The Washington Mystics’ unceremonious ending to their season took place on Aug. 21 in a packed Climate Pledge Arena. With the building jammed with nearly 12,500 shrieking people, the Mystics could only helplessly watch as the Storm drained bucket after bucket. The Storm had a historic 132.9 offensive rating, equating to nearly 133 points per 100 possessions. In defeat, the Mystics players were graceful, yet contrite in the what-ifs that could of, would of, and should of happened to extend their season to the semifinals. In many ways, what was exhibited in this series was a microcosm of the Mystics’ maladies all season.
From jump street, the theme of the 2022 Washington Mystics team was win or lose, the defense will lead the way. “We were known as a really good offensive team for several years,” lamented head coach Mike Thibault after Game Two. “We reconstructed our roster [this season]to be more of a defensive-oriented roster. It was what we had to do out of necessity and wish; you want to have the best of both worlds.” Throughout the preseason, Washington touted its capacity to play tough, hard-nosed defense because of its personnel depth. With players like Alysha Clark, Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud, third overall selection Shakira Austin, and Elizabeth Williams, this team put its money where its mouth was all season on the defensive end. The Mystics finished with the best defensive rating and best opponent’s points per game in the league, and they finished in the top five in a myriad of other defensive statistics. In short, the Mystics’ defense ranged from impressive some nights to downright suffocating on others. It’s the identity this team wanted, but that defensive focus came at a cost—their offense.
For as impeccable as their defense was, the Mystics’ offense was an amalgam of unimaginative offensive actions, little to no ball movement, and one-dimensional scoring that left Mystics players (not to mention their fans) derisive of the product on the court. “All year our offense has kind of been stagnant,” Cloud grumbled after the season-ending Game Two loss. “We’re the number one defensive team, but if we can’t put the ball in the basket, it makes life really hard. It’s us, right? We gotta get in; we gotta fix knowing what actions we want to go to, being able to read on the fly, being able to use [Elena Delle Donne] as a decoy when they throw three or four players at us, knowing where the open player is going to be. … We’re going to go into the offseason and figure it out and be better next season because of it.”
Cloud wasn’t the only player to comment on the offensive woes this team experienced all season. During the end of season media availability, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough admitted, “Our defense connected much quicker than our offense. We showed glimpses, but there was still some growth that we didn’t necessarily tap into on the offensive end as far as chemistry wise. We had so many great players and so many different lineups, so especially with a shorter season and especially without that many practices, our offense took a little bit longer to grasp as far as chemistry than our defense.” Additionally, Delle Donne remarked, “I think if we can get people into more movement and not be so stagnant, it makes it more difficult to run those double teams [on me].” Team leader and All-Star guard Ariel Atkins explained, “A constant for me was trying to figure out how to help our offense flow better. … I wish we could’ve gotten that because I think that would’ve helped us not only in the games we lost but [also]just in the back end of the season. It would’ve just made things a little easier. … Finding that consistency within the [offense]would’ve been nice.”
It wasn’t as if the team wasn’t aware of their offensive struggles; they just didn’t know how to fix them. While Thibault’s job is safe, there are plenty who question why he couldn’t do more to solve the offensive puzzle and unlock its potential. In his availability after Game Two against the Storm, Thibault observed, “Their aggressive double teams on Elena [Delle Donne] disrupted the game for us offensively.” This is something a head coach of a player of Delle Donne’s ilk should’ve expected, so why wasn’t there a better game plan for this? Why didn’t he and the coaching staff have better offensive alternatives? These are the questions that live in the darkness of the Mystics’ offseason and need to be addressed come 2023.
While their season certainly ended before anyone would’ve wanted it to, there were many successes to the Washington Mystics’ 2022 season. Elena Delle Donne and Alysha Clark were back from significant injuries to play 25 and 29 games, respectively. The team won 22 games and clinched a playoff spot after missing out in 2021. The team had more potential depth than perhaps any team in recent memory that didn’t hoist a trophy. These achievements should not be neglected simply because the season petered out.
In that spirit, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Prior to the 2022 campaign, I laid out my predictions for the Mystics’ 25th season. Let’s find out just how wrong I was and add more fodder for roasting me on Twitter.
Revisiting My Predictions
Stics make the playoffs
This was a resounding yes, but if you looked at the roster and figured the team would get even league-average health, this was a near lock. I’m not going to take a big win on this one, but it is a win nonetheless.
Atkins takes another step and makes WNBA All-Defensive First Team
This one I’m really proud of because even though the league knew she was good, it was no lock she would make the All-Defensive Team. Atkins finished sixth in defensive win shares this season, coupled with a 13th-best defensive rating (96.4) and steal percentage (24.2 percent) among players who played at least 25.0 minutes per game. Additionally, Atkins was always in the right position defensively, guarding some of the best players on the other team and finishing with the most charges drawn in the league this season.
Rookie Shakira Austin averages 8.0 points and 7.0 rebounds her first season while increasing her minutes to nearly 18.0 MPG by season’s end
This one is a little scary for how spot on it was. Shakira Austin finished with 8.7 PPG (check) and 6.4 rebounds per game (close) while averaging 21.6 minutes per game (check). I couldn’t have predicted she would be starting by her second week in the league, so I will still take the near trifecta here, narrowly missing my rebound prediction. In sum, Shakira had an outstanding first season in the league.
Mystics have a top-three bench in terms of points per game this season
I didn’t get this quite right, but I wasn’t too far off. The Mystics finished with a top-five bench, finishing fifth in PPG (22.6) with the fifth most minutes per game (13.1). The depth the Mystics spoke about all through April and early May paid some dividends, but it wasn’t enough to get me the win on this prediction.
Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen both make the All-Star team
This one was half right. The aforementioned Atkins was indeed the lone Mystics All-Star. Hines-Allen’s season was too up and down to secure the honor. Both Thibault and Hines-Allen have commented that she may be too in her own head at times, so her possible improvement next season will be important to see. There was an argument for a second Mystics player to be an All-Star, and while many thought it would be Delle Donne, there was a stronger argument for Cloud to have been voted in.
The team wins 20 games this season and clinches the fifth seed in the postseason
Spot on, baby! The team won 22 games and clinched the fifth seed.
EDD plays in 25 games this season
And she did play in exactly 25 games.
Clark plays in 30 games this season
Wrong by only one game. Call me if you want Powerball numbers.
Elizabeth Williams averages more than 1.5 blocks per game
Okay, I took this one on the chin pretty well. She had half that number at 0.7 blocks per game. Can’t win them all!
Rui Machida will average over 3.0 assists per game off the bench
This prediction was also not right, but it wasn’t too far off either! Machida averaged 2.6 assists per game this season.
Cloud will finish top five in steals
Dead wrong. If only I had called this for assists.
It’s going to be a lot of fun watching this team this season
It definitely was!
Let’s take a look at what the Mystics’ 2023 offseason might look like. With some help from our friends at Her Hoop Stats, here’s an overview of where the roster stands now:
General manager Mike Thibault has plenty of work waiting for him. With three of the five starters—plus a key rotational player in Hines-Allen—locked up through next season, the Mystics find themselves in an enviable place. The Mystics will have a little over $848,000 to spend on approximately six to seven open roster spots. One of these spots will likely be taken by a lottery pick coming from the pick swap with the Los Angeles Sparks (via the Atlanta Dream) as part of the deal days before the 2022 draft (unless Thibault decides to deal it again). In my eyes, the biggest questions facing this team are who they are going to bring back and how they are going to find some offense. “We’re going to have some decisions to make in the offseason,” offered Thibault after Game Two. “We need to reconstruct some parts of our roster to get balance.”
Balance is exactly what this team should be looking for. Given her age and shooting woes this past season, retaining Clark may not make the most sense, especially if she isn’t willing to take a discount. Looking at the 2023 free agents, the Mystics should look to bring in Brittney Sykes to replace Clark, as Sykes had a great year for the Sparks and has nearly the defensive chops that Clark has. Sykes finished first in steals per game and steal rate. Even if the Mystics had to pay her what Clark made this season, she’s likely a better fit for a team that needs to get a bit younger. With her 12.7 PPG, the 28 year old Sykes could offer more offensively than Clark does without sacrificing much on the defensive end.
I have to believe bringing back Elizabeth Williams is a priority for Thibault at the right price, especially if the team can’t swipe Sykes from free agency. While she leaves plenty to be desired on the offensive end, she’s a linchpin as a defensive menace off the bench. She had the best defensive differential on and off the court among Mystics players this season, preventing 11.2 points per 100 possessions when she was on the court. If Thibault can find a way to get some scoring from his bench (Williams doesn’t offer too much in the putting–the-ball-in–the-net department), she would be a worthy keep to help stabilize the bench unit. If not, don’t be surprised if Thibault takes a big swing at Brionna Jones. There’s a lot to like about her game, and her offense is only getting better as she gets more opportunities. She’s from Baltimore and went to the University of Maryland, so the chance to play closer to home with other Maryland players on this team has to be enticing for her. Adding Jones, a premier post player, to anchor the middle among an already stacked front court would make this team one of the biggest and scariest in the league.
Regardless of what happens in front court free agency, I think it’s time to let Tianna Hawkins go, and I think the discussion comes down to what Walker-Kimbrough can be for this team. Depending on what the Mystics have in mind for their lottery pick (wouldn’t Aliyah Boston or Haley Jones look so good in that Rebel Edition jersey?), the Mystics are going to need offense and plenty of it. Even with her shooting likely to improve, Delle Donne cannot be the only scorer. Atkins shot around her career norm this season, and Cloud actually set a new career high for points per game. Assuming Austin improves some, this team will score, but they still need more. Can Walker-Kimbrough provide that? It isn’t likely as she only provides mid-single digits in points for her career. If they did bring her back for her driving ability, speed, and strong defense, where else could they go for offense? There aren’t a ton of good options on the market, so would packaging the lottery pick and Walker-Kimbrough get the Mystics what they sorely need?
The last piece to consider is what the Mystics will do with Machida. While she has exceptional vision and has become a sound teammate and fan favorite in DC, she also hasn’t been the type of aggressive player Thibault wanted to spell Cloud. “Rui has grown throughout the year and gotten better,” mentioned Thibault. “Her future in the WNBA will be dependent on how much more aggressive she can be on offense. She’s been a pest defensively, and she’s a great passer. But when you play in this league, you got to make people honor you every time on the offensive end, and so that’s her next step of her growth.” If the Mystics bring her back, she’ll be a cheap option to back up Cloud, and the Mystics would be in decent enough shape. But if they don’t, what other options are out there? For how good Machida is defensively, do you sacrifice that to bring in Jordin Canada for that aggressive mentality Thibault seems to covet? Cloud may play 30+ minutes next season, but that doesn’t mean her backup can’t offer solid contributions from the bench.
It’s been a blast covering this team this year. Thank you to all of you for reading along this season!
All stats as of 10/13. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA.com.