Last Sunday was the end of the road for the Washington Mystics as they were eliminated by the Seattle Storm in Game 2, falling 97-84. It was a valiant effort by the team, as they were down throughout most of the game, but managed to stay close despite struggling to score.
So where do they go from here?
In many ways this year was a “test run” for the Mystics. It was the first season since the 2019 championship that they had their superstar Elena Delle Donne play the majority of the season. Next season the core of Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, and Ariel Atkins will still be intact.
In the postgame press conference, there was certainly a feeling of frustration that their season was over, but also determination that a bounce back year is on the horizon.
Delle Donne will be 33 in September, and while there is much optimism surrounding her ability to firmly place herself back in the best player in the world conversation, the surrounding pieces have to improve offensively for that to happen.
Back in June, I presented Delle Donne’s on/off numbers as a testament to how the team must improve offensively without her if they want to contend for a championship. The sample size was insignificant at the time because the team hadn’t played enough minutes with and without her to form a justifiable conclusion about how they performed. However, now that the season is over, the results confirm my suspicions.
The Mystics played 11 full games without Delle Donne this season, and after playing over 750 minutes without their superstar, the numbers confirm my belief. The Mystics struggled to score without her.
In 768 minutes without Delle Donne this season, Washington had an offensive rating that was a disastrous seven points below league average, which would make them the second worst offense in the entire league. With Delle Donne, they were almost five points ahead of league average offensively, which would rank them second amongst all teams.
The defense barely changed whether EDD was on or off the court. Washington finished this season with the best defense in the league, which is a massive bright spot to take away from this season. The Mystics have arguably the best backcourt in the league with Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins both receiving all-defensive considerations. Shakira Austin also had a phenomenal rookie season defensively, which earned her WNBA All-Rookie team honors.
In the playoffs, Austin impressed. It was pretty clear in Game 1 she was the second best player for Washington. She and Delle Donne were the two constants in that game, and Austin’s defense against Breanna Stewart and Tina Charles was commendable.
The biggest area of improvement for the rookie has to be the offense, specifically in the close range. Austin was a great finisher at the rim this past season. Although she struggled finishing in the playoffs, shooting 70 percent at the rim in the regular season is very impressive. Those numbers drop off drastically outside of three feet however, falling to 40 percent from four to 14 feet. Given that a sizable percentage of her attempts were from the short mid range, that is definitely an area of improvement for next year.
Another point of emphasis headed into the offseason would have to be the 3-point shooting. Washington was near the bottom of the league in 3-point shooting this season. Part of the Mystics’ core headed into next season is Cloud. She has progressively improved her game every year of her career and there is much optimism that next year could be her first All-Star appearance. Perhaps the most impressive part of Cloud’s past season was that she led the league in assists and had the longest streak of five-plus assists this season by a wide margin.
However, assists are not always a great reflection of how often a player is creating open looks for teammates. Cloud’s box creation estimates per 100 possessions pale in comparison to her actual assist numbers, which I believe can be attributed to her inconsistent three-point shooting. If we actually look at box creation, which estimates the number of open shots a player creates for teammates by forcing defenders to help, she is basically deadlocked with Delle Donne for the leading spot on the Mystics.
Even more surprisingly, Cloud is near the top of the league in the difference between her assist numbers and her actual creation estimates. So while she is one of the best passers in the league, I wouldn’t go as far as to say she has reached elite playmaker status. Which takes us back to the 3-point shooting. As a guard, it is almost essential to be a good 3-point shooter. There were many instances this season where defenders went under the screen on pick and roll sets and she didn’t take advantage. Jewell Loyd did this on several occasions in the playoffs.
An improved 3-point shot from Cloud will help make the Mystics’ offense respectable, even when Delle Donne goes to the bench. In 2018, Cloud shot 38 percent from three, so the potential is there. Once the shot becomes consistent, it is only a matter of time before the offense catches up.
With so many role players entering free agency next season, this offseason will be huge for the direction of the team. Coach Thibault knows it’s important for the organization to not take a step back. So surrounding the core with great three-and-D players and finding another shot creator should be of the utmost priority this fall.
In theory, they have time, but with an aging cornerstone of the franchise, time is also of the essence in the nation’s capital.