When considering your choice for WNBA MVP, I want you to set aside all of your statistical arguments, close your eyes, and imagine for a moment that you're a WNBA coach.
Try to imagine a sideline personality for yourself but please leave the Salmon colored suit out if possible. Think deeply about what kind of legacy you might want to leave with the media. You might also want to imagine how you would respond to the refs who occasionally make some calls that seem to demand dialogue.
Now, with all that out of the way, how exactly would you prepare your team for a 6'5" player that not only does normal center things like rebounding and blocking shots but also shoots nearly 35% from the three point line and 91% from the free throw line?
Consider that a rhetorical question: I don't have an answer, no coach I spoke with this year had a clear answer, and Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve wondered why anybody would even consider there to be a MVP "race" at all.
"Is there a race? Is there a race?" said Reeve before last Tuesday's game against Seattle. "I think it's pretty simple. Lauren Jackson is MVP of the WNBA in 2010. I don't know how there's a discussion otherwise. She's the best center in the world, she's had an unbelievable summer. She does it all for them. Her team is 25-6. They were 25-4. You can't have a race when one of the best all-time teams has the best center. To me, it's open and shut."
That was probably the quote that ended up swaying me the most and not even because I agreed with Reeve -- her quote just seemed to sum up the collective sentiment of every coach around the league that had to go through the process of preparing for Jackson. And when you start to define value on the very practical level of that an opposing coach has to -- how exactly do I stop this player force of nature? -- statistics start to seem moot.
So it's not just that she's the best player in the world (which, if you think about it, is not necessarily strong criteria for the award) nor is is that she has the best statistics of any of the four reasonable candidates (she doesn't). It's the combination of being the best in the world, clearly having among the best numbers in the league, and -- until some as of yet non-existent basketball genius comes along - she's simply unbelievably hard to plan for. None of that is even to mention her defensive ability.
MVP: Lauren Jackson
Just as Jackson is nearly impossible to stop offensively, she can subtly wreak havoc defensively. Of course part of that comes from her size, strength, and tenacity that make her a solid interior presence. However, more subtly, her agility and speed allow her to step out on the perimeter and not only defend pick and rolls but even match up against perimeter players on occasion.
Los Angeles Sparks guard Andrea Riley might have some insight about what happens when you put all of that together: in their 81-67 loss to the Storm on May 16, Jackson chased down the 5'5" rookie speedster to block her shot on two separate occasions while taking on the responsibility to hold superstar forward Candace Parker to 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting.
There's just no way to measure what it means to a team to have a player that is so versatile on both sides of the court. Please keep in mind that this is no slight to Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles, and Cappie Pondexter, all of whom could make strong claims to the award. But this is about an unbelievably complete player that has been unbelievably difficult to plan for and had an unbelievable year on an unbelievable team.
F -Tamika Catchings
C- Sylvia Fowles
G- Cappie Pondexter
G -Sue Bird
G- Diana Taurasi
G - Angel McCoughtry
F- Penny Taylor
F- Crystal Langhorne
C - Tina Charles
A few notes:
- If I can keep you in coach mode a few moments longer, a note on Fowles. The trendy thing seems to be to inexplicably argue that because the Chicago Sky didn't perform well Fowles is neither a MVP candidate nor, even more egregious, a All-WNBA candidate. Let's follow this logic out, continuing to imagine that you're running or coaching a team. If someone came to you and offered you Fowles in a trade, would you honestly give it a second thought because of the Sky's record? Their record has little to no bearing over her individual value, especially when considering her for All-WNBA honors.
She carried the Sky to what marginal success they had on both ends of the floor and similar to Jackson she forces you to plan around her. The difference is that a) she's neither quite as versatile as Jackson nor b) quite the type of dynamic wing player like Catchings or Pondexter which means that c) she is a bit more reliant on teammates to help her out offensively. However, she is almost undoubtedly the best pure interior defender in the game (Jackson being the more versatile defender at the center position) and if you can't imagine what a 6'6" athletic and healthy Fowles does to disrupt the offense I would recommend taking a trip to the playground sometime and trying to shoot over someone taller than you. It's difficult.
Any reasoning for why she isn't a MVP candidate simply ignores what she's actually done on the floor this season and is rather arbitrary and mostly indefensible if you try to look at it from the perspective of someone who has to coach against the Sky.
- A few people have asked why Bird is a first team player here. It's because she's has been so much better than any other point guard in the league this season that she is not just the best, but her value as a playmaker vaults her into the elite despite what her basic stats might tell you. What Bird brings to the court cannot really be appreciated without watching her play and comparing it to the Storm's performance when she's not on the floor. I am sometimes surprised by how much women's basketball fans underestimate the value of what players like Bird or Lindsay Whalen bring to the court, but their mastery of the nuances of the game is difficult to quantify. If you don't appreciate that nuance in Bird's game, then I would recommend watching more closely during the WNBA playoffs and challenging me on that.
- An extension of that question about Bird is: why isn't Diana Taurasi on the first team? But what I find odd about that question is that people repeatedly fail to acknowledge that Taurasi was not clearly even the best player on her own team: she was at best even with Penny Taylor. If you're going to clamor over anyone being snubbed from this first team, clamor for Taylor.
- I think Tina Charles (strong interior presence as a rookie) and Crystal Langhorne (most productive player on the Eastern Conference champion Mystics) should be considered locks for the second team. The last spot is up for grabs -- there are a few very deserving candidates. McCoughtry is just hands down one of the best scorers and defenders in the league this season. She was less efficient this year than in her rookie year -- field goal percentage dropping with turnovers rising, but I'd argue a large part of that was because she was asked to do a lot more for the Dream on the offensive end and saw an increase in minutes. Where she gets the nod over other players in this range is being the #1 option for a playoff team.
- I don't think there should be any question on the first three. Is this a MVP-consolation-Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-award for Catchings? Partially, but she is also one of the most versatile defenders in the game and is one of those players that makes you want to go outside and work on your defensive slides in a highlight reel world. She can and will defend all five positions, including Jackson at times. That's impressive.
- McCoughty is just one of the most athletic perimeter defenders in the league which allows her to not only disrupt passing lanes to get steals, but also lock down opponents with the ball in their hands. If there is such thing as an "exciting defender", she might be the next in line for it in the WNBA.
- Lindsey Harding goes about her business using her quickness to defend the perimeter on a Washington team that was among the best defensive teams in the league this season. Nakia Sanford, Crystal Langhorne, and Monique Currie are all legitimate candidates for defensive team honors, but even if not necessary, I do think these should be done by position and Harding has quietly been one of the best in the league this year. But there are a number of people who could also be added to this team.
Coach of the Year: Brian Agler and Julie Plank
Petrel already did a solid job of outlining this race this morning, but I'd just like to add something about Agler.
For all the talk of the Storm's dominance this season, the Storm were 13-6 this season when trailing at the beginning of the fourth quarter. 4 of those 6 losses came in the second half of the season when the team had clearly relaxed or wins simply didn't matter. So to Agler's credit, knowing how to coach your team through not only close games, but games in which you were actually down late in the game is quite impressive on its own. Yes, the Storm have veteran players who are able to step it up on their own, but even knowing when to get out of the way or -- as someone on press row pointed out to me recently -- who to yell at in tough situations is a coaching skill that a lot of people simply don't posses. In addition, the fact that this team got out to such a fast start and remained focused is a testament to Agler, as described at SBN Seattle.
Ultimately, both of these two coaches did two very different things this year exceptionally well to the point where comparing them to one another sort of cheapens both. If there was ever a time to give out a co-coach of the year award, this is it. That said, if forced to choose, I think the success that the Mystics achieved despite adversity makes Plank a very worthy candidate.