Defense wins championships.
So does a healthy roster, team chemistry and sometimes, a bit of good luck.
Reloaded with all of the above, the Washington Mystics — the 2019 WNBA champions — have a winning record for the first time since that title run, and are back in the playoffs after a yearlong absence.
With a fully healthy squad (and a few new faces), the team has been battling to put itself back in contention for both the postseason and the conversation around the WNBA title. The Mystics clinched a playoff spot two weeks ago, landing at No. 5 in the standings but they have been seeking to improve their seed and gain home-court advantage.
Losing two crucial games back-to-back last weekend — one to the defending-champion Chicago Sky, and the other a controversial loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, who were eliminated from the postseason Thursday night — didn’t help in that quest. But after a difficult two years, Washington is ready for the fight and happy to be staring at a postseason return. The team is finally healthy, receiving major contributions from some new additions, and riding a resurgent defense as it mounts a long-delayed title run.
In immediate defense of their 2019 title, the Mystics clearly missed guard and forward Elena Delle Donne (who sat out all of 2020’s pandemic-shortened season) and they were plagued by inconsistency in the WNBA Bubble, finishing 9-13 and bowing out in the first round of the playoffs. Then, beset by even more injuries that decimated the team, Washington finished a disappointing ninth place (12-20) last year, finding itself on the outside looking in only two years after winning it all.
“We just had one of those years last year where there’s not much you can do about it,” head coach Mike Thibault told me. “I looked down my bench some nights and I saw people hurt … everyone in this league has their turn of going through this. It’s hard.”
“We go into the bubble in 2020 with basically five players missing. Then last year, we signed Tina Charles, expecting [her] to play with Elena Delle Donne and AC [Alysha Clark] and then they didn’t play,” he said. “No team is going to win a lot of games unless your best players play. More than anything else, that’s the difference. People can give you all sorts of stats but if your best players aren’t playing you’re not going to win.”
For guard Ariel Atkins, a member of the 2019 championship team, missing the playoffs last year was “completely unacceptable.”
“It’s been easier this year with everyone back — when you have the whole squad that you anticipated having. I think last year was tough in that instance but it’s no excuse whatsoever. We’re all pros here and need to work together and figure it out.
“So this year we knew what we had coming in. We’ve got some good pieces here. We have a solid squad able to get along well off the court and able to talk to each other on the court and that’s important,” Atkins said.
That squad includes two-time league MVP Delle Donne — who is back to being a difference-maker after playing only three games over the previous two seasons combined — plus Clark, veteran point guard Natasha Cloud and forward Myisha Hines-Allen, all of whom sat out parts (or, in Clark’s case, all) of last season with various injuries. They’re joined by Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Tianna Hawkins, Elizabeth Williams and rookie sensation Shakira Austin, among others.
Finally playing at full strength again in 2022, the Mystics began winning games with a stellar defense (they lead the league in defensive efficiency, allowing just 95.8 points per 100 possessions) anchored by Cloud, Atkins, Clark and now the No. 3 overall pick, Austin. It was a bit of a departure from the winning formula of 2019, which saw Washington lead the league in offense and rank middle-of-the-pack in defense.
That metamorphosis was by design, dating back to when the team signed Clark in the 2021 offseason. Thibault said that one of his top priorities in rebuilding the Mystics was to “add a defensive player who could make 3s. Two of the primary statistical things you need these days.” And after Emma Meesseman left for the Chicago Sky, Thibault said defense became an even clearer focus for the team as it re-signed Hines-Allen, acquired Williams in free agency and drafted Austin.
“We already know we had three defensive all-league players on the perimeter, so why not keep building in that mode?” Thibault told me. “We said, we don’t know if we will be a consistent offensive team until EDD is healthy but we can be good at least on one end of the court every night.”
And as added defensive security as they head into the playoffs, the team on Wednesday signed Jazmine Jones, the No. 12 overall pick of the New York Liberty in 2020. Known for her ability as a stopper, Thibault said Jones’s signing gave them “some insurance at guard. Someone who has played in a playoff game, knows what the league is about and can defend.”
All of a sudden, the conversation around the league has centered on this resurgent, defensive-minded Mystics team.
“I kind of laugh in the sense that it’s not a surprise to any of us; it’s what we expect every year,” Thibault said when asked about the Mystics’ perceived resurgence.
Atkins believes a lot of credit for the turnaround from last season goes to the coaching staff and front office — particularly Thibault, who serves as both general manager and coach.
“Credit to him for just finding the right pieces to put together in the locker room and then it translates onto the court,” Atkins said. “Our personalities also mesh really well, but I think the biggest thing is that we all want to win. That’s everyone’s focal point here and that makes it a lot easier when you’re in practice and in games.”
Veteran team leader Cloud said she wouldn’t exactly call the present state of the Mystics a resurgence, though. “I would just say we have a healthy squad this year. Everyone is healthy and we’re able to get through a full season with a full roster.
“2019 was an incredible year for us. We were clearly the best team in the league; it was a really special year,” Cloud said of their championship season. “Fast forward a year when we went into the bubble … they didn’t have me or EDD, then last year, trying to figure it out without EDD, we had a pretty rough season with injuries — points where we had only five or six players.”
But she said that tough season made her better as a leader, and helped her understand where the team could take steps to build a positive culture in the locker room.
“Fast-forward to this year and we have a healthy EDD, a squad that we put together, brought Shakira in who has been a blessing to our squad, and Myisha has been playing out of her mind as well,” Cloud said. “We are now just trying to put all the pieces together. We’re not a championship team yet, but we are getting there and we’ve been playing so well these last few weeks. I think you see us starting to figure it out and the biggest difference of this year is that environment and that culture.”
One of the newest faces in the Mystics’ locker room is Austin, whose defense against some of the league’s best scorers earned her a surprising starting role. The 6-foot-5, 22-year-old rookie center played college ball at Maryland before transferring to Mississippi, where she was a two-time First-Team All-SEC pick and helped the Rebels earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.
The chance to draft a young, dynamic post player who already possessed a defensive mentality was too good to pass up for Thibault and the Mystics.
“We felt like long-term, it was best for our team. We already have Ariel Atkins in her prime, we have Natasha, other players, but to get an elite center [is] hard to do,” he said. “Particularly one who already has a leg up defensively because she came in with that mentality; she did it in college. And you don’t find that often.”
Austin anchors the team’s defense in a lot of ways, said Cloud. “[W]e are starting her and she’s a five. The five position in this league is one of the hardest positions every single night – you have to guard [Sylvia] Fowles, Teaira [McCowan], Izzy [Harrison], the best of the best every single night, and Shakira has done it phenomenally and that’s exciting for us” she said.
|Player||Age||Games||Min/Game||On Court||ON – off|
|Elena Delle Donne||32||23||27.9||+10.8||+10.2|
“She hasn’t even scratched the surface of her talent and her potential,” Cloud said. “So to see her getting this experience this year is great. She’s going to continue to get better.”
Said Atkins: “She stepped up in a big way as a rookie. We didn’t expect her to do that but now, if she didn’t, we wouldn’t be the team we are. I appreciate her work ethic and her ability to learn. She’s a smart, smart basketball player.”
Austin has played in all 34 of the Mystics’ games this season and started 30. She’s the team’s fifth-leading scorer (8.7 points per game); ranks second on the team — right behind Delle Donne — in rebounds per game (6.3); and has the team’s highest field goal percentage (55 percent) among players who’ve appeared in at least five games. But despite her eye-catching stats, Austin was humble when I spoke with her, expressing gratitude for the opportunity the Mystics have handed her — to hone her game and learn from some of the best.
“I am just coming in and understanding my role, trying to play within that. Just trying to be an anchor for the team, especially defensively,” Austin said.
“From the beginning, I don’t think anyone expected me to come in and make an impact like I have, besides maybe the coaches and my teammates. So I’ve been growing here, still have some ups and downs with me but I am still trying to play within my role and be there for the team so we can have a good playoff run and win a championship.”
And as hard as it is to quantify, chemistry has also been an important factor in the Mystics’ climb back toward the top.
“Part of when we got AC, we knew she was a good team player. She was a leader in Seattle, she was the glue that held things together,” Thibault said. “We already had good relationships on our team between EDD, Ariel, Natasha and the others. They have played together in a championship, so you then have to fit people around them that understand that and we did. They all fit.
“They all respect each other [and are] willing to be critiqued by each other, particularly on the defensive end,” Thibault continued. “We have, every week, a day or so when we are watching film and we say, ‘Hey let’s tell the truth about ourselves. Let’s hold each other to some standards,’ and that’s what they’ve bought into.”
Austin agreed, calling her new teammates “a bunch of pros.”
“Everyone on this team wants to win a championship … Throughout this whole season, it’s just been an extreme level of focus through practice and even our losses, just trying to understand where we are trying to go as a team,” Austin said. “Just having leaders on this team helped us through this season. Even though the starting roles have been inconsistent, the vets have helped settle us down and understand where we are trying to go. They just bring that consistency.”
“Natasha leading us as a point guard and being that anchor. Everyone understands their role, we know we can do something big this year so we are trying to make the most out of what we have right now.”
What they have right now is an opportunity to make some noise in the playoffs and climb back to the mountaintop — or get as close as possible.
The losses to Chicago and L.A. dropped Washington behind potential first-round opponent Seattle Storm in the seeding, possibly costing the Mystics home-court advantage in the process. (“We put ourselves in an interesting position,” Thibault said postgame after Sunday’s loss to the Sparks.) But two winnable games against the Fever on Friday and Sunday offer a chance at redemption. And either way, what’s most important is that the team focuses on making improvements before the postseason begins and peaking at the right moment with its new core.
“We are not overlooking anyone. We want to control what we can control and that’s putting ourselves in a good position but that means focusing each day and getting better, taking care of our own business,” said Cloud. “You want to be where your feet are. Never want to look too forward, never want to look too behind. Just stay focused and stay where we are — 10 toes on the ground.”
Said Thibault: “I don’t worry about this group not staying together. We have been moving in the right direction. The playoffs are wide open. It’s momentum at the right time. And so that is what we gotta do; gain the momentum.”
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.