Ample help with this list came from James Bowman who did the statistical rankings and Jessica Lantz who conducted the interviews referenced with Tulsa Shock assistant coach Teresa Edwards and guard Sheryl Swoopes below.
Statistics are obviously an imperfect way to determine the Top 15 WNBA players of all time given that the stated criteria include, "contributions to team success and the overall growth of women's basketball."
Nevertheless, statistics can serve as a shorthand for quickly comparing players when trying to whittle the league's entire history down to 30 nominees.
And when looking over the list generated by James Bowman's Hall of Fame probability calculator, the first name that popped up as missing from the WNBA's list was Houston Comets guard Janeth Arcain.
Arcain earned four rings as a significant contributor to Comets' early dominance when their name was almost synonymous with "WNBA champions". So Arcain rated highly for at least one rather simple reason that James outlined clearly: players get extra weight in the metric for championship rings, even if they were just the water-carriers on championship teams.
But it's not as if counting rings is some esoteric criteria that James just conjured up arbitrarily - Arcain was one of the handful of players 2011 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Teresa Edwards named when asked about how much weight championships should have in determining the list of Top 15 players, after adamantly stating that she didn't deserve to make the list of course.
"You think about the Houston teams, you had Tina (Thompson), (Sheryl) Swoopes, (Cynthia) Cooper, you had a host of players," said Edwards, who is now an assistant coach with the Tulsa Shock. "You even had Janeth Arcane, but I mean how many of them do you put on the list, is what the question is. And who really was the one to make it happen? That's what it really boils down to but you can't dismiss a championship."
But there's at least one other member of the Shock who might be able to answer Edwards' query.
"I think one of the best compliments that a player could get is when your teammates say to you without you, there's no way we win a ring," said Shock wing Sheryl Swoopes, a teammate of Arcain's with the Comets for the entirety of her career. "Maybe you're not in the newspaper every day or you're not the leading scorer, but as teammates we knew what she brought and I wouldn't trade her - I wouldn't trade her for any player in this league because she was just that type of a professional. She didn't get caught up in all the individual stuff and things like that, she just wanted to win."
Playing in the shadow of one of the best trio of players in basketball history, Arcain didn't put up the the same type of numbers as some of the other 30 nominees on the WNBA's list. But in 2001 she seized the opportunity to put up numbers that demonstrated her talent.
Taking on a bigger role offensively in the absence of Cooper after winning the WNBA's first four championships, Arcain increased her scoring average by 10 points, and won both WNBA Most Improved Player and First-Team All-WNBA Honors at age 32. Although that's probably the most notable year on her WNBA resume, Swoopes still thinks her value goes beyond the numbers.
"I always thought that Janeth Arcain was underrated," said Swoopes, who was Arcain's opponents in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. "And I think that's because she played with me and Coop and Tina so when everybody talked about our team, they talked about the Big 3 and that was Coop, Swoopes and Thompson. But the good thing about her is that she never allowed that to mess with her mind or she never allowed that to say you know what they don't care about me anyway, they don't think I can play. I think she used that as motivation."
Beyond what Arcain did on court for the Comets, she also meant something to her native Brazil.
In representing her country in national competition, Arcain gained national prominence with some considering her a "God-like figure" and fellow Brazilians like Atlanta Dream guard Iziane Castro-Marques seeing her as something of a role model.
Iziane Castro Marques has Atlanta Dream within one win of WNBA finals - ESPN
"They were all a great influence for me. I watched them win the championship in 1994," Castro Marques said. "Hortensia is my idol, she's a goddess. Now she's on the national team [as director], and I'm going back to it because of her. I can talk to her about things, and it's a big comfort."
It's hard, then, to deny that Arcain meant something both to her team's success and likely awareness of women's basketball worldwide as such an icon.
Arcain might not be widely considered Top 15 material. But in terms of honoring the best the WNBA has to offer, how might we know whether she at least deserved a nomination?
We'll use two things to identify players excluded from the list who might have deserved consisderation:
- The Hall of Fame probability calculator numbers, subtracting ABL statistics as described previously.
- James' team-by-team "Ring of Honor" list, posted last night - being among your franchise's top players would certainly seem to qualify you inclusion among a list of nominees for what amounts to the league's 15-player Ring of Honor.
- Any individual distinctions or records a player holds that has earned them a place in history (not things included in the Hall of Fame probability calculator).
Obviously, there are numerous players that have intangible qualities like Arcain that might qualify them for inclusion on this list, but this is a good start.
For now, let's put off the question of who any of these players should replace on the actual list of 30 nominees and just sit with this list of candidates - while you might not think they're top 15 material, should any have been included in the top 30?
The following are few arguments for some of those with the strongest arguments.
Nominees from Top 30 in the Hall of Fame probability calculator and a "Ring of Fame"
Stinson was named Second-Team All-WNBA in 1997 and 1998 and her career Player Efficiency Rating (PER, which James describes here) ranks 17th all time. The Hall of Fame probability calculator put her just ahead of Katie Smith (based on WNBA stats alone) and James had her ranked second on the Sting's Ring of Fame.
For as good as she was, there has to be something said for the fact that she was a founding player as well.
Lindsay Whalen, Guard, 2004-present
Ring of Honor: Connecticut Sun
Fun facts: Holds numerous records at the University of Minnesota, where her jersey was retired in 2005
Whalen was in the top 30 among by Hall of Fame probability ratings with ABL statistics included and moved into the top 20 using WNBA stats alone. Although she doesn't have a ring, she led the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005. In 2008, she was a strong MVP candidate and finished second to Candace Parker while also earning First-Team All-WNBA honors.
Statistically, she ranks 20th in PER, 17th in true shooting percentage, and fifth in assists per game all-time. And it's those assists that she has picked up as a point guard that actually strengthens her argument - point guards bring more to the floor than we can quantify or most people can even see. Put it this way: you don't realize how vital the task of just being able to bring the ball upcourt and initiate the offense until you watch a team try to play without a player capable of doing so. Whalen does the job of running a team as well as anyone and although she doesn't have the rings that some of the top point guards have, it's actually harder to make a basketball argument to leave her off this list than it is to put her on it.
If the Top 15 were determined by PER alone, Young would be a shoe-in: she's 13th all-time and 11th in points per game. She was also named Second Team All-WNBA twice and First Team All-WNBA and All-Defensive team when the Silver Stars made the Finals in 2008 and Young also had a strong argument for MVP honors.
Like Whalen, based purely on basketball performance, Young is tough to leave off a list of 30 nominees for the WNBA's best. She's among the most athletic players to play in the league and could be considered for any list of top defenders.
Top 30 nominees from the Hall of Fame probability calculator only
For all that talk about Arcain with the Comets, she didn't make the cut for the Comets' Ring of Fame - her career PER is beneath that of Michelle Snow. And aside from having a top 10 career free throw percentage, she doesn't rank highly statistically otherwise.
Like Stinson above, there has to be something said for being a founding player as well.
Nominees from "Ring of Honor" distinctions
Margo Dydek, 1998-2008
Ring of Honor: Utah Starzz
The Intangibles: Thoughts on Margo...and Brian...and Sue...and Marek...
James previously broke down the late Margo Dydek's basketball contributions, with the obvious one being her shot blocking prowess - her 9% block percentage remains #1 in WNBA history with Leslie being a relatively distant second.
While Dydek's impact off the court that many would probably consider her biggest impact on the league, she also represents the question of whether all time statistical leaders should get extra consideration just for being outstanding specialists.
If the Hall of Fame probability calculator included All-WNBA selections, Gillom's Second Team selection in 1997 and First Team selection in 1998 would bump her up a bit in the rankings.
A few others:
Jennifer Azzi, 1999-2003
Fun facts: Head coach at the University of San Francisco, earned Olympic gold in 1996, won the NCAA national championship with Stanford in 1990 en route to the Wade Trophy and Lieberman Award
Azzi is not just on this list to reiterate that point guards are underrated - she still owns the league's best-ever three point percentage in addition to being ranked top 10 in assists per game. If we were to do a top 30 including ABL stats, Azzi would be on the list. Without ABL stats, her strongest argument to make a top 30 would be as a specialist.
Goodson's claim to fame is offensive rebounding, as she's still 15 all-time in offensive rebounding percentage. But like Azzi, her argument would be stronger with ABL statistics.