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The Mystics are steadying a rocky start, but it will still be tough to make a deep playoff run

Washington is not playing as well as we would like. Hopefully the guards can improve their shooting through the Olympic Break and that Elena Delle Donne returns so the team can be in position to make a bigger push in August.

Las Vegas Aces v Washington Mystics
The Washington Mystics are not in good shape this season, even if the goal is to crawl, walk and run along the way.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

UPDATE on June 19, 2021 — The Mystics announced that Kiara Leslie (concussion), Erica McCall (right knee sprain) and Myisha Hines-Allen (left patellar tendon strain) are out for Saturday’s game against the Indiana Fever. The original piece is below

The Washington Mystics are currently 5-6 in the 2021 WNBA season, good for SDFDFSDF in the league standings. It’s great to see the team back at the Entertainment and Sports Arena this season and that they will have full crowds of fans next week. But if you are hoping to see the same team that went 26-8 and won the 2019 WNBA Finals, this team clearly not at that level.

Is it too early to be hitting the panic button? Perhaps. But is it too early to voice concern that the Mystics are just not getting up to speed that quickly? At this point, no.

While the Mystics have only played 11 games and are 5-6, a WNBA regular season is 32 games long. So they have now played over a third of the season. They are currently 7th in the WNBA, crowded in a group of seven teams that are within one game of each other.

It’s encouraging that the Mystics are in the pack but they will soon have to break through if they want to look like a more serious dark horse championship contender. At the moment, there are three things this season that are holding Washington back from being toward the Top-4 as opposed to the middle-4 in the standings. They are the following:

Elena Delle Donne has still yet to return, and she may not until August

The Mystics always knew that Delle Donne was not going to return right away this season. As Kareem Copeland of The Washington Post noted before the season, the Mystics didn’t anticipate playing at their best early in the season, in part because of Delle Donne’s ongoing rehab and also because the team had several new additions.

At the same time, it’s not like the Mystics anticipated being 10th or 11th in the Eastern Conference heading into yesterday’s game. And even when (or if) Delle Donne returns, she would likely be on a minutes restriction.

If the Mystics are going to play closer to their best, they’re going to need Delle Donne playing more often than not. And as for any timetable on her possible return, she may not return until August as Copeland noted yesterday. Barring something unexpected, that means that she won’t play for the USA Basketball women’s national team this summer in Tokyo.

Key guards are just not making their shots

Washington’s strength on paper has been its frontcourt rotation. Even without Delle Donne, they still have Myisha Hines-Allen, Tina Charles, Erica McCall and Theresa Plaisance. That’s a formidable frontcourt rotation. Charles specifically has been the WNBA’s leading scorer to this point in the season.

But a great basketball team can’t just have great posts. They also need great guards. While Ariel Atkins is the team’s leading perimeter scorer (19.3 points per game) and is holding up her end of the deal, the rest of their key guards are just not cutting it, especially with their shooting.

Natasha Cloud has regressed significantly since missing last season. She is only averaging 6.8 points per game and is shooting just 32.9 percent from the floor. Leilani Mitchell, last season’s starting point guard is shooting 26.8 percent. Veteran guard Shavonte Zellous is shooting just 28.9 percent from the field. None of them are shooting well this season and you can’t expect a team to play very well with these kinds of rates.

Out of all WNBA players listed as a guard, played at least 150 total minutes and scored at least 40 points in all games this season, Cloud and Mitchell rank toward the bottom in shooting efficiency. This is an imperfect way to gauge player performance, but the Mystics’ woes at guard become apparent when Cloud is averaging over 30 minutes per game while Mitchell is averaging over 22 per game.

That’s not enough to override Atkins’ 47.6 percent shooting this season (and she’s on track for an All-WNBA year in my opinion) and Sydney Wiese has made 39.4 percent of her shots in seven appearances while playing 22 minutes per game herself. But their performances aren’t enough to mask Cloud’s and Mitchell’s poor performances shooting the basketball.

Granted, this sounds a bit harsh to say after a win last night against the Dream, especially when Cloud had a near triple-double and Mitchell had a strong game. And Wiese actually shot 2-of-9 from the floor last night in her first game back from an ankle sprain. But my point still stands because I’m looking at the first third of the season, not just one game.

Injuries have plagued the roster beyond Delle Donne and Clark since the season started

Like all things in sports, teams can only perform with the players on the floor. Besides Delle Donne, who doesn’t have a timetable to return, Alysha Clark, a 2020 All-WNBA first defensive team member, will not play this season due to a foot injury. That makes two high-performing players whom the Mystics haven’t seen take the floor yet in 2021.

Other players who have played this season are also getting hurt. While Cloud has played most games this season, she had a hip flexor injury which may be skewing her shooting percentage down somewhat.

Wiese had the aforementioned ankle sprain earlier this season and just came back. And in yesterday’s game, Hines-Allen left early due to a knee injury. Also, Erica McCall injured her knee before the game and also didn’t see the gametime. Hopefully, Washington won’t be without them for long.

How do the Mystics improve from here so they can position themselves for a higher playoff seed and a deeper postseason run?

Any deep playoff run by Washington will likely mean that Elena Delle Donne returns and plays close to how she did in 2019 when she won the MVP. And also, the Mystics may need to call an old friend whom I’ve written about in a couple pieces yesterday. We’ll get to her in a bit.

First, let’s look at the Mystics who are on the active roster right now. I am liking what I’m seeing from Charles, Atkins and Hines-Allen. They are the core of this team and I want to see them keep it up!

The biggest opportunity for improvement will come from the backcourt. My hope is that Cloud can regain her shooting form from the 2018 and 2019 seasons when Washington made the Finals while Mitchell’s shooting averages move toward the norm. In 2018 and 2019, Cloud shot around 40 percent from the field and in 2018 specifically, she made nearly 40 percent of her threes.

That said, I think the Mystics will need to tweak the roster at guard during the Olympic Break. Perhaps there could be an opportunity for a sharpshooter who is on one of the European or non-American Olympic teams if such a change is made.

And finally, let’s get back to our old friend. The Mystics will have to figure out whether Emma Meesseman wants to come back to the WNBA and whether she wants to re-sign with Washington during the Olympics. She is an unrestricted free agent with full veteran rights. So she can, in theory, sign for a pro-rated level of the supermax with any team.

Before the season, I was admittedly rather dismissive about the Mystics needing her because I was optimistic that Washington would be a little better than they are right now. But given how close the Mystics are to the other playoff teams and that injuries have hit multiple frontcourt players, they can certainly use her services.

If Meesseman returns, she would bolster their already deep frontcourt, and allow Washington to play a very big lineup which could involve shifting Hines-Allen or Delle Donne (if she’s playing) to the small forward position for some stretches.