- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Picture Washington's Crystal Langhorne doing one of those time-travel commercials like Blake Griffin, telling the car to take her back to 2006. It's the afternoon of April 2 in Boston, where the Women's Final Four semifinals will be held that night.
"Who are you?" 2006 Crystal would ask, startled, as she sees 2013 Crystal standing outside the hotel by the team bus.
"I'm you, from the future," 2013 Crystal would respond. "Just thought it would be fun to give you a heads-up: In your sixth year in the WNBA, you'll be teammates with Ivory Latta and Monique Currie for the Washington Mystics."
2006 Crystal: "Ivory Latta of North Carolina, who we're playing tonight? Monique Currie of Duke, who we might play in the final if we win?"
2013 Crystal: "Of course. How many basketball-playing Ivory Lattas and Monique Curries do you think there are?"
2006 Crystal: "Are we on a good team in 2013?"
2013 Crystal: "I don't know yet for sure. The WNBA season hasn't started yet. You and Monique have been teammates for a while. Ivory just joined the Mystics this year. The last two seasons have been, uh, pretty bad in Washington. So the good news is that it can't be worse this season. And it might turn out really well."
2006 Crystal: "Who is our coach?"
2013 Crystal: "Mike Thibault."
2006 Crystal: "The guy from Connecticut? Why is he not with the Sun? They've made the WNBA Finals the last two years."
2013 Crystal: "Yes, he has been successful. But after 2012 season, the Connecticut management decided to go a different direction."
2006 Crystal: "Oh, because the Sun finished last in the East in 2012?"
2013 Crystal: "No, they finished first. We finished last. We won five games. Slightly worse than 2011, when we won six."
2006 Crystal: "I'm not sure I want to hear any more about my future."
2013 Crystal: "It's certainly not all bad. In fact, this Final Four is going to be -- well, I don't want to spoil it. Anyway, I gotta get back to practice in 2013. I'm excited about the team. I just wanted to tell you that today's foes might be tomorrow's teammates. It's just funny how it works out sometimes. Like in Los Angeles now, Kristi Toliver and Lindsey Harding are teammates."
2006 Crystal: "No way! Wow. Wait, one more thing. Do you have any advice?"
2013 Crystal: "Let's just say if you make the final here, and let's just say if you're trailing Duke by three near the end of regulation, set a screen on Jessica Foley and let Toliver do the rest. Trust me on this."
Ready for a resurrection
OK, that would be way, way too long for a commercial. But it is interesting to think of the paths that Langhorne, Latta, Currie and Thibault have taken to get to this 2013 WNBA season, when they are all trying to resurrect the Mystics.
Langhorne has spent her five-year career in D.C., going from an uncertain rookie in 2008 to one of the best players in the league. She has experienced playoff appearances in 2009 and '10 and the bottom falling out in 2011 and '12.
"I learned to play through any situations and adversity," said Langhorne, a 6-foot-2 post who averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds last year. "No matter how bad things may be, my thing is to always keep playing hard."
But now that might be more rewarding. It's time for a new beginning in Washington, which has had plenty of those in the franchise's existence. Sometimes the fresh starts in D.C. have gone stale pretty quickly. But this new regime -- based on Thibault's performance in Connecticut -- has a better chance.
He is the Mystics' coach and general manager. Even though it wasn't his choice to leave the Sun, Thibault has been invigorated by another career challenge in Washington, which fired Trudi Lacey after last season's 5-29 mark.
"This team needed to get an identity at both ends of the floor," Thibault said of the Mystics, "an offensive identity where they pushed it at a faster pace. They were the lowest-possession team in the league last year.
"On the defensive end, they needed a consistency in their philosophy of what they wanted to do -- learn to play harder, pay more attention to [defense]. That's been one of the focal points of training camp."
Thibault made some key moves, such as bringing in free-agent guard Latta from Tulsa, trading for center Kia Vaughn from New York and drafting Ohio State guard Tayler Hill with the No. 4 pick. And there is still a trio that has been together awhile in Washington: Langhorne, Currie and Matee Ajavon.
"I think you have to build around her," Thibault said of Langhorne. "She's really good on the block, but she's improved so much facing up on the perimeter that she's become a good pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop player.
"She will benefit by playing with better players. Ivory will make sure Crystal gets the ball in spots where she can do something with it. Crystal has been great throughout camp, absolutely terrific."
Currie is in her eighth season, most of it spent with the Mystics, save her 2006 rookie year in Charlotte and a two-game stay in Chicago in 2007. Her best season was also the Mystics' best: 2010, when she averaged 14.1 points a game for a 22-12 squad that finished first in the Eastern Conference. Currie was injured in 2011, though, and played just four games. Last year, she played the full season and averaged 12.0 points a game. Her health has been a big factor in some of her ups and downs in the WNBA.
"The other thing that's [affected] that is how good a point guard she's played with," Thibault said.
That's where Latta comes in. She has done some bouncing around since being drafted by Detroit in 2007 but really found her groove last year in Tulsa. She averaged 14.3 points and 3.3 assists a game and took a strong leadership role for the Shock. But Tulsa assumed point guard Skylar Diggins would be available with their No. 3 draft pick (she was), so Latta signed with Washington.
"She's got a confidence level about her now that, 'Hey, I'm a good pro, and Coach is going to use my strengths,'" Thibault said of Latta. "I think she and I personality-wise are a good fit. Her teammates will feed off that. She's always positive and upbeat.
"The fact that she's good at running pick-and-rolls -- and she can knock down 3s, particularly with the longer line -- gives this team a dimension it didn't have last year."
Thibault also thinks some of the Mystics can elevate parts of their game that they haven't necessarily focused on as much. Ajavon is a good example. Thibault wants her to concentrate a bit less on scoring -- she can be a streaky shooter -- and instead commit to defense.
"She gets herself in trouble offensively by dribbling too much. We want her to try to play more efficiently and be decisive," Thibault said. "But more than anything, I've told her to stop worrying about her offense and see if she can't be an elite defender. There's no reason she can't be a great defender -- not just good, but great."
Thibault kept on staff Marianne Stanley, the veteran coach, as he got feedback from players who really wanted her to stay. He also has his son, Eric Thibault, as an assistant.
Washington has gone from first in the East in 2010 to last for the past two seasons. It has been tough on the players and the fans. Thibault understands that everybody with the Mystics just wants to see some sunshine again.
"To go to an organization that knows that they need to change how they've done things and be given the freedom -- it's been fun and refreshing," he said. "Players are eager to learn. They know what they did in the past wasn't good enough.
And it's good being in a city that is starved for a winner. I think if we have some success, people will be excited about it."
19dBonnie D. Ford