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The Mystics are this year’s under-appreciated WNBA team

The Mystics have been contenders for most awards this season, but they probably won’t win any of them. That doesn’t take away from their great season though.

The Washington Mystics discuss their next play.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

The Washington Mystics are in the WNBA Playoffs. Barring a late-season collapse, they will earn at least a first-round bye, if not more. Simply put, this Mystics team is enjoying some of its best basketball in franchise history.

Despite Washington’s accomplishments, however, no one on the team is a frontrunner for season awards even though the team has a strong candidate for nearly every award. Perhaps the lack of attention this season could be the chip on the players’ shoulders heading into next week’s playoffs that spurs a winning postseason.

Here are the Mystics’ players who should be considered serious candidates for the season awards:

Most Valuable Player — Elena Delle Donne

Why Delle Donne is a contender: Since Delle Donne came to Washington in the 2017 season, many expected her to play at an MVP level. Last season, she failed to make the All-WNBA team for the first time in her career.

This season, Delle Donne has bounced back into better form. She was June’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month and she earned the the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award four times this season. She is the WNBA’s third-leading scorer at 21.2 points per game, and Delle Donne is also averaging a career-high 2.3 assists per game.

Why Delle Donne won’t win: Storm forward Breanna Stewart is having an equally impressive season, but Seattle is leading the WNBA standings while the Mystics are in third place. It goes a bit further than that, though. Stewart is averaging a career-high 22 points and grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game. She is also making 52.2 percent of her field goals, a career-high. Delle Donne’s only career high mark is with her assists and she isn’t shooting at a career-high percentage.

Finally, Delle Donne won the WNBA MVP Award in 2015. It is not uncommon for awards like these to move from one player to the next, especially when there are multiple contenders. Since Stewart hasn’t won the award yet, she will likely leave with the hardware.

Rookie of the Year — Ariel Atkins

Why Atkins is a contender: Atkins is the fourth-leading scorer among all WNBA rookies at 11.4 points per game, and she started most games this season. She is making 43 percent of her shots overall and 36.1 percent of her shots from the three-point line. Atkins was a relatively unheralded draft pick when she was selected last April, but she has more than shown that she was the right choice for the Mystics this year.

Why Atkins won’t win: A’ja Wilson leads all rookie scorers with 20.2 points per game and rebounding at 8.1 boards per game. Wilson’s role is to be a franchise star while Atkins is a complementary wing. If the 2018 rookie class had been very weak, Atkins would have a chance to win. But with Wilson in the picture, she’ll have to settle for the All-Rookie Team.

Coach of the Year — Mike Thibault

Why Thibault is a contender: This is Thibault’s sixth season in Washington. After a long rebuild, the Mystics haven’t just qualified for a favorable playoff seed, they’ve also won 20 regular-season games for the first time since 2010 and now have a chance to finish the season with the best record in franchise history at 23-11 if they defeat the Sparks tonight and the Lynx on Sunday.

But records are just part of the resume for any Coach of the Year. The Mystics have won at least three more games than last season, despite a major roster changes and rotation turnover.

The Mystics started this season worse on paper than last year’s squad, due to Emma Meesseman sitting out the season to rest and focus her late-summer efforts with the Belgian national team. Tayler Hill was traded midseason for Aerial Powers after it was apparent that she just wasn’t going to crack the rotation much, with Natasha Cloud stepping up and Ariel Atkins blossoming earlier than expected. LaToya Sanders, meanwhile, has a developed into a defensive pest as the team’s starting center — and that’s not even her natural position.

Meanwhile, two of the Mystics’ 2017 starters — Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Krystal Thomas — are now reserves after they did not show improvement shooting the ball (both of them) or just unexpectedly regressed (Thomas).

Why Thibault won’t win: Thibault has done an excellent job getting the Mystics to a 20-win season with the potential to lead them to their best season in franchise history. However, Nikki Collen led the Dream to a similar record after Atlanta missed the playoffs last season. The Dream also won the tiebreaker against the Mystics this season, so that works against Thibault’s favor.

Dan Hughes has capitalized the most out of the Storm’s roster to get them to clinch the number-one seed for the first time since the 2010 season. Coach of the Year narratives tend to favor first-year coaches who turn teams around very quickly. In Thibault’s case, he did improve the team very quickly but there just happens to be two first-year coaches whose teams improved since last season and will likely finish ahead of Washington when the playoffs start.

Most Improved Player — Natasha Cloud

Why Cloud is a contender: Cloud is averaging 8.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, all career-highs. Last season, Cloud averaged 4.4 points per game.

It goes a bit further than that, though. Her shooting percentage has skyrocketed up from 31.4 percent in 2017 to 45.9 percent this season. Cloud is even averaging 40.8 percent from three where she made 31 long-range shots out of 76 attempts.

Why Cloud won’t win: Cloud is probably the Mystics player who has the best chance of winning a trophy. However, Storm post Natasha Howard has a better chance. She is averaging 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting a career-high 55.4 percent from the field. Last season, Howard averaged just 4.3 points per game for the Lynx.

Defensive Player of the Year— LaToya Sanders

Why Sanders is a contender: Sanders is averaging a career high 10.3 points per game and shooting 62.7 percent from the field, while averaging 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. Sanders has done an excellent job defending top-rated post after top-rated post every night, and she has the best individual defensive rating (102) of all Mystics rotation players this season. Additionally, Sanders has the Mystics’ best offensive rating (103), in part due to her great shooting.

Sanders also has a case for Most Improved Player, but that award tends to go to younger players which makes Cloud a more viable candidate.

Why Sanders won’t win: Lynx center Sylvia Fowles is still the frontrunner as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. She is averaging 17.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, so her basic production beats Sanders in every category. But Fowles’ individual defensive rating is 94 this season, well under Sanders’; her defensive rating has always been below 100 in every season after 2009, her sophomore WNBA season.

Looking ahead to the playoffs

The Mystics are flying under the radar because no one on their team is likely to win an individual player or coach honor. In addition, the Mystics are probably not going to get a semifinals bye.

Still, it’s very promising to see that the Mystics have someone who would be in consideration of most individual honors. When a team has someone in the running for almost everything, that team is likely a championship contender.

Even if the Mystics don’t win any individual awards, it could be something they take as motivation to win their first WNBA championship in the league’s most competitive season ever.