If you've been following the WNBA from the beginning, you know there was another league called the American Basketball League (ABL for short) that began play at roughly the same time. The ABL actually started first. Using a winter schedule they began play in October of 1996 with eight teams. The league folded in the middle of its third season, in December of 1999.
There is no shortage of people who will tell you that the ABL had more talent than the WNBA in those days. Most of the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal winning Team USA signed with the ABL and many of the top college players from the classes of 1996 and 1997 also signed with the other league. Seven of the 10 players from the 1996 WBCA All American team signed with the ABL compared to only two who signed with the WNBA. The odd slot went to Chamique Holdsclaw, who didn't turn pro until after the ABL folded. It's practically an article of faith among ABL fans that the failed league had the better players.
With the retirement of Tina Thompson and Katie Smith, there are no active players left who played in the first two seasons of the WNBA and only one active player remaining who played in the ABL (Delisha Milton). That makes this an ideal time to compare the talent between the leagues once and for all. All due respect to Sunshine, the last scrap of her career isn't going to change the analysis.
The question is how do we compare players from different leagues? If you read my blog on WNBA.com about this subject in 2006 then you have some idea where this is going. Let's compare how the players from each league did when they were all in the same league, the WNBA from 1999 on.
First let's take a look at what players we're considering. There are 86 players who played in the WNBA in 1997 or 1998 and also played in the league some time after that and 79 players who played in the ABL and also played in the WNBA after that league folded. "Wait a second"; I hear you saying. "I know there were 84 ABL players who played in the WNBA! What happened to the other five?" You're right, of course, 84 ABL players played in the WNBA. However, five of them did so before the ABL folded but not afterwards. Those five (La'Shawn Brown, Cassandra Crumpton-Moorer, Margo Graham, Rehema Stephens, and Debra Williams) are therefore left out of this comparison, as are all 64 of the players who played in the WNBA the first two seasons and not afterwards. There's just no fair way to include them. This does raise another question, however. What do we do with other players who played in both the ABL and the pre-1999 WNBA, like Nikki McCray? For this purpose, I'm assigning all of them to the ABL players group. I'm going to give the ABL every advantage I can.
The list of who is included:
Remember, we're only comparing what the players did from 1999 on, when they were all competing in the same league, under the same rules, with the same opportunities for stats and awards. For example, Cynthia Cooper's MVP awards don't count, since she won them both when there were separate leagues.
When in doubt, start with numbers. Let's start with the totals of what each group did from 1999 on:
The extra few Old WNBA players makes that comparison problematic, so let's look at averages:
The games and minutes are essentially identical.
Rebounds are weird, in that the ABL players got more offensive rebounds but the Old WNBA players got more total boards. The O-board advantage is almost entirely built on the back of two players, Taj McWilliams and Yolanda Griffith. Almost 43% of Griffith's rebounds were offensive. The league average is usually under 30%. Yo and Mama Taj each had over 1000 offensive rebounds. No Old WNBA player even reached 800. OTOH, Lisa Leslie had over 2000 defensive boards and Tina Thompson had nearly that many. Only McWilliams is even in the ballpark among ABL players.
Assists are almost dead even, which may come as a surprise to many. The ABL had a reputation for great PG play while the early WNBA struggled mightily in that regard. The W is kept in the race by a single player. One of every eight assists from the Old WNBA players belongs to Ticha Penicheiro.
Steals could not be any closer.
Blocks are substantially in favor of the Old WNBA players. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how that happened.
Turnovers, fouls, and points are all pretty even.
What do the stats tell us? That the two groups were pretty close when looked at in total. Not terribly shocking, I suppose, but nothing here suggests that either group was deeper in talent than the other.
Of course when people talk about having better talent, they're usually talking about the top players. How many times did a player from the ABL or an Old WNBA player lead the league in a major stat?
Pretty close other than the assists (Penicheiro) and blocks (Dydek and Leslie). There's still nothing to show an ABL advantage, however.
Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course. Let's take a look at award counts.
Other than the Sportsmanship Award, the Old WNBA players have the edge across the board. Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes dominate the MVP awards. The USA column is for the two Team USA vs WNBA select games that happened in place of the All Star Game in 2004 and 2010. Where the Old WNBA players especially shine is on defense. The Old WNBA players had three separate players win Defensive POY. The ABL players only had two that were ever named to the All Defense team, one of whom made a single second team appearance. The All Star count, which shows a roughly 35% advantage to the Old WNBA players, also shows a better depth of talent.
If the ABL players were really better in a way that doesn't show up in the stats or in the awards, then they must be winning more championships, right?
This doesn't count all the rings won by Comet players in 1997 and 1998. Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes each count two towards this total. Again the Old WNBA players have the edge, this time by about 40%. And, as the Finals MVP count further up suggests, the Old WNBA players tended to be more prominent members of their championship teams.
OK, but the ABL players made up most of Team USA so they must have been better, right? OK, first a chart of the all the medals won by ABL players and Old WNBA players at the Olympics and World Championships from 1996 to now:
The ABL has the edge in Gold Medals, the Old WNBA in total medals. The latter mostly comes from the ABL having a paucity of non-US players. Since they played in the winter, they were competing directly with the foreign leagues for players and not getting many of them to come over.
There are a few other things to note here. Team USA doesn't always take the best players. Cynthia Cooper wasn't on the 1996 team, despite being arguably the best player in the world at the time. For the 2000 team the committee inexplicably selected Kara Wolters, an ABL player, following a 1999 season in which she averaged 1.6 ppg on 23% shooting while backing up Tina Thompson, an Old WNBA player who was NOT selected. And, like on the championship teams, the Old WNBA players tended to be the best players on the Gold Medal winning teams. ABL fans love to note that the league signed eight of the twelve players from the 1996 team that won Gold after rolling to a perfect 60-0 record leading up to the games. What they leave out is that most of the starters (three of the five) for the team signed with the WNBA. The team's leading scorer and best player was Lisa Leslie, an Old WNBA player. Same thing in 2000. Lisa Leslie led Team USA in scoring. Sheryl Swoopes was second. In 2004 the top three scorers on Team USA were Old WNBA Players: Leslie, Thompson, and Swoopes.
I'll grant a slight edge to the ABL players here, but with the caveat that this is the most political and least objective measure of talent.
Honestly, I expected the Old WNBA players to have a bigger edge. There's nothing here to suggest that the ABL talent was superior. There's only a little evidence to support the idea that the Old WNBA players were better. It would be impossible to claim they were a lot better.
But hey, I'm just one guy. Which league do you think had better talent?