How adding Tina Charles impacts the Washington Mystics’ chances to repeat

US center Tina Charles (C) vies with Australia's forward Alanna Smith (L) during the FIBA 2018 Women's Basketball World Cup final match between Australia and United States at the Santiago Martin arena in San Cristobal de la Laguna on the Canary island of Tenerife on September 30, 2018. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP) (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
US center Tina Charles (C) vies with Australia's forward Alanna Smith (L) during the FIBA 2018 Women's Basketball World Cup final match between Australia and United States at the Santiago Martin arena in San Cristobal de la Laguna on the Canary island of Tenerife on September 30, 2018. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP) (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images) /

The former MVP is yet another offensive weapon—and a smart insurance policy—for the defending champs

The Washington Mystics’ trade for former WNBA MVP Tina Charles on Wednesday sent a message to the rest of the league: the path to a championship runs through us, now and in the future.

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“We have a window that’s open right now for a while,” Thibault said in a call with the media. “The core of our team is 30 and under. … I felt like by bringing Tina in, we were kicking our window wide open. … It puts us in a position to be an elite team for a long period of time while our best players are in their prime or going into their prime.”

Last year, the Mystics won their first-ever WNBA title behind a historic offense, prolific 3-point shooting, versatile superstars, and depth. Charles gives that offense another lethal interior option and provides additional rebounding and length on defense.

Charles comes to Washington from New York, where she spent the last six seasons and earned five All-Star nods. She spent the previous four seasons in Connecticut, where she earned two All-Star berths, the 2010 Rookie of the Year award, and the 2012 MVP award. (Thibault was her coach there for three seasons, from 2010 through 2012.) Charles’s career averages of 18.1 points and 9.5 rebounds both rank in the top ten in WNBA history, and she is the Liberty’s all-time leading scorer.

However, 2019 was a down year by Charles’s lofty standards. Her 16.9 points per game was her lowest scoring average since her rookie season in 2010, and her 38.9% shooting from the field was easily a career low. For the first time in her career, Charles posted a player efficiency rating below the league average of 15, at 14.8. Her team struggled, too, finishing with a 10-24 record and the league’s worst defense.

Some people believe that Charles’s 2019 season will be indicative of her level of performance in 2020 and beyond, as she turned 31 in December and will enter her 11th professional season whenever the league resumes. But Thibault saw an opportunity to acquire a dominant center at a reasonable price—reserve guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and four draft picks—and help her return to top form.

Part of his plan to get the best out of Charles is to make her role less expansive than it was in New York, where she was the team’s clear star and had to do a little bit of everything. Despite Thibault’s love of the 3-point shot—the Mystics set WNBA records last season in 3-pointers made and attempted—he wants Charles to focus on her bread and butter: post-ups. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton reported that Charles has ranked no lower than second in the WNBA in every season of her career in the number of plays she has ended with post-ups. In her MVP season in 2012, Charles made 63% of her shots from less than 5 feet and did not attempt a single 3-pointer. Charles can make 3-pointers to some extent, converting a career-high 35% in 2017, but she hit just 19% of them in 2019 to go with 52% shooting from close range.

“I would like her to get her ratio back of inside versus outside to maybe two-thirds [to] one-third,” Thibault explained, “[but] it’s going to depend on the game and the situation. … I think she’s in a good situation where she doesn’t have to carry the load again, and yet she’s in a situation where her impact can be felt.”

In particular, Thibault expects Charles to make an impact on the glass, an area in which the Mystics struggled at times last season. “She gets to the ball quickly as a rebounder,” Thibault explained, “and when she gets it in her hands, it’s very difficult to take it from her.” The Mystics had the third-highest rebounding rate in the league last season, but they also had moments like Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, in which they were outrebounded by 14 and gave up 18 rebounds (9 offensive) to Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones. Thibault expects Charles’s rebounding to help the Mystics close out defensive possessions and her passing skills to jumpstart the Mystics’ transition offense.

On defense, the 6-4 Charles will give the Mystics another long interior player who can block shots and complement 6-4 Emma Meesseman and 6-2 LaToya Sanders. Charles will not be solely responsible for guarding opposing centers like 6-9 Brittney Griner or 6-8 Liz Cambage, both of whom challenged the Mystics last season. Instead, Thibault indicated that the Mystics will be able to “cut that beating [our defenders take] into thirds instead of halves” and spread it among Charles, Meesseman, and Sanders.

In many ways, trading for Charles can be viewed as an insurance measure by the Mystics. If the 3-pointers aren’t falling, get the ball inside to Charles. If Elena Delle Donne is injured—as she was in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals and four of the team’s eight regular-season losses in 2019—give Charles and Meesseman more touches. If Meesseman, a Belgian native, experiences delays in returning to the WNBA because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, Charles can fill that void, too. “It gave us so much flexibility that it was a no-brainer type of trade,” Thibault explained.

Thibault did acknowledge that it was tough to part with Walker-Kimbrough, a player who was a spark plug off the bench at times last season. She averaged a career-high 17.1 minutes and 6.7 points per game in 2019, and she could be a breakout candidate given more opportunity in New York. But Walker-Kimbrough averaged just the eighth-most minutes on last year’s title team, and getting an MVP without trading a starter from 2019 seems like a boon for the Mystics, assuming Charles returns to her pre-2019 efficiency.

A few Mystics players took to social media to comment on the trade. “I know you’re going to kill it,” Tianna Hawkins wrote to Walker-Kimbrough in an Instagram story. “Let’s gooo!!!” Delle Donne wrote in her own story, tagging Charles. The Washington Wizards also weighed in, commenting with three “100” emojis on the Mystics’ post welcoming Charles to the District.

Delle Donne’s buy-in is especially significant because she will likely play more at small forward than at her usual power forward to accommodate Charles. According to Thibault, Delle Donne was “completely on board” when he talked to her about the potential trade, and the entire team is excited. “They have welcomed [Charles],” he said. “I think they’ve made it clear to her that she is wanted here, that she won’t be coming in and ruffling feathers … This group is about winning; they are past the individual awards.”

Charles liked the Mystics enough to request a trade to Washington from New York, but she elected to sign a one-year deal instead of a longer-term contract. Thibault said he offered Charles several options, but he believes that she wants to see how well she fits in Washington before committing to a longer-term deal. That didn’t bother Thibault, who hopes Charles will find a renewed love of the game and win her first WNBA title in Washington. “I saw no downside of this,” he said, pointing to the low odds of drafting an impact player with the No. 12 pick. “… We’re going to take a calculated risk on a player who has been an MVP and an All-Star and an Olympian. … But I think that if this is, if this experience in Washington is what I think it will be for her, then there would be no reason for her not to want to come back.”

As Winsidr’s Gabe Ibrahim first reported, Charles’s deal with the Mystics is for $175,000, $40,000 shy of the maximum she could have earned under the core designation. The salary cut was necessary for her to fit within Washington’s budget, which is now maxed out for the 2020 season on 11 players. While it may take time for Charles and fellow offseason addition Leilani Mitchell to develop chemistry with their new teammates, it’s hard to see the Charles trade as anything other than a win for the Mystics, getting them an Olympian and MVP without giving up a core player from their championship team.

That’s one heck of an insurance policy for a team that could just be getting started.

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