Despite the ups-and-down of the 2023 regular season, including a myriad of injuries, the Washington Mystics made the playoffs yet again. Surely an adventurous run for first-year head coach Eric Thibault, the seventh-seeded Mystics have faced off against one of the true WNBA powerhouses—the second-seeded New York Liberty—and fell in Game One, 90-75, unable to overcome a seven-threes performance from Sabrina Ionescu.
With a potentially deciding Game Two coming in Brooklyn on Tuesday, how will the Mystics stop the explosive Liberty offense? Can Thibault & Co find a way to take down one of the league’s deepest rosters? If it’s at all possible, it’ll come down to the play of the Mystics’ floor general, Natasha Cloud.
There’s no question that Cloud is one of the best facilitators in the WNBA. Finishing first in assists per game (APG) last season, Cloud finished fifth this season with 6.2 APG. Cloud has been in the top five in APG every season since 2019 (excluding the 2020 Wubble season, which she sat out) and has been in the top 10 in APG since 2018. When Cloud is at her best facilitating for her teammates, the offense is its best self.
This season, in lineups that have played at least 15 minutes together (due to injury, the margin is lower to include a larger sample size), four of the top five Mystics’ lineup combinations in offensive rating (ORTG) have Cloud in them. Of the league lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together, Washington’s starters, which includes Cloud, finished seventh in ORTG. When the Mystics are playing their best ball, Cloud has her fingerprints all over it.
In looking at the 2023 games in which Cloud matched or bested her season assist average, the Mystics were 8-4. In the 103 regular season games over Cloud’s career where she has matched or bested her career assist average (5.1), the Mystics have won over 59 percent of those games. In the nine playoff games, the Mystics have won five of them. Per Synergy Sports, Cloud’s handoffs during the 2022 season earned 1.125 points per possession (PPP), grading out in the 84th percentile, or excellent per their rankings. This season, her handoffs have been far worse, earning only 0.625 PPP and grading out poorly. As a pick-and-roll ball handler, Cloud improved her PPP from 0.803 (60th percentile) in 2022 to 0.857 (76th percentile) this season.
Cloud is clearly the facilitative engine that makes the Mystics’ offense go. In order to beat the Liberty, the Mystics will need to improve their ball movement (ranked seventh in the league with 19.2 APG). Cloud will need to be the catalyst initiating that for her team.
Cloud infamously called herself a shooter during the 2022 season, but she has struggled at points to match that claim. This season, Cloud’s shooting has been erratic at worst, inconsistent at best. Per Synergy Sports, Cloud’s spot-up shooting went from 1.046 PPP (73rd percentile, “very good”) in 2022, to 0.932 PPP (43rd percentile, “average”) in 2023. In transition, she’s scoring in the 47th percentile but has been strong in isolation, off screens, and cuts, with strong 1.000 PPP, 1.263 PPP, and 1.273 PPP, respectively. If Cloud can find consistency in her scoring, and build upon the gains she has made in her stronger scoring shot types, the Mystics’ offense will have another dimension to make life difficult for the Liberty.
It’s no secret that Cloud is one of the premier guard defenders in this league and should earn second-team All Defense honors this season. Of players who averaged at least 30 minutes per game, Cloud finished 15th in defensive win shares. Defensively, Cloud was in eight of the top 10 Mystics’ defensive rating (DRTG ) lineups. Washington starters were first in DRTG among league lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together. Cloud’s most effective role on this team comes when she uses her instincts and defensive toughness to force opponents into turnovers and easy scores the other way. For the Mystics to upset the Liberty, Cloud is going to need to be at her best in slowing down Ionescu, Courtney Vandersloot, and the other core of Liberty guards.
Cloud is not just the Mystics’ floor general. She is also their energy spark and vocal leader. Cloud will need to be level-headed, especially when calls don’t go her way. The Mystics often take on the energy of their starting point guard, so Cloud knows she will need to be on court, ensuring she guides this team to the upset.
All stats through the 2023 regular season and, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of WNBA.com