glasses. I can’t see one person on the roster I’d want running the offense; unless Beard is honestly healthy I can’t even see anyone on the perimeter I’d want taking crunch-time shots; and when the starters need a rest it’s kids, kids and more kids on that bench. Now it’s not impossible to win with youngsters, or with a banged-up roster, as the Mystics themselves proved last season. Or even with a coach like Lacey whose track record in the WNBA is several steps below mediocre. It does tend to make things significantly more difficult though, and it’s safe to say I won’t be putting much money on the Mystics in 2011.