The argument for Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings to win the WNBA Most Valuable Player award this year is generally similar to the argument in favor of her candidacy the past two years.
She's among the top 10 in the WNBA in multiple statistical categories (including blocks, points, rebounds, and steals per game), she's arguably the most versatile player in the game when taking defense and offense into account, and she is once again leading her team into the playoffs with a legitimate chance to return to the WNBA Finals.
But this year she did all that playing "out of position".
As described just after the Olympics, moving to the power forward hasn't been without its rough patches - entering the Olympic break, the Fever were 15.5 points (per 40 minutes) better defensively when Catchings was off the floor. It's hard not to look around the league and see at least some part of that as being the result of having her giving up at least a couple of inches against the league's top power forwards every game.
Nevertheless, the consensus has been that Catchings was a top contender for MVP - our midseason MVP rankings here had her third overall. Since returning from London with a gold medal, Catchings has managed to improve her plus/minus quite a bit: her net plus/minus prior to the break was -2.1 and now it has jumped to +4.5. Part of that is certainly just a demonstration of the volatility of plus/minus, but it still reflects improved performance on her part since the break even without doing the math to figure out how good she has been since the break. And while she was playing outstanding ball individually since the break, the Fever as a unit were 10-2 in the 12 games prior to a home and home against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx and challenged the Connecticut Sun for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Beyond just improving in the second half, the statistical consensus is pretty much that Catchings has been the most productive player in the league this season: she's at the top of league statistically by Marginal Victories Produced, PER*, WARP, or National Sports Rankings' player rating. To make an argument against Catchings winning back to back MVP awards would be a difficult task in light of the evidence. But that doesn't mean there aren't others who should be in the conversation.
The Top Five 2012 WNBA MVP Candidates
(Ordered by "MVP")
|PER (as of 9/17/12)
|Tamika Catchings||Indiana Fever||13.97||25.06||+ 4.5||26.17||2.37||27.05||9.0|
|Candace Parker||L.A. Sparks||12.99||22.17||- 7.1||26.96||1.98||24.9||7.8|
|Sophia Young||San Antonio Silver Stars||12.31||22.09||+ 11.7||23.10||2.76||24.51||5.8|
|Tina Charles||Connecticut Sun||12.13||23.16||+ 6.0||25.05||2.33||23.13||5.8|
|Maya Moore||Minnesota Lynx||12.10||20.14||+ 17.2||22.84||2.52||24.96||8.2|
Statistics for 2012 MVP candidates as of today (+/- & PER as of Sept. 17, 2012). Click here for explanations.
Tina Charles, C, Connecticut
Charles is a popular choice for the MVP award and undoubtedly there will be some voters who select her over Catchings because she is "the best player on the best team" (in the Eastern Conference), which is a somewhat arbitrary standard for any individual award. But independent of that, Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com has laid out a challenge to the conventional wisdom that Charles has singlehandedly carried the Sun to the best record in the Eastern Conference: Kara Lawson has been outstanding as a point guard this season and it's hard to ignore that. In addition to that, everything I mentioned prior to the break still stands: she's an average efficiency volume scoring center, which is not exactly a ringing MVP endorsement.
Candace Parker, F, Los Angeles & Sophia Young, F, San Antonio
Despite the single number metrics above, I maintain that sorting out who's more valuable between Parker and Young is difficult and the reason for that is reflected in the plus/minus numbers above: defense.
Parker had an August that was subpar in the context of her entire career statistically, averaging 11.6 points on 42.6% shooting and 8.2 rebounds and that helps to explain the dip in her numbers since the break. But the award is given for being the 2012 MVP, not the August 2012 MVP. Still perhaps in part due to that poor August performance, her plus/minus rating fell even further to -7.1 (bottom 10 in the league) and defense has not exactly been a strength. Again, single season net plus/minus can be problematic in judging a player's impact - there's reason to believe that the combination of players the Sparks put out there is a significant problem defensively - but when a starter who uses as many possessions as she does has a negative rating that means that the team is doing better on the scoreboard with someone else in the game.
However, the fact that the Sparks rely so heavily on Parker offensively in terms of the number of possessions she uses actually adds to her MVP argument, especially as compared to Young. Young benefits from a team that shares the ball extremely well (despite their slump in the second half of the season) and helps get her the ball in position to score. Young doesn't have to bring the ball up the court, trigger fast breaks, or try to create in isolation situations nearly as often as Parker does for the Sparks. That's not Young's fault, but it's just to say that Parker does more for her team. But Young is also has a positive impact on the defensive end and the reason she's such an effective scorer within the Silver Stars' offense is her ability to navigate space and simply out-maneuver bigger defenders.
The numbers definitely suggest that Parker should be ahead of Young - and if I were to predict how the fan vote might go, Parker is probably a prime candidate - but it's hard to just ignore the rather large difference in plus/minus between the two.
Maya Moore, G/F, Minnesota
Moore's impact on her team is obviously muted a bit due to playing with so many talented teammates. But her talent is undeniable at this point and the fact that she now has the highest plus/minus in the league playing with those teammates can't be overlooked. But even more impressive is that her numbers have gone up across the board since returning from London and she has emerged as the clear MVP of this talented team.
That improvement is most clearly reflected in both her MVP and PVC ratings - she has gone from 14th to 5th in the MVP ratings and increased her contribution to the team by 4%, which is quite a feat over the course of 12 games. It's also worth pointing out Moore's efficiency as a distributor since returning from London as her assists per game have gone up: in August she averaged 4.8 assists per game and just 1 turnover; for the season, her pure point rating (1.98) is above average and better than more than a couple point guards. In September, she's averaging 21 points on 50.6% shooting from the field and 40% from 3-point range while nearly maintaining that August assist average.
In other words, Moore is in the midst of an outstanding season and really had the chance to show off a bit as a scorer with Seimone Augustus either out or returning from injury in September. Whether that makes her the most valuable player - or even more valuable than the other candidates - is still a subject that reasonable people could debate. But the fact that she's doing as much as she has on a team that talented reflects not only how good a player she is but also how much she has improved since entering the league last June.
Tamika Catchings, F, Indiana
What separates Catchings from everyone else though is that there aren't really many caveats.
Although people might continue to harp on her scoring efficiency, that's offset a bit by shooting 38.6% from the 3-point line as well as getting to the free throw line so often and shooting 85.2% from there. The very fact that she switched positions and still put up numbers on par to last year only adds to that MVP argument - while her plus/minus numbers suggest she might have started slowly, she adjusted pretty quickly after the break.
The bottom line with Catchings is that she has arguably been the most dominant player for three years running in the WNBA. Her performance in 2010 - better than this or last year - might have been overshadowed by a simply outstanding performance by Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson. Last year she won the MVP against one of the most competitive field of candidates in recent years. This season she's at the top of the list again and probably has the clearest argument relative to the field of any of those three seasons.
The recent past shouldn't figure in to this year's voting, but winning the award in consecutive years would be a testament to her dominance over the past three years and some small consolation for not winning the award previously. But even taking this year's performance on its own merit, there isn't a player in the league who has done as much for her team as Catchings and it would be a shame if that goes overlooked again.
* In addition to the PER numbers as of 9/17/12, Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles actually topped the list. Catchings is second in the league and thus the highest rated player of any who is on pace to play every game.