All year, the Washington Mystics have generated one of the best offenses in WNBA history. They rank first in offensive rating (112.7 points per 100 possessions) and lead the league by a staggering 11.4 points in that statistic. No team in WNBA history has ever led the league in offensive rating by more than 4 points per 100 possessions or finished with an offensive rating of over 109.
While the stats show the team’s offensive dominance, the Mystics have something special that goes beyond the quantifiable. Something that I was not truly able to pin point until I listened to Taylor Swift’s new album, Lover (which is excellent and you should listen to it right now).
At the end of the last song, Swift tells someone in the studio that “I want to be defined by the things that I love, not the things I hate, not the things I’m afraid of, not the things that haunt me in the middle of night.” That is the ethos of Lover and, unexpectedly, it’s the ethos of the 2019 Washington Mystics.
After getting brutally swept in the Finals last year, Washington could have chosen to be defined by the things they hated and haunted them in the middle of the night. The series against Seattle last year was a nightmare, one that could have made any team look inward and develop a gruff, unfeeling drive to avenge their loss. But the Mystics refused to let that loss define them. Much like Taylor Swift, they chose to be defined by what they love: beautiful basketball and each other.
Nearly every time Elena Delle Donne is asked about the Mystics’ offense, she describes it as beautiful. And it is. So, let’s talk about what makes the Mystics’ offense beautiful and special on the court.
First and foremost, the ball never stops moving in Coach Mike Thibault’s system. Despite having the best player in the world in Elena Delle Donne, the Mystics never stop looking for an open shot no matter who is taking it. It’s breathtaking when the Mystics are on their drive-and-kick game going and sling the ball to open teammates seemingly without thought. Ball movement is the team’s identity, as Ariel Atkins explained.
“That’s who we are as a team. Whoever you put on the court, we find a way to get that open person that shot,” said Atkins. “It’s fun to play with people like that selfless. [Everyone is] just trying to get the open shot and make the right reads.”
The team leads the league in assists with 21.8 dimes a game. Natasha Cloud and Kristi Toliver both rank in the top five of the league in terms of assists per game, while no other team boasts two players in even the top 10 of that stat. If the WNBA kept track of second pass assists or hockey assists (where a player makes the pass before an assist), the Mystics would most likely lead that category as the zip the ball around the perimeter to find the open person. It’s a great system that only works because the ball is flying around. You can clearly see that the players love the way this team plays as Delle Donne explained to me when I asked her if this is best offense she has ever played in.
“By far, nothing even comes close,” EDD answered without hesitation. “When you get to play beautiful, unselfish basketball where nobody cares about their statistics. Nobody cares if they’re getting the shots, or they’re getting the looks. It’s all about who is open, who is hitting, who we can flow through. It’s just fun basketball.”
The team’s high basketball IQ also helps create this offense. Everyone on the roster can be described as a smart or savvy basketball player. While it starts with ball handlers like EDD, Kristi Toliver, and Natasha Cloud, every player seems to always make the smart play. For example, check out this Latoya Sanders assist to Delle Donne during the team’s demolition of Los Angeles.
lol good luck guarding the mystics pic.twitter.com/hh6TFTEtV1
— jack (@jackhaveitall) August 27, 2019
Matt Ellentuck of SB Nation did a great job describing the play and how the Mystics offense works here. While the play does show how bonkers the Mystics offense is right now, it also shows just how smart Latoya Sanders is. She had the open layup, but didn’t hesitate for a second to pass out for an open three. She laughed about the play when I asked her about it post-game.
“I mean I saw the best person in the game wide open for three, which is what she does well. We talked about it ahead of playing LA that when you cut down the lane, LA likes to collapse, so you’re able to find people for open threes,” said Sanders nonchalantly.
Here’s the thing: that play was not that simple. Sanders got the ball right under the basket, but she saw three LA defenders hovering near the paint. Before they can even collapse to her, Sanders already decided to pass the ball to avoid what would be a tough layup attempt among three defenders. She then had to identify the right player to pass to: Aerial Powers in the nearest corner or EDD up at the top of the key. Sanders choose correctly in EDD not only because she’s the best player in the game but also because Powers’s defender was closer and could more easily contest the shot. If she makes the easier pass to Powers, the offense most likely has to reset with a short shot clock or Powers will have to take a tough shot. The pass to EDD was the only decision that would immediately create an open shot or a power play as the defense scrambles to get back.
That entire thought process took literally less than a second for Sanders. She did the homework and knew precisely what to do in an instant. It was a truly brilliant play and one that, honestly, is not rare in DC.
The ball movement and basketball IQ of the Mystics are certainly special. But that’s not what makes this Mystics team stand out in basketball history. The team has developed a set of intangibles that could put them in the rarefied air with the dynasty-era Minnesota Lynx or the Beautiful Game San Antonio Spurs. As Delle Donne explained, trust is what really makes the offense work.
“It’s just trust in one another. Knowing that you don’t have to force anything when you have such talented people to your left and to your right,” said the MVP favorite. “The biggest thing is trust and knowing how great everyone is on this team.”
This makes sense when you think about it. Latoya Sanders doesn’t pass the ball back out to EDD if she doesn’t trust Elena to bury the three. EDD might force things more in the post if she doesn’t trust Aerial Powers or Ariel Atkins to make shots. Basketball is just like life in this sense: you have to trust the people around you to do their jobs in order to do yours properly.
But the Mystics go further than that. They seem to not only trust in their teammates’ abilities and decision-making, but also just seem to love one another and have fun on the floor together. Latoya Sanders said that this group is one of the best teams in terms of camaraderie in her experience. You can see that in their actions on and off the court.
They are always talking each other up in an earnest way, as Natasha Cloud does by baaaahhh-ing like a goat after every game to signify that EDD is the GOAT (greatest of all-time). When the starters come out during a blowout, they don’t just sit there and pass the time. They are pumped up on the bench, screaming for the bench players to get their buckets. They smile and laugh as much as any basketball team I can remember.
“We’ve got really good people in this locker room,” explained Delle Donne. “We truly care about one another. We enjoy being together and that chemistry is huge. You gotta credit coach T for putting a team together like that. He’s all about just getting really good people, and it works on a basketball court.”
Coach T not only put this group together but has made them come together. Every player believes in their teammates and lets that feeling shine on the court. In itself, accomplishing that with such a talented group is an amazing feat. For his part, the league’s winningest coach loves the way his team plays together and has fun.
“The game should still be fun when you’re you know when you’re playing. Still a kids game. When the ball moves, it’s a fun way to play. They like each other on and off the court so you know the family part of it takes over,” said Thibault after the team beat up the LA Sparks.
My favorite example of the team’s togetherness is a photo of Latoya Sanders and Emma Meesseman that they put up on the wall that their lockers share. It’s an older picture (maybe two- or three-years old judging by the pre-game warmups) and obviously brings the two centers a lot of joy. It’s like a family photo, there to remind you how much you care about one another.
Trust, Joy, and Love. That’s what defines these 2019 Mystics. Not the 2018 Finals loss, not the new arena, not their quest to “Run It Back.” Washington has chosen to be defined by their family-like bonds and use that togetherness on the court. That decision, along with their basketball iq and ball movement, has created an offense that purely expresses the beauty of basketball. It’s truly special and is one of the reasons we love this game so much.