2011 WNBA Awards (Part 1): MVP, All-WNBA, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Woman, Most Improved Player

The most difficult part of figuring out end of season awards is that no matter who you select someone will take it as a slight to their favorite player.

That's especially true this year as you get to MVP and All-WNBA voting: trying to pick just four guards across two teams, for example, is a difficult task and parsing out first and second team is especially hard because it implies a hierarchy of talent when their isn't necessarily a clear one. There are arguably 5-6 nearly equivalent guards vying for four spots.

Maybe moreso than past years, these awards are ultimately more about evaluating someone's 2011 portfolio than any objective judgment of who they are as a player. So to warm-up before some of the tougher choices, I'll start with some of the clearer choices and work my way down.

Sixth Woman of the Year Award: DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix Mercury

Although it's becoming status quo for Bonner to win this award, she wasn't exactly the frontrunner all season - All-Star rookie forward Danielle Adams probably would've been the favorite had she played an entire season and All-Star guard Essence Carson isn't a bad choice either.

What sets Bonner apart is versatility on both ends of the floor: she's one of the few players who ends up guarding positions 1-5 and offensively she's extended her shooting range, shooting twice as many threes at about the same percentage as last season.

Honorable mention:

This hasn't changed much since last week, so click here for more on this one.

  • Essence Carson, G, New York Liberty
  • Jessica Davenport, C, Indiana Fever

Most Improved Player Award: Kia Vaughn, New York Liberty

This one is tough because, statistically, the top six candidates at mid-season got less productive in the second half of the season except one: Tulsa Shock forward Tiffany Jackson.

So why is Vaughn the choice? What we have to acknowledge about Vaughn (and Seattle Storm center Ashley Robinson) is that they went from rating as non-rotation players statistically based on their 2010 production to being effective starters in 2011. Whatever anyone else did, Robinson and Vaughn truly demonstrated a transformation in basketball ability this season whereas most of the other players candidates improved their production or role on the team with similar skill sets.

Where Vaughn gets the nod over Robinson is really circumstantial: Vaughn was forced to fill a void for the Liberty and then became a regular starter on a playoff team. Setting aside numbers, she improved dramatically defensively, figuring out how to use her physical gifts in new coach John Whisenant's. If you need a sign of improved game awareness, look no further than her career-high 5 assists against the Indiana Fever on Friday: her patience and response in the face of double teams has truly improved compared to last year.

Honorable mention:

For a look at the midseason rankings, click here.

  • Ashley Robinson, C, Seattle Storm: Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com has already put together a very persuasive description of why Robinson is absolutely deserving of this award. Last night sort of punctuated that improvement as Robinson did an outstanding job defensively on Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles. So why then wouldn't Robinson be the choice? Robinson was great in 24 minutes per game in 13 games as a starter in place of center Lauren Jackson, but her minutes slowly dropped to 12.75 minutes per game after Jackson's return from injury. Without negating Robinson's obvious improvement as a basketball player, it's fair to say that Vaughn's leap from bench player to everyday starter is impressive and gives her a bit of an edge.
  • Tiffany Jackson, F, Tulsa Shock: Interestingly enough, Pelton's chart shows only marginal per minute improvement by Jackson despite improvement in her averages and that's essentially what her numbers showed at midseason as well. Jackson did improve her production this season, but what Pelton's chart suggests is that a large part of the jump in her numbers can be accounted for by her minutes more than doubling in 2010. Again, that's not to negate what was an outstanding season, but we can say almost without question that Robinson and Vaughn improved more as basketball players.
  • Essence Carson, G, New York Liberty: Carson's greatest improvement was her shooting efficiency, which is what accounts for her increased scoring output. Carson has always been able to use her athleticism to get shots but this year she started hitting them not only with regularity but at key moments in games. As an All-Star and Sixth Woman of the Year candidate, there's been plenty of well-deserved buzz about what she's done this season but MIP might be the least likely award she'll win.

Rookie of the Year: Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx

Once again, this would be a much tougher decision had San Antonio Silver Stars forward Danielle Adams not gotten injured. But with Adams' extended absence and struggle to return to early-season form after her return, Moore gets the nod here.

Although I had Moore at number one in the rookie rankings a month ago, something did actually change in the past month: Moore went from consistent to improved, which is the exactly what you hope for from a rookie. Moore went from about average to above average in her role as scorer for the Lynx, which is impressive. A large part of that is that the shots stopped falling and in August, she shot 46.1% from the field and 42.4% from the 3-point line, both pretty remarkable when considering that her attempts went up.

Forget about her free throw percentage: Moore is too busy hitting jumpers with increasing efficiency to get to the line very often anyway.

For the August rookie rankings, click here.

All-WNBA First Team

Tamika Catchings, F, Indiana Fever (MVP)

There are some who will argue that Catchings doesn't score enough to deserve the MVP award. To those people, I'd ask: what exactly is the cut-off for scoring required for a MVP? Catchings "only" finished the season 10th in the league in scoring this season because she's not a volume shooter like eight of the other nine players in front of her. That's partially because of shot selection and partially because she has a pure point rating that is above average for point guards, which makes her a more efficient passer than any small forward barring Phoenix Mercury forward Penny Taylor and many point guards. She's an efficient passer not because she creates a lot of assists, but because she doesn't turn the ball over very often (a turnover ratio of 10%).

All of that - plus her free throw rate of about 40%, among the highest of any player at her position - is why Catchings is accounts for a larger percentage of the Fever's production than any player did for their team short of Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles. It also explains why she finished the season as the league leader in plus/minus (+12.7).

And none of that - including her plus/minus - accounts for what Catchings does defensively, capable of guarding positions 1-4 successfully.

Punishing a MVP candidate for not scoring more because they are a low percentage scorer is one thing; punishing an efficient top 10 scorer in MVP voting because they're busy doing other things - literally everything else, while accounting for the second largest percentage of her team's production and having the biggest impact on the floor by plus/minus - is indefensible. There are legitimate arguments for other players to win the MVP, but that's not it.

Penny Taylor, F, Phoenix Mercury

Taylor is one of those players who has a reasonable shot at the MVP. Of course, if it's scoring you're concerned about, she's "only" 8th in the league because like Catchings she's busy doing other things. But where she differs from Catchings is that she was ridiculously efficient with a true shooting percentage of 64.21%, matching her performance from 2010. In addition to being an even more efficient distributor (2.89 pure point rating) than Catchings, Taylor actually has an assist ratio (23.40%) that places her squarely in the range of an average point guard. It's not difficult to figure out the value of someone who can pass the ball that efficiently from the wing in a system that thrives on scoring in transition.

Taylor falls short of Catchings in the MVP contest primarily because Catchings is such a dynamic defender, a much better rebounder, and simply accounts for more of her team's success. But Taylor is simply too good a player not to deserve consideration for MVP and it would be unfortunate for her to be left off the All-WNBA first team, although there are plenty of strong candidates at her position.

Sylvia Fowles, C, Chicago Sky

Look no further than Fowles' performance against the Seattle Storm last night for evidence of why she has a very strong claim as the MVP. Sure, you can say that the Sky were feeding her on every play, but how many players could even dream of scoring 19 points in a quarter after everyone has figured out it's going to her on the block?

But MVP voting - contrary to some of the hype - is not about the ability to put on scoring displays in one quarter. In addition to leading the league in field-goal percentage (59.1%), minutes per game (34.6) and blocks per game (2.0), Fowles also became only the second player in WNBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in one season and, for whatever it's worth, the first since the implementation of the 24-second shot clock (three point attempts have gone up in that time). When you consider that the Sky had a turnover problem and inconsistent point guard play - making it difficult for Fowles to even get the ball - what she's done this season is quite remarkable.

There wouldn't be a whole lot more to say about Fowles except that no player contributed more to their team's success than she did - she accounted for just under 30% of her team's overall statistical production. Fowles has been dominant on both ends of the floor this year. The only thing holding her back from a MVP award - she actually does score with the third-best scoring average in the league - is that she couldn't take her team to the playoffs. Catchings' combination of efficiency, versatility and production on a playoff team in a close MVP race led me to give her the edge. But Fowles is a perfectly logical MVP selection on multiple levels, not the least of which is a simple question: where on earth would the Sky have been without her?

Sue Bird, G, Seattle Storm

Although it's definitely reasonable to argue that the Storm had a "disappointing" season relative to lofty expectations, the same question that applies to Fowles, applies to Bird: where on earth would the Storm be without her? Given that center Lauren Jackson missed 21 games this season, I can promise you the answer is not second place in the Western Conference.

It's probably starting to look like I'm merely copying and pasting Kevin Pelton's WARP leaders from September 1 with elaborations, but that's not entirely true - once again, it's a matter of Bird doing so much for her team that you can't ignore her. Bird accounts for just under 23% of her team's overall statistical production, which is more than any guard in the league and fourth overall behind the three players above and Connecticut Sun center Tina Charles. But perhaps more importantly in terms of what matches observation, the Storm's offense is +14.3 when Bird is on the court. In simpler terms, she has had a bigger impact on her team's offense than any player in the league.

There are guards in the league who have put up gaudier statistics and Bird has been more of a scorer than normal with a team-high 14.7 points per game, but arguably no guard has done more to win games for their team than Bird. That doesn't necessarily make her the frontrunner for the MVP, but it takes a special player to carry her team as a distributor and scorer as often as Bird has.

After Bird, things get tough at the guard position.

Lindsay Whalen, G, Minnesota Lynx

Last year there were no point guards on the first team; this year you could argue for two.

But in what has become an annual debate about best point guard in the WNBA for me, Whalen wins in 2011 despite Bird's outstanding season pretty much for what she demonstrated in scoring 20 points and 11 assists the other day - nobody runs an offense more smoothly than Whalen. The Lynx are full of talent and each of them contributes in their own way, but Whalen is particularly significant because she has the ball in her hands more than anyone else and is the player who makes that team's potent offensive attack go.

Not only was she the most efficient point guard with a league-high pure point rating of 6.03, which was significantly above the next best point guard. In addition to leading the league in passing efficiency, she led her high scoring team in scoring efficiency on the strength of 40.5% 3-point shooting.

What that adds up to is Whalen being arguably the best playmaker in the league at the guard position - she is responsible for getting the ball to the right place while recognizing the opportunities to score herself.

All-WNBA Second Team

Becky Hammon, G, San Antonio Silver Stars

Similar to Whalen, what makes Hammon particularly impressive is that she can singlehandedly dismantle a defense in so many ways - driving to pass, score, or get free throw attempts, spreading the court with threes, and just flat out winning games. Hammon isn't far behind Catchings as third in the league in plus/minus (+12.4) and her ability to set up her passing with her scoring so well is what sets her apart from many other guards in the league.

Most remarkable: Hammon gets defensive rebounds at a shockingly high rate (about 10%) for a 5'6" point guard. When you consider where a 5'6" guard normally is when a shot goes up, that's impressive and it represents the heart she plays with better than any other number.

She's not on the second team here because she's inherently inferior to Bird or Whalen - we can't put everyone on the first team and there are about five guards who have a legitimate claim to a spot on the first team based on what they've done this season due to some combination of ability, contribution to team, or basic stats.

But where Hammon might fall behind Bird or Whalen is that in being such a risk-taker, she also turns the ball over more often which makes her a less efficient playmaker. With Bird just doing so much to carry her team to second place and Whalen being way more efficient than either Bird or Hammon as a point guard, Hammon was the choice for second team. That's not at all the same as saying she's not a good player.

Cappie Pondexter, G, New York Liberty

Here is where things get even tougher. Diana Taurasi is the league's leading scorer and put on some spectacular scoring performances this season. Seimone Augustus is one of the greatest scorers the league has ever seen and an underrated defender on one of the league's top defensive teams. But Pondexter's performance this season is on par with either of theirs and again there are only so many spots. So the tie is going to the last remaining guard who is clearly her team's MVP, accounting for just under 19% of her team's production.

Pondexter is similar in function to Hammon in that both are best when they're looking to score first as penetrators and creating opportunities for others off of their scoring ability. Pondexter is just looks to shoot more often thus making her a bit less efficient, and creates assists less often. But she is easily among the best one-on-one offensive players the league has ever seen and for a defensive-minded Liberty team that sometimes stagnates in the halfcourt, Pondexter's ability to make something out of nothing is impressive.

Tina Charles, C, Connecticut Sun

Any player that records 23 double-doubles in 34 games is doing something right. We really can't dispute that. She set new franchise records for scoring average (17.6 ppg.), total points (600), made field goals (254) and field goal attempts (543), all very impressive and part of why she accounted for the second largest percentage of her team's overall production in the league (23%). So why then is she behind Fowles, other than not averaging 20 & 10?

While she's not outside the top 10 in my estimation as Pelton's WARP standings last indicated, the reason why WARP looks unfavorably upon her numbers as a MVP candidate is the same reason I do: having a true shooting percentage around 50% as someone who shoots the ball so often puts her significantly behind Fowles and anyone else under consideration in the top 10. It's especially damaging for someone who gets a lot of her shots right around the basket. A large part of that low true shooting percentage is simply that she hasn't gotten to the free throw line often at all and only shoots 68.7% when she does get there. But if you have to choose between Charles and Fowles for an All-WNBA center this season, it's difficult to find the argument for Charles given all that Fowles has done.

Angel McCoughtry, F, Atlanta Dream

Again, we're to the point that there's more players than slots available which makes this tough, but McCoughtry's second half scoring performance will garner her MVP votes and she's the last remaining forward who has clearly been the MVP of her team.

Adding to McCoughtry's argument for All-WNBA is her defensive ability as someone who will likely be considered for Defensive Player of the Year. She causes so many problems on both ends of the floor that it's difficult to leave her off this list.

Rebekkah Brunson, F, Minnesota Lynx

Again, it's tough to leave anybody off this list and this selection really comes down Brunson, Crystal Langhorne and I'm sure both Candice Dupree and Maya Moore will get a few votes this year as well.

But Brunson has been amazing on the boards this season and that alone makes her among the most imposing defensive forces in the league - it's much easier to run if you rebound and Brunson helps the Lynx do just that while helping the Lynx to a number of wins out of the gate before they gelled.

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