WNBA midseason check-in: Washington Mystics

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: Layshia Clarendon
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: Layshia Clarendon /

The Washington Mystics are tied with the Connecticut Sun for the third best record in the WNBA (12-9) coming out of the All-Star break. Both those teams sit just two and a half games behind the Sparks for the second seed. That coveted spot would put the team through to the semifinals, avoiding two rounds of single-elimination play.

Every team is taking things day by day with a 34 game schedule. But recent events have really complicated things for the Mystics in the near term. Tayler Hill is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL and Elena Delle Donne is working her way back from a sprained ankle.

The general narrative seemed to say that the Mystics would put up a whole bunch of points; would their defense be good enough to make the make a contender?

That has almost been flipped on its head. The Mystics are shooting 41.3% from the field and just 31.9% from deep on the most attempts in the league. The offense is very good but not quite at the top. Washington’s defense is in the top half, slotted in right behind Phoenix and Los Angeles. Such is life for teams gunning for Minnesota and LA.

The Lynx (1st in Offensive Rating, 1st in Defensive Rating) and the Sparks (2nd in ORtg, 4th in DRtg) are among the absolute best on both ends. How do you shape your team to chip away at either? In a vacuum, you always have a chance with Elena Delle Donne. Most teams don’t even get that far.

Numbers can be very helpful in evaluating players and teams. We tinker with shot charts and lineups and on/off data. One constant will always remain: You win with top end talent. Delle Donne is on that short list of top-tier players.

Emma Meesseman is in a good position now to really turn some heads. Not that she was playing poorly—she just was playing in another country for much of the first half of the season.

She and Delle Donne are one of the toughest frontcourt partnerships to guard. Both can shoot it, face up, drive or post you up. Strange as it sounds, Washington may want to use both as screeners even more. Toliver using a screen from one or both in transition is just about unguardable:

I see the numbers I just cited on their offense as noise for now. Shooting percentages are likely to take a dip when a team plays without one of its best players for an extended stretch. Had Meesseman been around for all 21 games, she’d have been in serious consideration for an All-Star nod.  

Kristi Toliver and Ivory Latta are very good shooters and can create off the bounce. Natasha Cloud gives them minutes at both guard spots. Rookie Shatori Walker-Kimbrough may be ready to soak up more minutes.

The rotations will be interesting to follow once Delle Donne returns. Coach Mike Thibault had gone recently with Meesseman, Delle Donne and Krystal Thomas together in the starting lineup. Thomas is more of a traditional center to anchor the paint on both ends. She also will regularly be at the center of some great screening actions:

Thomas adds value, but her presence does impact Tierra Ruffin-Pratt’s freedom to carve teams up from the paint with the floor spread:

Things shouldn’t be seen as all doom and gloom for Washington. Nobody can plan to lose a player as talented as Tayler Hill without taking a hit, but there are talented players on their bench capable of taking on more minutes. Thibault can mix and match with Latta, Cloud and Walker-Kimbrough.

Tianna Hawkins stretches the floor a little bit to keep the floor spread. She shoots it well from the midrange and has already attempted the most threes of her career. Hawkins is just 7-30 to date, but one 3-3 night would change a whole lot for a sample of that size. She also has some nice chemistry with Latta:

Another Washington bright spot to keep in mind: They don’t turn it over—their turnover percentage of 15.1 is tied for the lowest in the W.

Washington is going to hang around to be in a position to make some noise once Delle Donne returns. What are you watching with the Mystics in the home stretch of the season?