The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks are the Eastern Conference’s best team, despite the lack of a superstar player. In light of their success, the Washington Mystics could take a page from Atlanta’s playbook as they head toward the 2015 WNBA season.
The Atlanta Hawks have been one of the NBA’s surprise stories of the 2014-15 season. Despite the fact that they don’t have a franchise superstar — and have been labeled as a textbook case of a team on the “Treadmill of Mediocrity” in recent years — they finished with a franchise-record 60 wins, won the NBA’s Southeast Division title in a landslide, and earned the top seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Along the way, here are just some of the accomplishments they made as a team:
- A franchise-best 19-game winning streak which lasted from December 27 through January 31. In fact, Atlanta went 17-0 in January 2015.
- The Hawks’ starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford were named the NBA’s Eastern Conference co-players for the month of January 2015
BREAKING: Our starting 5 will share East Player of the Month honors for January! pic.twitter.com/Fp1zsV684F
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) February 5, 2015
- The Hawks’ starting lineup minus Carroll was named reserves in the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City
— NBA (@NBA) February 15, 2015
With the Hawks defeating the Brooklyn Nets in their first-round series on Friday, they now face their Southeast Division foe, the Washington Wizards in the second round with Game 1 starting on Sunday.
The Wizards have a legitimate franchise player in John Wall and a more talented starting five than the Hawks do on paper. That will be one reason why their fans are feeling confident about the Wizards making their Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 1979.
But it’s also undeniable that the Hawks play much better basketball together, including when they played against the Wizards, where they went 3-1 in the regular season. Needless to say, most NBA experts, analysts, and fans alike will likely predict that the Hawks will defeat the Wizards in a seven-game series, even though Atlanta doesn’t have the talent Washington does.
This second-round playoff series — and this season’s Hawks in particular — got me thinking about the Mystics. Like the Hawks, the Mystics also don’t have a franchise player. Though I still generally believe that Mystics’ ceiling is the “Treadmill of Mediocrity” given their offseason so far, the Hawks’ success this season also makes a compelling case that they could still have a top-tier team — maybe even this season — without needing to tank for Breanna Stewart this summer, if they can hit the ground running right away.
The Hawks and Mystics both have elite head coaches who are the real franchise stars of their teams
For the Hawks, Mike Budenholzer is in his second year in Atlanta after spending over a decade as a top assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. In 2014-15, Budenholzer led the Hawks to a 22-win improvement over the 2013-14 squad without the addition of any superstar players. Even though Atlanta was just 38-44 that season, they also lost Horford for most of the year due to a torn pectoral toward the end of December 2013. Their record up through that time was 18-14.
This season, the Hawks were sixth in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season. Last season, Atlanta was just 18th in this same category.
Mike Thibault is now entering this third season with the Mystics after a successful ten-year run with the Connecticut Sun from 2003-12. Though Thibault’s record in D.C. has been mediocre so far, it is due to the mess he had to clean up when he arrived and the roster turnover that followed. When you take that into context, it isn’t surprising to see why he won the 2013 WNBA Coach of the Year award despite the fact that the Mystics were just 17-17.
This WNBA offseason has been full of unexpected surprises to say the least, and many teams have experienced a major roster transaction in the last couple months. However, the Mystics have been insulated from the madness and kept the majority of their team intact. It could help them win more games this season since there should be more chemistry with their lineup.
If the Mystics can get a number one seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and make a deep run with their current roster, Thibault’s nickname may very well be “Mike Thibenholzer.”
Both teams have quickly parted ways with veterans who don’t fit in with their current vision
The Hawks have made the NBA Playoffs for eight consecutive seasons since 2007-08. However, the only player of consequence on this roster who was on that first team was Al Horford. Other cornerstones of the past like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith were let go, as Johnson was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in 2012 and Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons as a free agent in 2013 respectively. Ultimately, the Hawks were able to build a deeper team by not having their bloated salaries on their book and were able to create a deeper team because of it.
The Mystics have cleaned house of past veterans themselves. In fact, no player on the 2015 roster wore a Mystics uniform before 2013. Past starters like Crystal Langhorne were traded to the Seattle Storm in 2014 and Monique Currie signed with the Phoenix Mercury as a free agent. Letting key veteran starters go can sometimes be labeled as an indictment on the players who are leaving. But I view all of the Hawks’ and Mystics’ moves simply as a front office and coaching staff wanting to work with “their guys” when they are brought onboard. It’s just business.
Both teams draft rookies and acquire veterans who fit in with their current vision
The Hawks have made good use of the draft by selecting their starting point guard Jeff Teague 19th overall in 2009 and backup point guard Dennis Schroeder with the 17th pick in 2013. Al Horford was the third pick in 2007, but he wasn’t selected by their current General Manager. Atlanta has also made some savvy veteran signings such as picking up Millsap and Carroll as free agents in 2013, and trading for Korver a year earlier.
The Mystics are walking this path as well. Since Thibault was hired in the 2012-13 offseason, all of Washington’s first-round picks have played contributing roles on their roster even though none were Top-3 overall picks. They also have found steals late in the draft, like starting forward Emma Meesseman who was the 19th pick in 2013, and an undrafted rookie in Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who was also part of their 2013 rookie class.
And no, I didn’t forget about Bria Hartley. She was brought to the nation’s capital in the Langhorne trade in 2014, and she has shown that she could be their lead guard for the future. Her acquisition is the best one that Thibault made in his time in D.C.!
The Mystics made their fair share of veteran moves as well. In 2013, Ivory Latta signed as a free agent and Kia Vaughn was acquired in a trade involving a first round draft pick. Both Latta and Vaughn have been starters since they arrived.
Both teams play excellent team defense
There is a saying that defense wins championships. As mentioned earlier, the Hawks were sixth in defensive rating in 2014-15. The Mystics may not have had a very good offense in 2014, where they were ninth in offensive rating, but they were third in defensive rating. The 2014 roster was made up of seven rookies and sophomores, most of whom are still under contract for the 2015 season. Considering that younger teams tend to be below average as defensive units, there is reason to believe that the Mystics could be an elite defensive team for years to come, let alone this summer.
Both teams have posts who can pass the ball well
The Hawks’ starting post duo of Millsap and Horford averaged over three assists each in the 2014-15 season, which is another testament to how well the ball moves in the Hawks’ offensive sets. The Mystics have two posts who are known for passing the ball, as Meesseman averaged 2.5 assists in 2014, and backup center Stefanie Dolson also averaged over an assist per game in less than 20 minutes per game that same year. If Dolson starts more games and plays more minutes than she did in 2014, the Mystics could have an offense where the ball moves very well, and that increases the opportunities for easy shots.
Both teams have multiple key players who can make three-point shots
The Hawks were fifth in three-point shots made, and second in efficiency. Korver is their most potent shooter as he made 221 threes at a rate of 49.2 percent. Carroll also made his 120 threes at a 39.5 percent clip, and Millsap has become a legitimate stretch power forward where he has made over 70 threes in each of the last two seasons at a rate of above 35 percent.
The Mystics were eighth in three-point percentage in 2014 thanks to an early-season shooting slump, but they have no shortage of players who must be respected from beyond the arc. Latta is the team’s best shooter and was a target of Thibault’s in the 2013 free agency period specifically because of her shooting ability. In addition, Hartley, Kara Lawson, and Tayler Hill have shown that they can also make threes at a consistent rate. Finally, rookie post Ally Malott is a strong three-point shooter as well. If all of these aforementioned players can get hot at the same time from deep, this Mystics team could be very scary on the offensive end this summer.
Key Question: Can the Mystics’ offensive efficiency improve considerably and quickly enough to be the WNBA’s Atlanta Hawks this season?
The 2014 Mystics team impressed me because they were a young team that refused to give opposing teams many easy shots. However, their biggest issue during the regular season was the fact that their offense was too slow-paced, and that they also were very inefficient at making three-point shots despite having the personnel to be just the opposite.
Assuming that the Mystics are serious about trying to win now, their offense must click quickly given the short 34-game regular season. In addition, their three-point shooting needs to be consistent, and we’ll have to see all of their known shooting threats deliver when called upon. That didn’t happen last season.
The Mystics are arguably the only WNBA team that doesn’t have a player who is their clear number-one star, and it has held them back from their potential. I want them to get that player as soon as possible — even if it means that they have to tank.
That said, I looked for a legitimate counterargument to Ted Leonsis’s pro-tanking philosophy when it comes to rebuilding a professional basketball team and acquiring superstar talent. The Atlanta Hawks are making as good of a case as anyone that they can build a championship contender without superstars — especially if they can defeat the Wizards in their playoff series and ultimately win the Eastern Conference.
If the Mystics truly decide to position themselves for a deep playoff run this season, it will be very difficult to say the least. But they also now have a modern-day team they can emulate. If the Mystics can truly replicate what the Hawks have done this season, it would be very impressive indeed.