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WNBA statistics: Why are the Washington Mystics surging in the WNBA's Eastern Conference?

The Washington Mystics have won six of their last eight games, since Mike Thibault gave a notable press conference after a July 2 loss to the Indiana Fever. They now control their playoff destiny. What changed? We examine some statistical trends here.

Scott Cunningham, NBA

The team that "everyone" is talking about in the WNBA is the Phoenix Mercury. They've won 15 games in a row and that's the second longest winning streak in league history.

However, the Washington Mystics have been heating up below the surface. They are on a four-game winning streak after defeating the Atlanta Dream at home Sunday. They also won six of their last seven games, and are playing as well as any team not named the Phoenix Mercury or the Minnesota Lynx, who are on a seven game win streak of their own. After falling to a record as low as 7-12 at one point, the Mystics are now 13-13, second place in the Eastern Conference.

So how did this team manage to do this? Was there a key moment? Who were the main players behind this recent run? Let's examine them below:

Key moment: Mike Thibault vents on the Mystics' slow pace after their July 2 loss to the Fever

Back on July 2, the Washington Mystics lost at home to the Indiana Fever, 80-77. In a post game press conference after that contest, General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault complained about his team not playing as fast of a pace as he would like. That message was sent during halftime, and the Mystics' players delivered. They scored 48 points in the second half, after only scoring 29 points before his message.

What Thibault said in that press conference stuck with me, so I made sure to keep a note to get back to it, if the Mystics really made significant changes after that point. At the time, I never thought that I would be using this as something that sparked positive change. I really thought that they were lottery bound, and they were about to head out on a five game road trip.

But I guess I was wrong. While the Mystics did lose their first game on the road against the Atlanta Dream on July 5, they did win six of their next seven games to get back to the .500 mark for the season.

Therefore, let's get to some numbers over this stretch of eight games after Thibault's notable presser.

1. The Mystics are playing at a slightly faster tempo

If I look at the rankings of the Mystics as they stack against others, in particular Basketball Reference's pace, it shows that they are 11th place in the league for standardized pace, only ahead of the Seattle Storm. The Mystics have been among the worst in the league in this category all season and it hasn't really changed just yet. Therefore, let's just compare the Mystics' numbers from before July 2, and the eight games after that point.

So one very, very simple way to get a feeler for pace is to see how many total possessions there are in a game. Let's just add up the total number of possessions per game and see what the averages are. Here are those numbers for games up through July 25, from Lynx Data:

Total number of possessions (Mystics & opponents) 4023
Avg possessions per game for the 2014 season 154.73
Avg possessions per game  from 5/16 to 7/2 154.11
Avg possessions per game from 5/16 to 7/2 w/o OT games 150.82
Avg possessions per game from 7/5 to 7/27 156.13

So, what does all this mean?

Let's take a look at the average possessions per game from May 16 to July 2 as a whole, which is 154.11 possessions for both the Mystics and the team they're playing. In the period from July 2 to July 27, that number went up to 156.13, which really isn't much.

The 154.11 figure from May 16 to July 2 also includes two overtime games against the Los Angeles Sparks on June 1, and the Seattle Storm on June 22. Overtime games can add the number of possessions in a game considerably, in particular for the Sparks game which was triple overtime. Once you take away those figures, the average drops to 150.82, and now you can see a bit more differentiation.

At the end of the day, number of possessions is just that. If the Mystics aren't making shots with those extra possessions, they'd be losing by a ton of points. So let's look at some more numbers.

2. The Mystics have made significant improvements offensively with the Four Factors

Another way to take a look at the Mystics' performance after July 2 is through the Four Factors. I'm going to show you how they're doing both on offense and defense.

After running these numbers, I've split them into three categories: their numbers from May 16 (season opener to the aforementioned Fever game); their numbers for the eight games played from July 5 to July 27; and their total season numbers.

Dates eFG% TOV% ORB% FT rate eFG% TOV% ORB% FT rate
May 16 to July 2 45.04% 17.59% 29.25% 19.12% 44.91% 13.85% 27.03% 19.95%
July 5 to July 27 49.71% 17.50% 28.69% 25.78% 44.34% 14.57% 32.19% 19.12%
SEASON 46.96% 17.56% 29.09% 21.13% 44.73% 14.07% 28.65% 19.69%

To find out how these numbers were calculated, click here to Basketball Reference. Please note that the number of turnovers used for each game in the TOV% were the total number of team turnovers which include those that are not attributed to one player.

There are two factors that stick out right at me, in particular on offense. The Mystics have improved their effective field goal percentage (eFG%) to 49.71% in their last eight games, significantly up from 45.04% for games up through that time. In addition, their free throw rate in their last eight games has been at 25.78%, up from 19.12%. At the same time, opponent's eFG%ages have actually declined slightly from July 5 on. Therefore, it's not a surprise that the Mystics are winning games consistently.

Where do all these numbers fit in with the rest of the league? Here are the Offensive Four Factors for every WNBA team, for games played up through July 26, the day before the Mystics' most recent game against the Dream. It is sorted by eFG% from best to worst:

Phoenix Mercury 54.23% 14.48% 23.58% 27.41%
Minnesota Lynx 50.99% 13.64% 25.32% 23.82%
San Antonio Stars 48.16% 13.66% 23.46% 21.30%
Seattle Storm 48.16% 16.70% 21.20% 20.76%
WNBA Average 47.60% 15.27% 27.92% 22.55%
Tulsa Shock 47.47% 13.33% 32.52% 24.25%
Atlanta Dream 47.09% 16.07% 32.59% 22.11%
Los Angeles Sparks 47.08% 15.00% 28.25% 21.13%
Washington Mystics 46.79% 16.29% 29.16% 20.92%
Chicago Sky 45.97% 16.08% 26.91% 23.56%
Indiana Fever 45.85% 16.05% 30.36% 26.62%
Connecticut Sun 45.17% 15.31% 33.79% 19.43%
New York Liberty 45.00% 16.71% 26.47% 19.99%

Numbers were calculated using Basketball Reference data for games through July 26. Please note that the figure calculated for the TOV% does NOT include turnovers not attributed to a player (ex. shot clock violation), so these figures will be lower than the ones I have above.

As you can see, the Mystics are in the lower half of the league for eFG% on this chart as a whole. However, their recent eFG% rate of 49.71% would be in the Top-3 in the league, behind only the Phoenix Mercury and the Minnesota Lynx respectively. Their recent FT rate of 25.78% would also be Top-3 in the league. Not bad at all. In fact, it's really good.

Defensively, the Mystics have stayed basically the same as opponents don't have eFG% rates above theirs, but the ORB%age rates went up considerably. However much of this could be attributed to playing the Shock and Dream twice each, as well as the Sun during the last eight games. All three of these teams have very high ORB% rates on average. And the Sun had an ORB% rate of 47.22% during their July 23 loss to D.C as well.

So now that I got some of these advanced numbers out of the way, what simpler stats are showing that this team is improving?

3. The Mystics are making their threes again

Read about the Mystics' latest win

The Mystics have a number of players who are known for making three point shots with regularity and ease. Ivory Latta, Kara Lawson, and Bria Hartley have all made at least 25 threes each at this point in the season. And the former two have been known to be sharpshooters for some time.

For games played from May 16 to July 2, the Mystics only made 86 out of 310 attempts, or 27.74% of those shots. The percentage is a really bad number, and Thibault has pointed that out in a number of post game press conferences as well.

However in their recent eight game stretch, the Mystics have made an about face with threes, making 47 of 123 attempts. That is a rate of 38.21%. When a team is making nearly 40% of its threes, that's going to help the eFG% category significantly in those aforementioned Four Factors.

With the three point game revived, it helps open up the court and indirectly make every shot easier.

4. They are going to the foul line a lot more, and they're still making those freebies!

The Mystics are currently last place in the WNBA for the number of free throws attempted this season, but they're also in the Top Three in free throw percentage, making over 80% of those shots. So basically this is an underutilized resource of points.

From May 16 to July 2, the Mystics were averaging 12.56 made free throws out of 15.22 attempts per game in 18 games. In their recent eight game stretch, they are making 16.5 free throws out of 20.625 attempts, still at a rate of 80%. Needless to say, this increases the team's FT rate in the Four Factors.

5. They average more assists per game too

Assisted baskets are generally easier and are a sign of a better flowing offense. The Mystics were averaging 16.39 assists a game through July 2, but have been averaging 19 per game since July 5.

When you look at the previous three points (three pointers, free throws, and more assists), that means more points a game, and the improvement is considerable. The Mystics have averaged 80.125 points per game from July 5 on. Before then, it was 72.67 points per game.

6. Veterans are stepping up

Today, I'm not going to praise the rookies for making big shots, ankle-breaking crossovers, defensive stops, nationally televised dance-offs, or their impromptu karaoke singing. I'm here to praise the veterans, who I admit have been a bit under-appreciated this season.

Ivory Latta and Monique Currie have stepped up big time over the last eight games. In addition, Kara Lawson has also made big contributions, as all three have been scoring the basketball at well above their season average rates.

First, let's start with Latta. While her All-Star selection is controversial at best, it is undeniable that Latta has been playing at an All-Star level over these last eight games. During this period, Latta has been averaging 14.5 points a game, well above her season average. And over her last six games, Latta has been averaging 17.3 points per game. Even though her three point shooting averages have actually been helping the team, she has also been shooting 42.3% overall from the field, which is well above her current rate of 37.3% for the year. We have learned over the weekend that Latta had a breast cancer scare earlier this season, which may have affected her performance. But it's hard to say just how much of an affect that would have had. Either way, it's great to see that she is back to playing like ... Ivory Latta.

Currie is the starter who has made the most significant improvement over these last eight games, where she has averaged 13 points a game during the stretch. She also scored in double figures for each of the last six. Before July 5, Currie only had six total games where she scored in double figures. Like Latta, Currie has been shooting at a rate above her season averages, most notably from the three point line, where she has made 6-of-18 of her shots from deep. Her stats from deep before that point were ... bad.

Last, but not least, let's get to Lawson. She has averaged 9.2 points a game while shooting nearly 46% from the field, and 45% from three (9-of-20 attempts) during the six games she was able to play over this critical time period. Granted, Lawson has missed two games (against Phoenix and L.A.) due to a back injury, but this Mystics team is definitely better with her than without her, especially now that it appears that she has her shooting stroke back. They're also better than her season averages.

Concluding thoughts

The Washington Mystics have made a lot of progress over the last eight games, and now control their destiny when it comes to a 2014 playoff berth. If they continue to play this way, it should not be a stretch to see them earn the #2 seed in the playoffs.

And let's assume that the Atlanta Dream keeps slumping, and the Mystics keep this thing going... could this team have an outside shot at the #1 seed now? To me, that's going to be a big stretch, and a 20-win season would require that the Mystics win all but one of their remaining games. But again, if the Mystics do continue to play the way that they have been over the month of July, it certainly is possible.