WNBA Season Preview: Washington Mystics

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Compared to most of their competition, the Washington Mystics had a rather quiet offseason. After finishing last season tied for the fourth-best record with the number one defense in the league, the Mystics decided to bring back most of their core pieces rather than making a big move. In fact, they will actually also be returning seven players from their 2019 championship roster. Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Myshia Hines-Allen were all already with the team last season. Tianna Hawkins and Kristi Toliver, however, found their way back to Washington from Atlanta and Los Angeles respectively. Despite having seven players from their former championship roster, the Mystics are a very different team now.

Delle Donne is still the Mystics’ leading scorer and offensive engine. Atkins is still a lockdown defender, valuable scorer, and three-point threat. Cloud still reliably runs the offense as the Mystics main facilitator and playmaker. Their support system looks much different now, though. Not only are Walker-Kimbrough, Hines-Allen, Hawkins and Toliver older but there are also some new pieces that have to be integrated. One of those pieces is Shakira Austin. Austin will just be entering her second season as a pro after putting together a stellar rookie campaign on both ends of the floor. The 22-year-old will be the focal point of the Mystics’ long-term future and while she can also impact winning at this point already, her development should be one of the team’s priorities.

Furthermore, the Mystics were not safe from free agent movements and lost Alysha Clark to the Las Vegas Aces’ super team. Luckily, they were able to bring in Brittney Sykes to take over Clark’s spot in the rotation. Sykes is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league. She led the WNBA in steals twice so far and made three All-Defensive teams. Thus, Sykes seems like a great fit for the Mystics’ system, as she will further strengthen their already great defense. At the same time, she also addresses some of the team’s weaknesses. Sykes is someone who can provide additional playmaking and run a second unit, as well as push the team’s transition offense. Despite getting a lot of steals, the Mystics struggled to get out in transition last season, and Sykes should help them turn their defense into easy buckets. Her former teammate on the Los Angeles Sparks, Amanda Zahui B., is Washington’s other major newcomer. She will provide some additional center talent and front court depth to support the Mystics’ youngster.

While many of these players have experience playing together, that very same age factor is also their biggest weakness. Their core pieces are aging, and especially Delle Donne has been struggling with injuries for quite a while now, and that brings us to the Mystics’ biggest flaw. Elena Delle Donne is basically the Mystics’ offense and without her, they struggle to create a functioning offensive system. They just don’t really have anyone who can take her place offensively when she is on the bench or out with injuries. Other than Delle Donne, no one on the Mystics’ roster averaged more than 15 points last season. Only Atkins was close with 14.6 points per game, followed by Sykes with 12.7 and Cloud with 10.7.

The Mystics also don’t have a real backup playmaker. Cloud is the only player on the team who averages more than four assists, with seven. She is followed by Sykes with 3.7 assists per game and Toliver with 3.1. Considering that Toliver has not played much in recent years, is already 36-years old, and the Mystics are not sure what kind of player she will be, that leaves the Mystics with only Sykes as a secondary playmaker. That puts a lot of pressure on Cloud and also hampers their outside shooting. Averaging 36.5 percent and 36.7 percent from three respectively, Atkins and Hines-Allen are the team’s best three-point shooters. Sykes, however, is not a good outside shooter and Cloud can only make catch-and-shoot threes reliably. Since she is also the best creator, she will be playing mostly on the ball, though, and not get many opportunities to capitalize on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Thus, the Mystics will have to figure out their guard play and movements offensively to combine scoring and playmaking to the best of their abilities. For the most, they are a good cutting team, but the fact that they will struggle to score from the perimeter and stretch the floor, will hurt them against some of the top teams.

On the other end of the floor, however, the Mystics will be a force to be reckoned with. The top defense should be theirs once again. As of now, the starting five projects to be Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Brittney Sykes, Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin with rotational pieces in Amanda Zahui B., Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Myisha Hines-Allen, Tianna Hawkins and hopefully Kristi Toliver. That leaves Li Meng, Evina Westbrook, Alisia Jenkins, and Jazmine Jones to compete for the last roster spots and spare minutes. There are few weak defensive links in that rotation and even if they bring in Meng, for example, to provide some three-point shooting, the other four can make up for her defensive struggles.

With Cloud, Atkins, and Sykes the Mystics have three of the league’s best perimeter defenders and while there are a lot of questions offensively, that defense could be enough to propel them to a top-five seed. The strategy of lockdown defense plus Delle Donne’s offensive talent worked well enough for the Mystics in the last regular season. It should work similarly well this year, especially if Delle Donne is mostly available and healthy, but depending on who they meet in the playoffs, they might exit in the first round again.

Defense can only carry you so far against the top two-way teams in the league. So, the Mystics can be expected to have a solid regular season, but they might not make it very far in the playoffs. While they could provide a serious obstacle on the road to a championship, they are rather a tier below New York and Las Vegas. 

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