2012 WNBA Most Improved Player Rankings: How Much Better Has Kristi Toliver Been This Season?

Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver has shown an increased willingness to drive to the basket this season, but where does she stand among the league's most improved players? Photo by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE.

Every year I say that the WNBA Most Improved Player award shouldn't be about improved situations but improvements in basketball ability.

Either way, players can become more productive but the most improved players should be the ones that do more with the minutes their given instead of merely getting more minutes to put up better statistics. That's where the valuable contributions ratio (VCR) metric comes in.

Criteria for Most Improved Player contenders

The criteria for MIP candidates has been described here previously and at the center of that is VCR, which is described here at length and summarized as follows:

Every year there are players who improve their productivity and by extension their value simply because they got more minutes. However, the best way to define "improvement" is by looking at whether a player did more with the minutes they got - did they actually demonstrate improvement in terms of contributing more in the minutes they got or did they just contribute at exactly the same rate in more minutes?

This season, Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver is a complex example of both of those dynamics.

And although Toliver has been the favorite for the award in the minds of some, for some reason people seem to be forgetting that Toliver was a strong candidate for both the Most Improved Player and Sixth Woman of the Year awards last season prior to former coach Jennifer Gillom's dismissal; ironically, it was a combination of being moved into a starting role and the coaching change that seemed to trigger her decline in performance last season. And while she has improved, the interesting thing about Toliver's career trajectory is that she is already on her fourth coach in four years, which definitely plays a factor in her success this season - first-year Sparks coach Carol Ross is arguably the best coach she's had in her career.

You could argue that Toliver's improvement this season really is the combination of improved ability and an improved situation, but even then, does that hurt her standing in the MIP race?

The numbers

Player Name 2011 VCR 2012 VCR Change MPG
Krystal Thomas 0.3 1.00 0.70 25.3
Charde Houston 0.54 1.15 0.61 25.6
Alexis Hornbuckle 0.36 0.76 0.40 22.6
Michelle Snow 0.93 1.28 0.35 22.3
Kristi Toliver 0.94 1.29 0.34 31.6
Carolyn Swords 1.13 1.46 0.33 7.5
Temeka Johnson 0.76 1.09 0.33 30
DeWanna Bonner 1.18 1.48 0.30 35.3
Tina Thompson 0.87 1.15 0.28 21.1
Kara Lawson 1.08 1.36 0.28 30.8
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton 0.83 1.11 0.28 13.2
Sylvia Fowles 1.81 2.09 0.28 33
Karima Christmas 0.67 0.92 0.25 11.5
Sophia Young 1.12 1.36 0.24 31.3
Leilani Mitchell 0.77 0.99 0.22 29.1

Top 15 increases in VCR from 2011 & 2012 (as of 8/29/12).

Observations:

  • Injuries have affected this list: Epiphanny Prince (+0.40) & Plenette Pierson (+0.48) would be top candidates here, but they've each essentially missed 9 games this season (the one they were injured in plus 8 additional games). As good as they've each been, it's hard to make an argument for a player who has missed nearly a quarter of a 34-game season.
  • Players who fell out of the top 15: Eight players who were in the top 15 the first time around are no longer on this list, but those numbers are from June 15 - teams have obviously played more games since that time and the ones remaining on this list have been the most consistent, players who didn't just get off to really hot starts, or players whose roles have stayed the same. For reference, Ewelina Kobryn (+0.22) and Monica Wright (+0.20) are still within the top 20.
  • Mistie Mims: Mims actually has the biggest improvement in the league since the last season she played (+0.71), but she last played in 2010 and it's difficult to grant an award to a role player who has improved over a two year span over some of the others on this list.

A number of the players above are benefiting from a change in scenery, but the improvement of five stand out.

The top five candidates for 2012 WNBA Most Improved Player

DeWanna Bonner, F, Phoenix Mercury

Bonner has doubled her scoring average this season and her 20 points per game is third in the league. That's impressive.

But surely most of us know that her situation in Phoenix this season has something to do with that: without Candice Dupree, Diana Taurasi, or Penny Taylor on the floor for more than half of the season, Bonner has been forced into a leading role. Her usage rate has gone from below average (17.94%) to high (27.66%) as a result of the team simply not having that many other healthy players who can create their own shots. However, in shooting more threes than she has at any previous point in her career in increased minutes she has actually seen a decline in her rebounding rate. Additionally, her scoring efficiency has declined dramatically from 57.81% to 47.72%.

Bonner has been great this season in her role as leading woman, but she's scoring more points primarily as a byproduct of more shots and her efficiency has suffered.

Temeka Johnson, G, Tulsa Shock

Temeka Johnson is one of those players who has seen improvement due to a new situation, but she has still been so impressive this year that she deserves mention - Johnson has become almost an entirely different point guard in her role with Tulsa.

The most notable difference for Johnson is that her usage rate has increased from almost a non-factor as a scorer (14.04%) to above average for a point guard (21.62%). And yet she hasn't seen that much of a drop in scoring efficiency and has actually decreased her turnover ratio. The decline in her assist ratio can be attributed to playing on a team that doesn't feature Bonner, Dupree, Taurasi, and Taylor as much as her own new role with the Shock. The 5'3" guard has even been a better rebounder thus far this season.

Though Glory Johnson might deserve the statistical credit for Tulsa already having matched their win total from last year without 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage, Johnson's veteran presence and ability to run an uptempo offense has certainly made a huge contribution. She has been a great addition to the Shock, but you might hesitate to call her the most improved player in the league.

Krystal Thomas, C, Phoenix Mercury

Thomas might also be the beneficiary of increased opportunity on the Mercury this season, but she has become considerably more productive and efficient in the process - most importantly, Thomas has increased her offensive rebounding percentage from 5% last season with the Mercury and Seattle Storm to 13.35% this season and her total rebounding percentage from 6.1 to 14.59%.

Though it's impressive that she's made more of the increased minutes she's getting and that she's improved from essentially a non-factor to an above average rebounder in the post, that's the only improvement she's made - a couple of others have made less significant leaps but more diverse ones, if you will.

Kristi Toliver, G, Los Angeles Sparks

Toliver has definitely had an outstanding season, nearly doubling her contribution to her team (her percentage of valuable contributions was 10.53% last season to 20.70%, which would be MVP-caliber were she not playing with Candace Parker).

The most notable statistical improvement for Toliver's game is not really her improved efficiency as much as her improved free throw rate specifically: Toliver has doubled her free throw rate this season (18.12% in 2011 to 36.39% this season), which demonstrates an increased willingness and/or ability to get to the basket. And when she doesn't get fouled with five feet of the basket, she's converting shots at a 64.7% clip. The combination has helped her improve her overall 2-point percentage from 41.9% to 52.63%.

Yet the one area Toliver hasn't made much improvement in happens to be important as a point guard: she has made only marginal improvement in keeping her turnover ratio down and, as a point guard, that's something we might want to see given that she doesn't create for her teammates as much as other point guards and isn't quite as dynamic off the dribble as a point guard like Becky Hammon who uses the threat of her scoring ability to breakdown defenses better than any ball handler in the league. Nevertheless, Toliver is a scorer and the fact that she's diversified her game as a scorer is impressive and worthy of the MIP award.

That's not to diminish her improvement this year, but she clearly started making strides last year and it's quite possible that she's a beneficiary of a new system and coaching staff (as well as a new post threat in rookie forward Nneka Ogwumike) as well.

Kara Lawson, G, Connecticut Sun

Lawson deserves ample credit for transforming herself a top five point guard this season after coach Mike Thibault promoted her to the starting spot over Renee Montgomery.

Comparing Lawson to Toliver - certainly a top 10 point guard this season - is difficult because they are somewhat different players, but Lawson has improved her 2-point percentage by 10% this season (currently 57.6%) and a lot of that is because she shoots 54.8% from 16-20 feet, which is a league high among any guard in the league (and really, best among any rotation player who has shot more than one per game from that range). Her 57.1% shooting from 10-15 feet is second only to Sue Bird among guards. As impressive as those numbers are, the improvement from last year is even more impressive: she has improved almost 15% from 16-20 feet and a somewhat shocking 18% from 10-15 feet (on more attempts through 24 games this season).

Range 2011 2012 Diff
10-15 feet 39.1 57.1 +18%
16-20 feet 40 54.8 +14.%
Overall 2pt% 47.6 57.6 +10%

Lawson's shooting improvement from 2011 to 2012 (as of 8/29/12).

Lawson's improvement as a distributor has already been discussed in the previous point guard rankings post, but the combination of her improvement as a distributor and scorer has helped her increase the percentage of valuable contributions to her team, going from 12.98% last season to 20.64% this season. Aside from all the tangible stuff, the intangible factor of coming into the season in the best shape she's been in in years is equally noteworthy.

Both Lawson and Toliver made strides since last season and both have built on improvement last season to excel as starters this season. There are strong arguments for either one to win the 2012 WNBA Most Improved Player award, but the specific character of Lawson's improvement has been even more outstanding even if Toliver's best moments have been more eye-catching.

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