Where does Elena Delle Donne’s absence leave the Mystics?

Two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne will not sign a supermax offer with the Washington Mystics and intends to take time away from basketball, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne on Wednesday. If she does not play this season, what does it mean for Delle Donne’s future and that of the Mystics?

Delle Donne received the core designation from the Mystics last month. A core player loses her unrestricted free agent status, giving her team exclusive negotiating rights. The player is automatically offered a one-year supermax deal (that is $241,984 for 2024); her only other option to play elsewhere that season is via trade.

Delle Donne was drafted by the Chicago Sky in 2013 and pushed for a trade to Washington after the 2016 season. Her time with the Mystics, who she has played for since 2017, hit a zenith with the 2019 WNBA championship.

But Delle Donne, who played the 2019 Finals with three herniated discs, didn’t play in the 2020 season in the COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She was limited to three games by back issues in 2021, then played 25 games in 2022 and 23 in 2023.

Delle Donne turned 34 in September. If she doesn’t play this WNBA season, will we see her again in the league? And what does it say about the Mystics that Delle Donne, once their signature player, apparently no longer wants to be part of the organization?

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel look at the implications for Delle Donne and the Mystics.

How will an extended absence from Delle Donne impact the Mystics this coming season?

Philippou: In one offseason, the Mystics went from a WNBA title contender when healthy to a team that might not even make the playoffs. It seems the franchise is full steam ahead with this rebuild, as it was reported last week that general manager Mike Thibault sent a letter to season-ticket holders in which he wrote, “We’ve decided we need a fresh start and usher in a new era of Mystics basketball.”

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With Delle Donne and guard Natasha Cloud (signed with the Phoenix Mercury) gone, Washington will look to build around Olympian Ariel Atkins and former lottery pick Shakira Austin, Brittney Sykes and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough will provide a veteran presence. However, it’ll be interesting to see how the Thibaults — Mike Thibault in the front office and son, Eric Thibault, the team’s coach — fill in the pieces around them. The Mystics also return Myisha Hines-Allen, an All-WNBA second-team pick during the 2020 bubble, while signing Karlie Samuelson and DiDi Richards in free agency.

Pelton: I think the question worth asking is whether Washington even wants to make the playoffs. In a year where so many other teams have loaded up, sneaking in as a low seed might not be the best long-term outcome for the Mystics.

Washington holds an extra first-round pick in 2025 from the Atlanta Dream thanks to last year’s draft night trade that sent the No. 4 pick (used on Stephanie Soares) to the Dallas Wings. Add in a lottery pick — with the potential of jumping to No. 1 and taking UConn guard Paige Bueckers if she decides not to return to school for a fifth season — and the Mystics could enter next offseason with a talented young core and ample cap space to build around it.

Voepel: The Mystics are being pragmatic. Their championship season was five years ago. It’s a nice memory, but that’s all it is at this point. Longtime Mystics fans have been through some rough times over the years, and now they have to face the fact the team is likely to be down for at least a while as the franchise remakes itself.

Is this a negotiating tactic? Do you think we’ll see Delle Donne on the court in 2024?

Voepel: With what we know right now, it’s hard to say for sure how Delle Donne and the Mystics reached what seems like an impasse. But one can guess: She didn’t want to be in Washington anymore, the Mystics cored her to try to get some value back in a trade and then they couldn’t find a trade partner who was to the satisfaction of either the franchise or Delle Donne or both.

The Mystics had to have approached the core decision knowing there was a chance Delle Donne simply wouldn’t play. And Delle Donne has to know that missing this season could end up meaning she’s at the end of her career. So it doesn’t necessarily seem like much negotiation has gone on between the two sides.

Elena Delle Donne has opted not to sign a supermax offer with the Washington Mystics. Scott Taetsch/Getty ImagesSources said Delle Donne considered playing elsewhere. Might we still see a trade happen this year?

Pelton: The Mercury’s trade for Kahleah Copper seems to take that option off the table. Because teams are required to have at least one first-round pick over the next three drafts, Phoenix can no longer trade a first-rounder. Neither can the Las Vegas Aces, the other team Alexa reported Delle Donne was interested in joining. A player-for-player trade is unlikely to give the Mystics what they want in return, so unless Delle Donne adds to her list, a trade this offseason doesn’t appear realistic.

Have we seen the last of the 34-year-old Delle Donne, and if so, what’s her legacy?

Voepel: One of the greatest offensive forces we’ve ever seen in the WNBA — at her best and healthy, she was unguardable — Delle Donne has already achieved every major thing a professional hoops player could want to achieve. That said, no one is really ready to think this is the end for her as a player. Delle Donne seems like she still has more in the tank — although it’s taken plenty for her to overcome the physical challenges she’s had. We could dwell on what else she might have done if her health had been less of an issue. But if this is it — frankly, I really hope it’s not — she has had a phenomenal career.

Pelton: As the league’s MVP, Delle Donne was the centerpiece of the 2019 Mystics team that brought the DMV its first WNBA title. One of the bummers of recent WNBA history is we never got to see a healthy Delle Donne defend that title, as she opted out of the Wubble 2020 campaign due to concerns about how her Lyme disease could heighten the risk of a severe COVID-19 infection. Back surgery then limited Delle Donne to three games in 2021.

By the time she was ready to return to the court full time, much of Washington’s championship roster had broken up. A sad stat: The last Mystics home playoff game was the decisive Game 5 of the 2019 Finals.

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Philippou: It’s tempting to dwell on the what-ifs surrounding Delle Donne’s career. As Pelton alluded, she appeared in just 51 regular-season games since the Mystics’ 2019 title. But if this is indeed the last we’ve seen of her on the court, she’s cemented herself as a future Hall of Famer as a member of the multiple MVP club (with two different franchises, no less), a WNBA champion, an Olympian and the league’s only player to ever achieve a 50-40-90 season.

The resilience she demonstrated returning to basketball despite a host of back issues, not to mention the effects of the chronic Lyme disease she’s pushed through for over a decade, should not be overlooked when detailing her legacy, either.

Fast-forward to a year from now: Delle Donne wants to play. Will the Mystics core her again?

Pelton: I would expect it. Barring a big season from Hines-Allen, who’s entering the final year of her contract, Washington won’t have another use for the core designation. And the Mystics will still have the same incentive to get value in return for Delle Donne if she wants to play elsewhere.

Voepel: It’s understandable that the Mystics want to do what’s best for the organization. And on a strictly business level, it’s not necessarily their concern how the rest of Delle Donne’s career goes if she’s not with them. But they also have to think about the message that sends to other players.

The core designation was never intended to prematurely end a player’s career. Admittedly, you could say the decision is in Delle Donne’s hands. But if it’s a choice between playing for a franchise she no longer wants to be with, or not playing at all, that’s a bad scenario.

It will really be a shame if this situation repeats itself next year.

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