Entering the final two weeks of the WNBA season, the Washington Mystics are battling to secure the No. 1 overall seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Washington took sole possession of the top spot on Sunday by virtue of the Connecticut Sun's loss to the Los Angeles Sparks.
At the same time, Washington is quietly also competing for a much greater honor. If the Mystics can win the first WNBA championship in franchise history, this year's team has a chance to go down as one of the greatest in league history. Are we sleeping on just how good this year's Washington team has been? The statistical evidence suggests so.
Because they've got the league's best record and the inside track on the No. 1 seed, the Mystics are heavy favorites to win this year's title according to betting markets. Caesars Sportsbook currently has them at even odds for the championship, a fair bet if Washington was expected to win exactly half the time.
However, my simulations of the remainder of the WNBA season indicate even that might understate how likely the Mystics are to hoist the trophy come October. When I posted those results earlier this month, readers were surprised to see Washington winning the championship 80 percent of the time. That percentage has only increased since then. Based on results through Sunday's games, the Mystics now win in 84 percent of my simulations.
How can that be squared with Washington holding just a game lead in the standings on Connecticut, with three other teams (Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago) within three games? The answer lies in the point differential column in the standings.
My simulations are built on teams' point differential, adjusted for schedule, because it has proved a better predictor of future success than record. Despite the benefit of home-court advantage, the team with the WNBA's best record has won the championship just 13 times in the league's 23 seasons. By contrast, the team with the best point differential has won 17 of 23 years, and all 23 champions have finished either first or second in regular-season differential.
When those are the same team -- the one with the best record also has the best point differential -- the predictive power is even stronger. Those teams have gone on to win the title 13 times in 17 opportunities, a 76% success rate. In that context, the Mystics look like overwhelming favorites. After all, Washington isn't just leading the league in point differential. The Mystics are lapping the field, outscoring opponents by 11.4 points per game. Nobody else in the WNBA has a differential of better than plus-4.0 per game (Las Vegas).
Historic Washington dominance
In terms of point differential, the Mystics are posting not only the league's best season but one of the best in WNBA history. Their plus-11.4 differential is currently the third-best ever, and the highest since the final year of the Houston Comets' four-peat nearly two decades ago.
By these standards, the Mystics' 21-8 record is relatively unimpressive. They'd have to win out to match the 2013 Lynx, who had the worst record of this group at 26-8. Discrepancies between a team's record and its point differential have two possible explanations. First, the team can underperform in close games. Washington simply hasn't played many close games, with just two all season decided by 5 points or fewer -- both losses.
Second, the team can rack up a number of lopsided victories. And that's where this year's Mystics stand out. Sunday's 101-72 win over the lowly New York Liberty was Washington's 12th of the season by 20 points or more, which has blown away the league record of nine such victories in a year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Sunday's example aside, the Mystics haven't merely been dominating lottery-bound competition. Half of their 12 wins by 20-plus points have come against other playoff teams, including four against the other top three teams in the league (by 43 over Connecticut, by 29 at Los Angeles, and by 23 and 29 in two games at Las Vegas, one of which was completed more than a month later following an earthquake at halftime).
Washington must keep Delle Donne healthy
If this year's Mystics have a weakness, it's the health of star forward Elena Delle Donne. She has missed just three games this season after sitting out 14 over her first two years in Washington, but the Mystics have lost all three of those games, as well as a fourth (July 7 at Los Angeles) that she left in the opening minute with a broken nose. In the 25 games in which Delle Donne has played at least 20 minutes, Washington is 21-4 with a plus-15.6 point differential.
Delle Donne has been limited by injury both times in her standout career that she has reached the WNBA Finals. While with the Chicago Sky, she played just 10 minutes in Game 1 of the 2014 Finals against the Phoenix Mercury due to back problems. Last year against the Seattle Storm, she was coming back from a bone bruise in her left knee. Both times, Delle Donne's team was swept.
Ideally, Washington would use a favorable schedule -- after Tuesday's matchup with the Sparks, the Mystics' next three games are against teams that have been eliminated from the playoffs -- to clinch the top seed early and lighten Delle Donne's minutes the rest of the regular season. In that case, Washington would also get a break of more than a week between the end of the regular season and the start of the semifinals thanks to the WNBA's double-bye for the top two seeds.
If the Mystics can keep Delle Donne healthy and dominate their competition in the playoffs as they have so far during the regular season, Washington has a chance to join the ranks of the best teams the WNBA has ever seen.