Why a hot start to the season could be the difference for Mystics
A hot start could boost Mystics' season originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
WASHINGTON -- Every team wants to get a season off in the right direction, a hot start if you will, to seize early-season momentum and use that energy to carry you throughout the season. No franchise in the WNBA would say they wouldn't want that.
But in an offseason dominated by player movement, we've crept into a new era of "super teams" with the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty. Both organizations have assembled a group of superstars like the league has only seen a handful of times with last decade's Minnesota Lynx dynasty and the Houston Comets when the league was founded as examples.
So this season, while those two organizations are collecting MVPs, the Washington Mystics are riding off two other pillars to contend for the championship: their chemistry and their defense.
Neither of those two attributes can be overlooked and could give Washington an early edge in the 2023 season. Of the 11 players on the Mystics' opening day roster, seven of them were on the team when they won the 2019 WNBA championship. Three of them actually left and played for another organization in between, but they've all returned with sights on the same goal.
It was an intentional effort by the front office to continue to bring back players they trust. They may not be in the same role they were back in 2019, but they have knowledge of the system and making reads off one another is second nature. That very reason played a factor in the final roster cuts to keep Tianna Hawkins over 2022 first-round pick Emily Engstler.
"Yeah, each year you feel like you get a new team and it's like a brand new group, where this year it doesn't really feel that way," Elena Delle Donne said on media day. "Like there's the comfort and the people who know what this organization is about and where we want to go. And then there's the new people who are bringing a joy and excitement and new skill set to this team that we need as well."
It's a major advantage that New York and Las Vegas don't appear to have right away amongst their top stars.
The Aces are bringing back seven players from last year's championship squad. Among them, they'll have to integrate former MVP Candace Parker and defensive specialist Alysha Clark into the equation. The Liberty overhauled their roster and brought in two MVPs, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones while adding one of the best 3-point shooters of all-time Courtney Vandersloot.
No one is surprised that many are pegging those two franchises as favorites to fight for the championship at the end of the season. But the question is how quickly can those two teams gel with their new talent. Over the course of a 40-game season, every game counts. Gelling is not something Washington is concerned about.
"We're extremely connected, that's the word I like to use a lot," Kristi Toliver said on Thursday. "Obviously, most successful teams have that chemistry on and off the court. And for us off the court, it's like we're family, literally. I think you'll see that translate on the court. I don't necessarily care how early or late, it's got to be consistent. When you care about the person on the court next to you more than you care about yourself usually good things happen and this is an extremely selfless team. We're not priding ourselves on individual accomplishments, it's about the team goal and what we're here to do. As long as everyone does their job, being a good teammate first, then the stars will align."
That's where Washington may have the edge, at least in the early portion of the season. Seven of the Mystics' first eight games are against opponents that have entirely new-look teams. Only the Minnesota Lynx look similar to what they were in 2022. Those teams may need some time to get to their peak - or pointed in that direction - before finding their identity.
Washington, meanwhile, can hit the ground running. Brittney Sykes is the lone addition expected to join the starting group. There's also Toliver who is expected to be a major contributor, but it's hard to call her a new face. While the Liberty and Aces are the ones expected to be there at the end of the season, getting victories banked now could be crucial because it won't take long for them to figure it out.
"It's being a little bit overblown with New York in terms of their chemistry because a lot of those guys have played together in Russia and for (head coach) Sandy [Brondello] and they have smart basketball players. And I think smart players figure things out pretty quickly," head coach Eric Thibault told national media. "When Minnesota went on their run of championships, I think it was the second year after they got Lindsey Whalen and the first year they had Maya Moore and it didn't take them a long time to be really good. I think it's a mixed bag. Our group that ended up winning here, it took us a couple years but we also didn't have some pieces here right away."
The other factor is their defense. Once again their squad boasts three perimeter defenders with All-Defensive team recognitions on their resume: Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins and Sykes. Each offers a different defensive trait when they're on the court.
By all accounts, they should be one of the best defensive teams in the league for the second straight year. And while it takes some time for teams' offenses to come around, typically that's not the same for their defense. A place where that chemistry will go hand-in-hand on the court for Washington.
Out of the gate, there is no hiding for the Mystics going up against the Liberty on opening night (Friday at 7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington). Then they will go over a month before they face either of the "super teams" again. That stretch of games might be enough to get Washington at the top of the standings before either the Aces or New York can find their footing. If the Mystics take no games off in this early section, it could be a three-horse race.
"I know everyone wants to focus on our home opener and that's going to be a tough game against a really good team but then we have two games against Connecticut. This league is going to be- I think this year is going to be the most competitive this league has been in a while. You don't get any off nights you don't get time to rest or take time off or to not bringing your 'A-game' every single night," Cloud said on media day.