Following the Washington Mystics’ 21-point loss to the Indiana Fever on June 13, the team dropped to 5-4. The team had just lost 87-66 and in the postgame presser, head coach Eric Thibault left a resounding message about why the team continued to struggle offensively.
“I thought we got bogged down sometimes … sometimes of our own making. Too many possessions again where one person puts the ball on the floor and the possession stops. You know I think everybody on the team has echoed the fact that that’s not the way we should play when we want to be successful and yet it’s happening …”
Message sent, message delivered.
Since that loss, the Mystics have posted 113, 104, and 101 offensive ratings in their last three games. So how did they flip the switch?
For starters, the Mystics rank eighth in the league in team assists per game. Creating good looks all around has been an absolute struggle. The reason for this is multifaceted.
It’s hard to truly gauge WNBA advanced statistics because they are so limited, but one of the biggest issues plaguing the Mystics this season has been efficiency across the board. Getting to the rim and finishing at the rim has been atrocious and part of that is because of poor guard play to start the season. As great as Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins are, neither one gets to the rim at an effective level.
Rim touches and paint touches per game aren’t accessible at the WNBA level, but the league average for field goal attempts between 0-3 feet is just above 21 percent. Cloud attempts only 14 percent of her shots at this distance; for Atkins it is even lower at 10 percent. Compare this to Brittney Sykes who shoots just under 30 percent of her shots from that distance. Again, this isn’t a perfect indicator of rim pressure, but, on film, the Mystic guards have not been able to pressure defenses with any sort of aggressiveness.
Now this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, at least in the regular season, if they were making up for it with great outside shooting, but that hasn’t been the case. The Mystics as a team shoot just under 32 percent from three. This has posed some serious problems for their franchise star Elena Delle Donne, who is posting the highest turnover rate of her career at 11.3. In a previous article, I talked about the difference in spacing for Delle Donne when Li Meng, who is the Mystics’ best shooter, is one pass away rather than one of the other guards. Even Shakira Austin, who has started to see a much larger load as a half-court creator, certainly could benefit from more optimal spacing around her.
With all those offensive issues now addressed, how have the Mystics changed in the last two weeks?
The Mystics have found some shooting touch over the last three games, and a lot of that has been due to the guards. Against the Phoenix Mercury, Washington created several open threes simply by pushing the pace after a make or miss. The 15 points off turnovers is really underselling the impact pushing the pace made on the Mystics’ offense. An 82 pace per 40 minutes is certainly an uptick from the 79 pace Washington has on the season. The best thing about an elite defensive team like the Mystics is that sometimes the defense helps the offense, and in this game it certainly did, starting from the opening possession when Sykes jumped a passing lane and converted on an open mid-range shot in transition.
Last Sunday’s win against the Chicago Sky was more of the same for Sykes, who continued to create more scoring opportunities for herself and others by slashing to the rim. Coach Thibault made a conscious effort to give her the ball more both in the halfcourt and in transition.
Take this play in the first quarter of the game. Washington starts the possession with a dribble handoff between Tianna Hawkins and Sykes. The action allows for Sykes to get downhill with Delle Donne in the strong side corner and Meng in the weak side corner. Both players shoot over 40 percent from three, which unclogs the lane for Sykes as she uses her upper body strength to finish at the rim without much resistance.
Washington didn’t even shoot well in this game, but there was a change in philosophy. Using the struggling shooters as screeners and cutters in these actions has allowed for them to stay involved on that end while also allowing for the best creators to shine. We’ve even seen Meng get opportunities to put the ball on the floor early in the season and that has gone pretty well.
Meng comes off a screen from Delle Donne here, and, as the defense collapses, she is passing out to an open 40 percent 3-point shooter. Delle Donne’s scoring threat allows for Meng to get the ball back at the top of the key and drive to the basket unimpeded. Notice how the Mercury’s Brianna Turner doesn’t help off Delle Donne because of the threat she poses as a scorer. Meng is able to finish with the left hand easily. This type of offense hasn’t been there for Washington for the majority of this early season, but over the past two weeks, the conscious effort of the Mystics guards to get two feet in the paint and collapse opposing defenses has been the key to turning the offense around.
In Thursday’s win against Chicago, Cloud returned to the lineup and was incredible. The stat line doesn’t necessarily jump out, but her ability to create quality looks for Austin and Delle Donne in particular was on full display throughout the entire game. But the culminating play of the night for Cloud had to be the and-one layup where she got past Alanna Smith and finished at the rim in traffic.
It hasn’t been easy for Washington on offense to start the year, but they may have figured out something that can hopefully translate well for them in the long term.