Are The Washington Mystics Headed In The Right Direction?

The Washington Mystics made a number of changes in the offseason, adding experienced players like 13-season veteran point guard Dominique Canty. But is that the answer to avoiding the treadmill of mediocrity? Photo by Paul Frederiksen-US PRESSWIRE.

On the day before the Washington Mystics' game against the Tulsa Shock in D.C. on Saturday, forward Crystal Langhorne said that the team was considering the game a "must win", according to Ben Standig of CSN Washington.

But the reality was that the Mystics had far more to lose than they did to gain, as discussed previously on this site.

A win against the Shock would simply be dismissed as a win at home against a young team that went 3-31 last season and is still trying to find a winning formula with a new coach and new rotation - people would just say that's what they were supposed to do (and, of course, you don't get credit for some stuff you're supposed to do, to borrow from comedian Chris Rock). A loss at home to the Shock would have been a disaster, a confirmation that simply adding experience to the rotation wasn't enough to change the fortunes of a beleaguered franchise.

Amazingly, the Mystics managed to split the difference.

Yes, they won the game, but they did so after blowing a 15-point fourth quarter lead, committing 28 turnovers (see note in the "Related Links" section below) and almost entirely abandoned the post game offensively as they struggled to even advance the ball upcourt against the Shock's swarming pressure defense. After Mystics coach and GM Trudi Lacey spent the offseason touting the value of adding experience to the roster, veteran point guard Dominique Canty finished the game with more turnovers than points, tying returners Matee Ajavon and Crystal Langhorne with a game-high 5 turnovers.

It was only one game, but it was an ugly performance that did absolutely nothing to inspire confidence in the Mystics' ability to turn things around this season. And it has to beg the question we've discussed a few times on this site: are the Mystics headed in the right direction?

2011 Season in review

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Washington

44.50%

30.39%

33.42%

19.01%

Opp

50.12%

30.99%

29.19%

16.81%

Weighted

eFg%

fta/fga

Oreb%

Tov%

Washington

-0.56

-0.01

0.18

-0.18

Four Factors differentials for the Mystics and their opponents in 2011.

The Mystics' weaknesses in 2011 are probably obvious from the chart above: as the team with the lowest offensive efficiency in the Eastern Conference, scoring efficiency and turnovers were not a strong point. You can add to that having the third-lowest 3-point percentage in the league (32.9%).

Unlike the Shock, the Washington Mystics did have a major strength last season though: rebounding. However, when you look more closely at the Mystics' rebounding situation from last season, there's a dual narrative.

The Mystics were the best offensive rebounding team in the WNBA last season and were third in the league in second chance points (12.78 per game). For a team with a scoring efficiency as low as theirs, that rebounding ability was a major part of their offense.

But the Mystics were also below league average in defensive rebounding (70.8%) and allowed their opponents the most second chance points (10.62) in the Eastern Conference, which compounded their other problems defensively. That particular problem helps put their most significant roster change this offseason in perspective.

Key personnel loss

Wnba_2011mystics_pvcpie_html_79d2b37c_medium

Although Anosike was not a particularly efficient player last season, she was the seventh best defensive rebounder in the league last season (23.2%). It's also worth noting that their second, fourth and fifth best rebounders (of players that played five or more games) were Kerri Gardin, Marissa Coleman, and Victoria Dunlap, respectively, all of whom are no longer with the team.

Of course it makes sense that a team would make some changes after a 6-28 season, but losing those players certainly put them in a bit of a hole in an area that was already relatively weak. That helps to explain some of their major additions.

2012 Mystics Rookies

Rookies

S

P

I

Projected WNBA Style

Natalie Novosel

85.66

48.3

33.96

M

Projected SPI Playing Style for Mystics rookies based upon 2011-12 NCAA statistics

Novosel was a high usage player at Notre Dame, but wasn't particularly efficient. What she clearly adds to the roster is a potential 3-point shooter, as she shot 41.1% from beyond the arc in her senior year.

Click here for more on Novosel (and LaSondra Barrett, who the Mystics drafted 10th overall in the 2012 WNBA Draft and waived before the season).

Key Veteran Additions


SPI Style

Min/G

VCR

TS%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTR

Usg%

Value Added

4-yr RAPM

Dominique Canty

DS

15.05

0.34 <

36.14 <

15.88 >

3.05 >

30.00 >

21.42

-2.12

2.5

Natasha Lacy

P

13.59

1.06 >

46.77 <

14.71 >

6.04 >

37.59 >

22.56

0.40

2.3

Noelle Quinn

DS

20.63

0.73 <

48.65 <

9.14 >

2.03 =

13.41 <

13.60

0.26

1.2

Ashley Robinson

IU

17.14

0.86 >

48.98 >

22.04 <

9.66 >

18.03 <

14.52

1.48

-1.2

Michelle Snow

IU

24.14

0.93 >

50.00 >

20.83 <

5.99 <

27.78 <

15.02

1.94

0.4

Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton

IU

8.06

0.84 >

42.46 <

21.98 <

9.72 >

15.09 <

15.04

0.90

0.5

2011 statistics for Mystics' new veterans.

But if anything defines the Mystics' offseason moves - aside from "experience" - it's that they certainly looked to improve their defensive rebounding situation. The Mystics made a lot of changes this offseason as you can see above.

They traded Dunlap for Ashley Robinson (19.3% defensive rebounding percentage) and signed Michelle Snow (23.4% dreb%, 5th in the league) and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton (18% dreb%) as free agents, which is actually a net gain in that particular area of need.

Noelle Quinn, acquired in the Coleman trade, is about an average rebounder as a wing, but might also help the Mystics' other weaknesses. Quinn wasn't a pure distributor last season, but had the fifth-highest pure point rating of any distributor in the WNBA (2.84 PPR) and has been an improved 3-point shooter over the past couple of seasons in LA, shooting 39.7% from beyond the arc last season.

You also can't forget that Monique Currie isn't a new addition, but she's about as good a rebounder as Coleman was. So although we might quibble with how the Mystics got to this point, their final roster does make sense in response to last season - on the surface, they've addressed their needs. The question is really how well they've done so.

2012 Outlook

Returning players

SPI Style

Min/G

VCR

TS%

Tov%

Oreb%

FTR

Usg

Value Added

4-yr RAPM

Matee Ajavon

SP

31.31

1.03 >

49.45 >

14.65 <

3.31 <

31.46 >

26.07

-5.09

2.4

Monique Currie *

M

26.20

0.86 <

58.38 >

16.05 <

9.22 >

44.77 >

31.85

-2.28

1.7

Crystal Langhorne

S

34.28

1.59 >

57.23 >

15.82 <

10.61 >

35.76 >

25.35

-1.19

-0.7

Jasmine Thomas

SP

19.26

0.69 <

42.44 <

14.63 <

2.33 <

14.93 <

21.60

-2.50

-1.6

2011 statistics for Shock returners.
* Currie only played in four games in 2011 due to injury so these are her 2010 statistics.

Strengths

  • Rebounding: There's no reason to believe that the Mystics won't still be a good rebounding team and they might in fact be better as they added some better defensive rebounders and Canty, Lacy, and Quinn are all better rebounding perimter players than they had last season (not to mention Currie).
  • Free throw rate: It's not normally a huge deal - and really, many good to contending teams have a negative free throw rate differential - but this team is almost certainly going to get to the free throw line at an above average rate. Although they lost Anosike, who had the fifth highest free throw rate in the league but was a below average usage player, Currie's return as a high usage player who gets to the free throw line often will make them even more of a threat. The problem last season was that they struggled to actually make free throws, shooting 73.1% from the line. Unfortunately, a number of their new acquisitions fell below that line last season.

Questions:

  • How good can they be defensively? If you look at that column on the right, something else the Mystics did well was to put together a roster with a lot of positive 4-year regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM) numbers. And most of the RAPM positivity came on the defensive end (click here for the raw list of those numbers). That could go a long way for the Mystics in terms of pulling out some of those close games late, particularly if they can do something about allowing the second-highest 3-point percentage by opponents (38.6%) in 2011.
  • Will the Mystics be a more efficient scoring team? In 2010, they were an about average offensive team with the sixth-highest rating in the league (101.8). Currie was obviously a large part of that, shooting a team-high 44.6% from the 3-point line and scoring 14.1 points per game. So it would reasonable to assume they'll be a more efficient scoring team as even the presence of a more consistent 3-point threat could help open up the interior for Langhorne to score around the basket. But they still have some other wrinkles to iron out.
  • How well do these pieces complement each other? Taken individually, the moves the Mystics made this offseason actually made more sense on paper than people gave them credit for. Even if there's an argument that the Mystics lost value in each of their trades - and there's room for debate about that - the fact is that they shipped out pieces from a 6-28 team in return for pieces that addressed needs. However, on the whole, it's not entirely clear that this roster "works". To the point about the defensive rebounders they've brought in, the three interior players they've added (Robinson, Wisdom-Hylton, Snow) were all turnover prone players and low usage scorers (meaning that although they were efficient scorers, they're not aggressive scorers) last season. Their three guard additions (Canty, Lacy, Quinn) aren’t turnover prone, but are inefficient scorers. That leads to a number of tradeoffs that the Mystics will have to choose between: if they want defensive rebounding, they have to risk increased turnover rates from players who aren't going to create their own offense much. If they want better ball handling, they're going to sacrifice scoring efficiency. Ultimately, the question about the Mystics' offseason moves is about fit with a coherent vision for sustainable future success moreso than quality in the present.
  • How can they cut down on the turnovers? A major source of turnovers for the Mystics last season was actually their high usage scorers (Ajavon and Langhorne) who both turned the ball over more than average for a high usage scorer. Currie didn't play last year, but fits the same mold of a relatively turnover prone high usage scorer, though her rebounding ability put her more in the "mixed" style of player. Assuming those three spend quite a bit of time on the court together along with any one of their turnover prone posts, things could get sloppy unless something changes somewhat significantly.
  • Will all three of their Big Three remain high usage players? It would be somewhat odd for a basketball team to function with three players with usage rates over 25% on the floor at once. And in fact, the numbers above are misleading: those are Currie's 2010 numbers and she only played four games last year. We can't tell much about how they might co-exist based on last year's numbers, but we do know that in 2010 Ajavon's usage rate was about the same while Langhorne's was at 20%, about league average, which is interesting on its own. In both 2010 and 2011 Langhorne was the team's most efficient scorer; in 2010, she had the third highest usage rate behind Ajavon and Currie and in 2011 she had the second highest behind Ajavon. In theory, you'd probably want your most efficient scorers shooting the ball, particularly when the team is a poor shooting team overall. The thing is that Langhorne has to be set up to score in the post and last year the Mystics were the lowest synergy team in the Eastern Conference, at least in part due to their lack of an efficient distributor.
  • Can any of their new additions become an efficient ball distributor? Both Canty and Quinn rated as "distributors" last season - a mix of perimeter tendencies and assist ratios above average - and Lacy was actually close. However, it's not clear if any one of them will provide the Mystics with a consistent distributor. Canty has been on a fairly steady decline since about 2006, neither Canty nor Lacy were efficient ball handlers (they both had negative pure point ratings) and Quinn was efficient last year (2.84 PPR) but it's probably no coincidence that she's been the most efficient in her career when she starts and/or plays the least (and her VCR suggests that she's most productive playing under the 20 minutes per game that she did last season). Jasmine Thomas could develop into the answer, but had an assist ratio of 17% last season (which, for reference, is about the same as New York Liberty wing Nicole Powell) that placed her beneath the threshold of a distributor.
  • Well, with the same top three still around, how likely is it that the Mystics surprise people as they did in 2010? A large part of what was so surprising about the Mystics in 2010 is that All Star Alana Beard was out for the season and Currie broke out as one of the league's best scorers and most improved players. That big three was supported by defensive interior players that were efficient, though not major, scorers. The major difference was that they had much more efficient decision makers on the perimeter, beginning with Lindsey Harding who ended up really coming into her own as a distributor last season in Atlanta. But it was the combination of her and Katie Smith in the backcourt that made a real difference and it's not clear how they can match that this season.
  • How much room for growth is there on the Mystics' roster? This might be the biggest point of contention for the Mystics' roster. Even if multiple players outperform last season's numbers - and that's theoretically possible given the number of new faces they have in new roles - the majority of their roster is either close to their ceiling or close to hitting their prime years age-wise. So let's say they do double their wins from last season - how much faith might we have that the team could improve upon that next season and put themselves near .500 or into playoff contention? Therein lies the potential stumbling block with these offseason moves and it shows up in those VCR numbers, which are best as a measure of the quality of minutes a player can give you. Ajavon and Langhorne have above average VCRs, which suggests room for improvement, but can't exactly give a whole lot more - aside from Ajavon becoming a more efficient player or both decreasing their turnover rates, it's hard to say that a team needs a player to give much more than 31-34 quality minutes because at some point they need to take a breather. Somewhat surprisingly, Currie appears to have hit her peak in 2010. Of the others that might improve, they still project into role players' minutes and there doesn't immediately appear to be much promise at guard. The key for the Mystics, if they want to take another huge leap as they took in 2010, is a guard stepping up and becoming an efficient distributor.

Breakout player

The Mystics player with the most breakout potential is probably Natasha Lacy. She's actually right around league average in terms of scoring efficiency and showed flashes of potential with the Tulsa Shock in her rookie year before being cut, likely because she was so turnover prone. She cut down on the turnovers last season with the Sparks and if she can continue to do so, she could be a valuable contributor on a team looking for ball handling.

2012 projection: 2013 WNBA Lottery

In summary, the Mystics are coming off a year in which they were last place in the Eastern Conference and had two major problems (scoring efficiency and turnover rate). Their offseason moves made a lot of sense in response to those problems. But, as perhaps illustrated by the eight questions above, there's a lot of room to question the direction they're headed in.

Whereas the Shock have embraced youth, the Mystics have done the exact opposite. The Mystics made two trades in which they traded a younger player with potential to improve for a veteran close to their ceiling; they made first round draft selections in consecutive years that are already no longer with the team; they went out and signed two additional veterans with 10+ years of experience.

All of this could work together to add wins to the Mystics this season, but on paper it's still not clear that they have put together a balanced roster with players that complement each other well enough to help them overcome last season's significant shortcomings. The preseason numbers detailed above simply don't inspire much faith that the roster has much potential for improvement, even if their win total increases this season. The early returns only confirm that suspicion: against the Chicago Sky in their opening game, scoring efficiency and turnovers haunted the team without Ajavon; against Tulsa with the full roster available, turnovers haunted them.

Right now, this looks like a franchise that has put itself squarely on the "treadmill of mediocrity", which is far better at exhausting fan bases than it is at catalyzing enduring success. Prior to the season, the DC Basketcases announced that they will no longer write about the Mystics because it became "all labor, no love." After the Shock game, our resident Mystics fan unhappily suggested that the next exciting basketball event at the Verizon Center might be the 2012 NBA Draft party on June 28. None of that will change if their performance in 2012 only serves to proves that they're not much closer to finding their way off that treadmill.

Related Links:

Mentioned among this morning's links: sometime between the publishing of the early recaps about the Tulsa game and yesterday, the Mystics' turnover total was changed from 32 to 28. In case you're wondering, that still amounted to giving the ball away on about a third of their possessions.

Mystics Don't Lose To the Shock 64-61 and Some Thoughts

How Well Does Ted Leonsis' 10 Point Plan To Building A Championship Team Apply To WNBA Teams?

Mystics Hiring Process Could Send The Wrong Message To Fans

Washington Mystics' preseason preview statistics (all of the statistics above in single-page format)

For more on what all of these statistics mean, visit our statistics glossary.

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