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MVDee 2009: The Case for Diana Taurasi as WNBA MVP

(Photo by by Craig Bennett)

Diana Taurasi’s fourth consecutive All-WNBA first team selection is strong evidence to support the claim that she is among the league’s most outstanding players.

Not that being the most "outstanding" player is synonymous with the most "valuable" player, but Taurasi is a perennial WNBA Most Valuable Player candidate who has put together a strong case for winning the award this season.

Really, although the Mercury missed the playoffs last season I made the (generally unpersuasive) argument that the Phoenix Mercury’s 16 wins made for a strong case for her to win last season’s most valuable player award, if you define it as the player whose team could least afford to lose her. It’s a simple argument really -- the Mercury would not have won half of the 16 games they won last season without Diana Taurasi.

Now, as the Phoenix Mercury try to send Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie into retirement with a win in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, Taurasi should have a much more persuasive argument for the MVP award this season.

Not only did the Mercury put together the league’s best regular season record this season, but Taurasi also:

  • led the league in scoring (20.4%);
  • second in true shooting percentage (62%, just behind Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles);
  • sixth in defensive rebounding per game (5.2);
  • eighth in blocks per game (1.39); and
  • made a league high 79 three-pointers on 40% shooting,

In other words, Taurasi was one of the most well-rounded, efficient, and successful players this season. It’s really difficult to make an argument against her…but there are other deserving candidates.

What about her All-WNBA first team teammate Cappie Pondexter who was a nightly triple-double threat?

What about Defensive Player of the Year Tamika Catchings who led the Indiana Fever to the second best record in the WNBA…or for that matter, Catchings’ Fever teammate Katie Douglas?

And what about the other All-WNBA players, like guards Becky Hammon and Deanna Nolan – who were arguably the most significant reasons for their teams making the playoffs – or players like Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, or Candace Parker who missed a number of games but clearly elevated their teams’ games when they were in?

Even relative to the performance of the other All-WNBA players, Taurasi has among the strongest arguments for the MVP award.

Diana Taurasi vs. Cappie Pondexter?

Separating Taurasi from Pondexter almost feels like an act of futility; they have each made huge, yet different contributions to the Mercury’s success this season. On one hand, Taurasi is clearly the more efficient scorer, but on the other hand Pondexter has been the best in the league this season with the ball in her hands, as described by Phoenix Stan on BrightSideoftheSun.

With the clock winding down you always (always) see the ball in Cappie's hands and that's because there is no one better in the league at breaking down her defender and getting to the rim. She leads the team in free throw attempts (where she is shooting 89%) as she is almost always drawing a help defender. If the defense does collapse quickly she can pull up and hit a mid-range shot in the defenders face or she can find an open teammate. She's second in the league with 5 assists per game despite not playing big minutes at the point. Think Dwayne Wade if you are looking for an NBA comparison.

Nevertheless, Stan ultimately gave Taurasi the edge because of her ability on the defensive end of the floor and it’s hard to dispute that.

While Pondexter might be the go to player on the offensive end, Taurasi anchors the team defensively. Considering that a major reason for the team’s increased pace this season is defensive rebounding, Taurasi’s defensive ability – though not stellar – is among the main reasons why the team is playing so well this season.

However, if part of the argument in favor of Taurasi is what she does aside from when she has the ball in her hands then we have to consider her relative to Catchings, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

What about Defensive Player of the Year Tamika Catchings who led the Indiana Fever to the second best record in the WNBA?

If we were to base the MVP award purely on statistics and use David Sparks’ Boxscores metric as the measure for the MVP, Catchings would absolutely be the choice for MVP.

Catchings not only had the highest Boxscore this season, but she also had the largest differential between her Boxscore and her closest teammate (Katie Douglas), which was a large part of the argument I made in favor of Taurasi last season.

Adding this to the fact that she was clearly the best perimeter defender in the league, Catchings could make a very strong case for the MVP award.

However, if we consider a broader statistical standard that takes account for a player’s ability to create scoring opportunities and score efficiently, then Taurasi has a clear advantage over Catchings. If we measure the ability to create scoring opportunities and do so efficiently while making a contribution to team wins by usage%, Chaiken efficiency ratio, and Boxscores, Taurasi is clearly the most dangerous scorer in the league with the ball in her hands because she can score in so many ways and do so efficiently.

Player Boxscore BXs Differential Usage% Chaiken Eff. Ratio
Catchings 5.14 1.7 23.97 1.92
Taurasi 4.47 0.11 25.97 2.54
Pondexter 4.36 -0.11 25.64 2.3
Jackson 3.93 0.37 26.4 2.68
Douglas 3.74 -1.7 26.52 2.05
Nolan 3.16 0.12 25.57 1.9
Hammon 3.14 0.002 26.45 2.12
Young 3.14 -0.002 26.45 2.33
Parker 3.04 0.58 20.05 2.09
Leslie 2.46 -0.58 26.93 2.22

Furthermore, there are only 13 players in the league who rank in the top tier of the league in all three categories.

Diana Taurasi
Cappie Pondexter
Lauren Jackson
Katie Douglas
Becky Hammon
Sophia Young
Jia Perkins
DeWanna Bonner
Angel McCoughtry
Janel McCarville
Lisa Leslie
Shameka Christon
Nicole Powell

Catchings is not on that list, which obviously does not mean she is unworthy as a player – it simply reinforces the argument for Taurasi as the best offensive player in the league, well beyond that of Catchings.

What most hurts Catchings is her efficiency: her usage% is slightly above league average and her 2 point percentage – among the more important statistics in WNBA basketball – is just below league average at 41% (Taurasi ended the season at 50.41%).

While one could make the argument for Catchings on the basis of defense, defense is a team effort (just ask Minnesota Lynx center Nicky Anosike) and within the Mercury’s defensive scheme, Taurasi is one of the most valuable defensive players in the league. And even as an individual defender, Taurasi is definitely in the league’s top tier on the strength of her off the ball defense.

Ultimately, what it comes down to between Catchings and Taurasi is that while Catchings is the best defensive player in the league and an average offensive player at best, Taurasi is the best offensive player in league and an above average defender by almost any standard relative to her peers.

And what about the other All-WNBA players: like Catchings’ teammate Douglas, like guards Becky Hammon and Deanna Nolan – who were arguably the most significant reasons for their teams making the playoffs – or players like Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, or Candace Parker who missed a number of games but clearly elevated their teams’ games when they were in?

  • It’s really difficult to even make the argument that Douglas is most valuable on her own team, much less more valuable to her team than Taurasi is to hers. In any event, Douglas’ strength is offense and it is really difficult to make the argument that she is a better offensive player than Taurasi, especially considering her 2 point percentage was 45.18%.
  • Becky Hammon was arguably the best point guard in the league this season and while she was the better distributor than Taurasi this season, Taurasi is clearly the better defensive player and the slightly more efficient offensive player.
  • Had Deanna Nolan played the way she has played in the playoffs for the whole season, she would be a viable MVP candidate. Unfortunately, Nolan was hampered by lingering injuries for most of the season and thus rendered more inconsistent than she might have otherwise been.
  • Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, and Candace Parker missed significant portions of the season, although an argument could be made that their value was most clearly demonstrated in their absence. Either way, Taurasi’s endurance just adds to her MVP argument.

Transition Points:

  • Chicago Sky guard Jia Perkins had a strong case for an All-WNBA selection and the most likely person she could have replaced was Nolan, on the basis of the consistency argument made above. While Nolan’s team made the playoffs, Perkins was the more efficient scorer by almost any standard (Nolan does have a .007 edge in 2-point percentage), definitely the more efficient distributor, and was the more consistent defender. Nolan’s effort to get the Shock to the playoffs clearly makes her a stronger candidate than Perkins (whose Sky cannot seem to get it together), but Perkins did play well this season.
  • Although we compared Taurasi to just about every Hall of Fame guard we could think of in Wednesday’s Mercury-Sparks game thread, Stan and I have agreed in the past that the best comparison would be Grant Hill in his prime…if he was one of the league’s top three point shooters. In other words, it’s hard to find a NBA comparison without talking what if’s and such.