When Mike Thibault took over the Mystics as their General Manager and Head Coach before the 2013 season, the team was coming off an abysmal 5-29 record the year before. With essentially the same core players as the 2012 squad, Thibault led the 2013 Mystics to a respectable 17-17 record en route to winning Coach of the Year. After some major trades before the 2014 season, they finished 16-18. This season, the Mystics have a legitimate shot to win 20 games for just the second time in franchise history.
The Mystics' 2015 season is significant in that it represents the first year the roster has turned over completely from the pre-Thibault era, including seven(1) draft picks from the past three years. There have been many arguments about whether or not Thibault has handled the rebuild the way he should.
While many fans are just happy that the dark single-digit win days are behind them, others worry that Thibault is dooming the team to mediocrity by not going all-in and tanking for a superstar. While I lean a little more toward the latter group, I thought it would be interesting to move away from the good/bad arguments and take a look at how the team has changed stylistically under Thibault’s tenure.
Rather than debating whether the ceiling of the current squad or the relative merits of tanking, let's take a look at how the team has changed over the course of the last three years.
Before the 2013 season started, Thibault told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel that the Mystics needed "an offensive identity where they pushed it at a faster pace. They were the lowest-possession team in the league [in 2012]."
Interestingly, the exact opposite has happened: The Mystics have gotten slower each year with Thibault, with the 2015 Mystics being one of the slowest teams in the WNBA. But while the Mystics were a slow team last year as well, there is a big different between this year and last: turnovers.
Typically, a team’s turnovers per game will increase with a faster pace; This can be due both to a speed-sloppiness trade-off but also because more possessions simply offers more opportunities to commit a turnover.
The 2013 Mystics were an average paced team with a average-to-high number of turnovers per game: They would be right in the middle of the pack in the 2015 season. The 2014 Mystics were the worst of both worlds: very slow and very turnover prone. The 2015 Mystics play slow but are very good at taking care of the ball.
Below is a scatterplot showing pace plotted against turnovers per game. Black dots represent values from 2015 non-Mystics teams, and the 2013-15 Mystics are represented in color(2).
Sharing the basketall
Albert has posed the question before of whether the Mystics could be the WNBA’s Atlanta Hawks, even this season. The resemblance this season is striking: The ball and players both whip around the court until either a shooter is open or a cutter finds the rim.
No one looks afraid to have the ball in her hands at the end of a possession, but no one is overly trigger happy, either. The percentage of field goals that were assisted has increased each season under Thibault, and the 2015 squad currently has the highest percentage in the WNBA. Those assists aren’t just coming from a single superstar point guard, either: Six players with 40+ assists this season (led by Kara Lawson’s 69 and rookie Natasha Cloud’s 67).
The Mystics also have an above-average effective field goal percentage, another measure by which the Mystics have improved steadily each year. The teams that currently have higher eFG% than the Mystics are the star-studded Minnesota Lynx, Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury, the dysfunctional but still star-studded Los Angeles Sparks, and Seattle Storm, who are struggling through a rebuild but still run by Sue Bird, one of the best pure point guards in the game.
It’s a tantalizing place to be: The Mystics don’t have the talent that any of the teams above them on the list have --including the Storm, whose talent is a combination of too old and too young to translate into wins just yet -- but they are beginning to compile a strong case for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Three Pointers and Free Throws
The high eFG% suggests that the Mystics are taking and making a lot of three point shots(3). Indeed, the number of threes attempted per game have increased each year under Thibault’s tenure.
The Thibault-era Mystics have a less consistent pattern for three throw attempts which took a big dip between 2013 and 2014 before increasing slightly in 2015. Still, both this year’s squad and last year’s squad had fairly low number of free throws attempted per game.
This team doesn't have the sort of star scorer like Angel McCoughtry, Skylar Diggins, or James Harden in the NBA who can get to the rim at will and manufacture points at will. But they have shooters, and they know how to find them.
The 2013 team, which took a small number of three-pointers and a lot of free throws, featured aggressive but inefficient players like Matee Ajavon and low post players like Crystal Langhorne. The current team has shooters on the perimeter like Kara Lawson and Ivory Latta, plus budding stretch-five Stefanie Dolson. None of those three will overwhelm you with their athleticism, but they will make you pay if you leave them open (yes, even from way out there).
The reasons for these changed are varied: A lot of it comes from the roster turnover.
Some of it comes from young players like Emma Meesseman and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who were drafted by Thibault in 2013. They are still maturing and developing their games. And some of it undoubtedly comes from Thibault knowing that the 2012 core wasn't going to be part of his long term plans. But he also knows how to adjust to his roster in order to maximize what the team can do.
The Mystics' ceiling is still unknown, but their identity is less Rockets or Cavaliers and more Hawks or Spurs: A team that moves the ball to find shooters, doesn't overly rely on any one player, and whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
(1) I'm counting Bria Hartley as a Mystics draft pick. This is because the Seattle Storm specifically drafted her in order to acquire Crystal Langhorne in 2014.
(2) All data is from basketball-reference.com and current as of 8/19/15.
(3) eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 x 3PTM)) / FGA. Read the rationale for eFG% here.