Was the 2002 WNBA MVP award tainted?

Sheryl Swoopes was, by most any measure, one of the greatest WNBA players of the founding generation. Five time first team All WNBA, three time Defensive Player of the Year, two time scoring champ, and four time champion. She also won MVP three times. Many of you are already aware of the controversy that surrounded the 2005 award, which Swoopes narrowly won over Lauren Jackson after two Houston based voters left Jackson off their ballots entirely. Today we're going to take a look at the 2002 MVP award, which may have been affected by something entirely different.

First, let's see how the 2002 MVP voting went:



It was not a particularly close vote. Lisa Leslie, the 2001 MVP, came in second on a down season for her. Tamika Catchings third place finish was at that point the best MVP result ever for a rookie. Why would anyone think the results should have been any different?

Note the name in 4th place. Chamique Holdsclaw led the league in scoring and rebounding in 2002. Her Mystics finished third in the East reached the conference finals. How does someone do that without winning or strongly contending for the MVP award? Why was she a distant 4th in the voting?

The answer is simple. Holdsclaw only played 20 games out of the 32 game schedule. Then, as now, the most games any player had missed while winning MVP was three. The voters weren't about to give the league's highest award to someone who missed 38% of the season. That would be like an NBA player winning the award while playing only 50 games.

Hold on, you're probably saying. An NBA player who played 50 games wouldn't be eligible for the scoring or rebounding title. In a 32 game season it would take at least 28 games to qualify. How did Holdsclaw win those awards?

There are two parts to that answer. First, the WNBA's standards are different from the NBA's....



2002 was the last year of the 32 game season in the WNBA, so to lead the league in something would require either 23 games or the raw stat minimums above. Holdsclaw had 232 rebounds, over the 226 needed to qualify, so that part of the equation is solved. The scoring part is less clear. Holdsclaw scored 397 points, not enough to qualify even under the WNBA's standards.

Why was Holdsclaw awarded the scoring title even though she didn't qualify? There has never been, and likely never will be, an official answer. I've seen it suggested that the league set the minimum standards using the 28 game season they had in 1997 and neglected to update them when the season was lengthened. My guess is that the league didn't trust the fanbase to understand why she would qualify for rebounding and not for scoring, so they awarded her both rather than try to educate the fans.

Should Holdsclaw have been MVP? Well, no. There's no way a player who misses that much time should be the MVP. What does Holdsclaw's scoring title have to do with the MVP award? If Holdsclaw had been deemed ineligible to win the scoring title, as she should have been, then the award would have gone to the league's 2nd leading scorer. Who was 2nd in the league in scoring in 2002? Tamika Catchings.

MVP voting is all about psychology. Leading the league in something influences the vote and scoring is one of the most powerful stats in that regard. If Catchings had been named the league's leading scorer instead of 2nd she would have gotten more votes even though it wouldn't change anything about how well she played. By how much? Let's see how the top two scorers in the league have done in MVP voting...



Players who won the MVP award are marked with a *

Add it all up, leaving out 2002 of course, and the #1 scorer has 4202.98 while the #2 scorer has 2329.58. That's an 80% increase in points for finishing first in scoring rather than 2nd. Add 80% to Catchings 2002 totals and she moves up to 642 points and wins the MVP award.

That's not fair, of course. MVP voters have gotten much more sophisticated over the years. Finishing around the top of the league in scoring doesn't automatically make you an MVP contender like it did then. Last year's top two scorers were 7th and 6th in MVP voting. Finishing first still gives a boost, but coming in 2nd doesn't mean as much as it once did.

Let's apply the standards of MVP voters of 10 years ago. Adding the vote totals of the top scorer and 2nd place scorer from 1997-2001 we get 1825 for #1 and 1408 for #2. That's a 30% bump. That moves Catchings up to 461 points, still shy of Swoopes' total. That's not even accounting for the probability that Swoopes would have also gotten more votes, as she would have been the league's second leading scorer with Holdsclaw out of the picture.

What's the conclusion? The 2002 MVP race should have been closer, and Tamika Catchings deserved to finish ahead of Lisa Leslie for 2nd. Sheryl Swoopes won the award and deserved it.

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