The Defensive Impact of Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud

With just a few games left in the 2023 WNBA regular season, it’s time to start thinking about individual accolades and postseason awards. On the defensive end of the court, Washington Mystics guards Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud have proven themselves worthy of the highest honors this season.

Both Sykes and Cloud are a huge part of the Mystics offense this season. Sykes has played and started in all 35 games and is second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game on 43.7 percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent shooting from deep. Cloud is scoring 12.7 points while dishing out a team-high 5.9 assists per game. Still, defense is their calling card.

Sykes and Cloud have been known as top defenders over the course of their respective careers, they’ve both taken things to a new level this season, forming one of the top defensive backcourts in the WNBA.

The Mystics have gone through their ups and downs on the defensive side of the ball, but they remain one of the five best defensive ball clubs in the league. Sykes’ consistency and versatility are a huge reason why the Mystics have been able to withstand injuries and tough stretches and still remain a top-five defensive team, holding a 100.9 defensive rating.

“She’s just playing with a lot of confidence,” said Myisha Hines-Allen of Sykes. “She came in this season with a lot of confidence, and that’s what we needed, especially with people down, too. She’s definitely stepped up.”

Whether on the ball or off the ball, applying pressure at halfcourt, disrupting passing lanes, blowing up ball screens, and never taking a possession off are some of the key aspects of Sykes’ defensive game. To put it simply, she’s a pest. And Cloud is no pushover, either. Her Energizer-Bunny-like approach to the game makes her incredibly hard to get around.

At 2.2 steals per game, Sykes is first in the WNBA in takeaways this season (she’s also first in steals per 100 possessions among those who have played five or more games). You don’t lead the league in steals by taking plays off.

“She’s a ball hawk,” said Mystics head coach Eric Thibault about Sykes. “She gets her hands on everything.”

While steals are an easy metric to look at when evaluating individual defense, there are a ton of other numbers that support Sykes’ candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year and a spot on the First Team All-Defense. Her defensive prowess goes far beyond just collecting steals.

Defensive possessions don’t turn into offensive possessions until the rebound is secured. Among all guards who average 25+ minutes per game, Sykes is fifth in defensive rebounding rate at 13.4 percent (three out of the four players ahead of her are all at least two inches taller than Sykes).

For team success, look no further than the on/off stats when Sykes is on the court. The Mystics have a 78.3 defensive rebounding percentage when Sykes is on the court, compared to a 75.4 defensive rebounding percentage when she’s off the court. They have a 10.7 steal percentage with Sykes on the court, compared to an 8.1 steal percentage with her off the court. And opponents have a 103.1 offensive rating when Sykes is on the court, compared to a 105.3 offensive rating when she’s off the court.

As for Cloud, she’s the vocal leader of the squad, making sure everything is humming on both ends of the court. The Mystics wouldn’t be able to withstand injury-riddled stretches and lineup changes without Cloud’s leadership and energy. She was a member of the 2022 WNBA All-Defensive First Team, and with her success this season, she’s earned the right to be on that team again.

“I think we have two very clear First Team All-Defensive candidates in [Cloud] and [Sykes],” said Thibault in mid-August.

Sykes isn’t only on pace to be selected to the WNBA All-Defensive First Team for the second time in her career, but is a serious candidate for the league’s top defensive honor: The Defensive Player of the Year Award.