Why the Washington Mystics are title contenders, travel woes and other observations from the first week of the 2022 WNBA season

Natasha Cloud watched her Washington Mystics teammates defeat the Las Vegas Aces from her apartment on Tuesday night after entering health and safety protocols due to testing positive for COVID-19. Cloud live tweeted the game, in which the Mystics trailed by 15 before rallying after halftime to come away with the 89-76 victory and becoming the first team to start the 2022 WNBA season 3-0.

"I hope y'all know I'm running around this apartment flexing," she tweeted. "YALL BETTER START TALKING ABOUT THEM MYSTICS."

She isn't wrong. What was arguably most impressive about Tuesday's outing was that Washington was able to assert its will over a team most expected to win, and do it without multiple game-changing players in Cloud, Alysha Clark (foot injury) and Elizabeth Williams (competing overseas). Once those three are back in the fold, and assuming two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne continues to progress in the right direction physically as she returns from a back injury, the Mystics won't just look like they'll return to the playoffs after missing the cut last season. They'll look like serious championship contenders.

At times over the past two years, Washington's 2019 title run felt like another eon ago. Coming into 2022, Delle Donne had played just three games across the last two seasons, and a slew of other player opt-outs and injuries left the Mystics without its expected core or otherwise shorthanded most of that stretch.

With questions about Delle Donne and Clark's availability, expectations surrounding the team were, understandably, fairly tempered. Our own ESPN rankings slotted them at No. 7 in the preseason, before they rose to No. 3 following the league's opening weekend.

But playing the red-hot Aces without Cloud wasn't anything they couldn't handle.

"We've had time to try to build that muscle of whoever put this jersey on, that's who we're rocking with," guard Ariel Atkins said. "We've given each other confidence and belief in each other and that helps us walk into what we know foundationally about our organization and go out there and do the best we can to get the win that night."

After trailing big early against Becky Hammon's Aces, who in the first half looked like the team that had crushed the Phoenix Mercury and defeated the championship-minded Seattle Storm, Washington rocked them back on their heels down the stretch.

"I just think that's the nature of the people we have drafted, traded for, recruited," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "They have toughness about them."

Added Cloud on Twitter: "Culture truly makes a difference."

What can this team look like at full strength? Thibault said they've felt all offseason they can be a top-tier defensive team, and Tuesday (where they held the Aces to seven third-quarter points) showed a glimpse of what that could look like. Adding a former defensive player of the year-caliber player in Clark and 2020 All-Defensive Team selection in Williams back into the lineup should only help.

On the other end of the floor, Cloud is hungrier than ever -- she even put the league on notice during Sunday's game at Minnesota, taking the mic during an in-game interview to claim she's a shooter now. Critical to the Mystics' long-term success will be Atkins, who posted the only double-digit plus-minus Tuesday (+28), and Myisha Hines-Allen, who nearly recorded a triple-double against the Aces (15 points, eight assists, eight rebounds). Hines-Allen said Cloud helped her rediscover her confidence after she was in her head against the Minnesota Lynx, telling her, "You're a dawg, no one out here can take you." Hines-Allen texted Cloud after her COVID-19 diagnosis, "ima hold down the dawg pound tonight." And she did.

As for Delle Donne, Thibault said that she "will probably tell you that she doesn't have the rhythm she wants yet ... but if [19 points and seven rebounds in just under 30 minutes Tuesday] was the best we've got, this should be great!" That she's averaging a team-best 20.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 blocks per game early in the season is a positive sign for Washington.

It's early enough in the season -- and there are still missing crucial pieces that can transform teams -- that projections on who will be the last squad standing this fall are entirely premature. But the Mystics' somewhat surprisingly strong start has forced their inclusion in that discussion.

"I feel like sky's the limit for us," Hines-Allen said. "It gives us a lot of confidence, just knowing that our whole team isn't here yet, but we're still playing great basketball."

Also this week

The W's ongoing travel woes

Cloud is never one to mince words, and she didn't hold back Tuesday, calling out the league for its commercial flying practices particularly amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "Shoutout to the @WNBA for flying us commercial during a pandemic. (And no mask mandates)," she tweeted sarcastically. On Instagram: "At what point do players safety come first? I'm doing my part..."

Seattle's Breanna Stewart joined in on the criticism Wednesday, after she and Epiphanny Prince also entered COVID-19 protocols before the team's game at Phoenix.

New Aces general manager Natalie Williams posted a since-deleted tweet that called on celebrities and brands to "donate to the cause" and help WNBA teams charter flights.

Players, and even some owners, have increasingly decried the league's commercial travel policies, an issue that came to a head in March when it was reported that the New York Liberty had been fined $500,000 for chartering flights in the second half of the 2021 season, among other rules violations.

Even as WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert continues to assert that chartering is too expensive for the league at this time (she cited a $20 million cost per season, which Williams referenced in her tweet), it's clear this will continue to be a hot-button issue. And if big name players like Stewart are coming out this strongly against commercial travel, the pressure is only intensified for the league to find a solution.

The inclusivity conversation

Sue Bird, Nneka Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart, DiDi Richards and Te'a Cooper will be featured in the upcoming Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, which some saw as a meaningful amplification of the league on a platform with significant culture reach.

A few WNBA players took to social media to engage in a constructive dialogue on what true inclusivity might look like.

"I love Sports Illustrated's attempt to be more inclusive and amplify women in the W," the Connecticut Sun's Courtney Williams tweeted. "At the same time though it would of been raw to see a sleek lil sports bra & some shorts swaggin'. There's more than one way to look sexy, and I hope in the future we can tap into that."

The Liberty's Stefanie Dolson agreed in an Instagram story: "Couldn't agree more... There are more inclusive ways to represent the W. Big girls are SEXY too."

Williams' tweet alludes to this, but there's a whole conversation that needs to be had -- one that is outside the confines of this space -- over what types of bodies, gender identities and expressions of sexuality are consistently amplified in and around the WNBA. That this conversation is even happening is a start, but it is ultimately on brands and companies to be the ones to diversify who they promote on their platforms.

Looking ahead

How will a dominant Rhyne Howard and the Atlanta Dream, who improved to 2-0 Wednesday with a win over the previously undefeated Los Angeles Sparks, fare against a tough Aces team looking for a bounce-back win (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET)? The rookie-fueled Indiana Fever have been fun to watch, too, picking up their first win of 2022 on Tuesday against the Lynx. Can they earn another against the Liberty (Friday, 8:00 p.m. ET) or Dream (Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET)?

The Sun, who are still without Williams (suspension) and DeWanna Bonner (overseas), haven't played since their season-opening loss to the Liberty on May 7. How will they respond coming off a week of rest (vs. Sparks, Saturday, 7:00 p.m.)? The Liberty, meanwhile, had a poor outing (i.e. a 33-point loss) against the Chicago Sky Wednesday and have the opportunity to get back on track against the Fever and Dallas Wings (Sunday, 2:00 p.m. ET).

While some players are finally suiting up for their teams over these next few days, others are still abroad or have been sidelined due to COVID. Entering the second weekend of the season, it's still difficult to fully grasp what teams are capable of with so much personnel fluidity.

Fantasy tips

Who to start:

Sabrina Ionescu: After a disappointing outing Wednesday against Chicago, expect the former No. 1 pick to return to form against the Fever and Wings this weekend.

Tina Charles: Charles went off in the first of this week's two matchups between Phoenix and Seattle Wednesday. With Mercedes Russell out with a non-basketball injury and Stewart presumably still sidelined with COVID-19 for the Storm on Saturday, she should have the same impact when these squads meet again.

Dana Evans: Evans likely won't see as many minutes once Allie Quigley and Kahleah Copper return for the Sky (note: Quigley could make her season debut Saturday). Until Quigley is back in proper form, however, Evans remains a less obvious but still valuable fantasy pick, averaging 19.5 PPG in 30.5 minutes across two games.

Who to sit:

Seattle's Stewart and Prince, as well as Washington's Cloud are all in COVID-19 protocols, so be sure to bench them. The Lynx's Natalie Achonwa is also out indefinitely, the team announced Wednesday, after suffering a right hamstring strain, and 2020 rookie of the year Crystal Dangerfield's hardship contract is up with the Fever after a strong outing against her former team in Minnesota.