Commentary

Mike Thibault hire a smart move

Franchise has a long way to go but seems headed in the right direction

Originally Published: December 18, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Mike ThibaultAP Photo/Darron CummingsMike Thibault took the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons with the team.

Happy holidays, Mystics fans. This is really good news: Mike Thibault was hired as the organization's new coach and general manager.

This seemed the most breathtakingly obvious move that Washington could have made. On Nov. 20, after the Connecticut Sun announced they were parting ways with Thibault, my first question when I talked to him was, "How are you doing?" Followed by, "Have the Mystics called yet?"

This took no great insight; everybody who follows the WNBA had to think of Thibault as the top choice for the Mystics. But because they are the Mystics, you just couldn't be sure. There have been times when the organization has "zigged" when almost anyone on Earth would have said, "There's no question you need to zag."

But there's no need to detail, chapter and verse, the Mystics' tortured history today. It's a time to be upbeat for a franchise that hasn't seen any sunshine the past two years and has had far too many "oh, no" moments since its 1998 inception.

The Mystics had an 11-57 combined record in 2011 and '12. Then in October, we had to sit through the excruciating theater of watching the Mystics end up with the No. 4 pick in the draft lottery -- for a draft that's perceived to have three stars -- despite having the best odds to get the top selection.

It's a team that needs restructuring and a fan base that needs resuscitating. There's a lot to do, and no one can get it all done quickly or easily. (Note to Mystics' brass: This is your 13th coach in the 15-season history of the organization. Give him time and authority to do his job.)

It was like the old "Let's Make a Deal" show where a contestant decided to trade the furniture she'd won for "what's behind the curtain" in the hopes it would be something even better, like a Hawaiian vacation or a car. But it turned out to be a goat, and Monty Hall would say, "Well, you're a good sport, thanks for playing," while the speechless contestant appeared to be seconds from projectile vomiting.

Despondent Mystics fans already had been beaten down by the last two seasons, so the draft horror show was the final crusher, with the cat-ate-the-canary Phoenix Mercury and their No. 1 pick driving the steamroller. Folks began to wonder if this was actually going to be the end of the Mystics, period.

Some fans had hoped that coach Bill Laimbeer would be the salvage director in Washington, but he went to New York. Then the Sun's decision on Thibault came, he said he was interested in talking with the Mystics … and some light started to creep back into D.C.

Thibault is not a miracle worker, and I'm not trying to suggest that he (or anyone else) can solve all the Mystics' woes right away. It's a team that needs restructuring and a fan base that needs resuscitating. There's a lot to do, and no one can get it all done quickly or easily. (Note to Mystics' brass: This is your 13th coach in the 15-season history of the organization. Give him time and authority to do his job.)

Thibault has spent the last decade in the WNBA, and the 20-plus years before that in the world of professional men's basketball. He understands how to deal with pro athletes. He knows the personnel in the WNBA and the upcoming women's college talent. He knows the Mystics in particular, having coached against them for so long in the Eastern Conference.

This is the kind of thing that happens in most pro sports: A coach has success -- Thibault went to the playoffs eight of his 10 years with the Sun -- but in the eyes of management reaches a plateau that he or she doesn't break through. And the bosses decide it's time to bring in a new face in an attempt to make that last push to a championship. It happens all the time in NBA, NFL, MLB, etc.

[+] EnlargeMike Thibault
David Butler II/US PresswireMike Thibault takes over a Mystics franchise that went a combined 11-57 the past two seasons.

That's what occurred with the Sun and Thibault. He was pragmatic about it, which is also an indicator of his many years of experience in pro sports. You roll with the punches and don't burn bridges.

Things didn't go perfectly in Connecticut; the Sun were in the WNBA finals twice but didn't win a title. Many personnel moves the Sun made with Thibault's recommendations worked. (He was not, however, the team's GM.) There were some misses and mistakes; Erin Phillips getting away because of what essentially was an administrative error was one. But in the long view, I don't see how you'd rate Thibault's work with the Sun as anything less than very good.

Thibault must now establish relationships with a new group of players and figure out how to upgrade the team's talent. Frankly, the No. 4 pick in the draft might not be as bleak as it seemed on lottery day. For one thing, a player in the Mystics' back yard -- Maryland forward Tianna Hawkins -- is having a terrific senior season thus far, averaging 19.3 points and 9.6 rebounds.

Thibault, in the dual role of coach/GM, has the ability to shape the team as he sees fit. Again, this will take some time. But he has a good track record for putting the right pieces together.

Another thing about Thibault that I've appreciated is that he will tell you exactly what he thinks. A few years back, I wrote a critical piece about how a WNBA coach had handled an exit from an organization. Thibault called me and pointed out another way of looking at the situation. It had nothing to do with him or his organization, but it was a bigger-picture aspect of the WNBA that he wanted to offer some insight on.

I appreciated that because he wasn't worried about us respectfully disagreeing; he really wanted to talk about our different points of view. He cared enough about the league as a whole to take the time to have the discussion.

The coaches and/or GMs in the WNBA who will engage the media like this are the same ones who understand the need to respect the fans. Not with empty platitudes and remarks coated with the unmistakable layer of condescension.

Make no mistake: Gaining back the interest and the trust of the Washington fan base is absolutely critical. On the day he was let go from the Sun, I asked Thibault how important it was for someone to go into the Mystics' organization and win back the fans. He understood exactly what I was talking about.

It means connecting with the paying customers who have realistic expectations but need to be reassured that the people running the team are at least as plugged in as the fans are. (Preferably more, of course.)

That's why Mystics' fans should be pleased today. There's still a lot to do for the team to be as competitive as they hope. But this hiring indicates Washington is headed in the right direction.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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