2011 WNBA Awards (Part 3b): Defensive Player of the Year & All-Defensive Team Selections

The Seattle Storm defense allowed the least points per possession in the league this season and it was even more of a team effort this season with center Lauren Jackson out for most of the season. Photo by Kailas Images

After the extended discussion with Richard Cohen about 2011 WNBA defensive awards posted yesterday, the only thing left to do is to stop playing around and actually make the picks. 

We did most of the work in that conversation as we ended up generally agreeing on the Defensive Player of the Year and some permutation of 8 players for the first and second teams, but that did leave some interesting remaining questions.

First, I'll put the list of candidates here so you don't have to dig through what was admittedly a long post:

Guards Forwards Centers
Armintie Price Tamika Catchings Sylvia Fowles
Lindsey Harding DeWanna Bonner Taj McWilliams-Franklin
Tanisha Wright Angel McCoughtry Ashley Robinson
Essence Carson Camille Little Kia Vaughn
Katie Smith Rebekkah Brunson Tina Charles
Seimone Augustus Plennette Pierson
Epiphanny Prince Tamera Young
Katie Douglas Swin Cash
Jia Perkins Sophia Young
Kalana Greene

 

Our top candidates for WNBA All-Defensive First and Second teams

Although those players are listed by position above, you might recall our brief exchange about positions, which is a point I harp on repeatedly: the traditional positions that we think about in basketball don't really reflect how a team functions. That's even more true for defense.

For example, if a team's starting point guard is a terrible defender and they're facing an All-Star opponent, a coach doesn't hang her head and give up. More than likely, they'll just switch things up and just put their best perimeter defender on the opposing team's best player. In addition, what the other players do to respond to this dominant star opponent in help defense matters as well. So what's more important than positions are how the parts of a unit on the floor come together to create a coherent whole and what flexibility a coach has in constructing that whole.

And that's the crux of what makes it so difficult to make choices: context, strategy, and structure all matter more than normal. Even if we had some objective measure by which to judge defensive ability, we'd still have to take into account what that player adds to a particular unit.

So after further thought - seriously, I re-read that whole conversation - here are my choices, with players who deserve honorable mention based on the players discussed.

Perimeter Perimeter Interior Interior Utility
First  Team Tamika Catchings, Indiana Fever Armintie Price, Atlanta Dream Sylvia Fowles, Chicago Sky (DPOY)
Rebekkah Brunson, Minnesota Lynx Tanisha Wright, Seattle Storm
Second Team Essence Carson, New York Liberty Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta Dream Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Minnesota Lynx Camille Little, Seattle Storm DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix Mercury
Honorable Mention Seimone Augustus, Minnesota Lynx Swin Cash, Seattle Storm
Tina Charles, Connecticut Sun Ashley Robinson, Seattle Storm Tamera Young, Chicago Sky

 

Most of this was already explained in yesterday's post so I won't bore you if you already went through that, but a few notes on some of the final decisions.

Notes:

  • Sylvia Fowles vs. Tamika Catchings for DPOY: We just quickly agreed on Fowles on moved on, but it's hard to not name Catchings the best defender of the season and I sort of waffled on this one. What it comes down to though is that when you have a dominant 6'6" shot blocker like Fowles in the game, it allows you to do so much more elsewhere on the court. It allows players like WNBA steal percentage leader Epiphanny Prince to gamble on steals safely and makes opposing guards think two or three times before going near the rim. It would be just as easy to make an argument that the flexibility that Catchings' versatility offers a coach gives a team similar value, but Fowles is who I'm going with (today - feel free to ask again tomorrow).
  • Why Brunson as the "top" Lynx defender over McWilliams-Franklin? Richard made a very persuasive argument for McWilliams-Franklin as the top choice from the Lynx, but I since decided to go with Brunson after being made aware of an impressive statistic: the Lynx had the best defensive rebounding percentage in league history this season...like ever.

    Team Defensive rebounding %
    2011 Minnesota Lynx 76.5%
    2007 Detroit Shook 75.1%
    2005 Detroit Shock 74.6%
    2010 Washington Mystics 74.2%
    2011 Seattle Storm 73.5%
    Top 5 team defensive rebounding percentages in WNBA history. Links: Basketball Reference stats.

    So if that's so, some credit has to go to Brunson, who led the team and league in defensive rebounding percentage this season. But why does that matter? Those defensive boards that Brunson helped clean up helped the Lynx give up both the least second chance points (9.32) and fast break points (7.94) per game. That's hard to ignore in such a dominant rebounding season, so Brunson's going to get the credit there.
  • Essence Carson vs. Tanisha Wright: Wright and Carson epitomize what makes defensive awards so difficult - both had huge defensive games for their teams on more than one occasion that can't be ignored, but don't necessarily have numbers to support what they do. So how then do we choose Wright over Carson? I edited this out of our posted discussion, but I initially had Carson on my first team and then switched it 10 minutes later simply because if defense is an every play thing Wright playing more minutes matters. That's not a strike against Carson, but it has to be taken into consideration that Wright is usually assigned the top opposing perimeter player for a longer period of time.
  • Angel McCoughtry: We already went back and forth on this, but for me the bottom line is what I said above about units - if I'm putting a defensive unit together, there aren't too many players I'd rather have at my disposal than McCoughtry. Her athleticism is disruptive in terms of blocks, rebounds, and steals on the perimeter and I'm just not sure you can easily account for what that does to an opponent to take them out of their rhythm. McCoughtry's athleticism and length is among the elite in the league and that will make her a mainstay, even if comparisons to Catchings are a bit exaggerated.
  • DeWanna Bonner: Again, back to the imaginary unit I'm building, any player that can guard all five positions as successfully as Bonner can is a huge asset. That Phoenix is a poor defensive team doesn't necessarily implicate Bonner as a poor defender - put simply, they'd be much worse without her giving Gaines the flexibility to at least keep opponents off-balance with different looks, if they're not going to stop them very often.
  • Seimone Augustus: New York Liberty All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter scored single digits twice this season - against the Dream and Lynx. She failed to make a field goal once: against the Lynx. That's impressive and that's due, at least in part, to Augustus. I'd argue that both Carson and McCoughtry are more "dynamic" defenders, so to speak, for what they do, but Augustus' effort this season is no small part of what the Lynx have done defensively this season.
  • Ashley Robinson: Similarly, Robinson is about the closest thing in the WNBA to a lockdown interior defender. The only reason I don't have her on one of the two teams is that she played limited minutes when Jackson was healthy, but I think people tend to forget this: when Storm coach Brian Agler chose to keep Robinson on the roster last year the reason is that he wanted someone on the roster to help their relatively undersized team defend bigs like Candace Parker. Robinson contained Parker in limited minutes early last season before Parker's injury. Shortly after stepping into the starting lineup for Jackson this season, she had a plus/minus rating of +30 in a strong defensive performance against the San Antonio Silver Stars. The other night against Chicago, she held Fowles to 9 points in 21 minutes. Even without taking her shot blocking into account, Robinson is among the best defenders in the league; she just doesn't get the minutes to prove it very often.
  • Swin Cash: The Storm are second behind the Lynx in defensive rebounding percentage this year and Cash was third on the team in defensive rebounding percentage behind Robinson and Jackson (in 13 games). That's impressive as a small forward and the intensity that allows her to match up with some of the league's best earn her the nod here. The Storm were the league's best defense this season in allowing only 94.70 points per 100 possessions and Cash was definitely a significant part of that given her team-high 33.2 minutes per game.

The rest of my selections should be explained in yesterday's post looking at the landscape of candidates.

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