July 23, 2023 

What’s been going wrong with the Washington Mystics’ defense?

Once the best defensive team in the WNBA, the Mystics have gotten away from that identity since Shakira Austin’s injury

WASHINGTON — When Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough sat down at the podium on Friday after a 96-87 loss to the New York Liberty, she scanned the box score intently. In particular, she wanted to see how many fast-break points her team had given up. It turned out to be 14, the second-highest total the Mystics have conceded this season.

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“It felt like they were putting on a transition clinic,” she said.

The Mystics led the WNBA in defensive rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions, as recently as July 1. Early in the season, defense had been the team’s salve as it struggled offensively. Head coach Eric Thibault could lean on three guards who have combined for 10 WNBA All-Defensive Team selections and two versatile rim protectors in Shakira Austin and Elena Delle Donne to eke out wins.

The offense started to turn around in mid-June. The Mystics had an offensive rating of 92.3 on June 14, second-worst in the league, but since then, they’ve had the fourth-best mark in the league at 106.1. Less than two weeks later, though, cracks started to appear in the defense.

Austin suffered a strained hip on June 25, and in the eight games since, the Mystics have the worst defensive rating in the WNBA. They are allowing 109.0 points per 100 possessions in that span, up from 91.6 in their first 13 games of the season.

The graph below shows the Mystics’ cumulative offensive and defensive ratings throughout the season.

The Mystics have struggled defensively since center/forward Shakira Austin was injured on June 25, 2023. (Graph by Jenn Hatfield using data from WNBA Stats)

What has gone wrong defensively for Washington lately? Thibault and his players have pointed to a constellation of factors — some of which are within their control and some of which aren’t.

Injured stars

Austin has not played since her injury in the fourth quarter on June 25, and the absence of a player Thibault has said could win Defensive Player of the Year someday looms large. “Kira is one of the best defenders in the league, so when she is out, those numbers are gonna slip naturally,” Walker-Kimbrough said on Friday. “But it’s not an excuse.”

Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin and forward Myisha Hines-Allen celebrate a play by holding their right arms in the air with their fingers tilted down.
Injured Washington Mystics center/forward Shakira Austin (standing, left) celebrates with forward Myisha Hines-Allen during a game against the Indiana Fever at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 19, 2023. Ariel Atkins (seated on bench, left), Kristi Toliver (second from right, in black) and Elena Delle Donne (far right) are also out injured. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

And it’s not just Austin who is missing in action. Delle Donne has played only 2.5 games since Austin’s injury after spraining her left ankle twice — first in the closing seconds on June 30 and again in the second quarter on July 9. Starting guard Ariel Atkins also sprained her ankle on July 11 and has yet to return.

With that trio of starters on the court this season, the Mystics have outscored opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions. When none of them are on the court, the Mystics get outscored by 3.6 points per 100 possessions and are worse on both sides of the ball — but especially defensively. The difference between the team’s defensive rating with and without that trio is 12.4 points per 100 possessions, whereas the difference in offensive rating is just 5.9 points per 100 possessions.

Atkins, Austin and Delle Donne are all …Offensive ratingDefensive ratingNet rating
On the court103.188.414.7
Off the court97.2100.8-3.6
Source: PBP Stats

“You can’t replace those people,” Thibault said. “But we can still be better than we are defensively right now.”

In response to these injuries, as well as a foot injury that has sidelined reserve guard Kristi Toliver since June 20, the Mystics signed three players to hardship contracts. It’s the most hardship players Washington has had at once since at least 2019, according to Across the Timeline. But those hardship players aren’t at the All-Star level of the injured starters, and they’re caught behind the proverbial eight ball as they join a team midseason, with little practice time to learn the ropes.

For forward Cyesha Goree, who signed her hardship contract on July 12, the biggest challenge has been “how ahead the team is … You kind of get in and everybody kind of already knows the plays and [knows] the terminology and stuff.”

That has been a challenge for center Queen Egbo as well, who was acquired from the Indiana Fever on July 4 and has been playing important minutes right away in Austin’s absence. Egbo told reporters on July 19 that, when she runs a play wrong or makes another inexperienced mistake, “it does frustrate [the veterans], but they do a good job of keeping their composure and talking to me and … giving me confidence.”

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Ball pressure on the perimeter

Since Austin’s injury, the Mystics are allowing opponents to shoot 6.7 percentage points better from the field than they did earlier in the season, according to WNBA Stats. That includes opponents shooting 5.2 points better from the restricted area and 10.8 points better from 3-point range. As a result, opponents are scoring 15.3 more points per game overall and 7.3 more in the paint.

According to Thibault, one big culprit is a lack of defensive pressure on the perimeter. With the 6’5 Austin in the paint, that pressure was less crucial because she could block or deter shots, and the 6’5 Delle Donne was also a capable shot-blocker. Their replacements in the starting lineup, forwards Tianna Hawkins and Myisha Hines-Allen, are smaller and less prolific shot-blockers, so it becomes more important to keep opposing guards out of the paint.

“Each person can be better and better connected to their teammates,” Thibault said. “We’ve got to … be better at the point of attack and not let the ball get in the paint so easily.”

Less ball pressure also produces fewer turnovers. Before Austin’s injury, the Mystics forced turnovers on 20.7% of opponents’ possessions, but since then, they’ve turned opponents over 17.3% of the time.

New York Liberty forward <a rel=
New York Liberty forward Jonquel Jones (35) gets ahead of the Washington Mystics defense for a layup during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Communication pitfalls

Before Friday’s game against New York, Thibault was concerned about his team’s transition defense. “One thing we got to do is get matched up in transition,” he said. “Find their shooters early. … They’re gonna make some plays, but you can’t give them a bunch of cheap points.”

In two previous games against New York with Austin in the lineup, the Mystics had surrendered just nine total fast-break points. But the Mystics gave up 14 on Friday, and Walker-Kimbrough implied that it felt like more. She said the Mystics’ communication sometimes breaks down in transition, especially when players have to pick up players they don’t normally guard. Post players aren’t always used to stopping the ball in transition, or a guard gets stuck defending a bigger player and can’t find a way to switch out of the mismatch.

“[New York] is not a good team to not be communicating [against] … and they exposed us,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “… That’s definitely an area we got to get better at.”

Three Seattle Storm players hold their hands up in celebration, some of them making the 3-point sign. Two Washington Mystics players run up the court in the background.
The Seattle Storm bench celebrates during a game against the Washington Mystics at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Inconsistent focus

Inconsistency was arguably the Mystics’ biggest problem offensively early in the season, but now it’s plaguing them defensively. Against the Seattle Storm on July 11, for instance, Thibault loved his team’s defense through the first three quarters, which helped the Mystics build a 25-point lead. But Seattle, led by All-Star guard Jewell Loyd’s 18 fourth-quarter points, cut the lead to six before the Mystics closed out a seven-point win.

“We were super locked in … and then we lost our poise and our focus there for a good while,” Thibault said.

After the game, guards Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes were livid that they had allowed Loyd to score that many points late — and 39 in total. “Jewell’s a phenomenal player, but there’s no way she comes in here and has damn near 40 fucking points,” Cloud told reporters. “It can’t happen.”

“That’s not okay,” Sykes added. “She didn’t have to earn all [39] of those points. She got a couple of easy licks on us and that’s on us. … We can’t just let people do things to us on defense. We have to continue to dictate or we won’t be No. 1 in defense.”

Asked about the defense more generally since Austin’s injury, Cloud and Sykes were similarly critical.

“Can we be honest?” Sykes said. “Okay, great. We suck.”

Cloud gave her team a C grade defensively, and Sykes suggested a D might be more appropriate. “Yeah, that’s being generous,” Cloud said. “We have the ability, regardless of who’s on the court … we can still be the best defensive team in this league. We have to commit to that, and that comes from focus. … Every time when we step out on that court, it’s a choice on whether we’re going to lock in.”

The Mystics often have periods where they lock in defensively, but a mistake or two throws them off. What frustrates Thibault the most, he said on Friday, is “when it snowballs from one or two possessions to four or five.” That’s something coaches and players alike have talked a lot about lately — not allowing one bad call or mistake to distract them from the next action.

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Washington Mystics head coach Eric Thibault stands on the sidelines with his arms folded across his chest. Associate head coach LaToya Sanders looks on from a few steps behind him.
Washington Mystics associate head coach LaToya Sanders and head coach Eric Thibault stand on the sidelines during a game against the Indiana Fever at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Where do the Mystics go from here?

After the Seattle game, Cloud pledged that her team would improve after the All-Star break, which began the next day. “We’re gonna figure it out,” she said. “… These four days are gonna be good for us to just regroup and then we’re gonna come back and we’re gonna be better.”

Sykes insisted on Friday that she saw signs of progress, even as the Mystics surrendered a season-high 96 points. “We came out more intentional about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to dictate defense,” she said. “… We had some slip-ups, we had some missed coverages at some point, but I think the effort to get back those mess-ups [was] there as well. So we’re showing improvement and I’m proud of us.”

One noticeable improvement was in the players’ demeanor after bad calls or mistakes. Whereas some players had looked obviously frustrated throughout Wednesday’s loss to the Indiana Fever, there were moments on Friday where they reined in themselves or their teammates.

Cloud, for example, stalked off the court and into the tunnel on Wednesday after the Fever ended the third quarter on a 9-0 run. She did not participate in the Mystics’ huddle, and she spoke briefly with the team’s mental performance coach, Stu Singer, when she returned. In contrast, after the Liberty opened up a 17-point lead in the third quarter on Friday, prompting a Mystics timeout, Cloud stood quietly on the far sideline for a few beats before slowly walking to the huddle.

Sykes and Walker-Kimbrough had similar moments on Friday, Sykes resisting the impulse to slam the ball down after being called for a foul and Walker-Kimbrough also getting animated about the officiating. Instead of risking a technical foul, Sykes put the ball down gently and called to her teammates to huddle up. And for Walker-Kimbrough, her teammates helped her find a better mindset.

“When I looked like I was being very emotional, people would come and talk to me and remind me that we can’t do this right now,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “You can show emotion, but you got about two seconds or two steps, get it out, next play.”

Austin, Atkins, Delle Donne and Toliver all have somewhat vague timelines to return, but they could all conceivably miss at least the next four games.

Until those players are healthy, the Mystics will have to lean on the rest of the roster to rediscover their stifling defense — and keep their hopes of a top-four playoff seed alive. They had an 8-5 record through the first 13 games but have gone 3-5 during this stretch of injuries.

“There’s a lot of areas that we can get better in, but we are really just putting one foot in front of the other right now,” Cloud said on Wednesday. “And that’s all that we can do.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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