The Washington Mystics got it right this time.
The sun had barely set on the franchise’s worst year since its debut season in the league -- and Trudi Lacey’s second sub-.200 season in a row -- before the front office gave Lacey the boot.
That’s something they’ve had plenty of practice at: Washington has run through an even dozen head coaches in its 15 years as a WNBA franchise. The longest tenure was that of Richie Adubato, who spent three seasons at the helm on the rebound from his time with the New York Liberty, but the mean has been a little more than a year.
That’s a fact that apparently was not lost on Mike Thibault, the two-time WNBA Coach of the Year who was introduced today as the Mystics’ 13th head coach and sixth general manager.
Asked what kind of assurances he had sought from the Mystics owners and management before signing on for the job, Thibault, who spent 10 years at the helm of the Connecticut Sun –- their entire tenure in the league after the former Orlando Miracle was moved from Florida to Uncasville — was quick to answer: “I needed to know from them that this was going to be a long-term commitment on both sides.”
And only time will tell whether it’s the truth or a miscue, but in the course of proclaiming her excitement at bringing Thibault to Washington, which she described as a “dream come true not only for me but for our entire franchise," team president and managing partner Sheila Johnson said they were giving him “carte blanche” to do what needed to be done to lead the Mystics into a new era as one of the best teams in the WNBA.
Thibault jumped on that immediately: “You heard it,” he quipped. “Carte blanche.”
And though he said it with a smile on his face, he wasn’t just kidding – or at least he shouldn’t have been. Though the Mystics have never won a league championships, they have had successful coaches in the past, as recently as 2009-10, when the tandem of GM Angela Taylor and head coach Julie Plank took the Mystics from last place to first place in the East in just two years, and from a 10-24 record that did not qualify them for the playoffs in 2008, the year before they arrived, to a 22-12 finish in 2010, with two trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals along the way. Their reward: Taylor and Plank were both fired for failing to bring home a championship in that short span.
Though Thibault still lacks a WNBA Championship –- the one hole in a distinguished resume that ultimately cost him his job in Uncasville in November –- he unquestionably knows how to win. In his 10 years as head coach of the Sun, he amassed a record of 206-134, better than any active coach in the league and second, by just six wins, only to former Comets’ coach Van Chancellor in the all-time history of the league. His tenure saw eight trips to the playoffs and two Eastern Conference titles, and many believe the Sun were too quick to pull the plug when they fired Thibault after he led the second-youngest team in the league back to the Eastern Conference championships this season, only to see them founder down the stretch. So the best thing Johnson and the rest of her front office staff can do now that they’ve hired a coach with Thibault’s success record and stature is to get out of his way and let him do his job.
And Thibault has plenty of work ahead of him, judging by the lengthy list he ticked off of things that would need to be changed if the Mystics are to reach the heights their owners and new coach have in mind for them. His “to-do” list begins with the current players:
- Establish a work ethic. “We’re not going to get outworked by anybody,” Thibault declared. “That’s going to be the expectation from day one.
- Get the players to “take ownership of their own team.” “The best players need to be the best workers,” Thibault elaborated. “They need to push to take everybody with them.”
- Become masters of the new rules. The WNBA recently adopted the anti-flopping rule and defensive-three-second rule already in use in the NBA, and will be making more extensive use of video replay beginning this season. “The teams that adjust to the new rules quickly will do well,” he stated.
- Improve the individual skill sets of the current roster. Thibault realizes this won’t be easy, with most players spending their offseasons overseas and abbreviated training camps offering little time for teaching. Still, it’s “incumbent to be a great teaching staff,” said Thibault, who sees player skills development as a point of emphasis for himself and his coaching staff, whoever they may be. (Thibault was asked about the futures of long-time assistants Bernadette Mattox and Scott Hawk, who served at his side throughout his tenure in Connecticut and were shown the door last month at the same time the Sun gave Thibault his walking papers. The pair are contemplating taking time off from coaching, said Thibault, who added that although he has some ideas in mind for his new staff, he will be in no rush to announce his hires.)
- More specifically, the Mystics need to learn how to be better finishers, said Thibault, noting that despite last season’s dismal 5-29 record, Washington was rarely blown out, but more often found itself dropping games despite being in striking distance. Part of that ability to finish comes from maturity, part of it from what he hopes to impart in terms of end-of-game composure, and part of it is talent, he stated.
- The pace of the game “can be better,” added Thibault, who declared that his Mystics are “not going to be a walk-it-up, half-court team.”
- Then there are what Thibault called “the focus things, the energy things, the discipline things,” such as fouls, free throws, turnovers, and rebounding. The Mystics ranked among the bottom four in the league in each of those categories last season, and that to him is simply unacceptable.
That said, only time will tell whether the current version of the Mystics is "a deficient team or an underperforming team," in the words of Thibault, who is first to admit that any significant turnaround will also require an infusion of new talent. That quest that will begin with a wise choice of how to play the hand the team was dealt in this year’s draft lottery. Thibault urged an end to the glum faces that have surrounded the team’s allotment of this year's No. 4 draft pick: “Please don’t despair with the fourth pick in the draft,” he said, noting the depth of this year’s class and the number of good players who will be out there. “The fourth pick is an asset,” he stated, and while it might not be the outcome the team had been hoping for, it is a card he knows he will have to play wisely.
Off-season signings of unrestricted free agents are another source of the talent Thibault hopes to bring to D.C., though he called the pool of players likely to be on that list this season “a mixed bag.” And then there are always trades to be made, and that’s an area that has proved to be a forte in the past for Thibault, who working in tandem with Sun GM Chris Sienko orchestrated the monumental trade that brought 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles and Sixth Player of the Year Renee Montgomery to Connecticut in exchange for veteran point guard Lindsay Whalen and the Sun’s No. 2 pick in 2010.
Thibault’s phone was already ringing off the hook, even before he was formally introduced as the Mystics new GM, he told reporters at a live-streamed press conference announcing his hiring. “I’ve already got teams calling me in the last two hours: ‘Do you want to trade?’” he reported. “I have no idea yet,” he said he responded, saying that he’ll table the trade proposals for the time being while he develops a better feel for the current lay of the land.
But that’s not likely to last long. Thibault knows he needs to add a perimeter shooter to the arsenal, a priority he mentioned several times in the course of the brief press conference. He also mentioned better penetration as “a key to the game,” and he’s looking for the right balance between a handful of “the right” veterans who can mentor young players and the youth around which he can begin to build a dynasty.
That’s a pretty imposing list of priorities, which owner Ted Leonsis tacitly conceded when he summed up, “Apart from our offense, our defense, our foul-shooting, and our turnovers, we’ve given Mike everything he needs.”
But Thibault is convinced that with the resources that are available to him, and the committed fan base in Washington, whom he implored to “jump back on the bandwagon,” “there is no reason this cannot be one of the best – if not the best – franchises in the WNBA.”
“There are no miracles,” he stated. “It’s just hard work.”