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A statistical look at why the Mystics had a strong 2015 preseason

There's a saying that preseason doesn't count. But the Washington Mystics have played very well in their three tune-up games. We use the Four Factors of Basketball Success to explain why since it gives us a clearer picture on what to expect from them this summer.

Stewart W. Small

The 2015 Washington Mystics are still an enigma to me because they are a superstar-less team. I'm torn between wanting to see the team prepare for 2016 (for obvious reasons), or looking forward to seeing how their younger players take another step forward this summer.

I firmly believe that any rebuilding team needs to have a young foundational superstar on the roster unless that team happens to be like the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, who won the NBA championship that year, or maybe the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks who made the Eastern Conference Finals. But barring those types of scenarios, it's hard to see how well a superstar-less team can perform at a championship-level over the long run, and the aforementioned Hawks have a critical offseason ahead of their own. That is one of the main reasons why at least some people, and I think that the Mystics' long-term future is brighter if they miss the playoffs.

At the same time, I never shut the door entirely that the Mystics could still have a very strong team with the players they have. Their rookies and sophomores last season like Bria Hartley, Emma Meesseman, and Stefanie Dolson all made positive contributions and were building good chemistry with one another. And, of course, Mike Thibault continues to age like fine wine when it comes to his coaching performances. Maybe this team could be a WNBA version of this past season's Atlanta Hawks or the San Antonio Spurs over the long run.

In the Mystics' three preseason games, they went 2-1 against three perennial playoff powers in the Atlanta Dream, Minnesota Lynx, and Indiana Fever respectively within one week. You could dismiss the record simply because they won't count in the regular season standings. But the Mystics didn't play their starters any more than their opponents, and they showed considerable promise in several statistical areas that could translate into the regular season.

The Mystics' Four Factors numbers during the preseason

Let's take a look at how well the Mystics performed against their opponents during all three of their preseason games. Below, you can see the Mystics' Four Factors numbers for the entire preseason:

Mystics 52.76% 16.08% 29.76% 16.08%
Opponents 38.89% 19.98% 32.73% 24.87%

If you're looking for their performances for each game, don't worry. We got you covered. Here are the Mystics' numbers from their 79-55 win vs. the Atlanta Dream on May 23:

Mystics 47.86% 15.09% 29.41% 17.14%
Dream 34.85% 22.87% 30.77% 13.64%

Their 89-63 win vs. the Minnesota Lynx on May 27:

Mystics 58.21% 13.00% 32.00% 16.42%
Lynx 40.16% 22.80% 42.11% 22.95%

And finally, here are their numbers from their 76-74 loss against the Indiana Fever on May 29:

Mystics 52.42% 20.28% 28.00% 14.52%
Fever 41.94% 13.90% 24.24% 38.71%

The Four Factors weight various advanced metrics based on their projected impact towards the outcome of an individual game. Let's take at each of these factors in more detail.

An explanation of each of the Four Factors, and how they explain the Mystics' performance

In previous statistical pieces -- whether by myself or by Nate over the years -- they were often written with the assumption that the reader knew how each of the Four Factors numbers was calculated, or that you read the statistics glossary.

So in this piece, I'll take a step back and explain them in detail besides just showing some random number. First what are the Four Factors and who developed them?

The Four Factors or The Four Factors of Basketball Success were developed by Dean Oliver, a statistician who worked in the front offices for the Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets. The factors are based on shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws and their projected impact on the game.

Now, I'll add an explanation to guide you through what the heck these numbers mean and how they can be interpreted towards the Mystics' performance over their preseason games.

Effective Field Goal Percentage: The Mystics are outshooting their competition, and it isn't even funny

The most important factor is effective field goal percentage (eFG%) which takes into consideration a team's overall and three-point shooting proficiency. The formula is:

(Field Goals Made + 0.5 * Three-Point Field Goals Made) / Field Goals Attempted

As you can see, teams that make a lot of three-point shots could have a considerably higher eFG% rate than teams that do not.

In each of their three games, Washington had an eFG% that was at least 10 percentage points higher than their opponents, which played a major reason why they won two of their games by double digits. The Mystics did attempt at least 15 three-point shots and made at least five in each of their games, but they also never shot above 40 percent from behind the arc in any other game. Therefore, their sky-high two-point shooting efficiency of 54.9 percent (78 of 142) was what propelled them towards their high numbers.

Turnover Percentage: The Mystics made promising improvements controlling this area in the preseason

The next most important factor is turnover percentage (TOV%), which is a formula that calculates approximately how often a team turns the ball over based on the number of possessions it has. The total formula is:

Turnovers / (Turnovers + Field Goal Attempts + (0.44 * Free Throw Attempts)

Washington won the TOV% battle in each of their wins against Atlanta and Minnesota, but they regressed in their last game against Indiana, which negated the strong shooting performance that they otherwise had. Still, the Mystics performed better controlling the battle of the turnovers from their performance last season, which made them frustrating to watch at times.

Offensive Rebounding Percentage: The Mystics weren't stellar on the offensive glass, but they didn't have to be

Third, let's head to the offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), which is a calculation of how many offensive rebounds a team gets versus the total number of offensive rebounds available. The formula for this figure is:

Team's offensive rebounds / (Team's offensive rebounds + Opposing team's defensive rebounds)

When I look at the Four Factors of Basketball the eFG% and TOV% will help explain why a team won or lost a game in most cases. The Mystics, however, were making baskets at a much higher rate than their opponents to the point where grabbing many offensive rebounds wasn't exactly necessary, especially in their two wins against the Dream and Lynx. After all, an offensive rebound is going to come from a missed bucket, and a team that makes shots at a high rate is only going to get so many offensive rebounds.

Free Throw Factor: The Mystics did not get to the free throw line at a high rate, but their hot shooting often negated the need to be at the line

The free throw factor as defined by Basketball-Reference, is as follows:

Free Throws Made / Field Goals Attempted

The Mystics only attempted more free throws than their opposition during their win against the Dream. In their win against the Lynx, their hot shooting was more than enough to negate their need to get to the line, so it wasn't exactly a concern for that game.

However, even though this is the least influential of the Four Factors m, it also proved to be the difference in their loss to the Fever, as Washington only made 9 of 11 free throws, while Indiana made 24 of 28 of theirs. The free throw factor, combined with the TOV% differential was key for the Mystics losing a game that they otherwise should have won by a considerable margin if those two factors were more equal.

I'm not terribly concerned about their lack of free throw attempts if their shots are falling at a high rate, so it will be interesting to see how they play when they have an eventual shooting slump at some point during the season.

How much influence does each factor have towards a game?

According to Basketball-Reference, these are the approximate weights for each factor in terms of how influential they are toward the outcome of an individual game:

  • Shooting/eFG% - 40%
  • Turnovers/TOV% - 25%
  • Rebounding/ORB% - 20%
  • Free Throw Factor - 15%

Using these rates as a baseline, it becomes even clearer in regards to how the Mystics were able to win their first two preseason games by significant margins, primarily through a combination of hot shooting and controlling their turnovers, while their opponents had just the opposite.

Who were the Mystics' best three individual performers during the preseason?

A three-game sample size isn't quite large enough to get much out of, but here are the three players who have made a particularly good impression on me in no particular order. The thing I do like about this list is that all three are young players, the ones who are expected to be the backbone of the franchise for years to come.

1. Tayler Hill

Before heading into this season, many people were down on Hill for a number of reasons, but ultimately it is due to her inconsistency on offense, especially early in her rookie season.

In the preseason, Hill has attempted at least 13 shots a game and scored a team-high 18 points against the Lynx while making four of her seven three-point attempts. Her shooting performances in the Dream and Fever games weren't anything to tip your hat off to where she shot a combined 7-of-27 from the field. However, it is a good thing to see that Hill is not hesitating to take shots, which is something I didn't see out of her in 2013.

Hill also made an impact on the defensive end of the floor during the preseason where she had seven steals in the three games. Four of them were against the Dream. The Mystics were not very good at forcing turnovers last season, and Hill should provide a new dimension toward getting D.C. on the fast break should this trend continue into this summer.

2. Emma Meesseman

Though the jury is still out on whether Hill will be able to live up to being a solid draft lottery pick for the Mystics, it's clear that Meesseman is a diamond in the rough, and she is poised to take another step forward in her development this season.

Meesseman scored in double figures in two of the Mystics' preseason games, and also shot a perfect 8-of-8 from the field in their loss to the Fever where she scored 17 points while playing just a little under 18 minutes. Last season, she still had a tendency to be passive, maybe in part because she was still a very young player. But on a team as young as the Mystics, Meesseman is one of the veteran leaders now despite just being 22, the age of a typical rookie who played four year in college. I'm not convinced that Meesseman will be a superstar like Maya Moore or Tamika Catchings in her prime, but I do think she's going to be a multi-time All-Star when it's all said and done.

3. Natasha Cloud

I didn't know what to expect out of Cloud this season, who was someone that Thibault was keeping a close eye on. But I always believed that she would have a more solid chance being a significant contributor than Ally Malott because of the team's deficiency at the small forward position.

Cloud had a very strong preseason where she started in Washington's last two games and scored 15 points in their loss to the Fever. She also dished four assists each in two different games, which makes here a point forward threat at the 3, something that former Mystics forward Monique Currie didn't excel at. Since Tierra Ruffin-Pratt hasn't played in the preseason, there's a good chance that Cloud will start at that small forward position this Friday when they play the Connecticut Sun on the road.

Final Takeaways

The Washington Mystics have played very well in the preseason so far, and at this point, it looks like they're going to try to see if they can have a Hawks-esque performance as opposed to trying to see if they can get women's basketball's Kevin Durant next season.

At the start of the offseason last fall, I didn't expect to see the Mystics to be able to do much but stand pat and wait for a mediocre at best 2015. They did stand pat for the most part, but they also didn't go through any major shenanigans, injuries, or even announcements that players were not going to play due to international commitments. And interestingly enough, it shouldn't be a shock to see the Mystics have a shot to be the number one team in the East.

I'm not going to back down from my stance that the Mystics still have to keep an eye out on the future, and I still believe that they need a player that fans will want to watch. Should they start the regular season on the wrong foot, a lot of those questions will come up once again, and rehashing old wounds about missed draft picks and opportunities to get a franchise player isn't something that I enjoy writing about.

Nevertheless, I am quite pleased to see how they did perform in the preseason. I am also totally fine by being proven wrong.