Mystics still see themselves as contenders after Liberty, Aces load up on stars


Mystics aren't concerned with Liberty, Aces free agency moves originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

No two teams have dominated WNBA offseason storylines more than the New York Liberty and the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces. New York went all-in this offseason bringing in two MVPs - Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones. The Aces are fresh off their first WNBA championship but appear to have gotten even better by bringing Candace Parker.

A path to a championship is now presumably harder for the Washington Mystics. Instead of the top-tier talent being spread out, most of it has congregated on two rosters, creating two behemoths. However, you won't hear much concern coming out of D.C. The Mystics believe they already have the pieces in place to contend.

"We only had so much cap room," general manager Mike Thibault said at new free-agent signing Brittney Sykes's introductory press conference. "We had more key players signed than a lot of those teams did going into free agency. Obviously, Vegas had a core group that was already signed, New York has been trying to make adjustments. I really can't get into a situation where we can keep worrying about what somebody else does. The games aren't played on paper. They're played on the court when the season starts."

The Liberty were the first ones to strike this offseason. About two weeks prior to free agency, they were the central figure in a three-team blockbuster deal to acquire the 2021 WNBA MVP Jones. Then, it was the years-long forecast of convincing Stewart to 'come home' to her native state that finally came to fruition. Jumping on board with her was the WNBA's No. 3 all-time assist leader Courtney Vandersloot - thanks to Stewart taking a reduced contract. 

For the Aces, they also made a trade to kick off their quest to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since 2002. Two-time Sixth Woman of the Year, Dearica Hamby was sent to Los Angeles to clear cap space. That then opened the door for Las Vegas to sign the two-time MVP Parker and two-time WNBA champion Alysha Clark, who'd spent the previous two seasons with the Mystics.

Those two join another two-time MVP A'ja Wilson and also Aces mainstays Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young.

It's okay if you lost track but to put it into perspective, there are eight former MVPs in the league right now. Half of them are split between the Aces and Liberty.

One of the remaining four MVPs of course is Elena Delle Donne, the figurehead of the Mystics' core that includes Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Myisha Hines-Allen and 2022 Rookie of the Year runner-up Shakira Austin. Much like Las Vegas, they didn't need to overhaul their team this offseason. It was a matter of adding pieces to take a step closer to another championship.

But asking if the Brittney Sykes signing is enough to push Washington into that tier with the top two teams is a fair question. It's the biggest free agent signing the Mystics made this year. Based on the reported figures of her deal, it's likely the only notable free-agent move they'll be able to make. And while it's a good improvement for the team, it isn't as flashy as what else is happening in the league.

There are a variety of ways to analyze which team is best set up for success this year. One statistic in our arsenal is a player's win-share, which is simply an analytical estimate of how many wins a player contributed to the team.

Stewart led in that statistic in 2022 with 7.4. Here's how the player win-shares shake out when combining the top six players on each roster:

Aces - 26.8

Liberty - 22.0

Mystics - 17.0

No other team breaks above 15.0 win-shares when combining the top six rostered players as of this writing. For those three teams, there isn't any cap space left to add a player who would improve that statistic.

The difference in the Mystics eyes is what separated them from the other top teams in the WNBA a year ago: defense.

"We're got a really good defensive team, they got to play us too," Thibault said. "And, we'll be fine with everybody talking about everybody else. We're just gonna go about our business. We didn't have a lot of room to go out and do a lot of other things. We like the players we have. Brittany came here partly because she's gonna play with a whole bunch of really good players. And we like who we are, we know we have to get better in some areas day to day but that's part of practicing together and doing things as a team. And so kudos to those other teams for making some big splashy moves."

Making it all work is the challenge for the coaching staff. Adding Sykes should boost their offense to create easy baskets in transition without really sacrificing anything on the defensive side of the ball. Washington will also have a fully healthy Delle Donne for the first time since 2019.

The Mystics should be better than the fifth-place team they were a season ago. It's a matter now of how much better and it appears Washington is banking on their coaching being a difference.

"I'm fine with us competing for a championship against those teams," Eric Thibault said.


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