The midpoint(ish) of the WNBA season is a perfect time to reflect on what we’ve seen from the Washington Mystics, while also examining where exactly this team is headed (spoilers—I have no clue).
What better way to do this than to have you all ask the tough questions! I have collected a bunch of the questions I received on Twitter and will do my best to answer them. Remember, I am only trying to read the tea leaves just like all of you, so opinions and answers will likely change as the season goes on.
How the hell did Natasha Cloud get left off the All-Star team?!?! And if you want to be a little more 🌶️, tell us who should be removed to make room for her. Because she should be there. -@virtualham
It’s definitely a surprise that the only Mystics representative in the All-Star Game was Ariel Atkins, but most people felt the biggest snub was Elena Delle Donne, not Natasha Cloud. This makes sense, given Delle Donne’s solid numbers, the team’s record in the games she’s played/missed, the offense’s numbers when she’s on the court vs. the bench, and her presence as an all-world player in this league.
Almost no one wrote about Cloud’s snub, even though there is an argument to be made she deserved to be there. She leads the league both in total assists and assists per game (180 and 7.2, respectively), and what’s most impressive is that both of those numbers lead perennial assist-machine Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky by some distance (granted she’s been out with a concussion of late, but impressive nonetheless). At one point this season, Cloud was up to 23 straight games with 5+ assists. Additionally, of guards (the league’s website doesn’t distinguish between point guards and guards, making this assignment all the more challenging) who play at least 25 minutes per game (MPG), Cloud’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 35.3, meaning for every turnover she commits, she also has over 35 assists to go along with it. This is second only to Sue Bird in the league this season. Lastly, her 93.2 defensive rating is third to Vandersloot and Bird again amongst “pure” point guards playing at least 25 MPG.
All of this would suggest she should’ve had a good chance to make the team, but if we take a closer look, it’s also clear to see how and why she didn’t make the team. For this exercise, we need to consider the other “point guards” that were selected ahead of her. I have deemed them to be Bird, Kelsey Plum, Sabrina Ionescu, Vandersloot, and Skylar Diggins-Smith. One could argue Jackie Young or even Arike Ogunbowale could fit here, too, so I included their numbers as well. This time, I used starting guards with at least 25 MPG to see where Cloud may have had the advantage. Cloud scores 11.0 points per game (PPG), behind all of them except Bird and Vandersloot and outside the top 30 guards overall. Cloud shoots 32.4 percent from three, behind all of them except Diggins-Smith, also outside the top 15. She has 2.7 win shares for the season, which is better than Bird, slightly better than Vandersloot and Ogunbowale, but is behind the rest of the group. Her Player Impact Estimate (PIE) is a solid 12.4, good for seventh under this parameter, ahead of Bird, Young, Ogunbowale, and Plum, but still behind Ionescu, Diggins-Smith, and Vandersloot.
We know Cloud is a solid player and obviously one that is critical to the Washington Mystics’ success, but given the other players in the mix, it’s hard to argue her place with the greats of the game this year. You asked who I would take out, so I’ll answer it. For me, it’s Bird. I understand why she was asked to join given her legacy, but don’t let her take a spot on the squad if her numbers don’t match up. To me, Bird should have been honorary additions and allowed other players, possibly Cloud, to have taken the point guard spot on the All-Star teams.
Do we need more guards? Cloud and Atkins both play too long in games. -@FortisZsq
This is an intriguing question because it depends on context. Yes, both Cloud and Atkins play a lot of minutes, with Cloud at 32.2 and Atkins at 29.8 MPG, both top 25 in the league. This is certainly a good amount of minutes, but they both deserve it. The aforementioned Atkins, an All-Star, has earned this right, and plays to a high degree nearly every game, with a win share of 3.2, seventh best in the league. We’ve already discussed what Cloud can do and what she brings to this team, and with Delle Donne not playing every game or sitting for long spurts, it makes sense why head coach Mike Thibault would lean heavily on these two players.
But what gets lost in this is the context. On one hand, Thibault brought in Japanese point guard Rui Machida to spell Cloud; so far, though, Machida’s averaging 13.0 MPG, and a lot of that came when she started two games earlier this season when Cloud was out with Covid-19. That’s not a good sign when you know you need to be resting your big-time players to keep them fresh come playoffs. On the other hand, the Mystics starters are only ninth in the league in MPG, averaging 27.3 MPG per player. Additionally, the bench scores the sixth most points in the league at 22.4 PPG, so it’s clear that while Cloud and Atkins may play a ton of minutes, the bench has the capacity to help balance the scoring when Cloud and Atkins sit.
Another important piece to note is what the other contenders are getting from their benches. The Seattle Storm, Connecticut Sun, and Las Vegas Aces are all near the bottom of the league in MPG from their benches, meaning their starters play a ton of minutes, most notably the Aces, who get a measly 9.5 MPG from their bench. What this tells me is, do the Mystics need more guards? Not necessarily, especially given the way this team is built with depth and compared to the other contenders in the league this season. Does it mean Thibault could afford to balance the lineups more to give Cloud and Atkins more rest? Absolutely. It would require more consistency from the bench and offensive game plan, but this team is built better than most to make that happen.
How do you feel about Washington’s frontcourt rotation and depth? Feel like figuring out how to mesh their frontcourt rotation has been an interesting push-pull all year, and I’m not sure where to be at with the balance thus far. -@MG_Schindler
I know they’ve been trying different lineups coming off the bench. It’s been a bit frustrating to watch at time, as I’m sure it’s frustrating for them too. Why isn’t Hawkins playing more in those rotations? -@HugYourLove
Another question about depth. The frontcourt has depth, but right now this team is trying to make sure Delle Donne (and to a much lesser extent Alysha Clark) don’t get hurt again. If anyone has watched a game where Delle Donne plays and one where she hasn’t, it’s completely night and day. This team needs her healthy, plain and simple.
The rotations have been off because it feels like some players are playing minutes, matchups, etc., above where they would normally slot in. When Delle Donne sits, players like Tianna Hawkins, Elizabeth Williams, and Clark are asked to play larger roles than perhaps they’re accustomed to playing. While Shakira Austin has played exceptionally well this season, credit to Williams who has been huge since coming back from overseas play. She’s been the anchor of the frontcourt defense that’s been a terror on this league all season. Hawkins has had her moments, but Thibault has lamented the challenge of finding minutes for all his players. Often, Hawkins draws the short stick, but this is a good problem to have. A veteran like Hawkins can jump in and play 15 to 18 minutes when needed without much prep time. It’s the benefit of the depth this team has compared to many others.
Bigger picture, this team with or, worst-case scenario, without Elena Delle Donne still needs to find rotational balance, especially in the frontcourt. Again, they have all the depth to be a title contender with it, but the roles each player plays and whether it’s suited for what they can do will be the test.
How do the Mystics match up against the other top four/five teams in the league? Are they legit contenders for the title again? -@tr3vr_f1shr
This is likely a question a lot of people have, so let’s dive in.
At this point, the Washington Mystics sit fifth in the standings behind the Chicago Sky, Las Vegas Aces, Seattle Storm, and Connecticut Sun. Understanding that the Sky and Aces are considered the favorites to be in the finals, with the Storm and Sun not far behind, these are good teams to compare.
The Mystics score 79.6 PPG, behind each of these teams. The team also shoots 43.4 percent collectively from the field, only ahead of the Storm in that category. They collect 35.3 rebounds per game, also only ahead of the Storm there. They are fifth in the league in turnovers with an even 14.0 per game, behind only the Aces and the Storm of this group of teams. Diving deeper, their offensive rating is worse than each of these teams’, while their defensive rating is second best in the league, only behind the Storm. Their team PIE is 53.8, fifth in the league. Want to guess the teams ahead of them? The Sky, Storm, Sun, and Aces, in that order.
Collectively, this team should be able to compete with these teams offensively, but they haven’t found it yet. Defensively, the Mystics are a tough and experienced group, capable of shutting down other teams’ top offensive weapons with wave after wave of defensive pressure from their depth.
All of this comes back to the question—can the Mystics compete? Yes, they absolutely can. As mentioned above, they have the depth to compete and need to rely on building out that balance more. Are they contenders right now? Depends on the night and if Delle Donne is playing said night. They feel a tier below the Aces/Sky right now, especially the Sky, but there’s plenty of time to find a rhythm and consistency that’s been just out of reach so far this year.
What do you think Shakira needs to work on to take her to the next level? -@aishaomcdonald
I’ll take this chance to draw you to my previous article, where I wrote about Shakira Austin and her game so far this season. Please read!
I think the biggest thing for her is consistency. She has all the pieces, and in the last few games has shown an incredible awareness for offense when most thought she didn’t have the chops for it yet. She has quick feet and is working hard to get good looks, especially when Thibault doesn’t draw anything up for her.
She’s already playing at an exceptionally high level. Can she build consistency, especially as the league gets more film on her and adjusts? That’ll be the question she needs to answer.
Do you think EDD should be featured more? So often she’s a bystander to a Cloud-Austin pick-and-roll. -@CoachOttenbreit
Delle Donne feasts no matter what. She’s a huge focal point of this team, especially offensively, so there is no cause for concern there. If the Cloud-Austin connection is working, Delle Donne on the block with her patented step-back fadeaway or her open threes helps to diversify the offense.
How big of a factor do you see Alysha Clark on either side of the ball in the second half of the season? And, humor question: how can Alysha Clark end up back playing for Seattle? -@BrendenPotts
Clark’s role on this team has been abundantly clear since she’s returned. She’s offered that exceptional veteran leadership, while trying to find her game after missing all of last year with a Lisfranc foot injury. Of late, her offensive game has come along, whereas her defensive game is still as sound as ever. The second half will be key for her to add the secondary scoring this team lacks at times. Her D will be there, and that helps to spark this team and help them stay in games, but can she help score?
As for a return to Seattle, I’ll say this—her contract is up at the end of this season, so anything’s possible!
All stats through 7/18. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.