WNBA playoffs 2022: Why Seattle Storm-Washington Mystics winner could be primed for postseason run

In the 18 games since Tina Charles joined the Storm on June 28, their point differential went from plus-1.8 PPG before signing Charles to plus-6.4 since. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Could the winner of the 2022 WNBA playoff's most intriguing first-round series between the Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics be more of a threat than its record indicates?

The Storm and Mystics, who finished tied for fourth in the WNBA standings at 22-14 -- with Seattle earning the right to host the series by winning two of three head-to-head matchups during the regular season -- haven't played at the same level over the course of the season as they did while winning championships in 2018 (Storm), 2019 (Washington) and 2020 (Storm again).

Yet a closer look at the two teams' seasons suggests reason to believe both of them could be better in the postseason. Seattle has quietly leveled up since adding former MVP Tina Charles, who led the WNBA in scoring last season while playing for the Mystics. And Washington has naturally been far better with 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne in the lineup, something we can expect throughout the playoffs after the team carefully managed her schedule in the regular season.

Let's break down the numbers for Seattle and Washington ahead of Thursday's Game 1 (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Storm offense clicking at right time

Defense has been a constant for both of these teams, who finished first (Mystics) and third (Storm), respectively, in defensive rating. During the first half of the season, however, Seattle was relying on defense to overcome a struggling offense.

When the Storm added Charles on June 28 following a contract divorce with the Phoenix Mercury, Seattle ranked ninth in the WNBA in offensive rating at 98.3 points per 100 possessions, according to WNBA Advanced Stats. Every other playoff team besides the slow-starting New York Liberty had an offensive rating of 100 or better at that point.

In part, Seattle had been affected more by the WNBA's health & safety protocols than any other team. MVP candidate Breanna Stewart and reserve Epiphanny Prince missed a pair of games early in the season, both losses to Phoenix. Shortly thereafter, Sue Bird and Ezi Magbegor were sidelined for three games due to health & safety protocols, and Stephanie Talbot the first two of those, during which the Storm went 2-1 but scored just 51 points in a home loss to the Dallas Wings.

Even at full strength, Seattle was relying too heavily on the duo of Stewart and All-Star guard Jewell Loyd for scoring. When Charles joined the Storm, Magbegor (12.6) and Bird (8.6) were the other two Seattle players averaging more than seven points per game. Although it took a while to integrate Charles, beginning with her in a reserve role and continuing as a starter ahead of Magbegor in the season's final 10 games, she lifted Seattle offensively.

In 18 games with Charles, the Storm's 107.0 offensive rating ranks fourth in the WNBA while the team has still ranked third in defensive rating. And six Seattle players -- all five starters plus Magbegor off the bench -- have averaged at least 7 PPG in that span.

Seattle's 11-7 record with Charles is identical to the team's mark without her, but those wins came very differently. Just four of the Storm's 11 wins without Charles were by double digits, as compared to eight of the 11 with her. As a result, the Storm's point differential has jumped from plus-1.8 PPG before signing Charles to plus-6.4 since -- a mark only the Connecticut Sun (plus-8.0) bettered over the full season.

It's also flown under the radar just how dominant Seattle's starting five with Charles has been. That unit has outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions, according to WNBA Advanced Stats, easily tops among lineups that played more than 100 minutes this season. No other lineup with that many minutes had a net rating better than plus-15.8.

Storm coach Noelle Quinn said she could "absolutely" extend the playing time for her starting five during the playoffs. We thought when Charles signed with Phoenix before the season, her arrival would create a "superteam." It's possible her midseason move to Seattle did that instead. But if the Storm are going to reach the semifinals after falling short as defending champs last season, that will require beating a dangerous Washington team.

Mystics successfully managed Delle Donne's health

Another interesting parallel between these two teams: They've both been difficult to beat with their stars healthy. Seattle's playoff losses in 2019 and 2021 both came with Stewart sidelined by injuries, meaning her last healthy elimination was 2017. For Washington, it was the 2018 Finals loss to the Storm -- and even then, Delle Donne was battling a bone bruise suffered in the semifinal round.

The difference, of course, is how long those injuries kept Delle Donne off the court. Entering this season, she'd played just three games since winning the 2019 Finals after opting out of the 2020 "Wubble" season in Bradenton, Florida, and being sidelined by a back injury nearly all of 2021.

To get Delle Donne to the playoffs healthy, the Mystics utilized scheduled rest games throughout the season, a decision that ultimately cost them home-court advantage. Washington went 18-7 (.720) in the games Delle Donne played, a similar winning percentage to what the Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces used to tie for the top spot in the standings (26-10, .722). In the 11 games Delle Donne missed, the Mystics went just 4-7, dropping them to the fifth seed.

In part because Delle Donne nearly always rested on the road (she played in 17 of 18 home games but just seven on the road), Washington played better without her than that record disparity would indicate. But with her in the lineup, the Mystics performed 5.2 points better than an average team would be expected to against the same opposition. Without her, Washington was barely better than league average (0.7 PPG).

Although costly in the standings, the Mystics' plan for Delle Donne worked as they hoped in terms of getting her through the season. Delle Donne was able to ramp up her activity late in the schedule, playing 11 of the team's final 13 games -- including a back-to-back at home against Seattle at the end of July. Delle Donne's minutes also increased from 27.0 before the All-Star break to 28.9 thereafter, which is important because Washington's net rating was 12.2 points per 100 possessions better with Delle Donne on the court.

Both the Storm and Mystics can point toward recent WNBA history as a reason for optimism about a deep playoff run. A year ago, Phoenix and Chicago were seeded fifth and sixth, respectively, entering the playoffs before advancing to the Finals. Chicago, at 16-16 during the regular season, became the most surprising champion in league history. If Seattle and Washington pull off a similar run this year, it won't be nearly as shocking.