WNBA Facts and Figures: The Numbers Behind the Washington Mystics' Up-And-Down Start

The defending champion Mystics started the 2020 season well, but have fallen off recently as their well of 3-point shooting dried up. And speaking of 3-point shooting, the New York Liberty have already made history this year - just not in the way you'd expect.

Welcome back to WNBA Facts and Figures! The 2020 "bubble" season in Bradenton, Florida is well underway, with each WNBA team playing a condensed 22-game schedule and players being housed at the IMG Academy athletic complex.

This is, obviously, not going to be a normal season. In some ways, it's a miracle the WNBA is even playing at all. We've already seen star players choose to opt-out of the season, and without a fast and effective way for would-be replacement players to enter the remote location (and get paid - minor detail!), many teams have been forced to play well below the maximum roster size of 12 players.

As such, a few weeks into the 2020 season has already produced some odd statistical nuggets, so let's take a look at a few of those. We are now armed with even more data - and visualizations - thanks to an overhauled statistics page on the official WNBA website, making this an even more interesting exercise.

113.1: Washington Mystics ORtg in their first three games

The first handful of games of the 2020 WNBA season bore more than just a few surprises - the unusual circumstances under which the season is being played would not have it any other way - and few were greater than the play of the Washington Mystics.

The 2019 champions entered the Florida bubble down quite a bit of firepower from last year’s run. Point guard Natasha Cloud and center LaToya Sanders both opted out of the 2020 season, while reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne filed for a medical exemption. The Mystics also lost guard Kristi Toliver to the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency, and the newly-acquired Tina Charles chose to sit out for medical reasons as well.

That’s an entire starting lineup (and a pretty good one!) lost, but the Mystics defied early expectations by getting off to a 3-0 start. Particularly effective was the team’s offense, which scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions - far above the league’s mean ORtg of 101.6 during that span.

It quickly became evident that the Mystics did not need a star-level player to field an efficient offense. Thanks to ridiculously hot 3-point shooting (41.9% on 29.5 threes shot per 100 possessions), players like Aerial Powers and Myisha Hines-Allen found it remarkably easy to get to the rim as opponents struggled to defend Washington’s floor spacing. It seemed like every shot was going in for the Mystics; Powers shot 42.9% from 3-point range, while Ariel Atkins and Leilani Mitchell made over 50% of their threes.

90.5: Washington Mystics ORtg in their past five games

Ever since August rolled around, however, the Mystics have regressed - hard.

Washington has now lost five straight games, and its offense barely resembles the well-spaced and well-oiled machine that we saw early on. The Mystics’ ORtg during that stretch is just 90.5, well below the league’s mean of 100.4.

There are lessons to be learned here - and yes, one of them is “don’t judge a team after three games.” Another is “teams are unlikely to shoot over 40% on 3-pointers for an entire season.” 

But it goes deeper than that. The Mystics were torching the nets in July, but they were doing so with what was essentially a 9-player roster. With the 2020 schedule giving WNBA teams little rest in between games (most teams have been playing every other day), there’s little time for rest and recovery. 

There’s also little time for game planning. Each off day lost by players is also one lost by coaches, who have had to think on their feet more than ever before during the truncated 2020 season. Some teams - the Mystics are a good example - haven’t even been able to run full five-on-five scrimmages because of roster limitations.

It’s a ton to take into consideration, especially for shorthanded teams lacking individual star power. While Washington’s recent fourth-quarter woes (just four points scored on 2-of-19 shooting) are certainly not indicative of the team it truly is, the unprecedented conditions of the 2020 season might be making such oddities a more common occurrence.

42.8%: New York Liberty 3-point frequency

If that isn’t enough variance for you, how about the Liberty’s offense thus far? New York has taken an astounding 42.8% of its shots from 3-point territory, and its heat map (courtesy of WNBA.com stats) is quite pretty:

The Liberty are attempting the most threes in the league (34.2 per 100 possessions), but are also missing a boatload of them, shooting just 28.8 percent from long distance - last in the WNBA. The shot distribution isn’t quite as good-looking when it accounts for actual shooting percentage; New York is well below league average from virtually everywhere behind the 3-point line.

Unsurprisingly, the rebuilding Liberty (who will be without their biggest building block in Sabrina Ionescu for most of the season) are just 1-7, and more ugly shooting performances are bound to follow. Without much of a pick-and-roll threat to initiate offense, New York’s four and five-out sets aren’t generating the types of looks you typically want from a 3-point heavy offense. The Liberty are still shooting them, but they aren’t manufacturing them, making for some historically bad numbers. Per the Across the Timeline women’s basketball database, the thirty 3-pointers the Liberty missed against Phoenix in early August are the most by a team in a single game in league history.

Granted, the Liberty are very young - 7 rookies on the team, to be exact - so hopefully improved shot selection will come as the season goes on.

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