The BCs have been Mystics season ticketholders since the inaugural season of 1998. (Our names are inscribed on the Founding Fans wall in the Verizon Center.) In the 13 seasons preceding 2011, we thought we’d seen it all – all the coaching changes, all the front office changes, all the player drama, all the exciting and sometimes puzzling draft picks, and naturally all the ups and downs that have made up the gestalt of the Mystics experience.
Over the years, we’ve suffered through many a miserable season. But without a doubt, the recently concluded Mystics 2011 season was, for us, the very worst ever. Worse even than the 3-27 inaugural season? Yes. Having a women’s professional basketball team in our Nation’s capital was all new and exciting. There were large and enthusiastic crowds, and, most important, there was the promise of better things to come. We had fun. Worse even than the season of 2008, which we used to think of as the franchise’s low point? Yes. Because most of the misery and the failure of this season, unlike 2008, was the result of self-inflicted wounds. This season need never have happened this way, and should never have happened this way.
The October Massacre
The unmitigated failure of this season was brought on, first and foremost, by the October Massacre. In the history of professional sports, has there ever been another team that finished first in its conference, with a franchise-record number of wins, after years of mostly disappointing performances and multiple (mostly unsuccessful) coaches, which then turned around and effectively pushed the General Manager and Head Coach (who engineered the team’s turnaround) out the door? All because the team’s mega-wealthy owners decided to save a little money? If it’s happened before, the BCs have never heard of it. Maybe that’s why, nearly a year later, we still find it incomprehensible. And unforgiveable.
A Quick Hire
The stupidity and meanness of that October decision (let’s not forget, those were two very hardworking human beings who lost jobs that they loved that month) were then compounded by the quick hire of a cost-saving combo GM/HC. After Sheila & Co. reorganized the GM and HC jobs into a single position in order to save money, did they do a national search to find the best possible person for that redefined job? Not that they’ve ever said. Instead, they immediately promoted the previous season’s second assistant coach (you know, the one the WNBA didn't even allow to sit on the bench), Trudi Lacey, to the new job.
So what qualified Trudi for this new position? Well, as a matter of fact, Trudi had actually done the combo GM/HC job before. She served in that capacity with the Charlotte Sting beginning in 2003. Her tenure in that job went something like this: after Trudi inherited the Eastern Conference’s 2nd place team in 2003, Trudi’s team lost two more games than the team had lost the year before, but still managed to finish in 2nd place. The following season, 2004, saw GM/HC Trudi’s Sting finish with a losing record and drop to 5th (of 6 teams) in the East -- and miss the playoffs. And then the 2005 season arrived. That year’s Sting team opened the season with 3 wins . . . and 21 losses, under GM/HC Trudi’s leadership.
That was the résumé -- and the legacy -- that Trudi brought to the Mystics’ GM/HC job this summer. Sheila & Co. were looking for a quick hire -- and for someone willing to do both jobs -- so Trudi got the nod. In the press teleconference that lives in infamy (Sheila: “Let me idiot proof this for you . . .”) following Trudi’s hiring, Sheila was asked whether Trudi had what it took. And Sheila famously replied, “everything is a crap shoot.”
Grade F on the 2011 Draft
The BCs don’t know how anyone could give GM Trudi’s 2011 draft anything other than a failing grade. Although Trudi had two first round draft picks, they were both for naught. First, as part of the Lindsey Harding trade, Trudi directed the Atlanta Dream to use their own first round pick to draft Ta’Shia Phillips and send her to the Mystics; Trudi then used the Mystics’ own pick to draft Victoria Dunlap. She used her second round pick to draft Karima Christmas. Trudi waived both Phillips and Christmas later in the season. Karima was picked up off waivers by Tulsa, and Ta’Shia by New York. Because the two players were waived, the Mystics got nothing in return for them. Meanwhile, Dunlap spent virtually her entire rookie season parked on the bench. We’re not really sure whether GM Trudi just isn’t very good at evaluating talent, or whether HC Trudi isn’t very good at using the talent she’s been given. In any event, the BCs rate GM Trudi’s 2011 draft an “F.”
What Strategic Plan?
Well before the WNBA’s free agent signing period began in January, and months before the college draft in April, the Mystics knew that Mo Currie was expected to be out for the entire season, recovering from her ACL injury. But what wasn’t known -- with certainty -- was how well Alana Beard would be able to play after returning from a potentially career-ending injury, having missed an entire year of basketball.
Meanwhile, early in the off-season – after the October Massacre – word spread in WNBA circles that Lindsey Harding no longer wanted to play for Washington. Katie Smith was a free agent and her return to the Mystics was also uncertain.
So in light of all these off-season developments, what was the Mystics’ strategic plan going into the 2011 season? GM/HC Trudi announced that she was rebuilding with youth. No veteran free agents; not a mix of young and old; the strategy was to focus on youth. Thus, Nakia Sanford was not offered a contract (she signed as a free agent with Phoenix) and Chasity Melvin was cut in training camp. GM Trudi stacked the team with rookies and traded her 2012 first round draft pick to Minnesota for Nicky Anosike, a player with 3 years of WNBA experience. GM Trudi executed her plan, assembling the pieces for the future of the franchise.
But then, right in the middle of the season, GM Trudi totally abandoned her plan. She cut two of her four rookies, including first rounder Ta’Shia Phillips. Then she replaced them with an 11-year veteran, DeMya Walker, and a 4th year player, Kerri Gardin, both of whom had been cut by the Connecticut Sun (Kerri before the season began, and DeMya after 10 games). Of the two remaining rookies, GM/HC Trudi then left one of them – Victoria Dunlap -- on the bench, while Crystal Langhorne finished in a virtual dead-heat for most minutes played per game in the WNBA (Sylvia Fowles edged her by 0.3 minutes). Lang continued to play 30-plus minutes per game even after the Mystics were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. And Vicky continued to sit on the bench.
Plan A, rebuilding with youth, obviously wasn’t working.
When you are an owner who is fortunate enough to have two consummate professionals like former GM Angela Taylor and former HC Julie Plank on your team, who – by your own admission – produced positive results, and ahead of schedule (we were at the airport)-- then you MUST find a way to keep them on board. You do NOT allow what, to you (a person of incredible wealth), is for all intents and purposes an inconsequential amount of money, to undermine the stability of the prior two seasons and derail the strategic plan. Yet that’s exactly what Sheila & Co. did. They failed miserably as owners and managers. They failed the players. And they failed the fans.
Big and Biggest Losers
Of course, the players suffered a great deal: emotionally (losing night after night takes its toll), physically (playing league-leading minutes can wear a player down), and, financially (for the first time in 3 years, no playoff money in their paychecks). We count them among this season’s big losers . . . and we’re not referring to their win-loss record.
In our opinion, the biggest losers, though, were the fans. Mystics fans have been loyal to a fault. Mystics fans harbor a deep emotional attachment to their team. They are used to being disappointed, but they are not used to being blind-sided or betrayed. And that’s how the BCs felt (and still do) and how many other loyal fans felt (they’ve told us) about the bait-and-switch that Sheila & Co. pulled on all of us last October.
Where Do They Go From Here?
As sad as we feel to say this going into the 15th season, the franchise needs to start over. Sheila & Co. need to acknowledge the huge mistake they made last fall. They need to acknowledge it to the fans. Most important, they need to acknowledge it to Angela and Julie.
Then Mystics management need to do exactly what they did after the 2008 season, which resulted in Angela and Julie being hired. They need to do a careful and considered national search, and they need to find the best possible person to become the new GM, and that person needs to be given carte blanche to find and hire the best possible HC. (And, in this process, in our opinion, Angela and Julie deserve the right of first refusal.)
The franchise also needs to make a real and serious commitment to a long term plan. And, when it comes to basketball operations, that includes treating the GM of the Mystics the way the GM of the Wizards is treated. As Aretha would say, it’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That means the Mystics’ GM (whoever she or he may be) should NOT be reporting to the head of business operations (Greg Bibb). Ernie Grunfeld does not report to Greg. Why not? Because Ernie (like Angela) has spent his entire career immersed in The Game of basketball -- its players, its coaches, every nuance and every aspect of The Game. His job is to achieve on-court success. Running the business side of things is extremely important to a professional franchise, no question about it. But Ernie, for good reason, doesn’t answer to Business Operations, and neither should the Mystics’ next GM. The person with the most experience in basketball, the person making the player personnel decisions, should be reporting to the owners. If that’s how men’s basketball is run, that’s how women’s basketball should be run too. Anything less is disrespectful, and sexist.
It won’t be easy for Sheila & Co. to repair the damage this last season has done. It won’t be easy to regain the trust and support of the fans. But Mystics management are the only ones who have the power to start the rebuilding process. The BCs challenge them to swallow their pride and do whatever it takes to make this right.