Exploring the Holdsclaw-Mystics Mystery

An article in the Washington Post last week has resurrected one of the longest-running debates in the WNBA: Why haven't the Washington Mystics accomplished more in the Chamique Holdsclaw era? With Holdsclaw's Mystics simultaneously visiting Seattle on Saturday, now seems as good a time as ever to try to answer this question.

Holdsclaw's Mystics haven't had the success many expected them to have.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty
Holdsclaw entered the WNBA five years ago with the tag of "the female Michael Jordan", a link she did little to discourage by wearing the number 23 early in her WNBA career (she now wears number one). Individually, Holdsclaw largely hasn't disappointed, averaging better than 16 points per game every year of her career and averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game last year, leading the league in the latter category.

That success, however, hasn't translated to the Mystics as a whole. While Washington did advance within a game of the 2002 WNBA Finals, over Holdsclaw's career, the team is just 71-110 (.392 winning percentage) and has only finished above .500 in 2002, though that may change this season, as the Mystics brought a 9-9 record to KeyArena before falling to the Storm in overtime, 85-83.

One of the common criticisms of Holdsclaw is that, while she puts up her statistics, she hasn't proverbially "made her teammates better". In order to see whether that's really the case, here's a look at the dozen players who have either joined or left the Mystics in the Holdsclaw era and been regulars both in their first season with the new team and last season with the old team, rated by their WNBA.com Efficiency Rating per 40 minutes (performance in Washington is on the left, performance elsewhere either the season before or the season after on the right):

Player                WAS   WNBA    DIF
Keisha Anderson      12.4    5.5   +6.9 
Cass Bauer-Bilodeau   6.3    8.3   -2.0
Vicky Bullett        16.5   20.4   -3.9
Annie Burgess*        8.3    8.6   -0.3
Shalonda Enis        10.6   13.9   -3.3
Tamicha Jackson      13.2   11.1   +2.1
Player                WAS   WNBA    DIF
Asjha Jones          15.1   13.1   +2.0
Tonya Massaline^      2.4    9.3   -6.9
Nikki McCray          9.6   10.6   -1.0
Chasity Melvin       13.6   17.6   -4.0
Andrea Nagy          11.2    5.4   +5.8
Rita Williams        15.8   14.5   +1.3
Weighted Average     12.2   13.5   -1.3
*Burgess missed the 2000 season in between
 because of the 2000 Olympics
^Massaline's statistics are all from the 2004 season,
 as she was waived and signed by the Storm

When the players' statistics are added together, their sum performance sees a not-unsubstantial 1.3 efficiency points per 40 minutes drop, about 10% of their productivity. How was their performance affected? Here's a more detailed look at the players' statistics in Washington and elsewhere:

Team         MPG  PPG  RPG  APG   FG%   3P%   TS%* R40   P40  EFF40
Washington  21.6  6.1  2.8  1.8  .415  .324  .487  5.3  11.3   12.2
Other WNBA  23.2  7.7  3.2  1.8  .416  .360  .501  5.5  13.3   13.5
* TS% = PTS/(2*FGA + .88*FTA) 

What's clear is that the biggest reason for the reduced productivity alongside Holdsclaw is that these players are shooting less than they did elsewhere, which makes sense - Holdsclaw leads the league in shots per 40 minutes this season. Shalonda Enis is the most dramatic example of this, as she went from scoring 10.2 points per 40 minutes in Washington to 17.2 the following season with the Charlotte Sting.

At the same time, a reduction in shots taken is usually accompanied by an increase in efficiency, as it means a player is forcing less shots and getting more open looks off the double-teams a star player like Holdsclaw creates. To that extent, it's especially surprising to see that players have actually shot worse from downtown when playing with Holdsclaw. Maybe there is a little something to the argument that Holdsclaw does not make her teammates better.

It's still clear that Holdsclaw hasn't had the strongest supporting cast during her time with the Mystics. Chasity Melvin and Vicky Bullett are the only All-Star-caliber players Washington has added via trade during that time. Bullett played very well during her time with the Mystics and was a key player in both of the team's playoff appearances, but she retired after the 2002 season. Melvin was supposed to fill the hole Bullett left in the middle, but her decline this season has been downright mysterious, and it's difficult to place the blame for that on Holdsclaw.

Looking through the annals of WNBA history, it's interesting to note that balanced teams have tended to fair better than those, like the Mystics of recent vintage, dominated by a single star. While the champion Houston Comets and Los Angeles Sparks have both had dominant superstars, Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie, respectively, both teams featured up to four players in their starting lineups who have been All-WNBA First or Second Team picks (the Sparks had just three in 2001 before the arrival of Nikki Teasley). Last season's Detroit Shock, meanwhile, were democratic enough to land three players on the All-WNBA Second Team and have a fourth player, center Ruth Riley, take home Finals MVP honors.

Holdsclaw, meanwhile, has never teamed with an All-WNBA performer, and just a pair of Mystics - guard Nikki McCray and forward Stacey Dales-Schuman - have been All-Stars during her time in Washington. Both players were dubious picks, McCray riding her name recognition and ABL MVP to starting roles long after it became clear she wasn't an elite WNBA performer and Dales-Schuman chosen to replace an injured Holdsclaw in large part because the game was being played in Washington.

Never has the disparity between Holdsclaw and her teammates been as apparent as this year. So far this season, Holdsclaw has scored 28.7% of her team's points, and no other Washington player is averaging more than 9.0 points per game. (The league's leading scorer, Lauren Jackson, has nearly scored as many points relative to her team as Holdsclaw, but three other Storm starters score double-figures.)

Beard has shown signs she could give Washington a second star.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty
Things were supposed to be different following the additions of Melvin and Alana Beard, the second pick of the Amateur Draft, but both players have struggled, though that may be changing. Against the Storm, Beard looked like the star she was at Duke, hitting from the perimeter and smoothly driving to the basket, and she followed it up with the best performance of her WNBA career at Sacramento (27 points, eight rebounds), making the question marks about her lately look incredibly premature.

While Beard has plenty of time to change the trend, few WNBA teams have had worse luck in the draft than the Mystics (outside of Holdsclaw). Despite drafting in the top five much of the Holdsclaw era, the Mystics have primarily come up with role players like Dales-Schuman and Murriel Page, who is a fine reserve but has never averaged double-figures in a season. Asjha Jones, taken a pick after Holdsclaw (and a pick before Teasley), struggled to adapt to playing alongside Holdsclaw before being traded to Connecticut for Jackson. Washington's worst pick was Tausha Mills, the second overall pick in 2000. As Storm play-by-play announcer David Locke noted during Saturday's game, just four first-round picks from that draft are still in the league - three of them, the Storm's Betty Lennox and Kamila Vodichkova and Jackson for Washington, played in the game - but the Mystics could have done better than Mills, who has never started a game in her WNBA career and contributed just 194 points in three years in Washington.

The Mystics also came up short when attempting to build on their playoff success in 2002. Bullett's retirement was a devastating blow the team never quite recovered from, but Washington got virtually nothing from its twin first-round picks in the Dispersal and Amateur Drafts. Dispersal pickup Jenny Mowe was cut before playing a game with the Mystics, while LSU forward Aiysha Smith has largely been a non-factor at the WNBA level.

While Holdsclaw's not-so-subtle criticisms of her teammates reflect poorly on her, an objective viewpoint would generally have to agree with them. While Holdsclaw has rightfully shared in the blame when the Mystics have struggled, she should get the majority of the credit when the team is successful. The female MJ moniker may, in hindsight, not be far off. Jordan posted terrific individual statistics as a young player, but it was only once he matured and the talent around him improved that he became Michael Jordan.