WASHINGTON - Teams that have lost 47 of the first 62 games in franchise history, like the Washington Mystics, usually approach a new season with a sense of optimism, but it's usually the "things just have to get better" brand of hope.
But with tonight's launching of their third season in the WNBA, the Mystics are actually looking at the summer of 2000 as a breakthrough season, one that will start to reward their long-suffering fans, who have turned out in numbers far greater than the team's play has warranted.
"There's no point in tiptoeing around it. We're going to make the playoffs this year, and you can quote me on it," forward Chamique Holdsclaw said. "If we don't, they ought to get rid of all of us."
The Mystics, who finished last year at 12-20,three games out of the third and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, have a couple of factors that support their postseason push this year.
For one, the playoff field will expand to eight teams - four per conference - this year, giving them one more slot to aim for. Secondly, with four expansion teams added to the WNBA mix - Portland, Seattle, Miami and Indiana - Washington should gain some additional wins.
But beyond what the league and expansion have done to aid their cause, the Mystics, one of only three WNBA teams to see both their scoring average and shooting percentage increase from 1998 to 1999, believe they have taken enough steps forward that they would be playoff contenders, anyway.
Their confidence begins with an interior game that is beefed up in more ways than one. In the off-season, Washington traded last year's first-round pick, forward Shalonda Enis, who had a disappointing rookie season, and a third-round draft pick to the Charlotte Sting for center Vicky Bullett. Bullett, 32, familiar to local fans as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at Maryland, missed all but the last few days of training camp while playing for a team in the Brazilian playoffs, but is expected to start tonight at pivot against the Orlando Miracle at MCI Center.
"Obviously, we would have loved to have had her here this whole time," said Washington coach Nancy Darsch. "But she has been playing all winter and will be in good shape. In terms of commitment, she is a trooper, a warrior. It will take her some time to get her timing and get familiar with the personnel, but I think, in the long run, it is going to be a great addition for us."
Bullett, a two-time Olympian, averaged 11.5points a game and placed in the WNBA's top10 in four other offensive and defensive categories last season.
"There were times last year when we were trying, but we just didn't have the bodies on the inside. Vicky Bullett is going to help us in a lot of ways," said forward Murriel Page, who led the WNBA in field-goal percentage at 57 percent.
The Mystics, who were fourth in the league in rebounding last year, added even more size with their first-round selection of center Tausha Mills, who has been tabbed as "Baby Shaq" because of her 6-2, 225-pound profile. Mills, who saw limited action in the now-defunct American Basketball League in 1998-99, is expected to back up Bullett and give the Mystics more interior options.
Meanwhile, Holdsclaw, last year's league Rookie of the Year at 16.9points and 7.9 rebounds a game, and Nikki McCray, the WNBA's fourth-leading scorer at 17.5 points a game, will anchor Washington's perimeter attack.
The two former Tennessee stars, who will be heading to Sydney for the Summer Olympics, shrugged off suggestions that their styles would clash, and should further develop with the addition of legitimate interior threats such as Bullett and Mills. Holdsclaw was held out of portions of training camp because of stress fractures in a foot, but is expected to play extensively tonight.
Second-round draft choice Tonya Washington, a career 36 percent three-point shooter at Florida, should give the Mystics some offense off the bench, while free-agent acquisition Keisha Anderson, who played two seasons in the ABL, will back up the steady, if not spectacular, Andrea Nagy at the point.
The Mystics will get important early tests against New York and Houston, the teams that met in last year's WNBA Finals, visiting MCI Center during the first week of play.