WNBA

How the Washington Mystics built the WNBA’s best-ever offense

Every level of the Washington Mystics franchise is contributing to the best offense in WNBA history.

Last year, after Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, Kristi Tolliver and Ellena Delle Donne stood in a dark corner underneath the stands of Seattle’s Key Arena. They were up next as their head coach, Mike Thibault, was finishing up his press conference, and the Washington Mystics’ two star players were studying a printed-out box score of the game, a close 75-73 loss for Washington that put them in a 2-0 hole in the series. Let’s call the moment the opposite of the Jimmy Butler crumple meme. Quickly the players found the most astonishing number on the box score: in the narrow two-point loss, the Mystics had somehow gone 0-for-16 from the 3-point line. Expletives followed.

In 2018, the rest of the WNBA seemed to be at the mercy of the Seattle Storm’s unselfish, fast-paced, floor-spacing offense. Per 100 possessions, the Storm scored 108.5 points, a mark that was only fractionally behind the best scoring rate in league history — the 109.1 offensive rating posted by the dynastic 2000 Houston Comets. In 2019, a season where scoring has suddenly plummeted elsewhere across the league, the Mystics have absolutely obliterated the all-time record, scoring at a rate of 112.4 points per 100 possessions. A postseason repeat of last year’s 0-for scenario seems just about impossible: the 2019 Mystics are taking and making more 3-pointers per game than any team in WNBA history as well. And they’re draining those shots with an accuracy (36.6 percent) that’s better than every team except the one that shoots the fewest 3-pointers in the league, the Las Vegas Aces.

The 2019 Washington Mystics are the greatest offense, the most consistently explosive offense, the WNBA has ever seen. The Mystics have a Hall of Fame-level player, Delle Donne, who’s having something of a career year. But many Hall of Fame-level players have had career years over the course of WNBA history, and the result has not always been a historic team output. A team can only be as good as the Mystics have been if they’re firing on all cylinders at every level:

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The coach

In early August, when the Mystics were already taking the most 3-pointers in league history, Coach Thibault was not impressed with the news that his squad was setting a record: “We’re not shooting enough yet. I was hoping to get about 27 or 28 a game.” Even though the Mystics would, a few weeks later, set the record for most made 3-pointers in a WNBA game, with 18 against the Indiana Fever, the team’s attempt rate is still at about 25 per contest. Thibault has literally built his desire for more 3-pointers into the franchise: he notes that the practice court in the Mystics’ brand-new shared practice facility has an NBA-length 3-point arc painted on it, which is about 18 inches behind the arc on the WNBA court.

Thibault’s encouraging green-light for his players to take more and more deep shots is fascinating given the modern NBA conflict between new-school figures, who embrace more shooting from deep, and old-school figures, who don’t seem to notice or mind the efficiency drain from, say, the mid-range game. Thibault’s résumé is about as old-school as it gets, having worked as an assistant coach for Los Angeles Lakers teams that included Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, before moving on to be the Chicago Bulls’ director of scouting when they drafted Michael Jordan.

Instead of trying to imprint a preferred offensive style from a previous stop in his incredibly diverse coaching career, Thibault instead demonstrates flexibility to change the offensive plan in order to fit his personnel: “We don’t have that back-to-the-basket presence, you know — Fowles or Griner or Cambage. So, us and Seattle last year, we played different. We play more like the NBA teams, spacing and everything else. So a byproduct of that is: shoot 3s, shoot layups, and shoot free throws — and we’re a good free-throw shooting team, that helps too. […] The biggest thing is: don’t pass up an open [2-pointer] to go take a contested 2 by dribbling into pressure. If you’re going to go somewhere, go somewhere to create — to get to the rim or create for teammates.”

This is Thiabult’s 17th-straight season as a WNBA head coach, and he’s never coached an offense like this year’s Mystics — because, again, there never has been an offense like this year’s Mystics. Still, he gives no indication that being at the controls of such a record-breaking offense has been a transformative experience. Thibault begins: “It feels good when you know you have flow.” Then the coach in him takes over, as he zeroes in on the areas that can still be improved: “We’ve had a couple of games where either we walked it up too much, or, other teams try to slow the pace against us, where you feel some nights I’m trying to manufacture ways to get the tempo up.”

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The bench

Thibault’s previous responsibilities as an NBA scout may have prepared him perfectly for his dual responsibilities today as coach/GM of the Mystics. Almost every move the Mystics have made the last few years — whether a small-looking trade or a pick from the back end of the first round — has netted them a productive rotation player who is capable of sticking with the team for the long-term. Out of the Mystics’ ten nightly rotation players, seven of them have been with the team since at least 2017.

The result is that the Mystics have what has to be an unprecedented stranglehold on the Sixth Woman of the Year voting. This year there are 49 players in the WNBA who have played regularly (at least 15 games played, at least 10 minutes per game), while starting 15 games or less. Out of this group of 49, the top three most productive per-minute players are all on the Mystics: Emma Meesseman, Tianna Hawkins, and Aerial Powers. Plus, the fourth and final Mystic bench player with enough minutes to qualify — third-year guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough — ranks an impressive ninth on the same list. It’s a legitimate dilemma whether voters should cast their Sixth Woman of the Year vote for Meesseman, Hawkins, or Powers. (Dearica Hamby of the Aces is one of the only plausible non-Mystics candidates.)

Powers has become one of the most dynamic scorers in league history, but somehow without establishing the reputation for it. Her career scoring rate of 18.9 points per 36 minutes is 20th-best in league history, which places Powers just ahead of Sylvia Fowles, Tamika Catchings, and Chamique Holdsclaw.

Hawkins does not have the career numbers to match Powers, but Hawkins’ career year in 2019 has landed her at third among all WNBA players in points per minute, tied with Natasha Howard and trailing only Cambage and Delle Donne. (Powers is seventh on the same list.) While Hawkins is probably best known as a floor-stretching power forward, her 2019 explosion has come from the interior, shooting 60 percent on 2-point shots thanks to active and creative cutting for open lay-ups from her usual station on the arc.

The crazy part is: on a per-minute basis, there’s a case that Meesseman outdoes them both. Meesseman is just barely behind Hawkins and Powers in points per minute, but she also assists the ball at a rate that rivals starting point guard Natasha Cloud. Even though Meesseman is a 6-foot-4 center, her assist-to-turnover ratio is approaching a truly elite 4.0. Among the ultra-thin slice of players in league history who have matched Meesseman’s microscopic 2019 turnover rate, none of them have approached her assist rate. The most plausible case against Meesseman is that the same FIBA duties that kept her out of the 2018 WNBA season have limited her to 16 appearances so far this season.

On top of the impressive statistical feats, the members of the Mystics bench both want to challenge their starting lineup in practices — but support them during the games. Hawkins mentions that it is a true battle between the bench and starters in practice scrimmages, saying, “We want to beat them. It’s a competition, and I think that preps us for the games.”

While Powers echoed the same sentiment about keeping practices heated and competitive, she also mentions that the bench is mindful about creating time for their starters to rest during games: “Now, our starters are getting more rest time, and when they’re in crunch time, and playoffs, it matters to get rest. Some teams have starters where they play for 30-something minutes, and that’s hard on them. […] We talk about: whenever we get out there, just produce offensively and defensively, just to be able to give our starters a rest, and play our game.”

That mission of providing rest has definitely been accomplished. While Cloud is fifth in the league in total minutes played so far this season, the next Mystic to appear on the list is Delle Donne, who is all the way down at 37th overall. With the same number of team games played, there are three members of the Connecticut Sun (Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas) who have played at least 100 minutes more than Delle Donne.

While it would be an upset if the Sixth Woman of the Year award is not handed out to a Mystic, last year’s experience of being swept in the Finals has the team focused on goals bigger than individual hardware. When asked about potentially winning the award, Hawkins said, “I mean, I’m human, I’ve heard talk of it. But I try not to focus on it, because at the end of the day, that’s not the reason I’m playing. The reason I’m playing is to be competitive and win a championship.”

Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The starters

Having such an offensively explosive bench has absolutely helped the Mystics starters have a manageable workload that could pay huge dividends in the playoffs. But the Mystics starters have also done a lot to help themselves. The starting lineup of Delle Donne, Tolliver, Cloud, Ariel Atkins, and LaToya Sanders is the primary engine that’s powering the Mystics’ offensive greatness. This group of five is such a powerfully complementary blend of distributors, spacers, and scorers, that the group can barely stay on the floor together — the margin gets out of hand too quickly. Look at the damage that this group of five does when compared to the most-used lineups of the seven other projected playoff teams. Here’s how the playoff teams rank by plus-minus per 100 possessions with their most-used lineup is on the floor:

  1. Mystics: +24.06
  2. Sparks: +15.48
  3. Storm: +15.18
  4. Aces: +12.44
  5. Sun: +9.02
  6. Sky: +7.65
  7. Lynx: +0.83
  8. Mercury: -0.92

(There is even the additional caveat that the high-ranking Sparks do not actually turn to their most effective lineup very often.)

The huge margins that the Mystics starters create over other teams not only leads to considerable amounts of rest, as discussed above, but it also creates a much lower-stress workload for the minutes that the starters do play. I think we can all agree that a minute played at the bitter end of a close game is a completely different beast than a minute played while your team is coasting to victory. Well, even though the Mystics starters are getting relatively few total minutes, a huge percentage of those minutes are coming with a gigantic positive margin. This list compares the leading scorers of each of the eight projected playoff teams, and what percentage of their total minutes has come with their team leading the game by at least 15 points:

  1. Elena Delle Donne — 22%
  2. Nneka Ogwumike — 8%
  3. Liz Cambage — 7%
  4. Natasha Howard — 7%
  5. Jonquel Jones — 6%
  6. Odyssey Sims — 6%
  7. Brittney Griner — 5%
  8. Diamond DeShields — 4%

A good way to measure the explosiveness of the Mystics’ starters is to look at the impact of center LaToya Sanders, who scores some of the fewest points per minute of any player in the league. Sanders is also the only member of the Mystics’ starting lineup without 3-point range. But scoring is different from contributing, and — just like the many high-skill/low-usage centers who have been in the lineup throughout the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic run — Sanders is essential to helping the entire lineup work.

A great example of Sanders’ contributions is her passing skill. This was not Sanders’ forte when she came into the league: as a rookie with the 2008 Phoenix Mercury, Sanders only had nine assists in 377 minutes, up against 27 turnovers. In the decade since, Sanders has turned passing from a liability into a positive, and has distributed two dimes against each turnover this season. With this new passing tool, Sanders is not limited to being positioned inside on offense, where she may block the lane for other driving Mystics scorers. Instead, Sanders can be positioned on the outside and play some — ahem — some high post hoops, skillfully hitting cutters who move through the now-empty key:

The combination of a skilled passing center in Sanders, alongside proven distributors Tolliver and Cloud in the backcourt, means that the Mystics have also set a new WNBA record for best assist-to-turnover ratio: at 1.89, they are comfortably ahead of the old record-holders, the 2013 Minnesota Lynx at 1.69.

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The MVP

Despite all these carefully laid plans and quietly outstanding individual performances, there is no doubt that the Mystics are built around the correct choice for 2019 MVP, Elena Delle Donne. Delle Donne rightfully won the 2015 MVP trophy while playing for the 21-13 Chicago Sky, and her 2019 season is an improvement in most ways. In 2015, her 3-point accuracy was 31 percent — this year, it’s 41 percent. After having nearly as many turnovers as assists in 2015, Delle Donne is (just like Sanders) now connecting on two assists for every turnover. Delle Donne has never rebounded the ball as often as she has in 2019, particularly on the defensive end.

The statistic that cements Delle Donne as the MVP, in my mind, is that she is simultaneously first in the league in points per minute, but a comparatively low 14th in Usage Rate. This speaks to Delle Donne’s incredible efficiency — she is in the midst of only the seventh 50/40/90 season in WNBA history, and the second of her career. But I think this also speaks to the high level of processing the game that Delle Donne has ascended to — like many of the very best players in both the men’s and women’s games, Delle Donne does not feel a need to force her shots into the game. Instead, she lets the game come to her, is conscious to keep teammates involved — and, when necessary, in the tough moments, is lying in wait to take the game over.

Earlier this month against the Seattle Storm, the Mystics had been maintaining a 15-20-point margin from early in the game until, suddenly, in the third quarter, Seattle cut the lead to 11. You can almost see Delle Donne decide to strike — a sudden sequence of five crucial plays, two on offense, three on defense, ranging from canning a 3-pointer to physically defending 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell in the post. Suddenly the game was out of reach for Seattle again:

Nobody will hand the championship to the Mystics. Despite all of this offensive prowess, Washington still must close the season strong in order to avoid the single-elimination game that would come with finishing as the third seed. The Sun have already defeated the Mystics with Delle Donne healthy. And the only defense in the league better than Connecticut’s belongs to the Aces, who have also done a stellar job at keeping their stars fresh for the postseason. And, in an odd twist, almost all of the lower-seeded playoff teams — Sparks, Storm, Lynx, Mercury — have vast championship experience, and proven experience at gutting out improbable postseason wins. But, unlike every other playoff team, the Mystics can rest assured: they won’t have to find a way to stop the greatest offense in league history, because that offense belongs to them.

Next: Is Jonquel Jones ready to step up for the Connecticut Sun?

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