Guru's WNBA Report -- No Gamble Here: Washington Hires Ex-Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault
WASHINGTON -- One casino--owned WNBA team's discard became another WNBA outfit's best bet Tuesday afternoon when the Washington Mystics inrtroduced former Connecticut Sun mentor Mike Thibault as the new coach and general manager.
The GM title is an addition to Thibault's previous role, though he noted he did a lot of those duties alongside Chris Sienko, who surprisingly with Mitchell Etess in Connecticut ended the relationship earlier this month.
In some ways, the scene in the Verizon Center Tuesday prior to the NBA Wizards' game with Atlanta bore some familiarity from the lofty decade of excellence, if not any WNBA titles, that ended in the last month when Thibault was let go after leading the Sun to the regular-season Eastern title but falling short in the conference finals to the eventual new champion Indiana Fever.
Seated on the first row in front of the podium that had the 62-year-old Thibault flanked by overall corporate owner Ted Leonsis and managing partner and Mystics team president Sheila Johnson were Thibault's wife Nanci and daughter Carly, a senior player at Monmouth, which will be hosting Delaware and Elena Delle Donne Saturday at the university in Central New Jersey.
Another son, Eric, was not too far away but unable to attend because of his role as assistant women's coach at Virginia Commwonealth University in Richmond.
And like the ongoing presence in postgame press conferences at Mohegan, the media room was packed although truth be told Leonsis' organization provided a lot of house dressing to the event.
But they had a reason to be happy. Throughoout most of the 15-year history of the Mystics, the revolving door involving coaches and general managers has swung at the same frenetic pace as the ones down under the arena that lead to the Chinatown stop on the Metro.
With 12 individuals previous to Thibault on the sidelines in the nation's capital and six others holding the GM title in the front office, few times did the several organizations in charge of the Mystics get things right.
It seemed that the breaktrhough leading to a bright future occurred two seasons ago when the duo of GM Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank, who had come to Washington several years earlier, guided the Mystics to a franchise-best 22-win regular season to tie the New York Liberty for the Eastern crown and earn the No. 1 conference seed via tiebreaker for the playoffs.
But the then-upstart Atlanta Dream dipeensed of Washington in two quick games and while the Mystics' faithful still felt a solid foundation existed for the future, their confidence was shattered soon thereafter when Taylor and Plank were let go in contract disputes and Trudi Lacey was elevated to handle both jobs.
Johnson and Leonsis, incidentally, who also owns the NBA Wizards and NHL Lockout-idled Capitals as Monumental Sports & Entertainment chairman, said Tuesday that with the dual vacancies existing on the Mystics, the first priority was to get the best hire to coach and then see if a second person was needed, if necessary, to fill the GM position, which obviously didn't have to occur.
"My first goal was to find the right coach," Johnson said. " I am giving him full rein. He knows what he is doing."
Following the change two seasons ago, the Mystics went back to old times, plunging to an overall 11-57 mark over successive summers, including a league-worst 5-29 this past season.
Along the way, the fanbase bailed -- even the DC BasketCases, as passionate as any a group to be found in the WNBA, declined to contionue their entertaining chronicles involving the team and relegated their energies to just the powerful Maryland collegiate women's program.
Needless to say, if someone held a popularity contest in recent times in the arena between Johnson and Darth Vader, the latter would win in a landslide.
If fact, there was some smugness in terms of the organization getting its just desserts last month involving the four-team lottery for next April's draft.
With Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Delle Donne, and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins sitting out there as one of the all-time prize packs in the history of future rookies, Washington held the best odds to land one of them because of the worst finish.
And so the organization trooped off its in-house media cadre to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., which had followed the firing of Lacey two days earlier, ready to make a splash into a new era.
But the ping pong balls were not kind to Washington, leaving the Mystics with fourth pick and out of the loop.
Thibault, who has watched most of the Mystics meanderings from the side of riches and gold standards as part of the Sun, said Tuesday the fourth pick might be more than the chopped liver it has been designated in comparison to the trinity in front of the choice.
"I've moved up from 11th (next to last in the first round) to fourth, so that changes my perspective somewhat," Thibault said and also suggested, "I know there were a lot of long faces here when the lottery took place.
"It's not all that bleak. There are good players (one Tianna Hawkins plays just up the road in College Park) and the fourth pick is an asset. It depends how you use it. There are good players out there. It can be traded. It can be used for a lot of things."
Johnson, incidentally, contrary to previous reports, did not know Washington's pick until it was publicly announced on ESPN.
"That's why I looked the way I did when they announced it," she told the Guru Tuesday. "That's the first time I learned what we got."
The episode had an immediate impact on the coaching search because the lack of a top three pick was certainly going to dissuade some otherwise premium candidates from seeking the position.
One hope was that former Detroit Shock coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer, who won three titles prior to his departure and eventual franchise move to Tulsa, was hankering to get back to the WNBA.
Based on recent conversations, the former NBA Pistons Bad Boy and the Mystics folks were in the early phases of a collision course until New York swooped out of the blue and hired Laimbeer for both positions while also jettision John Whisenant, who coached the previous two summers.
An aside: Who would have thought back in the days of the Detroit-Connecticut Eastern wars that one day down the road Thibault and Laimbeer would still compete against each other for Eastern supremacy, but this time as leaders of Washington and New York?
Anyhow, to continue the narrative, just when it seemed that it couldn't get any worse in Washington, fiscal cliff crisis notwithstanding, suddenly luck got dsngled with the news came that Thibault was available.
"I saw that and picked the phone right up and called Ted and said, `Let's get go after him,'" said Johnson, who during the press conference told the assembled throng that Thibault "has carte blanche."
"You heard her," Thibault smiled.
Apparently, Leonsis was already on the case because his NBA general manager Ernie Gruunfeld, who worked with Thibault in the NBA Milwaukee Bucks organization, recommended the former Sun coach and the phone lines between Connecticut and DC immediately began lighting up.
In introducing the latest hire, Johnson said, "This is a dream come true for our franchise. He is a proven leader who has had a great deal of success in his career.
"We know he is the right person. It is going to be very exciting to have him on board. It is going to be an exciting season."
Thibault said there was just one area of concern to address during the negoations: "I needed to know from them that there was a commitment going forward and this was going to be a long term commitment on both sides. That they want this to be a successful franchise."
In sorting his priorities from the unforeseen unemployment line, some colleagues said they thought he might be more interested in a college job, Thibault said, "This fit. It fit in a whole bunch of ways for me, for my family, and I hope it is a fit for everybody involved in this organization.
"In talking to the players, they feel they are treated terrifically here," Thibault said. "The last piece is the basketball court piece, it's about getting better.
"With the resources here and the fanbase here, there is no reason this cannot be one of the best, if not best, franchises in the WNBA. After our meetings, I walked away feeling I was heading in that direction."
Thibault went over a full list of areas the Mystics need to improve, but also pointed out that the record, in a way, belied the effort, saying he never really saw the team quit.
Leonsis qupped responding to Thibault's critique, "Other than our defense, and our offense, and our foul shooting and our turnovers, we've given Mike ecverything he needs to be successful."
As for his observations of Washington last season, Thisbault said, "There was a good portion of the season, I thought that despite the win-loss record, the players competed. They played hard for the most part. When you win five games, the tendency is to throw in the towel early. I don't think they did that.
"What I thought they did was lose a lot of close games for a variety of reasons -- a turnover here, a missed b lockout there, a forced shot, they were competitive. I can't remember more than a few times they were blown out.
" The problem was they weren't good finishers. Part of that was maturity, part of that is hopefully what I will deliver to them, how to compose yourselves at the end of games, part of it is who's supposed to take those shots and when, and part of it is, we're going to have to have some talent added to it, too.
"It's not an accident that you win five games some times. But we can make progress in a hurry."
Thibault, who has led the Sun to eight playoffs spots and two championship finals, trails former Houston Comets (now defunct) coach Van Chancellor, who had expressed interest in the Washngton spot, just six short of all-time WNBA wins at 206.
"His background really is a perfect fit for us," said Leonsis.
Thibault was asked to compare the situation facing him in rebuilding Washington, which has All-Star Crystal Langhorne of Willingboro, N.J., in suburban Philadelphia, former Rutgers star Matee Ajavon, and former Duke stars Jasmine Thomas and Monique Currie, with what he faced when he was hired in Connecticut after the Mohegan tribe bought and moved the franchise in 2003 from its previous incarnation as the Orlando Miracle.
"The Orlando team had not made the playoffs very often, never won a playoff game from what I remember. So it was considered an under-achieving team," Thibault said.
"I'll find out of quick enough if this is a deficient team or an under-achieving team and there's a difference. I think there's some very good players on this team but I think the Orlando team that went to Connecticut at that time had a little more depth to that talent.
"The league has changed, though, since then," Thibault said. "When I first came into the WNBA, the average size of centers in the league was about 6-2.5, maybe 6-3.
"I used to think the generation of women players changed every five or six years but I think right now maybe every two or three years with the improved speed, quickness, height, jumping ability, all those things that it's progressing at a very fast rate.
"And I think that's one of the good reasons for the new rules. We have players coming into the league like Griner and Delle Donne, who are ball handlers at 6-5. I (had) a Tina Charles in Connecticut who could play at two or three different positions.
"They were pigeonhold or locked into positions when they came into the league. The skill level is much higher than it was," Thibault continued.
"I was new cold coming into the league doing that so I tried to come into the league without a lot of pre-conceived ideas so I probably have a few more pre-conceived ideas coming into this job."
Thibault said he won't hire his staff for a while and said he spoke to both Scott Hawk and Bernadette Maddox after they were also let go by the Sun and said both may want to take a year or two off from coaching.
Some believe former Sun star Debbie Black, the Saint Joseph's grad who is an assistant to her former Hawks coach Jim Foster at Ohio State, might be a good candidate.
But a person with knowledge of situations said that Black is making more money as an assistant on the Buckeyes than half of the Division I women's head coaches in the country, which creates limittions given WNBA salary structures.
Meanwhile, though things looked dark after the draft disappointment, Johnson said that she was determined to make things better and believe it or not, she put the fans at the front of her compass.
"He came in understanding our needs and came in wanting to help us," Johnson said of the interview process with Thibault. "There was a passion and sincerity about him that was amazing. I was thrilled."
Johnson implied that there was never truth to the rumors after the draft the franchise might go the way of others in previous years.
"I want you to understand I love this team and I would do anything to make it work," she said. "We dug deep for an alternative. Yeah, we were so dissapointed in the draft lottery, but you know, I recovered from it, and I said:
`Look. We've got to move on. I'm not going to let this fall apart.' Ted and I had many conversations. We joked about it. We laughed about it. But I said, `Come on. Let's just go on another road.
"`Cause we cannot let our fans down. We cannot let Washington down.' I was not going to let the Mystics down."
Thibault spoke of the fans right from the top of his opening remarks:
"Knowing what the fan support was in the past, right from the jump, Thibault said in his opening statement, "For all the fans that are out there, that have been off the bandwagon, jumped off, the wagon's big enough to jump back on. We'll take all comers to come back on, but we have aa lot to prove, and we know that. There's no miracles and it is about hard work."
Meanwhile, besides the matchups with Laimbeer and the rebuilding of the Mystics, a key storyline will be the first meetings against his former team, especially on the first trip to the casino.
Of course right now, of all places right now, the Connecticut women at the collegiate level have an unknown future in terms of opponents in light of the implosion of the Big East while the Sun still has to name Thibault's successor.
And while the Connecticut media has a major love for Thibault, those who make the road trips to Washington in the summer have often noticed the difference between the lavish pre-game media spread offered at Mohegan compared to just the soda fountain at the Verizon Center, though it was noticed Tuesday that Wizards games have a feed at $10 a pop.
So in that regard, if Thibault wants to retain their hearts, if he makes major progress this summer, he'll prove one can be a magician and a Mystic at the same moment.
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