Normally by this point in a WNBA season, 3-5 players have really separated themselves from the rest as clear favorites for the MVP award.
This year is not nearly as clear.
Even if we were all to agree on one precise definition of "value" - which, I suspect, will not happen in my lifetime - there would be legitimate debate about the various candidates' roles on their given team. The statistics do tell a compelling story, but once context is taken into account becomes considerably less clear. The of course there's the question of how you compare the value of a point guard to a do-it-all small forward to a dominant interior presence.
So after sifting through the league's top players - and changing my mind about 5 times - I found 8 players that present particularly strong and yet very different cases for the 2011 WNBA MVP award.
So with all that in mind, I'm going to order the top eight candidates using the statistical framework I've used in the past* but list the arguments for why each one could win rather than making direct comparisons.
Nevertheless, many things being equal, I do think the top player on this list has an edge over the others that makes her most deserving of the award but after that there are good arguments for multiple players to win the award. And with more regular season left to play before the playoffs, there's probably time for others to "catch" her.
*Note: All of these numbers are as of 8/21/11 because this piece got delayed a day while I reconsidered.
8. Cappie Pondexter, G, New York Liberty: Nearly unguardable one-on-one
The Liberty thrive off of fast break points and points off turnovers and there are few players more dangerous in the open court than Pondexter.
More important to the Liberty, any time I see a defender isolated with Cappie Pondexter on the perimeter, I assume that she's going to score and end up more surprised if she doesn't (personal failing, feel free to ignore). For a Liberty team that can get stagnant in the half court, Pondexter's ability to create scoring opportunities for herself is invaluable.
Yet where Pondexter continues to distinguish herself from the other scorers in the league is with her ability to create for others. Nobody is going to say she's the league's best distributor, but her pure point rating of 0.50 is better than some point guards in the league and that ability to alternate between distributor and scorer when her team needs it makes her a difficult player to game plan for.
In the abstract, we could discuss why Pondexter isn't fit to win the MVP award, chief among them being that she isn't the most efficient scorer given her style of play. But we also don't have to worry about standing in front of her with a live dribble.
7. Becky Hammon, G, San Antonio Silver Stars: Making positive plays for her team
Plus/minus is not necessarily the best way to determine a MVP for a number of reasons (see Fowles, Sylvia), but it's useful in evaluating the performance of starters and thus equally useful for MVP candidates - no matter how you define value, the team should get better when a MVP steps on the court.
Hammon has the second highest plus/minus in the league (+17.9) behind teammate Sophia Young (+19.3), meaning that when she's on the court her team is nearly 18 points better than their opponents. When you combine that with not only her ability to score so efficiently (60.78% true shooting percentage) at a high usage but also her ability to use the threat of scoring extremely well in setting up teammates at an above average rate (24.41% assist ratio) and efficiency (0.16 pure point rating), Hammon deserves consideration for the MVP award.
If the Silver Stars miss the playoffs, it will be harder to make an argument for Hammon given the field. But that shouldn't negate the fact that she has accounted for 20.28% of her team's overall statistical production (8th most in the league), which means she is a player that her team relies on heavily, she accepts that responsibility, and carries it out more efficiently than almost anyone on this list.
6. Tina Charles, C, Connecticut Sun: Filling team needs
As the league's leading rebounder, there's one very simple way to look at Charles' value to the Sun - they're already 8th in second chance points allowed (12.04/g) and they might be last without her defensive rebounding effort (24.74% defensive rebounding percentage). If one way to look at value is filling a major team need, Charles has that argument locked down.
Aside from the rebounding contributions, her team relies on her rather heavily for scoring as well (26.27% usage rate) and considering that the Sun's 47.07% effective field goal percentages is less than their opponents' 47.95% that's almost as big a deal.
What makes Charles particularly dominant in the post is that she's quick, strong, and has balance that allows her to both outmaneuver and overpower opponents. Those physical gifts do make it somewhat surprising that she doesn't have a higher rate of free throws produced (17.36%) or true shooting percentage (49.92%), but she already gives this team so much as a second year player that it's hard to even begin critiquing her too much.
5. Lindsay Whalen, PG, Minnesota Lynx: Best at her position and best player on the best team
I understand why people stand by the argument that the MVP should be the best player on the best team. But it's not at all a logical way to determine value, even in the instances when it leads to a strong conclusion (e.g. Lauren Jackson in 2010, Diana Taurasi in 2009, etc.).
It's pretty well established that a pro basketball team needs two or three elite players to win a title, making the preliminary task of determining who is the best player on the best team often hard to figure out after parsing through intangibles and style of play; that can be doubly or triply true for a deep and extremely talented team like the Lynx. Even after that, making the case that the best player on a talented team means more to their team than the best player on a struggling team (see Fowles, Sylvia for most of her career) becomes a rather convoluted definition of value.
Nevertheless, Whalen might present an opportunity to leverage this illogic once again. The Lynx are second to only the Phoenix Mercury in fast break points (14.46 per game) and second to the Liberty in points off turnovers (18.54/g) while also being second in the league in points per 100 possessions (104.95). In addition, they have one of the best turnover differentials in the league. So although they aren't the fastest team in the league, that they're able to score so many points in uptempo situations speaks to the value of the person leading that attack.
Well, it's no coincidence then that Whalen has consistently been the most efficient point guard in the league all season (6.18 pure point rating) and her status as arguably the best point guard in the league this season is what defines her value to the Lynx. Whalen is third in the league with a MVP of 11.68, which is inflated by team production but primarily her contribution to the team's wins.
Yet returning to the point about plus/minus, her -1.8 rating stands out a bit - how can a player be considered most valuable if the team scores more points with them off the court?
The answer for Whalen this season might be obvious - in addition to being deep, the Lynx have played in a few lopsided contests where there was enough garbage time for players behind her in the rotation to put up numbers against other teams' second units while she was getting her numbers against starters. It's possible her plus/minus is a reflection of her team beating other teams pretty badly rather than a knock on her value.
4. Penny Taylor, F, Phoenix Mercury: The most efficient all-around player
Penny Taylor is the second most efficient scorer in the league with an outstanding shooting efficiency of 65.13%. For a perimeter player to do that while approaching 100 three point attempts and generally taking shots further from the basket is noteworthy on its own. Just as few perimeter players are capable of a 55.80% 2-point percentage.
But aside from scoring, Taylor is the Mercury's most efficient distributor with a 3.73 pure point rating. Her ability to find teammates in transition and in the halfcourt is a huge asset for a team that has had inconsistent point guard play at times this season.
We could go on about Taylor, but the bottom line is that there isn't a whole lot she doesn't do for the Mercury. Although she's destined to be (constantly) overlooked by fans looking for flashier players or bigger scorers, Taylor not only does all the little things that help carry a team to the playoffs but also does them extremely well at a high level of efficiency.
3. Sue Bird, PG, Seattle Storm: Where would the Storm be without her?
Bird's argument for the MVP award is pretty clear: it's hard to imagine the Storm being close to playoff contention without Sue Bird.
That's not only because of the clutch shots she's made this season, but also because the Storm have always been noticeably less fluid with Bird off the floor and this year is no different. Aside from Lauren Jackson's injury, most of their roster has seen a dip in productivity compared to last season. All Jackson's injury has done is just remind us just how dominant a player Sue Bird can be when not focused exclusively on setting up teammates.
Without Jackson on the floor, Bird has been tasked with winning a number of games virtually alone this season, accounting for upwards of 50% of the Storm's overall production more than once. And even with Jackson, there were times when Bird's competitive will is the only thing that kept the Storm in games - their first loss at KeyArena to the Minnesota Lynx stands out as a shining example of that. To be sure, the team does tend to play better when Bird is more efficient as a distributor, but win lor lose the primary reason the Storm are even in striking distance of second place in the Western Conference.
There are a lot of concrete reasons that Bird deserves votes this year, but what still cannot be measured is her role as a team leader as a point guard, even if she is called upon to score more often; people often don't appreciate the value of a point guard who cannot only bring the ball over halfcourt, but also get the team into the offense, and then create scoring opportunities for others efficiently until they see a team without that presence.
The combination of quantifiable, tangible, and intangible factors along with Jackson's absence might make this the best shot at a MVP award in Bird's storied career.
2. Sylvia Fowles, C, Chicago Sky: Largest contribution to the team
If you were to make a choice between Charles and Fowles, inevitably someone would point out that Charles' team is better and again I'd respond by saying it's an award rewarding individual value.
But if you think it's hard to imagine the Storm making the playoffs without Bird, try to imagine the Sky without Fowles.
Or don't, because it's a somewhat frightening proposition.
Nobody in the league contributes more to their team that Fowles who accounts for 29.90% of her team's overall statistical production. Although part of that is due to most of her teammates (aside from Epiphanny Prince) being surprisingly unproductive, the fact is that nobody is doing more for their team individually this season than Fowles.
No center in the league right now has been a more efficient scorer than Fowles, who boasts a true shooting percentage of 63.34% and a free throw rate of 34.97%, which is a valuable asset on a team that is not particularly efficient offensively. Similar to Charles with the Sun, her 23.68% defensive rebounding percentage has added value given that the Sky are ninth in second chance points allowed (12.35/g). She helps anchor the league's second best defense, which allows only 94.27 points per 100 possessions.
So why isn't she a shoe-in? In a year with so many qualified candidates, a negative plus/minus - even for a player whose team struggles to score and has a turnover problem that prevents a center from even touching the ball at times - doesn't necessarily hurt, but gives others a stronger case. Furthermore, f indeed the Sky both miss the playoffs and finish below .500, it would be hard to choose Fowles over the other top 4-5 candidates.
Just to clarify what might seem like a contradiction with the earlier point that team success should not be the sole determinant of the MVP award: although "best player on the best team" is not a particularly logical argument, it helps any MVP's argument to at least get their team to the playoffs, if not over .500. It shouldn't eliminate a candidate from contention, but given that other players appear to be carrying their teams to the playoffs that might just be an added bonus that Fowles might not have.
1. Tamika Catchings, F, Indiana Fever: The best all-around player in the WNBA
People always manage to justify Catchings not winning the MVP award by saying that she doesn't have the numbers, but that depends on how one interprets the numbers.
Although she's not as efficient a scorer as last season, she's been more efficient this year than any other year since her second season in the league (56.31%). But she's also an efficient passer (1.37 pure point rating) and a solid rebounder for her position (19.07% defensive rebounding percentage), which adds to a team whose opponents out rebound them on the offensive boards.
But most of all with Catchings, it's about the combination of her offensive production and her outstanding defensive ability, which allows her to cover multiple positions on the court at multiple locations. All-in-all, Catchings accounts for 24.49% of her teams overall statistical production and has a MVP of 13.92, second only to Fowles.
Of course adding to the narrative is that the Fever are in first place in the Eastern Conference and Catchings is "due" for this award, but those pleasant narrative elements aren't even required to justify Catchings getting this award.
|Catchings, Tamika||Indiana Fever
|Fowles, Sylvia||Chicago Fever
|Bird, Sue|| Seattle Storm
|Taylor, Penny||Phoenix Mercury
|Whalen, Lindsay||Minnesota Lynx
|Charles, Tina||Connecticut Sun
|Hammon, Becky||S.A. Silver Stars
|Pondexter, Cappie||N.Y. Liberty
Click her for explanations of the numbers (as of 8/21/11).
Kevin Pelton's WARP leaders (which has a similar top three and, for whatever it's worth, reinforces the point about Taurasi arguably not being the MVP of her own team)