WNBA MVP Watch: Candace Parker's Value To The Sparks & Other Early-Season Candidates

With Candace Parker out for six weeks with a knee injury, Kristi Toliver might be one player to keep the Los Angeles Sparks going strong this season. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

After the Los Angeles Sparks' 96-91 win over the New York Liberty in the WNBA's 15th Anniversary game last Tuesday, star forward Candace Parker was asked what she learned about the team after recording a double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds.

"I think our bench is always ready to play," Parker said in the post-game interview on ESPN2. "I think it just proved how deep we were - we needed them to come in and bring energy and they did just that."

By the simplest measure, the Sparks' bench has gone from 11th in the league in bench scoring last season (17.21 ppg) to 3rd so far this season (28.86 ppg). Although the San Antonio Silver Stars have made a much larger improvement, the Sparks' improved bench is the biggest reason for their considerable improvement through seven games this year (incidentally, neither team has made much improvement on the rebounding front despite vast improvement).

Yet, the individual most responsible for the Sparks being ranked second in the 2011 WNBA Hollinger Power Rankings (before last night's game) is Parker herself. So what does what we've learned about the Sparks so far in 2011 tell us about how they might perform without Parker as she misses the next six weeks with a torn the lateral meniscus in her right knee?

Around this same time last year, the Los Angeles Sparks were trying to cope with the news that star forward Candace Parker would be out for the season as well. But there were a few significant differences.

Although Parker was still the team's most valuable player by any reasonable standard, one way in which the team is more balanced this season is that with an improved bench Parker is less responsible for the team's overall statistical production this year (26.11%) than last year (30%). While that seems like a small difference, others have stepped up significantly, most notably Kristi Toliver who is now responsible for 11.09% of the team's overall statistical production and considerably more touches per game. With Tina Thompson's touches also going down considerably, this is a team playing very differently in terms of who is taking responsibility for the team's production.

Name 2010 PVC 2010 Touches 2010 Ast Ratio 2011 PVC 2011 Touches 2011 Ast Ratio
C. Parker 30.26% 38.05 10.06% 26.11% 36.58 14.51%
D. Milton-Jones 17.12% 29.49 15.02% 15.94% 30.21 14.57%
T. Thompson 15.94% 29.31 13.38% 12.60% 21.05 9.15%
T. Penicheiro 8.55% 24.37 57.06% 6.11% 30.21 54.7%
K. Toliver 7.70% 14.32 10.82% 11.09% 28.83 20.29%

2010 numbers pre-Parker injury; 2011 numbers as of 6/27/11.

What you should notice right away is that player production overall is being distributed differently with 3-4 percent changes in PVC being significant (on some teams, the difference between a top player and role player). But the assist ratios might be most important to pay attention to - in being a measure of how often one creates assists, they're also a measure of one's willingness to pass.

Toliver's touches have doubled and she's using those touches to create an assist twice as often. With Parker sharing the ball more as well and Thompson sharing the ball less but scoring more efficiently (career-high 59.71% true shooting percentage), it's not only new pieces making this team more versatile and balanced but that some key pieces from last year have changed the way they play in complementary ways. The result is a team that has better defined roles in the early-season offensively and is much more fluid than they were last year: their synergy rating is up to 1.17 this year from 1.07 last year and the difference is noticeable in watching them play.

What makes all of that significant given the Parker's upcoming extended absence is how it prepares them to move forward compared to last year: last year they were clearly a much more stagnant team, but more importantly "top heavy" in terms of how their statistical production was distributed. So given those circumstances, they had to make some shifts in how they played in order to make the playoffs. They eventually did and by August they were playing much better, higher synergy basketball, although it was still primarily running through Milton-Jones, Penicheiro and Thompson.

But this year, with Toliver already playing markedly better basketball, bench additions of Ebony Hoffman, Jantel Lavender and Jenna O'Hea making much larger contributions than last season already and starting guard Noelle Quinn also much more efficient as a ball handler, the Sparks are already a team that can win without Parker without undertaken the rather drastic changes they had to last season.

Nevertheless, Parker is a MVP candidate as of today because her versatility and ball handling ability from a frontcourt position makes the Sparks much more dangerous than they are otherwise. On a very basic level, she's the best rebounder on a team for which rebounding is not a strength, to say the least.

Although Parker might not have enough games under her belt to be considered a MVP candidate at the end of the season, this stretch of six weeks will certainly demonstrate how valuable she is through her absence. Or perhaps put another way, the Sparks bench could show their value in picking up that 28.11% of the team's production that Parker normally accounts for.

Either way, with Parker out and Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson also injured (and having a down year), who else is in the running for MVP?

Below is a brief overview of the top candidates for 2011 WNBA MVP using the same framework from last season.

While there are some familiar faces - and arguably the same person at the top statistically - the pecking order is shaping up to be a bit different. And thus far - unlike last year - it's hard to even figure out who the frontrunners might be (although this would help to figure out who I might like as All-Stars)

Interior players: 

Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles would almost unquestionably be at the top of my personal MVP list right now, particularly as long as her team remains in playoff range. Offensively, there is no player using as large a percentage of her team's possessions (28.45%) while scoring as efficiently (2.75 pts/empty possessions) as Fowles. Of course, she's still an imposing defensive presence and arguably the best. The combination is why no player is responsible for a larger percentage of her team's overall production than Fowles (28.76%).

Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson obviously has a pretty strong argument for MVP honors right now, averaging a double-double and ranking second in the league in plus/minus with a rating of +29.5 (which we can expect to level out over the course of the season. A large part of why Brunson has such a large impact on the court is that she does the vast majority of the Lynx's rebounding (as described previously), with a defensive rebounding percentage of about 30% (which is very good). One thing (there's two) that keeps her from being at the top of the list in terms of estimating whether she adds more important to her team's success than the other players add to theirs - although she obviously does more than score, she also uses the least possessions (16.88%) of any of the top MVP candidates. The reason for that is obvious and what makes the Lynx such a great team to watch when they hit their flow - the Lynx have by far the most balanced top five in the league with each player fitting a role that helps the team win meaning that Brunson's 22.67% of her team's overall statistical production is only in the middle of the pack. That's not bad for the team - and the fact that this team struggles to win when she's not pounding the boards means something - but gets into that complicated and seemingly unresolvable discussion of how we determine a player's "value" to a team.

Phoenix Mercury forward Candice Dupree is also picking up where she left off in the latter portions of last season with a strong start this year, accounting for 23.55% of her team's production and having the highest plus/minus of any player in the league (+32.5). There arguably no power forward in the league who's a better for the Mercury's system running the floor end to end to finish transition baskets. She and Kara Braxton are anchoring a much-improved Mercury rebounding presence in 2011. It's fair to say that Dupree's presence makes the Mercury extremely difficult to stop in the open court and thus someone to keep tabs on in MVP discussions.

Connecticut Sun center Tina Charles is continuing to excel, increasing her scoring efficiency while her rebounding numbers are down a bit so far this season. Her MVP numbers are modest compared to the others on this list - her plus/minus of -3.9 certainly doesn't help much - but leading her team as a focal point again does help quite a bit (although Renee Montgomery is also right with her on the Sun).

Wings:

Mercury forward Penny Taylor deserved her Player of the Week award for the way she's been playing this season. As of right now, she's doing so much well for the Phoenix Mercury that she deserves early-MVP consideration. Her MVP numbers are only marginally lower than Dupree's, accounting for 23.42% of the team's total statistical production and having a plus/minus of  +20.1 (8th in the league), but there are quantifiable aspects of her game that also have a huge impact on what makes the Mercury great. Taylor is among the top 10 most efficient distributors in the league from the wing, which is fairly remarkable (especially two years in a row). She's also the team's most efficient scorer at 61.45% and can score in a variety of ways. With Taylor, you end up asking what can't she do and come up with the answer "not much". And that ability to fill so many roles for the Mercury at once is what defines her value.

Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings will probably make any MVP list of mine by default just because, like Taylor, she does a ton for her team but adds defensive ability to to the equation. Last year, a large part of what strengthened her argument for MVP was her career-high shooting efficiency (60.7% true shooting percentage), which had been the knock against her in previous years. Unfortunately, thus far this season Catchings has her lowest shooting efficiency (51.33% true shooting percentage) since 2005. That and a negative plus/minus thus far this season probably work against Catchings' annual MVP campaign this season, but something has to be said for the fact that she accounts for 22.12% of her team's statistical output on a team where there is a large gap between the top two (Catchings and Katie Douglas) and the rest of the team.

Point guard

I'm breaking out the point guard position as something separate because more than one coach would tell you that a point guard is "the coach on the floor", which would make the point guards' value automatically greater than that of anyone else's in many situations. The problem when looking across the league is twofold: in being primarily responsible for initiating the offense and facilitating scoring opportunities for others - two things that great point guards can do with noticeably more ease than others - they don't put up gaudy numbers in the requisite points and rebounds categories that people superficially look at first.

But I note that for the umpteenth time because Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird has as good a chance to become the first point guard MVP as anyone this season because she is scoring a bit more than usual. And although 2010 MVP Lauren Jackson has been out for the past game and a half, the difference this year - perhaps bittersweet - is that Bird is poised to put up the necessary numbers for a full season rather than just when Jackson falls to injury. At present, Bird is right behind Fowles and Parker accounting for 25.34% of her team's overall statistical production and being one of the most efficient scoring distributors in the league. She has shown the capacity to continue to perform and carry her team even when getting almost no help from her teammates.

In a slightly different way, Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen deserves consideration as the most efficient distributor in the league on a team for which decision-making in transition has been critical to success. Whalen has been a more efficient scorer and has a higher assist ratio than Bird and her ability to get to the line gives the Lynx something in an area that is a relative statistical weakness for them. Most impressive is that for all the talk of Brunson, Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, the addition of Taj McWilliams-Franklin and the team's overall talent, Whalen is producing the second most for the team, accounting for 21.22% of the team's statistical production.

Lastly, if things consider to go as they have thus far this season and people abide by the old "the MVP is the best player on the best team" mantra, San Antonio Silver Stars guard Becky Hammon has to be on the list. Hammon is not a "point guard" in the traditional sense as someone who can go from perimeter scorer one season to distributor the next, but at their best Hammon is making plays for others while looking for her shot and she's done that exceptionally well thus far this year - she has an assist ratio of 30.16% while also using a larger percentage of her team's possessions (26.04%) than anyone on this list except Charles and Fowles. Add to that a plus/minus of +16 that is higher than either of the other guards and Hammon has a strong case for MVP even on a well-rounded team on which she ultimately accounts for 19.23% of her team's production.

But here's what makes the point guard position tough to compare in MVP races: each one of these players has such a strong presence on the court that it's hard to quantify that and compare it to players who aren't expected to direct an entire offense.That added leadership responsibility has to be worth something and if any one of the Lynx, Silver Stars, or Storm end up atop the league this season it will be hard not to consider the value of their point guards.

Of course, that could be said about any one of these players - the presence of each one of them demands attention in different ways that can't be quantified. And in a year when everything appears to be relatively close,

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