After the Washington Mystics beat the Chicago Sky on Sept. 8 to close out the regular season, Natasha Cloud still had some work to do. The Mystics point guard had appointed herself the “campaign manager” for teammate Elena Delle Donne’s push to win the WNBA Most Valuable Player award. (Her sworn duties include making goat noises any time she is asked about Delle Donne, whom she considers the WNBA’s “greatest of all time,” or GOAT.) So, after the game, Cloud gave a rousing, off-the-cuff speech about her teammate:
“She [is] the MVP. Every single day she comes in with the same efficiency, whether she’s tired, whether she’s hurting, whether she’s fatigued. And when you have that in your leader, it’s easy to follow her example. So I’m going to keep campaigning for her. I like to call myself her campaign manager, but there’s no campaign. Anyone with eyes can see that she’s the MVP of this league. At this point, to even debate otherwise, it’s like a slap in her face. … I’m tired of any negotiations. Elena Delle Donne is the MVP of this league.”
A few minutes later, with most of the media having already filtered out of the locker room, Cloud couldn’t resist showing off a photo on her phone of a custom sweatshirt she had made. It had Delle Donne’s picture on the front and “MVP” in red letters on the back. “Don’t tag Elena yet, OK, y’all?” Cloud said, wanting to keep it a secret until the MVP results were officially announced. “Because I already have my sweatshirt made. … Y’all see it?” She added, “I’m gonna be out here in these streets wearing it. … She’s the best player in the entire world.”
Cloud would have to wait 10 more days, but Delle Donne was indeed named the 2019 WNBA Most Valuable Player — and it wasn’t close. Delle Donne secured 41 of 43 first-place votes from the panel of national media members after a season in which she averaged nearly 20 points per game and became the first WNBA player to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent at the free-throw line.1
But Cloud wasn’t satisfied: “How do you not unanimously name Elena Delle Donne, the first player ever in the WNBA to [shoot] 50-40-90, who shoots as efficient as she does, who upped her defense, who upped her rebounds. … She upgraded all facets of the box score.” Cloud blamed the two first-place votes that Delle Donne did not secure on “bias” and added, “People were laughing when I was campaigning, but I was just making sure everyone knew who the real MVP was.”
To be sure, there are plenty of arguments supporting Delle Donne’s MVP candidacy. Delle Donne finished second in the WNBA in points per game (19.5), fifth in rebounds per game (8.2) and 11th in blocks per game (1.3). Her advanced statistics were even more impressive: She led the league in true shooting percentage, player efficiency rating and win shares while also posting the lowest turnover rate, just 5.9 percent.
It also helps Delle Donne’s case that she is the best player on the WNBA’s best team this season — and one of the best teams of all time. The Mysticshad the largest margin of victory (19.5 points) and the most efficient offense (1.13 points per possession) in WNBA history, breaking records that had stood since the 2000 Houston Comets. The Mystics also broke much newer records set by the 2018 Seattle Storm, including assists in a season, 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted. In all, the Mystics set seven new individual franchise records, more than a dozen team franchise records and a whopping 15 team WNBA records this season, plus Delle Donne’s historic 50-40-90. If the Mystics win the championship — they face the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Finals starting Sunday — they will arguably be the best team in the WNBA’s 23-year history.
As Cloud alluded to when she criticized the two dissenting MVP voters, Delle Donne has somehow stepped up her game every year in Washington. She’s been an All-Star all three seasons, but in 2019 she posted her highest points, rebounds and assists per 40 minutes; her highest PER; and her highest total win shares and win shares per 40 minutes:
|PER 40 MINUTES|
|Season||MINUTES PER GAME||Field-Goal%||3-Point%||Free-Throw%||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Win Shares|
Delle Donne has continued to step up her game in the WNBA playoffs. Through four playoff games this season, she is averaging 21.3 points per game on 46 percent shooting, both up slightly compared with her 2018 playoff numbers. She has topped 20 points in three of four games so far and secured her 200th career playoff rebound in Game 4 of the semifinals against Las Vegas. Delle Donne has also made her presence felt defensively this postseason, registering exactly as many steals (five) and blocks (seven) in the 2019 playoffs as she did in all eight playoff games in 2018.
Meanwhile, Cloud has been on an upward trajectory of her own since Washington drafted her in the second round in 2015. She has started 106 of 150 career regular-season games and really hit her stride a season ago, when she was the runner-up for WNBA Most Improved Player. This season, she has been even better, setting new career highs in points (9.0), assists (5.6) and steals (1.0) per game. She also made the WNBA’s All-Defensive Second Team for the first time in her career and set the Mystics’ career and single-season assist records. In the playoffs, she is averaging 11.5 points and 7.3 assists on 43 percent shooting.
When Cloud was asked about her role after a win over the Dallas Wings on Sept. 6, she made it clear that she wants to win every battle on both ends of the court. “I’m the facilitator, the quarterback, [for] all of our offense,” she said. “I’m our best perimeter defender, so I take a lot of pride in that.” But she credited her teammates for her individual success, explaining that “when you have some of the best scorers in the world on your team, it makes my job easier of just finding them in successful situations.”
Cloud also reflected on her growth and that of her team that September weekend. With fellow starter Kristi Toliver nursing an injury, Cloud played 35, 38 and 37 minutes in three straight games near the end of the season, and she admitted, “If you would’ve asked me to play this many minutes three years ago, I just wouldn’t have been conditioned for it.” But Cloud has continually worked to improve her game — just like the Mystics, she explained. “We’ve grown together over the last three years. We restructured our roster three years ago. We moved Kristi and Elena in and moved some people out as well the last two years, so I think you’re just seeing us grow together.”
This season, buoyed by a deep and talented supporting cast, the Mystics have grown into an elite team. Seven players averaged at least 9.0 points per game during the regular season, and each of them led the team in scoring at least twice. Nine different players made at least one start, which shook up the self-named “bench mob” at times, but the reserves averaged more than 30 points per game and outscored the opponent’s reserves in 26 of 34 games. Last month, when asked why the Mystics are so hard to defend, Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker said, “Number one, they share the ball.”
In particular, it’s easy to see how Cloud and Delle Donne’s chemistry has developed since the latter’s first season in Washington in 2017. That year, as a reserve averaging just less than 19 minutes per game, Cloud assisted on just 13 of Delle Donne’s baskets in the regular season and playoffs, according to data provided by Positive Residual. Last season, that number quadrupled to 52, and this season, it was 58 through the Mystics’ first two playoff games.
Part of that increase is due to Cloud playing a lot more minutes — more than 1,200 this year and counting, compared with 5352 in 2017. But the data also shows that Cloud has figured out when, where and how to get her MVP the ball:
|Cloud assists||% total field goals w/ Cloud assist|
|Season||To Delle Donne||To all Mystics||Delle Donne||All Mystics||Diff.|
In 2017, Cloud assisted on 7.2 percent of all Mystics field goals and 6.7 percent of Delle Donne’s field goals. The following season, she flipped the script, assisting Delle Donne 6 percentage points more often than she assisted the entire team. This season, the difference is up to 7.6 percentage points, and she has assisted on nearly a quarter of Delle Donne’s field goals this season.
|Season||Delle Donne||All Mystics||Diff.|
Of course, about one-third of the baskets by Delle Donne and the entire Mystics squad are unassisted this season.3 Looking at just the assisted field goals shows again that Cloud has fed Delle Donne at a higher rate each season since 2017, and that rate is increasingly disproportionate to the rate she assists the team as a whole. Most remarkably, nearly 40 percent of Delle Donne’s assisted field goals this season have come off passes from Cloud.
On the day Delle Donne won her second MVP trophy, Cloud gave a tongue-in-cheek acceptance speech in the locker room. Cloud said, “We did it, campaigned it, we pushed for it. I’m just, I’m so happy for this award, not only for myself but for Elena Delle Donne.” Cloud was Delle Donne’s MVP campaign manager off the court, but she also effectively managed Delle Donne’s campaign on the court, and the results have been staggering: Delle Donne posted a season for the ages, shooting more efficiently than any player in WNBA history and all but eight NBA players ever. As a result, the Mystics are on the cusp of WNBA history.