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WNBA Midseason Awards & Review: Liberty Struggling…and Anosike for MVP?

Late in the fourth quarter of the New York Liberty’s loss to the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday, I heard a little song on the web cast that I assume was also played in the arena.

The line that grabbed my attention was one that seemed to perfectly capture why I liked the Liberty so much last year.

Our team is built to win. Everybody pitches in. The Liberty – United We Play.

If you read this blog last year, you may remember that the Liberty were an early favorite of mine. Leilani Mitchell’s amazingly efficient point guard play caught my eye, I vaguely recalled Janel McCarville from her NCAA tournament run with Lindsay Whalen at the University of Minnesota, and they appeared to be a well-rounded team. But most of all, I liked the fact that they seemed to play so well as a unit. An excerpt from something I wrote last year:
It’s the intangibles, the little things that won’t show up in the box score and are difficult to describe. They’re tough and they play with heart. Their seemingly endless rotation allows them to play with great energy (usually). Of all the teams in the WNBA, they seem to have the strongest collective personality.

But what I like most about them is that they seem to have a nothing-to-lose swagger. Not much was expected of them at the beginning of the season – while they were expected to make the playoffs, nobody really expected them to make much noise in the playoffs. So in a way, they are the WNBA’s consummate underdog.
Watching them on Sunday, I couldn’t believe that I was even watching essentially the same team.

It’s not that they played terribly on Sunday…they just didn’t play particularly well. And to stick with the theme, it didn’t really look like they’re playing very united this year.

So what’s wrong?

I compared their Four Factors numbers for this year and last year. Contrary to what I might have thought, their assisted field goal percentage is not that much different than what they ended with and they have about the same relative position (7th) as they did last year.

However, the one number that really stood out was their offensive rebounding percentage. It is way down from last year. But I’ll spare you the esoteric numbers and just go with what’s listed at WNBA.com – the Liberty are currently last in the WNBA in rebounding differential with a differential of -5.81 per game. At the end of last year, they were at -2.1, which is not much better, but wasn’t exactly league worst.

The other number that stood out was free throw rate, which is the rate at which they get to the free throw line. This number is partially an estimate of a team’s aggressiveness as the theory goes that getting to the foul line often probably means that you’re putting enough pressure on the defense to draw fouls.

Although the Liberty are shooting very well from the free throw line at 81%, their free throw rate is second to last in the league (the LA Sparks are the worst). That’s down from last year when they were just below average.

Even more interesting is that most of their opponents’ numbers are about the same or slightly worse, meaning that the problem seems to be that their performance has dropped off rather than the opponents’ play improving. And the numbers that have fallen – offensive rebounding and free throw rate – seem indicative of a lack of energy and aggressiveness rather than some sort of slump.

So the question for the Liberty in the second half is simple: can they find that energy that made them successful last season?

If they can, there is still time for them to leap frog erratic Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky teams as the Liberty are only 1 game out. But moreso than any other team, it seems like the Liberty will require a shift in mindset rather than a performance upgrade to make a playoff run.

What’s funny is that during last season’s playoffs I was hoping for a Liberty-LA Sparks finals, especially given the amazing game those two teams had on July 25, 2008 in Madison Square Garden. Almost exactly a year later, both teams are fighting for playoff spots. And the sad part is that – as I described yesterday -- with Sparks forward Candace Parker getting better by the game and center Lisa Leslie returning from injury, the Sparks might in fact have more reason to hope for a turnaround that the Liberty…

Anyway, more to come about teams as I watch games over the next week…for now, I turn to players and hand out some mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Woman of the Year and MVP, what I consider the easiest to hardest right now. Most Improved Player just has way too many candidates to choose one.

Defensive Player of the Year candidates: Nicky Anosike…Tamika Catchings, Alana Beard, Jia Perkins, Sancho Lyttle.

I would like someone to present me with an argument for someone other than Nicky Anosike to win the DPOY for their performance thus far this season. Any defensive statistics you look at make the argument clear that it’s not worth looking at. But I heard something during the All-Star game broadcast that sort of summarizes what makes her the clear favorite for DPOY: "She’s a center and she’s leading the league in steals."

That’s unheard of in basketball.

She is one of the most dominant defensive players I’ve ever watched. And what makes her so dominant is that she can do the dirty work in the paint but then step out to the perimeter, guard guards, and take the ball from them too. It’s quite remarkable. She’s a defensive weapon almost unparalleled in the basketball world.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch her and try to prove otherwise…but she’s having an amazing defensive season.

Winner: Anosike

Most Outstanding Player candidates: Nicky Anosike, Becky Hammon, Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi

Notice that I’m dividing MOP and MVP…because I think MVP is a lot less clear. But so far, the most outstanding player, no matter how you want to slice it, is Cappie Pondexter. This one is not nearly as clear cut as Anosike for DPOY…and in fact both Anosike and Diana Taurasi both have legitimate claims on this (fictitious) honor. But I’ve said it a number of times – Pondexter’s transformation from a pure scorer into an all-around player who can both score and make teammates better has been fascinating to watch.

She’s a triple-double threat every night at this point and plays solid defense on a team not normally noted for its defense. She’s made herself almost impossible to defend because even on an off night, she’s demonstrated the ability to take over the game with her playmaking ability. It’s hard to imagine Phoenix having the type of success they’ve experienced without Pondexter’s contribution.

Anosike’s defensive ability makes her a clear candidate for this honor and Diana Taurasi’s typically outstanding play makes her a strong candidate as well. Becky Hammon is also a candidate here as she has put up very impressive numbers after missing some games early in the season to play with the Russian National Team.

Winner: Pondexter

Rookie of the Year candidates: DeWanna Bonnner, Angel McCoughtry, Renee Montgomery, Kristi Toliver, Shavonte Zellous
For rookie of the year, I went through the same statistical process I went through when I last posted rookie rankings two weeks ago on July 14th. The process was essentially designed to answer the question of what we can expect a player to contribute to the team with the ball in their hands, adding some nuance to the standard points per game standard of assessment.

And there’s really no difference in the outcome since that point: DeWanna Bonner is clearly the top rookie thus far, still ranking among the top players in the league in usage rate (how often they attempt to make plays), Chaiken Efficiency Ratio (the ratio of scoring plays they make to non-scoring plays), and Boxscores (how much they contribute to team winning). Meanwhile, she is almost indisputably the most productive player of any rookie thus far.

But Angel McCoughtry is still right on her heels and if she can turn it around she might give Bonner a challenge. I still believe she is probably the most talented player in this rookie class, she just needs time to develop and refine her skills. However, at this point in the season, McCoughtry is the only other rookie to rank in the top tier of the league in the three aforementioned statistical categories and also brings passing ability. What will make her a tough sell, even if she does improve her performance, is that she is still a below average rebounder for a forward. But who knows – if Bonner hits a rookie wall and McCoughtry improves, McCoughtry could win this contest.

The only major change is that Shavonte Zellous has probably moved firmly into third place for ROY. She is still being carried by her amazing free throw rate, but her defensive ability doesn’t exactly hurt – she might be the best defensive rookie guard. Renee Montgomery remains interesting to watch having earned a starting spot and Kristi Toliver is slowly becoming a more efficient player. And statistically, Courtney Paris is making herself relevant, but not yet in the mix for ROY.

Winner: Bonner

Sixth Woman of the Year candidates: DeWanna Bonner, Roneeka Hodges, Angel McCoughtry, Noelle Quinn, Tan White

Whereas Candace Parker took home both ROY and MVP last year, DeWanna Bonner could very well win ROY and Sixth Woman of the Year this year. In fact, Bonner is probably more clearly sixth woman of the year than ROY.

Put simply, Bonner is outplaying most starters this season – as I previously described, she’s one of the few players to rank in the top tier in Boxcores, usage rate, and efficiency ratio. That means you know when she comes off the bench, she’s going to contribute.

The runners-up really are not close, but have all contributed directly to their team’s success off the bench in some way – Tan White and Roneeka Hodges with scoring, Noelle Quinn by scoring and occasionally running the Sparks’ offense, and Angel McCoughtry has a very good all-around game that has made her an important piece to the Atlanta Dream’s bench. But like I said…making an argument for anyone besides Bonner is a real stretch.

Winner: Bonner

Most Valuable Player candidates: Anosike, Catchings, Shameeka Christon, Hammon, Lauren Jackson, Jia Perkins, Pondexter, Taurasi

MVP is going to be a tough one this year and will likely depend upon whether someone is able to carry their team to the playoffs in the second half of the season.

Fundamentally, I think the MVP is not only the player who contributes the most to her team, but also the player who contributes the most with the least help, thus making them most valuable. In other words, the player whose team can least afford to go without them. When you take the MVP away from their team, the team’s likelihood to win games should decrease considerably.

This is of course my belief about how the award should be given rather than the way I think it’s actually voted upon…but here are the five criteria I use to assess a player’s MVP worthiness.

1. As an individual award, I don’t believe that the relative quality of one’s team should decide the MVP award – logically, the best player on the best team might not be the most valuable…it might have just been a very good team. So I’m judging based on the player’s individual contribution to their team.

2. It’s also quite possible that the best player in the league is not the most valuable in the league. Theoretically, a player who is not even considered All-WNBA caliber could be the most valuable to her team if she is single-handedly carrying the team to whatever wins they get. This is why I selected my Most Outstanding Player above – two different awards.

3. The Superstar Teammate principle: I will still find it difficult to argue that a player who is playing next to a superstar teammate could possibly be the most valuable in the league. If the best two players in the league are playing together how can one of them possibly be the most valuable to their team in the league? Chances are if the team was missing one of them – for say a two-game suspension – the other star would step up and help the team win. It’s unfair to the players because one of them might be more valuable in ways that we fans cannot perceive…but if you do make the argument, what would you use to defend it aside from the criteria for MOP?

4. The player should be someone who you want with the ball in their hands at the end of a game or who can at least be expected to be used as a convincing decoy. The player doesn’t necessarily have to be able to score, but when they have the ball, you should expect a MVP to make plays. The same argument could be used to justify voting a strong defensive player MVP, it’s just not as convenient to measure as the points per game that people normally use.

5. When the player is on the court, they should make their team better somehow, not worse. This is obviously leading to an argument for the use of plus/minus in MVP analysis and I acknowledge it’s an imperfect statistic. But if you look at the players who have a negative plus/minus rating, I think it’s reasonable to say a MVP should be on the plus side of the equation.

So these five criteria will be applied to the players who made the 2009 All-Star team – you have to figure that a player who did not make the All-Star team is probably not their team’s MVP.

The candidates above represent two things: the players with the top five Boxscores in the WNBA (in order: Taurasi, Pondexter, Anosike, Catchings, and Jackson) in addition to three other players who are carrying a significant amount of the load for their team’s this season (Christon, Hammon, and Perkins).

To start, the eight players chosen are also the players who have contributed the most value to their teams this season based on David Sparks’ val pct metric:

Anosike: 26.3%
Christon: 25.6%
Perkins: 23.7%
Hammon: 23.1%
Jackson: 22.8%
Catchings: 21.8%
Taurasi: 21.1%
Pondexter: 20.4%

So what makes Taurasi and Pondexter absolutely remarkable as players is that they are among the most productive players in the league and have managed to divide the burden to help the Mercury almost equally between them (note: they might not actually even be the top duo in the league this season – Hammon and Sophia Young have combined for 43.1% of their team’s statistical production).

All Boxscores does is take that percentage of the team’s statistical production and applies it directly to the number of wins the team has for the season. So essentially, Boxscores is a metric that measures the player’s statistical contribution in terms of wins. Here are those numbers:

1. Taurasi: 2.74
2. Pondexter: 2.65
3. Anosike: 2.63
4. Catchings: 2.61
5. Jackson: 2.51
6. (Tanisha Wright: 2.01)
7. (Katie Douglas: 1.93)
8. Perkins: 1.89
9. (Charde Houston: 1.87)
10. (Tammy Sutton-Brown: 1.87)
19. Hammon: 1.61
24. Christon: 1.53

So what we have now is the player who is responsible the largest percentage of their team’s statistical production (Anosike) and the player whose production has contributed the most wins (Taurasi). But to further reinforce the point about the player whose team can least afford to lose them, let’s go one step further and look at who has done the most with the least help from a teammate (the teammate’s Boxscore is in parentheses).

Anosike: +.76 (Houston: 1.87)
Catchings: +.68 (Douglas: 1.93)
Christon: +.52 (Janel McCarville 1.01)
Jackson: +.50 (Wright: 2.01)
Perkins: +.31 (Candice Dupree: 1.58)
Hammon: +.20 (Young: 1.41)
Taurasi: +.09 (Pondexter: 2.65)
Pondexter: -.09 (Taurasi: 2.74)

So obviously the players are only separated by fractions of a win – there’s no way a decision could be made based on these numbers alone. Nevertheless, it becomes an interesting way to look at the players relative to each other. Anosike has probably done the most in the league relative to her teammates -- even though Charde Houston is also an All-Star, Anosike’s performance has been a clear step above hers.

Christon is also an interesting case – although nobody would put her in the conversation for MOP, she is clearly contributing a lot to her team’s ability to win. Meanwhile Taurasi and Pondexter are almost playing each other even, making it extremely difficult to make a clear argument for one being more valuable than the other to the Mercury, much less in comparison to other team leaders.

So perhaps more is needed…

If we look at usage rates – the number of offensive plays the player is individually responsible for – Anosike is the only player in this eight who doesn’t rank in the top 50 of the league. However, in terms of defensive plays, there is no player who makes more of those in the league, so it doesn’t necessarily exclude Anosike from the discussion. But here are those numbers:

Hammon: 28.17
Taurasi: 26.329
Pondexter: 26.325
Jackson: 25.40
Perkins: 25.16
Catchings: 23.82
Christon: 21.94
Anosike: 20.28

And I have yet to find an overall productivity metric that doesn’t have Taurasi #1 and Anosike #2 (MEV, EFF, Tendex). Kevin Pelton’s WARP rating has Anosike #1 and Taurasi #2. So perhaps plus minus number can provide some insight…? Here they are:

Anosike: +20.5
Jackson: +14.4
Perkins: +12.7
Christon: +12.4
Catchings: +11.9
Pondexter: +9.4
Hammon: +8.7
Taurasi: +5.1

This is interesting when compared to the previous usage numbers – Anosike has the 4th best plus/minus rating in the league but doesn’t have the ball in her hands to make plays as often as Taurasi. Taurasi has the ball in her hands and is relied upon to make plays as a ball handler and thus has a much lower plus/minus.

But for me it looks like it’s between Taurasi and Anosike for the MVP. And yes, I acknowledge that Pondexter should still remain in the conversation as a third option who is really almost even with Taurasi. But really it comes down to a potent offensive player vs. a potent defensive player.

So how do you choose?

Looking at any further statistics (rebounding, passing, shooting efficiency) would be so position specific that it would be difficult to gain any clarity.

If it truly came down to Anosike, Pondexter, and Taurasi, I think it’s fair to say Taurasi would win a vote on star power alone, despite the DUI controversy. By the end of the season that will be forgotten if she continues producing wins.

However, here’s the way I’m going to think about it – the one knock against Anosike is her usage rate and that she’s not a player who can create a lot offensively. So you might think that her offensive weaknesses would hurt her overall production as a player, especially since there really is no good metric for defense. And yet despite the obvious "weakness", she’s right behind Taurasi in any metric you look at as the second most productive player in the league.

So if you consider that with the fact that Anosike is indisputably the best defensive player in the league, it’s hard not to select her as MVP. And just in case you feel adamant about her offensive ineptitude, perhaps you should watch her – I don’t know whether it’s Jennifer Gillom or just a natural progression as a young player, but she is a vastly improved offensive player from last year, displaying an array of moves from both the post and the perimeter. In other words, if Anosike won the award, it would not be solely as a defensive player. It would be as arguably the best post player in the WNBA right now.

Of course, it’s only mid-season – all of this could change by the end and Taurasi or Pondexter could emerge as the clear candidates for MVP. But at mid-season let’s put it to the test – can you imagine the Minnesota Lynx winning even 10 games without Anosike?

Personally, I can’t.