A title defense would have been difficult enough for the Washington Mystics before factoring in a pandemic. Adding that, which has cost the champs the services of one of the league's best players in Elena Delle Donne along with a few other key cogs, Saturday's season opener versus Indiana will be a challenge in continuity for coach Mike Thibault.
The Mystics took that final step last year, winning their first WNBA title in franchise history in a five-game showdown with the Connecticut Sun after a 26-8 season. Delle Donne was a force, averaging 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 51.5 percent, but she did get plenty of help from Kristi Toliver (13.0 ppg) and Ariel Atkins (10.3). Additionally, Emma Meeseman came into her own during the WNBA Finals after flashes of brilliance as a sixth woman, scoring 13.1 points per game and hitting 42.2 percent of her 3-point shots.
But the focus on Delle Donne and the Mystics took an unexpected turn earlier this month when the league refused to grant her a medical exemption to sit out the 2020 season for her COVID-19 related concerns because of her underlying health condition of Lyme disease.
Delle Donne went public with her case in a first-person essay for The Players' Tribune, documenting her average day that includes taking 64 pills to deal with her condition. The team did what it could to defuse a public relations nightmare, announcing it would pay Delle Donne - who is also rehabbing her back following surgery in January - regardless of the exemption being issued by the league.
"To think that a panel of doctors who have never treated me can just come back and say, 'No, you're fine, you're good to go.' That's confusing to me," Delle Donne told USA TODAY Sports. "I don't know why it's not enough for just my Lyme doctor to say it's not safe."
But there will be absences beyond Delle Donne for Thibault to contend with. Point guard Natasha Cloud will be sitting out this season to work on social justice reform, while Tina Charles - acquired from the New York Liberty - is also seeking a medical exemption. LaToya Sanders is also sitting out due to health concerns and Toliver was dealt to Los Angeles.
That puts much of the scoring burden on the 6-foot-4 Meesseman, who averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in the WNBA Finals. She was somewhat forgotten before the season, having opted to stay in Europe in 2018 to focus on playing with the Belgian national team, but she did average 15.2 and 14.1 points as a full-time starter in 2016 and 2017.
"She's been rejuvenated," Thibault told The Washington Post. "Her experience with her national team has helped her confidence because she's a go-to player for them, and her teammates have kept telling her, 'You're a go-to player for us, too.'"
The Mystics will be an intimately familiar opponent for first-year Fever coach Marianne Stanley, who was an assistant in the nation's capital since 2010. While Indiana has not made the playoffs in three years, Stanley does inherit a roster that showed signs of turning the corner last season - the Fever went 7-6 after the All-Star break.
Additionally, the Fever are a young team - eight of their 12 players have two years or less of experience. Candice Dupree is the only player with five or more years of experience, and Stanley will be leaning on her and Kelsey Mitchell for leadership and backcourt scoring.
In the frontcourt, No. 3 overall pick Lauren Cox will look to team with second-year pro Teaira McCowan, who is coming off a promising rookie season in which she averaged 10.0 points and 9.0 rebounds while finishing 10th with 1.3 blocks per game despite averaging only 22.3 minutes.
Updated July 23, 2020