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Elena Delle Donne’s impact is deeper than we realized

The advanced analytics may throw some people off, but the message is really simple: the Mystics have become too reliant on Delle Donne to generate a quality offense without her.

Chicago Sky v Washington Mystics Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Since she was traded to the team in 2017, Elena Delle Donne has been the franchise centerpiece of the Washington Mystics, leading the team to deep playoff runs in every season she’s played in.

She has missed some time this season due to rest and personal reasons, but when playing, she has looked like the dominant force we are accustomed to seeing. Efficiency is a huge indicator of how effective teams are on a per possession basis. True shooting (TS%) is the holy grail stat for efficiency. This season she is averaging 17.9 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game on 59.2% true-shooting (+5.8% better than the league average).

Simply put, Delle Donne is still scoring as efficiently as she’s ever been.

Wins above replacement player (WARP) is a statistic that evaluates stars who play heavy minutes to determine their impact and value. While the sample size is small, Kevin Pelton’s WARP rankings has Delle Donne ranked third in the per game leaderboard.

Her cumulative WARP pales in comparison to the league’s superstars because she has missed some games, but nonetheless still impressive. WARP relies heavily on the box score, which doesn’t accurately account for defense, so it’s also possible that she would rank lower on the leaderboard, but regardless, her impact on the Mystics offensively this season has been tremendous and is why she is still seen as one of the league’s best.

What makes the “Delle Donne dynamic”, as I like to call it, interesting is that since the first week of the season, the Mystics have not been nearly as dominant offensively without her.

Earlier I wrote about how the Mystics offense in the minutes Natasha Cloud plays is elite; however, I noted that the small sample size meant those numbers could be overblown. This has happened exactly. The Mystics have gone through some cold spells offensively that, at times, have redefined Delle Donne’s offensive impact from complementary to almost essential.

Since joining the team in 2017, the Mystics are 66-29 in games when she plays and 28-43 when she doesn’t. These numbers are stark, but in regards to this season, they don’t tell the whole story of her impact on the team and how her offense is what might make-or-break the Mystics season.

Washington Mystics v Indiana Fever Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s still early in the season, so there is some noise with these numbers, but with Delle Donne on the court, the Mystics have a 57.5 TS% which is 4.1 percentage points better than league average (+4.1%); without her, they are shooting 51.4 (-2.0%).

Having a negative relative true shooting by two percentage points is not an alarming stat, but for a team looking to compete for a title, this is certainly room for improvement.

Delle Donne’s scoring in the half-court is a literal game-breaker for the Mystics. Washington is only slightly above league average when it comes to offensive rating, and part of that is because Delle Donne has missed some time this season.

With the two-time MVP on the court in 200 minutes this season, the Mystics have a 110.91 offensive rating, which would rank 3rd in the league; without her, the Mystics have a 95.89 offensive rating, which would rank 10th in the league.

It’s not a good sign that the Mystics are so dependent on Delle Donne’s offense to be even a decent one, but the sample size is small, so it is possible that these numbers change yet again; however, another huge indicator of her impact is the team’s Net Rating. Essentially, this defines how much better or worse the Mystics are when Delle Donne is playing, accounting for both offense and defense.

The results are drastic.

In the 200 minutes with Delle Donne, the Mystics have a +11.95 Net Rating, which would again rank 3rd in the league. The Mystics are currently ranked 3rd in this statistic overall, but the 11.95 is a much higher number than their current season value of 8.8. Without Delle Donne, the number is 4.88, which would rank 6th.

It may not seem like a steep drop-off to go from 3rd to 6th, but some of the best teams in the WNBA, the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, have Net Ratings of +14.7 and +13.9. If the Mystics want to win a championship, their offense has to be much better, not only with Delle Donne, but without her. On the bright side, the Aces on/off metric are significantly worse without their star A’ja Wilson on the floor.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this season is the increasing number of perimeter shots Delle Donne has attempted this season. According to pbpstats, she has a three-point attempt rate of 36.8% this season, which is over 10 percentage points higher than her 2019 MVP season.

This lack of rim pressure does have an impact on the entire team’s offense. With Delle Donne on the court, the Mystics are at their lowest point when it comes to rim shot frequency (22.4%) and at their highest when she is not on the floor (32.4%).

The rim pressure Delle Donne once had earlier in her career hasn’t been there and as a result the team takes more perimeter shots than usual with her on the floor. This has been a problem for the Mystics at some points in the season. Settling for perimeter looks when the shots aren’t falling has bogged down the offense at times, but if your best player is making threes at a very effective mark, it may not matter in the long run.

So far the Delle Donne minutes have paid dividends for the Mystics, but the rim shot frequency discrepancy is something to look out for.

The advanced analytics may throw some people off, but the message is really simple: the Mystics have a “Delle Donne dynamic” where they currently need her to generate a quality offense. If they want to see eye-to-eye with the league’s best, they have to become better without her.