2012 WNBA MVP Race: Candace Parker, Sophia Young Lead The Top Five Candidates

By now, I'm sure you're well-aware of the depth that the USA women's basketball team possesses.

It's a roster that features no player drafted lower than 4th overall, perennial WNBA all-stars, 9 players who have been significant contributors to a WNBA Finals team, at least one representative from each of the last three WNBA champions, and a few past WNBA MVPs.

But to that last point, how many players on this year's team might be considered 2012 WNBA MVP candidates based on games played prior to the Olympic break?

The MVP Framework

As usual, I tend not to define "value" as the "best player" or the "best player on the best team" but instead as the player who contributes the most to their team's overall success. I've broken that down previously as follows:

  1. Contribution to team success: Marginal victories produced (read more)
  2. Largest contribution to team success: She should probably be responsible for the most marginal victories produced on her own team.
  3. Credit for team success: The percentage of a player's valuable contributions to the team (read more)
  4. Impact on the floor: Plus/minus, which is explained in depth in all its various forms here. (A quick note on this: there's generally context that helps to explain any player's net plus/minus, but a negative plus/minus should probably raise questions for a MVP candidate relative to their peers - on the surface, it suggests that the player (or unit) that replaced her while she was out of the game managed to help the team perform better. It makes it difficult to argue that's the profile of a MVP candidate.)
  5. Efficiency at creating scoring opportunities: usage percentage and points per empty possession. Usage percentage also tells us a little bit about how much a player's team relies upon them (or is forced to deal with them taking the initiative) to create scoring opportunities. The best players can use up a lot of plays while creating scoring possessions and limiting non-scoring or "empty" possessions.

The Top 20 "Most Valuable" Players Prior To The Olympic Break

The following is a list of the top 19 players in the league (plus one additional significant player) ordered by MVP, which - by no coincidence - also includes the league leaders in each of the above categories for some perspective.

Player

Team

MVP

PVC

Plus/minus

Usage%

Pts/empty possession

Sylvia Fowles

Chicago

16.68

32.60 *

+ 9.8

21.85

3.04

Tamika Catchings

Indiana

13.24

23.57

- 2.1

26.40

2.44

Candace Parker

Los Angeles

12.74

24

- 6.1

27.86

2.04

Sophia Young

San Antonio

12.57

21.85

+ 18.4

23.31

2.56

Tina Charles

Connecticut

12.56

23.34

+ 10.9

26.92

2.31

Crystal Langhorne

Washington

12.11

25.56

+ 5.1

21.62

2.70

DeWanna Bonner

Phoenix

10.83

25.04

+ 0.6

27.29

2.00

Kara Lawson

Connecticut

10.8

20.12

+ 7.9

17.02

3.33 *

Cappie Pondexter

New York

10.70

25.06

- 10.6

29.15

1.97

Kristi Toliver

L.A.

10.48

19.74

- 1.1

23.97

2.16

Player

Team

MVP

PVC

Plus/minus

Usage%

Pts/empty possession

Sue Bird

Seattle

10.33

21.37

+ 19

20.82

1.94

Sancho Lyttle

Atlanta

10.24

19.58

+ 13.3

25.01

1.81

Maya Moore

Minnesota

10.06

16.50

+ 13.4

22.25

2.36

Nneka Ogwumike

L.A.

9.99

18.8

+ 11.3

20.41

2.63

Becky Hammon

San Antonio

9.90

17.22

+ 12.3

23.88

2.13

Taj McWilliams-Franklin

Minnesota

9.3

15.27

+ 20.3 *

14.95

2.27

Angel McCoughtry

Atlanta

9.05

17.32

+ 14.8

34.78 *

1.86

Glory Johnson

Tulsa

9.23

19.56

15.5

20.41

2.29

Lindsay Whalen

Minnesota

8.75

14.34

-4.8

20.56

1.98

Epiphanny Prince **

Chicago

8.08

15.80

+ 19.2

27.58

2.90

Top 19 WNBA players ordered by MVP as of 7/13/12.
* = League leader in a statistical category

** A Player To Watch: Epiphanny Prince

You might already have figured out that Epiphanny Prince is the player that fell outside of the top 20 MVP scores who I added here (with apologies to Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, who was #20). And the reason she was added should also be obvious: she was having an outstanding season before suffering an injury.

I was actually trying to figure out a "most impressive" statistic for Prince and I'll skip that she's second in plus/minus, still ranks second on the Sky in overall percentage of valuable contributions despite missing nearly half their games in the first half, or that she has 65.09% true shooting percentage on the strength of 53.7% 3-point shooting. Despite all that, the most impressive stat involves the Sky's misfortune with out her: Prince went down on July 16 in a loss to the Indiana Fever and the Sky lost 8 of 9 games going into the Olympic break as a result.

In simple terms, the Sky were 7-1 with Prince healthy and 1-8 without Prince (if we include that Indiana game that she left after playing only 8 minutes). When you combine her eye-popping individual numbers with the Sky's performance without her, you have to put her in this discussion. The problem is obvious though: Prince has already missed 9 games this season and no WNBA MVP in the history of the league has missed that many in winning the award. However, if she can return and play the majority of the Sky's remaining games - she expects to play in the Sky's first game after the Olympic break on August 17 - she'll have an argument for consideration if the Sky get back on such an extreme winning pace.

The Top Five

Just looking at the list of 20 players above, those top five probably stand out as a tier above the rest in terms of MVP candidacy - Crystal Langhorne does have solid numbers, but it's difficult to argue that the top player of a team flirting with last in the league has a strong case for the award.

So before moving forward, we have to acknowledge that all five of the following players are having outstanding seasons – each of these players has a legitimate claim to win the award, but the issue is trying to figure out who has the strongest argument for being the most valuable. The numbers help to sort that out to some extent, but adding a bit of context and using the numbers as part of the larger case for each player might be especially important for this season's discussion.

5. Sylvia Fowles, C, Chicago Sky

The case for Fowles: I've been pretty adamant about Fowles deserving MVP consideration over the last couple years despite playing for a lottery team because she is so individually dominant and does so much for her team that few players can claim to be more valuable over the last three years. And thus far this season, there is no player more dominant than Fowles, statistically at least, and that just can't be ignored.

No player in the league is responsible for a greater percentage of their team's overall statistical production and her league-high MVP reflects that: in the past five years since I've tracked that metric, no player has had a three-point advantage over the next closest player in MVP.

The case against Fowles: Nevertheless, the Sky's record with and without Prince really hurts Fowles' case for MVP this season – it's hard to make a case for someone being a MVP candidate when their team went 1-8 without another player. There are reasons for that which I think a close look at those 9 games make clear, but the bottom line is that they weren't a very good team without Prince, as coach Pokey Chatman said, and Fowles can't be exempted from that.

Of course, wins aren't everything and we haven't had a natural experiment of the reverse (Fowles being injured and Prince leading the team). But what we do know is that the Sky could barely win a game without Prince.

To be clear, the problem isn't that Fowles can't win games – basketball is a team sport and if the Sky have proven anything over the last few years it's that no one player can singlehandedly win games; the problem is that it looks right now like Prince is the MVP of this team, which makes it difficult to argue that Fowles is the MVP of the league.

4. Tina Charles, C, Connecticut Sun

The case for Charles: We could certainly debate whether Charles is better than Fowles individually, but given the Sky's struggles without Prince, Charles might have the stronger case as a MVP candidate this season. Fowles has been the better rebounder this season, but Charles is still among the best in the league (19.8% total rebounding percentage). That she's a major contributor on a Sun team that is currently first place in the Eastern Conference helps to boost her MVP rating. That Charles is also the centerpiece of the Eastern Conference's top-rated offense at the break (103.34 points per 100 possessions, third in the league) only adds to the argument in favor of her winning the award – the team scores the most second chance points of any team in the Eastern Conference and Charles is among the best offensive rebounders in the league.

The case against Charles: What continually keeps Charles from ranking higher on these lists is one thing that is hard to reconcile in a MVP discussion: her shooting efficiency is extremely low for a MVP-caliber center and that becomes problematic when comparing her scoring efficiency to the frequency with which she tries to score, as shown in the table below (in comparison to Fowles):

Player

Points/G

Rebs/G

FG%

TS%

Usg%

Tov Rat

Tina Charles

18.7

11.3

48.4

51.84

26.92%

9.17

Sylvia Fowles

18.5

12.4

63.6

65.7

21.85

14.19

Statistics for Tina Charles & Sylvia Fowles as of 7/13/12.

Here's the thing: if you were just to go by points and rebounds, you'd probably say that these two players are pretty even individually. If you add team success to the MVP discussion, perhaps you'd give Charles a major boost. But sliding over to the matter of efficiency you see a subplot emerge that's worth note: Charles uses up a lot more possessions as a scorer yet is much less efficient.

To put that scoring efficiency in perspective, Charles has the second-lowest true shooting percentage of any of those top 20 players above, which seems odd considering that she's a center, a position that we normally imagine taking a lot of shots around the basket. However, whereas Fowles takes 82.56% of her shots within five feet of the basket, Charles takes only 45.19% of hers from that same range; Charles has a much more expansive shooting range, which means she takes more low-efficiency scoring opportunities. Yet it's not as though mid-range shots are a bad choice for Charles - she is an above average shooter from 6 feet and out (40.35 field goal percentage). It's just that Charles is just about average right around the basket (58.2 FG%) and the amount of time she spends taking mid-range jumpers limits her opportunities to get easy points from the free throw line to offset that lower field goal percentage.

That does help to explain why Charles is not a more efficient scorer, but still leaves her as an average efficiency volume scorer, which hurts her MVP argument a bit.

3. Tamika Catchings, F, Indiana Fever

The case for Catchings: As usual, the reigning WNBA MVP has been outstanding and certainly has an argument to repeat as MVP that is pretty much the same as last year: Catchings is arguably the most versatile player in the league when taking both ends of the floor into account. And as the starting power forward for the Eastern Conference's second place team, you might say that she's only further proving how valuable her versatility is this season.

The case against Catchings: Despite her reputation, there's a rather surprising statistic for the four-time Defensive Player of the Year found in the plus/minus numbers from her first half performance: despite her defensive prowess, she has a negative plus/minus in large part because the Fever are 15.5 points (per 40 minutes) better defensively when Catchings is off the floor this season. That's a big difference from last year when the team was about 4 points worse when Catchings off the floor.

It's worth mentioning, however, that the Fever are an odd case this season – they're one of two teams whose top two contributors by MVP (Catchings and Katie Douglas) have negative plus/minus ratings and the major difference for both is in the points that opponents score when they're on the floor. Given that they start together and spend a lot of time together, we might conclude that the issue there is a lineup combination that isn't quite working. In any event, those type of numbers more than anything else prevent Catchings from being at the top of this list right now.

1. Candace Parker & Sophia Young

When Candace Parker won MVP way back in 2008, Sophia Young had a pretty strong case for the award as well. The same dynamic could unfold this season as Parker is probably the favorite in most people's minds with Young getting a bit less attention nationally.

The thing is that there really isn't a particularly strong case against either of these players winning the award yet it's also difficult to compare them.

Although they're both listed as "forwards" they have such different styles of play that it's almost pointless to compare them head-to-head statistically: Parker is among the most versatile players in the league and is the much better rebounder, but Young is a more efficient scorer who is exceptional within 5 feet (70.5 FG%) and has shooting range out to 20 feet. Whereas Parker can fill in wherever the Sparks need her – from handling the ball to scoring on the low block, which helped her account for a larger percentage of her team's success – Young has more of a defined role within the Silver Stars' and fills it extremely well.

Parker and Young have two very different types of cases for the MVP moreso than one clearly being more valuable than the other, statistically speaking. But one thing that jumped out in the numbers as a difference between the two is plus/minus – that might be the main reason that a player like Young should be seen as more of a challenger for the top spot than a clear second place candidate.

Similar to the point above about the Fever, the other team whose top two contributors have negative plus/minus ratings is the L.A. Sparks and three of their starters (Parker, Delisha Milton-Jones and Kristi Toliver) show a net negative on the defensive end. Similar to Catchings, you could cite contextual reasons for that and both have among the best four-year defensive RAPM ratings in the league, suggesting that indeed their individual defensive impact is pretty significant when controlling for the quality of teammates and combinations. However, there's a reason why there have been questions about Parker's defense over the years and her head-to-head matchups with Young this year might provide some examples of that:

Player

Points/G

Rebs/G

FG%

Candace Parker

20.33

13

46.15

Sophia Young

22.33

7.33

62.79

Statistics for Candace Parker & Sophia Young in three head-to-head meetings in which San Antonio went 3-0.

Three games don't seal the deal on anything, but I found the shooting efficiency differential interesting. So, with some time during the Olympic break, I re-watched those games for the plays when they were guarding each other because I happened to remember Young scoring over Parker in spectacular fashion on a couple of occasions. The results from those three games: Young was 11-for-16 (68%) when guarded by Parker; Parker was 4-for-13 (30.76%) when guarded by Young.

Part of the difference in efficiency is that Parker settles for a lot of contested jumpers whereas Young benefits from the Silver Stars' ball movement quite a bit in moving without the ball in addition to creating her own shots. When Parker attacks the basket off the dribble or gets the ball in post position, she's much more efficient.

But the other end of that story is that Young has an exceptional sense of positioning on both ends of the floor, which helps her cut off angles defensively and find gaps in opposing defenses for easy shots offensively. When she isn't able to get easy shots, there should be little question that she has some of the best post footwork in the league, which is part of what made it so difficult for Parker to defend her around the basket.

Those three games of head-to-head play should not determine the MVP to this point, but they did reflect the larger story within the plus/minus numbers – Young has been strong on both ends of the floor throughout this season, which has helped her to the fourth-best plus/minus in the league this season. The combination of that with her efficiency, production, and contributions to her team's success – she was outstanding as the Silver Stars won 11 of their last 12 games before the break – make Young stand out as a strong candidate for MVP. And with the team she's leading beating the team Parker's leading rather convincingly in three head-to-head matchups, we could certainly make the case that Young's production gives her a leg up.

However, the case against Young might be that her PVC definitely reflects that the Silver Stars have talent across their roster, which makes her less individually responsible for team success in terms of statistical production. In contrast, nearly everything the Sparks do revolves around Parker and when she isn't the central focus of her team offensively she can do so much else on the floor adds to that value. But a close look at the numbers and watching games reveals that Young simply can't be ignored when thinking about value to one's team this season.

Parker is probably the favorite to win the award – and deservedly so – but Young has a strong case to remain at the top of this discussion and maybe win the award if San Antonio continues surging when play resumes.

For explanations of all of these statistics, visit the Swish Appeal statistics glossary.

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