As the post-game celebration of the Washington Mystics’s 2019 WNBA Championship wound down, I stuffed a bunch of red, white, and blue confetti into my laptop bag. The silliness of excitedly grabbing literal trash was not lost on me. But as I write this article, I’m looking at a little plastic bag full of those paper scraps and feel the rush from the final moments of the WNBA season. The Washington Mystics won the freaking WNBA title and somehow, that bag of trash brings back that feeling. Sports are weird, but also perfect sometimes.
The Mystics’ first title was a perfect capper to this group’s rise to the top. Head Coach Mike Thibault finally got a ring after so many near-misses. WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne overcame THREE HERNIATED DISKS to solidify her case for best player on the planet. The team was determined for greatness this season and they accomplished greatness.
Here’s an incomplete list of offensive statistical categories which the Mystics led the league in for the regular season: *DEEEEEP BREATH* Points per game, Offensive Rating, Net Rating, Field Goal %, Free Throw %, EFG%, True Shooting %, Assists per game, Turnovers per game , Assist-to-turnover ratio, Turnover %, Three-point attempts per game, Three-point makes per game.
Again, there are more categories in which this team dominated. But even these amazing stats cannot fully express the greatness of this offense. The Mystics played beautifully. They moved the ball unselfishly and (almost) always hit the open shot. I asked Elena Delle Donne if this was the best offense she has ever played earlier in the season.
“By far, nothing even comes close,” the 2019 WNBA MVP 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 chemistry shined through as the Mystics exemplified what a modern offense should be. They dominated in the pick and roll. The Mystics ranked first in points per PnR possessions whether the ball handler or the roller finished the possession.
They lived on the three-point line. 59% of their plays ended with a three-point attempt and killed defenses by making A LOT of those attempts. They had the most catch-and-shoot attempts in the league and, of course, led the league in points on such possessions. DC sprinkled in a healthy amount of mid-rangers with a league-leading .949 points per possession on the 5th-most mid-range shots.
All of this is to say that the Mystics had the best offense in WNBA history last year. Can they replicate this performance? Probably not. But, we didn’t expect them to be historically great in 2019 and they proved us very, very wrong.
First Quarter Dominance
The Mystics absolutely owned the first quarter. They averaged the most first-quarter points in the regular season. DC’s advanced stats line for the first quarter is truly astounding: 124.7 offensive rating, 94.5 defensive rating, and 30.3 net rating. Obviously, they led the league in all three categories.
Those stats go to show just how prepared and focused the Mystics were this season. The team talked about how important first quarter success was all season. Natasha Cloud liked to use boxing analogies to describe their early success.
“[It’s] been an emphasis for us. [To] be able to throw the first punch and sustain those little jabs in between and not falter,” said Cloud after a DC win over the Sparks in which they scored 33 points in the first quarter.
As Ben Taylor explains in his book Thinking Basketball, great teams get ahead early and tend to win games in the first quarter. Washington certainly did that all season. Their first quarter dominance is another strong indicator of this team’s greatness.
Growth of young players
Enough looking back, let’s talk about a trend that could define the Mystics’ future. Emma Meesseman (26), Aerial Powers (25), and Ariel Atkins (23) all took major steps forward in their development.
Yes, you did read that right. Emma Meesseman is just 26 years old. Meesseman started her pro career at 16 and came over to the W at 19. She’s just coming into her prime and has a Finals MVP to her name. Emma improved in every single facet this year, especially her willingness to shoot and be a first option. Of course, her season culminated with the creation of Playoff Emma who averaged 19 points and 6 rebounds in the playoffs. She proved to be “the Missing Piece” this season, but she might be “the Biggest Piece” in the future.
Aerial Powers didn’t win Finals MVP, so her season was a disappointment. However, she did show improvement in every area and carved out a big role for herself. She doubled her three-point attempts from last season while finishing with her best three-point percentage. Powers had the most points per game of her career (11.4). The player with the best name in the league made a name for herself on the court this year and it should all go up from here.
Ariel Atkins actually suffered somewhat of a sophomore slump. “Little A,” as her teammates call her, didn’t improve any of her offensive stats and made some classic young player mistakes on that end. But Atkins is so good defensively that she still made a huge positive impact. She made 2nd-team All-Defense for the second-year in a row, averaged 2 stocks (steals+blocks) per game and ranked 6th in the league for steals. At just 22 years old, Atkins could end up as one of the greatest defenders in the history of the league. For now, her solid improvement is enough for DC.
You remember the ending scene of Finding Nemo? *Spoiler alert but also come on* Nemo’s friends from the tank finally escape to the ocean in plastic bags as the dentist (P. SHERMAN 42 WALLABY WAY SYDNEY) cleans their tank. The fish planned this escape out for months or even years and finally pulled it off. As they laughed triumphantly in plastic bags floating in the bay, Bloat the blowfish asks “now what?” as the credits roll.
That’s basically where the Mystics are at right now. They worked on putting this group together for three years to win a title, got the right breaks, and completed their mission to “Run It Back.” Washington now has to figure out how to make this sustainable for the long-term.
According to High Post Hoops, EDD, Emma, Kristi Toliver, Powers, and crucial bench big Tianna Hawkins are all free agents. EDD isn’t going anywhere. Toliver, a franchise cornerstone and veteran leader, is unlikely to even sniff free agency. With those two big contracts being a given basically, the new CBA will determine if DC can keep Emma and Powers. There could be further instability if the speculation that Coach Mike Thibault could retire on top this offseason come to fruition.
The biggest challenge will be keeping the team together and maintain their chemistry. Championship teams often struggle with the “disease of me” with players wanting more shots or attention. While this team seems allergic to that attitude, winning can change that.
We can and will concern ourselves with all of this later. But for now, we should appreciate the 2019 Washington Mystics for what they were: The Best Offense in WNBA History and one of its best champions ever.