2013 WNBA MVP watch: Ivory Latta, Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi off to efficient starts as perimeter scorers

Diana Taurasi (left) is off to a hot start this season, but Maya Moore has been extremely impressive in a different way. - USA TODAY Sports

It's really early to talk about MVP candidates, but with All-Star voting beginning this week it's one way to look at the top candidates for the All-Star game based on early season returns. So in this week's look at award candidates we look at the early candidates for the MVP award, including outstanding numbers from one player in particular.

In 2009, Minnesota Lynx wing Seimone Augustus had as good a start to a WNBA season as you could want from a wing.

The Lynx were off to a 4-1 start, led by Augustus' 23.4 points per game. While that might not sound that extraordinary - either in the context of considering league scoring champions or her own career - the efficiency with which she did it was truly remarkable. The Lynx guard was shooting 57% from the field and an even more impressive 64.3% from the 3-point line in addition to a career-high 90.5% from the free throw line.

There are players who have been more efficient scorers over the course of a season during the course of WNBA history, but the four players who have done better over the course of the season were either post players (who were getting a large number of shots closer to the basket) or a low usage point guard (Jennifer Azzi). That Augustus was that good as a volume scorer - even for a short period of time - is still astounding.

Year Tm G PER TS% ORB% DRB% TRB% STL% USG%
2009 MIN 6 30.9 .661 2.6 15.0 8.6 3.4 26.9
Career 193 22.3 .552 2.4 11.5 6.9 1.5 26.5
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table. Generated 6/17/2013.

Of course, the reason that season isn't talked about much and won't be listed among the best scoring seasons of all-time is that it didn't continue past the beginning: Augustus suffered an ACL injury in the sixth game of the season in Phoenix. The Lynx would go 10-19 from the moment of her injury and miss the playoffs once again that year before bringing about some of the changes that have brought them to where they are now.

But that brief moment in time always stands out in my mind as a snapshot of just how brilliant a talent Augustus can be, both in terms of her ability to carry a team and her ability as a pure scorer. And when I make the case that Augustus has a case for being the best - or "most creative" - "pure scorer" the league has seen, that snapshot is both left out for obvious reasons and The Example of a killer instinct that eludes some more highly touted players.

That, for me, is the idealized, if unrealistic, vision of what a pure scorer is: a scorer so deadly that shooting the ball is always the best option for her team, even when the other team knows it's coming. It's a lofty standard and one that is almost foolish to hold anyone to.

I bring all that up now because there's a player this season that has put up numbers awfully close to Augustus' 2009 season. And if someone is approaching that standard, you have to wonder how close they are to being considered the MVP. The question is whether that standard as a pure scorer even makes someone a lock for the top spot in the MVP race. And that comes down to how you define "value", which could be especially tricky this season.

How do you define "value"?

I've described a definition for value in previous years and I'm not going to change it this year. Click here to see that, but before reading on do note that I've left out plus/minus for now because it's probably the least useful statistic at this point in the season.

The Candidates

The following are a list of the players with the top 15 MVP ratings in the WNBA as of 6/16/13 (ordered by MVP).

Player

Team

MVP

PVC

Usage%

Pts/empty poss

Candace Parker

L.A. Sparks

13.7

22.08

26.11

2.35

Angel McCoughtry

Atlanta Dream

12.67

20.14

34.27

1.5

Ivory Latta

Washington Mystics

12.65

25.48

23.83

2.56

Diana Taurasi

Phoenix Mercury

12.58

24.7

28.41

2.64

Tina Charles

Connecticut Sun

12.03

24.47

30.9

1.78

Maya Moore

Minnesota Lynx

11.91

20.00%

26.68%

2.85

Elena Delle Donne

Chicago Sky

11.78

20.82

23.87

2.74

Sylvia Fowles

Chicago Sky

10.9

19.27

20.18

2.17

Tamika Catchings

Indiana Fever

10.33

22.94

30.79

1.62

Glory Johnson

Tulsa Shock

10.21

22.72

26.7

2.07

Seimone Augustus

Minnesota Lynx

10.09

17.02

22.90%

3.01

Rebekkah Brunson

Minnesota Lynx

9.96

16.8

17.99

2.8

Lindsay Whalen

Minnesota Lynx

9.85

16.6

21.51

2.16

Nneka Ogwumike

L.A. Sparks

9.76

15.7

19.46

3.34

Shavonte Zellous

Indiana Fever

9.65

21.43

22.23

2.91

Notes

  • Since All-Star voting has just started this week, the color coding indicates the top five players per conference, orange for the Western Conference and blue for the Eastern Conference.
  • It's worth noting that I probably wouldn't use the MVP formula to choose All-Stars: the difference is MVPs have to demonstrate that they've done more to help their team win more than any other player in the league whereas All-Stars could just be the most productive players independent of what that means to their team.
  • It's way too early for plus/minus numbers to mean much of anything, so I'm leaving that out for now. But, as an example of when it becomes important, Parker's plus/minus is always something to pay attention to in the MVP discussion: it was negative last year because of her team's performance on the defensive end with her on the floor.
  • Last, it's worth noting that I use these numbers as a guide to looking at the landscape of MVP candidates instead of looking for deterministic final answers. Not only is it really early in the season to be looking at MVP statistics, but in a number of cases the entirety of a player's statistical profile undermines their case for MVP. So the fact that the list above is ordered by MVP rating does not reflect how I'd actually rank the players.

All-Star decisions

  • First, the WNBA's All-Star voting format now asks fans to select two guards and three frontcourt players, which is better - and honestly, less complicated - than voting by "traditional" positions (G-G-F-F-C). However, I usually select All-Star or All-WNBA teams by squeezing players into a format that more closely matches the way most teams actually play basketball: PG - Perimeter - Perimeter - Frontcourt - Frontcourt. Feel free to debate this in the comments, but point guards serve a function on the floor distinct from every other player and require a specific skillset (and some would argue, personality) to do well - it's somewhat unreasonable not to individually recognize the best point guards when selecting All-Star or All-WNBA teams.
  • So given the point guard point above and that voting is starting now, Ivory Latta has to be voted in as a starter in the Eastern Conference. She has been by far the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, arguably the best scorer in the Eastern Conference when you compare her efficiency to Elena Delle Donne's, and - just for kicks - she's always had an All-Star personality. There's just no reasonable argument against her being a starter.
  • Things are a bit more complicated in the Western Conference if you were to argue for voting in a point guard. Lindsay Whalen is still arguably the best point guard in the league when you take her efficiency running the offense as a distributor and scorer into account. And interestingly, based on the MVP numbers above, she'd be competing with teammates Augustus and Brunson for the last spot as an All-Star starter in the West. My argument for Whalen over her two teammates: point guards do a number of intangible things that aren't reflected well in the standard statistics. And again, if you evaluate point guards as a separate set of players, the very fact that she's the best at what she does at the very least in her conference if not in the league has to mean something.
  • Glory Johnson has to make the All-Star game: despite the numbers above for Parker, you could argue Johnson is the best two-way post in the Western Conference right now (and coincidentally, she's by far the best defender of fellow Lady Vols alum Parker). And in light of her most recent performance, it's really difficult not to vote for her. (Click here for more on Glory Johnson's recent performance).
  • Catchings would be on the outside looking in based on the numbers above, but with all she's being asked to do for the defending champion Fever - a few percentage points more than what Fowles contributes to Chicago - the argument could be made that Catchings deserves your vote. The sticking point is a below average true shooting percentage of 43.65%, the lowest of any of the names on the list above.
  • Now go vote. And if you don't vote for Latta, please state your position in the comments because I'd love to hear it.

MVP observations

  • Diana Taurasi is that player putting up numbers comparable to what Augustus put up in her lone six games in 2009, but she's doing so quite differently. As we've grown accustomed to, Augustus thrived off hitting mid-range shots. In contrast, Taurasi thrives off her ability to knock down threes - she has made twice as many as Augustus did in 2009 - which boosts her true shooting percentage close to that of where Augustus was at a slightly higher usage rate.

    Year Tm G MP
    TS% ORB% DRB% TRB% STL% USG%
    2013 Phoenix 6 33.17 64.77 3.22 9.63 6.7 1.76 28.41
    Career Phoenix
    269 31.9 58.2 2.3 13.0 7.8 1.9 28.3
    Taurasi's numbers through six games in 2013. Career numbers via Basketball-Reference.

    To put up a 64.77 TS% at that usage rate is extremely impressive. Yet what might be surprising is how high her PVC is: for as talented as the Mercury are, you wouldn't think they'd rely so heavily on one player. But this only goes back to something that folks around here have commented on multiple times: this is still Taurasi's team, no matter who else is on the roster.

    So why then is Taurasi not at the top of that list?
  • Candace Parker is going to be at or near the top of this list any year that she's healthy and this season is no different. And with the way she's cleaning the defensive boards - a 36.24% defensive rebounding percentage - an argument could easily be made that she's the MVP this season. However, her offensive rebounding percentage is below average and, although we're not looking at plus/minus just yet, it remains to be seen how that will play out for her defensively. And otherwise, the same critiques of her game that could be made prior to the season based on Synergy numbers could be applied to this season.
  • Reigning MVP Tina Charles is a bit more difficult case to explain, however. How is it that she's so high on the list despite being considerably less efficient than others? The answer lies in that PVC number above, second only to Latta, as well as a very high usage rate for a center at 30.9%, second only to McCoughtry. Charles has put up nearly 70 more shots than the second highest player on her team, which is more of an indicator that the team is feeding her the ball at a level above which she can be efficient and doing the bulk of the work for a struggling Sun team. When you add that to her rebounding numbers - she's averaging a double-double and has an offensive rebounding percentage of 11.64% - it's easy to see why she's near the top of this list. However, the same argument that was levied against her being MVP last season applies to this season and perhaps to a greater extent: does an inefficient, volume. jump shooting center merit a MVP award?

  • With Sancho Lyttle scheduled to miss a few games, Angel McCoughtry has already stepped her game up and has continued to show why she is considered one of the most dominant players in the game. The major development in her game this season has been her willingness to create scoring opportunities for others and that shows up in her assist ratio (18.14%) which is close to the rate of some of the league's starting point guards. To do that while also being relied upon so heavily for scoring is actually quite remarkable (or dangerous, if you're an opponent). Yet the reason she doesn't have an even stronger MVP rating is that efficiency number in the last column above: her low scoring efficiency and above average turnover ratio hurt her overall efficiency.
  • So speaking of Latta again, she has a very strong argument for the early season MVP once you get past the name recognition - it's difficult to argue that anybody is doing more for their team right now. As the team's starting point guard, you might be able to knock her for being an inefficient distributor (pure point rating of -0.18) but as efficiently as she's scoring (62.31% TS%) she's doing what the team needs as a scorer. What will be interesting to see is whether she can maintain anything close to this efficiency (which would be a career-high by a wide margin). But if the Mystics make the playoffs and Latta remains such an efficient scorer, it will be very, very difficult not to say she's the MVP.
  • And yet quietly - and possibly in spite of the numbers above - the argument could easily be made that Maya Moore is in fact this season's MVP. First, it's worth considering what kind of numbers someone would have to put up to float to the top six of this list on a team with three other All-Star candidates - with that many talented teammates, her PVC is obviously going to be a bit lower because she's sharing so much of the credit with others. However there's a really strong argument that Moore is the best all-around player in the league right now. Her 58% TS% isn't quite at the Latta or Taurasi (or 2009 Augustus) level of efficiency, but it's still very good for a volume scorer. In addition, Moore has been a solid solid rebounder for a wing scorer (5.4% offensive rebounding percentage) and has been an extremely efficient ball handler (3.96 pure point rating) because she simply doesn't turn the ball over often (4.75 turnover ratio). She is relying heavily on her 3-point shooting to boost her efficiency (her 2-point% of 38% is mediocre for a wing) but the bottom line is that she's still more efficient than a number of people on this list.

    Even if you don't think that Moore is the MVP right now - and there's good reason not to believe she is - you also have to ask yourself a question without any easy answers: who's most likely to maintain the pace they're on given their style of play? Latta and Taurasi would have among the most efficient scoring seasons in league history if they maintained their current pace, which suggests they're likely to take a dip as they play more games and defenses adjust to their teams (both of which look very different from last year). Moore is far more likely to cruise along doing exactly what she's doing now and, based on her career, likely to actually improve as the season goes on and her 2-point percentage creeps over 40%.

Obviously, these numbers will change over the course of the season. But rather than expanding or shifting, this tends to be a list of players that just shrinks to the point where only 3-5 players are left standing as legitimate contenders (2011 was an exception where I really do think 8 players had a legitimate case for being labeled a "contender"). In any event, it is a helpful guide for choosing All-Stars since the voting has already begun.

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