Mystics make like Warriors, lead three-point revolution
The three-point evolution that sparked a revolution in the NBA has reached the WNBA. Leading the way are the Washington Mystics.
It’s all part of General Manager-Coach Mike Thibault’s desire to play in a pace-and-space offense modeled after that of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
“That’s the way I’ve always wanted to play, but you have to have the players to do them,” Thibault said Tuesday after Washington’s 100-70 win over Seattle. “When I came here there were hardly any three-point shooters.”
So in the offseason Thibault traded for Elena Delle Donne, a stretch-four and one of the premier shooters in the league. Then came Kristi Toliver in free agency, giving the Mystics three of the top four WNBA leaders in threepoint shooting percentage from 2016. (Emma Meesseman led the league at 44.8, with Delle Donne third at 42.6 and Toliver fourth at 42.4.)
What has followed is the most three-point-happy team in the league, hoisting 21.9 shots per game from beyond the arc. Even in a season-worst shooting display in Thursday’s 67-54 win over New York, the Mystics showed their commitment to the strategy — they put up 25 three-pointers despite making only four.
“I think that’s the identity that Coach wants for us, to be able to play with good pace,” said Toliver, who has made 37.2 percent of a team-high 86 three-point attempts this season. “We have a lot of good three-point shooters on the team, so you have to play to your strengths, and one of our big strengths is the three-point line.”
That strength presented itself well Tuesday, when the Mystics made 10 of 24 three-pointers. By halftime, the Mystics had shot 15 threes — a little fewer than half of their total field goal attempts — and made eight.
“You’ve got to be able to guard the three,” said Tayler Hill, who along with Toliver ranks in the league’s top five in three-point attempts per game — though she went 0 for 11 on Thursday. “If you can’t guard the three, then you’re going to lose most nights.”
Washington is hardly the only WNBA team to embrace perimeter shooting. As in the NBA, it has become increasingly prominent. In 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, there were 12 threepoint shots taken per team per game. Attempts have increased every year since 2013, when the three-point line was moved back more than a foot and a half to its current distance of 22 feet 13/4 inches (21-8 in the corners). Last season the average was up to 16.1 three-point attempts per team.
That number figures to be easily outpaced this season, with eight of the WNBA’s 12 teams averaging at least 16.6 entering Saturday’s games.
But the Mystics have relied on outside shooting more than any WNBA team: More than 25 percent of their points have come from three-pointers, in a virtual tie with Seattle and Connecticut atop the league. Meanwhile, 51.3 percent of their points are two-pointers, which ranks last.
“You live by the three, you die by the three” is the adage that has been repeated to jump-shooting teams. So the Mystics are making sure to add variety to their offense.
“You don’t want to live and die by the three, and I think we’re taking a good amount, but we also attack the bucket as well,” Hill said.
It has worked well enough to help lead the Mystics to a 10-5 start, first place in the Eastern Conference, entering Sunday’s game at defending WNBA champion Los Angeles (11-3). The Mystics average 107.1 points per 100 possessions, fourth in the league.
The Mystics are working on finding that balance, and they have given hints of what can happen when they do. Which raises the question: On days such as Tuesday, when they are scorching opponents from three and slicing them up from two, how do you stop them?
“I’m not going to answer that question,” Hill said. “They’re going to have to figure it out on their own.”
The Mystics added Elena Delle Donne, above, and Kristi Toliver to give them three of last season’s top four three-point shooters.