The MVP Three: Dominant Defensive Players Are Most Valuable In 2010

Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings has been a top candidate for the Most Valuable Player award all season and it's her outstanding shooting, not just her defense, that has her there. Photo via Kailas Images.

For years the standard reasoning for why Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings has been denied a MVP award is that her defensive contributions don't show up statistically.

It's a reasoning that Fever coach Lin Dunn finds difficult to understand.

"I don't know why it doesn't," said Dunn prior to the Fever's 85-81 loss to the Seattle Storm in KeyArena back on June 17th.  "She's usually in the top in steals, rebounds, and blocks and points.  Top ten in all of those. So I don't know why anyone would say that. Maybe she's not at the top because she does so many other things. I think if you look back at the stats year-in and year-out she's gonna show up in the top ten in most every thing."

Based upon Catchings' performance this season, there should be considerably less confusion. As Dunn suggested, Catchings ranks right around the top ten in multiple categories: first in steals per game (2.85), 7th in points per game (17.1), 9th in defensive rebounds per game (5.2), and 11th in blocks (19). That doesn't include her #8 rank in free throws per 40 minutes (5.75), a reasonable indicator of one's ability to get to the basket.

But the biggest change in terms of Catchings' value to the Fever this season is her much improved shooting.

"I think the thing that's improved from last year is her field goal shooting percentage is higher," said Dunn. "She has really worked on her shot in the off-season, she's worked on it in practice. And I think she's, if I remember, she's shooting 47 or 48 percent or something like that. So I think if you looked all across her stats, I think the one stat that's seemed to have improved noticeably is her field goal shooting."

Since that point in the season, Catchings has actually raised her field goal shooting percentage to 49.4%, which is a career-high and nearly 10% above her career average. That's not even considering that she's a perimeter oriented player who tends to get more perimeter shots than higher percentage shots. In other words, the one glaring flaw that may have kept her from winning the award in past years when she's been considered a MVP candidate - including last year when she shot 38.6% - is no longer a barrier.

And that's certainly not to say that she's slacking off on defense. She guards everyone from the New York Liberty's Cappie Pondexter to the 6'5" Lauren Jackson, who stands 4 inches taller than Catchings. Even giving up a huge height advantage to Jackson, Catchings had an effect.

"Lauren is the best," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the game against the Fever. "She shot the ball well, but we didn't do a great job of getting her touches in the second half. They went small and started guarding her with (Tamika) Catchings and she's as good a defender as there is."

Not that guarding Jackson is easy - despite scoring 17 points along with 5 assists, 4 steals, and 5 rebounds, Catchings fouled out on a controversial call. Nevertheless, the performance captures just how well Catchings is performing this season on both sides of the ball.

"From an offensive standpoint I stepped out a little bit having to guard Lauren - it's like that was my focus, not scoring," said Catchings. "Trying to stay wherever she was, trying to be there and that kinda takes away from the offensive end too."

As much as Catchings embodies excellence on both ends of the floor, what's may be somewhat unique about this year's MVP race is that the top three candidates -- Catchings, Jackson, Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles - are arguably the league's top defensive players in addition to being among the league's most efficient offensive players. It's a large part of the reason why the top three MVP candidates were pretty much set as of June 8th - there simply aren't other players in the league this season who do as much on both ends as these three. 

That's not to say that the winners in previous years were poor defenders, but moreso than in the past few years this MVP race will mandate a more expansive definition of what it means to be "valuable".

"MVP?" said Catchings. "I mean for so long it's been based on who scores the most points. I think my personal opinion is the MVP is somebody that can contribute more than points, that can go offensive end and defensive end, that can play any position and shut somebody down."

Perhaps more importantly in whatever framework for "value" one might use is a player's contribution to their team's overall ability to win. As Jackson has maintained throughout the season - no matter how many accolades pile up for her -- and SLAM's Ben York has quoted Sylvia Fowles as saying, the most important thing for these players that have come to embody two-way dominance this season is winning.

"I'm not really concerned about, ‘Ooo is Tamika gonna win MVP?' - I'm not worried about that," said Catchings. "My job is, you know, I want to win a championship. So if I have to be the MVP that never gets named MVP but our team wins the championship then that's what it is. I mean, to me that's the most rewarding thing: you do whatever it takes for a team to win and get the Finals trophy. That's it."

 

So with that, the less simple criteria for MVP than that used in the early season used, based on the following logic:

The most valuable players can efficiently create their own scoring opportunities while both having a positive impact on their team while on the floor and assuming the largest responsibility for their team's success.

It essentially boils down to the following five criteria, which I went through in the following order when determining the most valuable players:

  1. Contribution to team success: Marginal victories produced (read more)
  2. Largest contribution to team success: She should probably be responsible for the most marginal victories produced on her own team
  3. Credit for team success: The percentage of a player's valuable contributions to the team (read more)
  4. Impact on the floor: Plus/minus
  5. Efficiency at creating scoring opportunities: usage percentage and points per empty possession. Usage percentage also tells us a little bit about how much a player's team relies upon them (or is forced to deal with them taking the initiative) to create scoring opportunities. The best players can use up a lot of plays while creating scoring possessions and limiting non-scoring or "empty" possessions.

From that, came this:

Player Team MVP PVC Plus/Minus Usage% Pts/empty poss
1. Catchings Indiana 16.44 29.25% +13.7 26.10% 2.49
2. Jackson Seattle 14.63 24.65% +19.1 27.27% 3.049
3. Fowles Chicago 16.07 30.94% -4.2 24.21% 3.058
4. Pondexer New York 13.16 25.53% +16.8 28.07% 2.5
5. Langhorne Washington 13.7 26.00% +10.6 21.36% 2.58
6. Charles Connecticut 12.6 24.62% +3.9 24.15% 2.32

 

The reasoning:

  1. Tamika Catchings, Indiana Fever

In addition to all that is written above about Catchings, a key thing to note about her performance this year is that her usage percentage has gone up this season and both her scoring efficiency and passing has gone up. The most interesting thing is that as her usage has gone up, her assist rate has increased as well from 15.6% to 18.12%. Given that her turnover percentage has essentially remained the same, her pure point rating has increased to a level that is above league average this year. So to be more straightforward, Catchings is using up a larger percentage of the team's plays this season, scoring more efficiently, while also looking to help her teammates score more often. And, of yeah, she manages to muster up enough energy to do all that while guarding everyone from Pondexter to Jackson.

What separates her from the pack a little is that guard Katie Douglas had a rough start to the season (her scoring efficiency numbers were lower than usual) as well as some of Ebony Hoffman's numbers being down this season so Catchings has assumed a larger responsibility for the team's success this season, staying at around 30% all season. 

As a final point, two weeks ago, Jackson was the clear leader. Then Catchings went and had four consecutive 20 point games and two consecutive double-doubles, which could have been three had she gotten one more rebound against Connecticut (in a game that she grabbed a season-high 5 offensive rebounds).

  1. Lauren Jackson, Seattle Storm

Jackson might be a case study for why I'm introducing a little more subjectivity into this process. If I were to go strictly by the numbers, Fowles would be number two - she has the larger contribution to team success and the larger responsibility for her team's success. However, there's a reason why Jackson has won two WNBA Player of the Month awards and it's not simply that she's playing in the weaker conference or my own KeyArena bias.

First, Jackson has a slightly higher usage percentage than Fowles while having a points per zero point possession ratio less than .01% lower. So a minor point is that Jackson uses more plays while producing about the same number of points.

Second, and perhaps more significant is the plus/minus. Plus/minus is always deceptive, but for starters - particularly when discussing MVP candidates -- that net plus/minus does become more valuable when considered with other numbers. Note that Fowles is last among this group of players. Theoretically, a MVP candidate should have a positive impact on the score when on the floor because the player replacing them is probably not quite as good. The fact that Jackson has the second highest plus/minus in the league and Fowles is in the bottom half doesn't mean everything, but it certainly means something

Third, if not for Catchings, Jackson would clearly be the most versatile player in the game and there is simply no answer for stopping her. She can score from everywhere and she will defend smaller players when teams try to go small on her to defend her on the perimeter. Conversely, teams have found ways to stop Fowles for significant portions of the game- make it hard to get the ball to her on the block and force the Sky to win from the perimeter. 

If we are to take Catchings' point about playing any position seriously - and I cannot see why not when trying to parse out value between three very dominant players - Jackson just fits the bill a bit better than Fowles to this point. Nevertheless, a very strong argument could still be made for Fowles at #2 - we're talking a very small difference. Additionally, it's hard to deny that having watched Jackson 9 times in person this season in 9 home wins vs. 0 times for Fowles (anyone who claims there's no difference doesn't know what they're looking at) is very likely influencing my to pull a manual override of the stats and give Jackson the edge here.

And hopefully it's obvious why Jackson isn't number one - she has the considerable advantage of playing next to point guard Sue Bird as well as forwards Swin Cash and Camille Little, both of whom have had outstanding seasons. So those MVP and PVC numbers are just going to be lower for Jackson than they are the other candidates.

  1. Sylvia Fowles, Chicago Sky

The argument for Fowles is simple: nobody in the league has assumed a larger responsibility for their team's success than Fowles, who sits at 30.94%. Her vastly improved free throw shooting - which was over 90% early in the season and has plummeted to 80.6% -- has made her the second most efficient scorer in the league by true shooting percentage, at 65.83%.

It's just that when trying to select one of these three players have particularly dominant season, the low plus/minus is a hindrance for Fowles. There are at least two potential reasons - first, the Sky can go through long stretches of time where they Fowles doesn't touch the ball on offense. Although she has definitely improved the range on her shot, she's still limited compared to Catchings and Jackson so on those plays where they put Fowles out on the wing or high post to spread the defense she essentially becomes a non-factor.

Second, Fowles is more effective when the team is shooting the three well...or the team shoots the three well when Fowles is more effective. The point is that if opposing defenses know that they can sag off of Sky shooters, it becomes much easier to defend Fowles on the block. That was essentially the story of the Sky's 4-0 win streak after their 0-4 start - they shot nearly 14% better from the three point line.

A third reason is that Fowles plays 32 minutes a game on an 11-11 team, meaning that her team probably experiences being down a bit more often with their starters on the floor and Fowles bears the brunt of that. Granted, the supporting cast members for Catchings and Jackson are playing very well this season, arguably better than the roster of the Sky - if Fowles was playing with point guard Sue Bird, perhaps we'd see a different outcome.

Looking forward, if the Sky don't make the playoffs and the Storm continue at their pace and the Fever stay on track as an Eastern Conference contender, it would be very hard to choose Fowles over the Catchings and Jackson given how much they are doing for their teams. Nevertheless, none of this should take away from the fact that Fowles is having an absolutely outstanding season.

The "other contenders":           

4. Cappie Pondexter: She's not #4 because of one 40 point game that came playing against Catchings, of all people. Pondexter is here because none of us want to know where New York would be in the standings without her. It could be said that no team relies on a single player as much offensively as the Liberty rely on Pondexter, as demonstrated by her high usage percentage to go with higher pts/empty possession and plus/minus numbers than Catchings. The problem is that it's not necessarily a formula to success.

"Cappie is just a MVP kind of player," said Donovan after her 40 point game in a 84-81 loss to the Fever this Sunday. "The question is whether we are going to win games or get to the playoffs with Cappie scoring half of our points.  That has happened twice for us.  We have players capable of stepping up. That is what we will need to get to the playoffs.   We are capable.  Leilani stepped up in the second half and made shots that weren't open in the first half.  Most of the team struggled.  Every needs balance outside and in."

5. Crystal Langhorne: As Mike Wise of the Washington Post described yesterday, this might not only be one of the nicest stories of the 2010 WNBA season, but also more quietly one of the best stories of the last 5-6 years of women's basketball. By all accounts, nobody who followed Langhorne in the ACC thought she'd be a MVP candidate today. Mystics GM Angela Taylor cited diligence and consistency on multiple occasions during our off-season chat and that's pretty much what we've seen this season. However, the reason she's a notch below Pondexter is that she's not quite as dominant as Pondexter despite putting up similar numbers. Pondexter's ability to create baskets for herself all over the court even when confronted with Catchings gives her the edge.

6. Tina Charles: Five would've been enough, but as you can see Charles is so close to MVP status in her rookie year that it's worth a mention. Of course, a rookie by the name of Candace Parker -- who would be in this mix were it not for injury -- won the MVP in 2008 so it's not unheard of. Nonetheless, Charles is looking like a very good centerpiece for the Sun to build around for years to come.

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