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Early Season MVP Watch: How Fowles is "undeniably making her presence felt"

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The WNBA press release for Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles' first Eastern Conference Player of the Week award has already detailed how she has "undeniably made her presence felt" over the past week.

WNBA.com: Seattle's Lauren Jackson and Chicago's Sylvia Fowles Named Players of the Week
For Fowles, the Player of the Week presented by Kia Motors award is the first of her career. The honor came after she led the league in both points (25.5) and blocks (2.5) per game, while also averaging 11.0 rebounds (third best), 1.5 steals and 1.0 assist per game in leading the Sky to a pair of wins. With an 80-70 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Dream in Atlanta and a 95-70 defeat of the visiting Tulsa Shock, Chicago lifted its record to 4-4 after stumbling from the blocks with a 0-4 mark.

Although the Sky's 4-0 winning streak after an 0-4 start took more than Fowles' presence alone, if she continues to play the way she has she will make a strong argument for MVP come awards time.

During their 4-0 turnaround, the Sky have dramatically increased their shooting percentages (first four, 42.5%; second four 47.6%) while simultaneously decreasing their turnover percentages (first four, 16.80%; second four 12.49%). In other words, they've been much more efficient with their possessions during the win streak by shooting more accurately and turning the ball over less, despite the fact that they're still getting beaten on the offensive boards. Fowles is at the center of both of those changes.

Obviously with a decreased turnover percentage, the most logical place to look is at the guard play and for the Sky, that's been huge. Ball handlers Dominique Canty and Epiphanny Prince have both decreased their turnover percentages while increasing their assist rates. The result is a much improved pure point rating - a rating that measures how well a player balances the risk of making turnovers with the reward of creating an assist - for both players.

0-4 4-0
Turnover% Ast Rate PPR Turnover% Ast Rate PPR
Canty 17.21% 23.76% -1.58 10.28% 28.80% 4.76
Prince 22.69% 18.76% -7.27 12.69% 28.99% 5.05

With improved guard play from two of their primary ball handlers - especially Prince, who comes off the bench with the highest usage rate of the team - it's easier to get the ball to Fowles. However, Fowles is doing her part as well nearly cutting her turnover percentage in half: in the first 4 games, her turnover percentage was at 16.22% and in the last 4 it's been 8.37%. So with the turnover situation, the Sky have had guards distributing more effectively while their leading scorer in the paint is doing a better job handling the ball as well.

Depending on your perspective, that is either the reason for or outcome of improved shooting. The entire team is shooting about 5% better, but the most dramatic improvement has been the team's three point shooting: the team shot 29.3% on 58 attempts in the first four games and in the last four they have shot 42.9% on 70 attempts. Multiple players have stepped up to make that happen, but the biggest contributor has been Erin Thorn: she shot 2-6 in the first four games and 7-16 in the last four in about the same number of minutes on average.

Basketball common sense says that the result of better 3-point shooting is that it has spread the court for Fowles to operate in the paint. Although that has not translated into more shots or an increased usage rate for Fowles over the past four games, it has resulted in 11 more free throw attempts.

Given that Fowles is shooting 84.3% from the free throw line this season (77% over the last four games), those 11 additional free throws have translated into an improved free throw rate (a metric that describes how well a player gets to the line: free throws attempted per field goals attempted). Her free throw rate has gone from 43.18% in the first four games to 52.17% in the last four. That is in addition to the fact that she's shot 69.5% shooting over the last four games compared to 59.0% in the first four games in only 2 more shot attempts.

So enough with the numbers. In plain language, this has been the dilemma for defenses in guarding Fowles over the past four games: if she gets the ball in the paint, she's going to score nearly 7 out of 10 times, turn it over less than 1 out of 10, or get to the free throw line and make about 8 out of 10.

But how exactly do you defend a player like that then?

If you go with single coverage, she'll likely score on you. If you double, the team has caught fire from three point range and has distributors who can swing the ball to open shooters on kick outs. If you foul, she'll go to the line, score, and put your team in foul trouble. Right now, as strange as it might seem, the most efficient thing to do defensively might be to simply live with single coverage and try to make sure she doesn't establish deep position or try keeping her off balance by delaying or mixing doubles with single coverage.

When thinking about how much better dominant post players like the Cleveland Cavaliers' Shaquille O'Neal or Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard might be if they just made free throws, it's quite remarkable - although ESPN's John Hollinger argues that Shaq's career might be that better with improved free throw shooting, "hack-a-Shaq" wouldn't exist as a strategy and you can imagine what the result might have been. That's not to make a direct comparison to Shaq or Howard, but to say that the normal solutions to containing dominant interior players in professional basketball will not work with Fowles.

And just for kicks, she's fouling less too.

All of that, in addition to her standing relative to league leaders is why Fowles is the early season front-runner for MVP. It's a small sample size, but if she and the Sky continue down this path to success they've found over the last four games, Fowles' startling efficiency as a post player will make her a strong candidate for her first MVP.

If someone had told me on after the WNBA Draft in 2008 that Fowles would have as many MVPs and championships as Candace Parker does playing with Lisa Leslie, I - as a novice women's basketball fan - would have dismissed it as folly. The season isn't over and Parker is still a strong candidate, but Fowles is definitely turning some heads.

Top Five Early Season MVP candidates

Three simple early season criteria

  • Clear MVP of one's own team
  • Player a large responsibility for the team's production
  • There is evidence that the player either anchors the offense of defense

Based on the way teams are playing right now and where the top 4 players stand relative to their teammates, it will be difficult to supplant them as the top candidates this season.

Sylvia Fowles, center, Chicago Sky (4-4)

For all the reasons stated above and the fact that over the course of all 8 games - even that 0-4 start - Fowles has been responsible for nearly 30% of the team's overall production. There is absolutely no doubting who this team revolves around and while there is justifiably more talk about the Storm, Fowles and the Sky are looking like a stronger team than they've ever been or perhaps as strong as some fans imagined they might be.

Tamika Catchings, small forward, Indiana Fever (5-3)

Catchings has quietly had a dominant season as well. Perhaps what Catchings does is always quiet because she does just about everything one might want from a small forward and does it extremely well. Although most people would probably assume that the reigning Eastern Conference champions have a better team, meaning Catchings would have to shoulder less of a burden than Fowles, in fact Catchings is right around that 30% chunk of production as well. Part of that is likely that guard Katie Douglas got off to rough shooting start, but Catchings is better in a key way this season. One thing of note about this season compared to last season is that Catchings' assist rate is up from about 15% in 2009 to about 19% this year. That means that her pure point rating is .57, which doesn't seem like much but just to put it in perspective, it's better than Fever point guards Briann January (-1.97) and Tully Bevilaqua (-1.66).

Lauren Jackson, forward/center, Seattle Storm (8-1)

Right now, Jackson is arguably playing the best basketball of any individual in the league. I feel as though Swish Appeal has already detailed that previously. She's playing extremely well, anchors what might be the league's toughest defense, and good luck trying to guard her.

However, what could ultimately "hurt" Jackson's chances at the MVP award is the strong play of her teammates. Sue Bird is probably the best point guard in the league this year, Camille Little has continued to improve and is putting up All-Star numbers, and forward Swin Cash is playing with a renewed vigor this year that has been vital to the team. That's not at all to take away from Jackson, however the argument could be made that she is doing less for her team than Catchings or Fowles right now.

As one Storm fan recently told me, that's fine - Finals MVP is the better award anyway. Touche.

Candace Parker, forward, Los Angeles Sparks (1-6)

No single individual does more for her team right now than Parker with 31.33% of the team's overall production. I'm sure people would be more impressed if the Sparks weren't sitting at 1-6 right now. But you have to believe that situation will change.

She has a usage rate over 28.67%, which is among the highest in the league, and yet is shooting 51.2%. For a player to be that efficient of a scorer with that type of usage rate is impressive. Then she's also doing normal Parker things like get 30% of the available defensive rebounds when she's on the floor. Ho hum.

Tina Charles, center, Connecticut Sun (5-2)

It's funny that when attempting to temper expectations for Charles, some people suggested that she might not be an instant impact player. Well, she's not only way out in front for Rookie of the Year - almost to the point where the race won't even be interesting - but she's also leading the Sun statistically as of right now. However, while she's currently responsible for 22% of the team's overall production, that could change significantly with the addition of All-Star forward Asjha Jones who is playing solid basketball in limited minutes right now. Nevertheless, we can conclude right now that Charles is at least as good as advertised.

Two MVP conundrums:

The MVP candidates from both Atlanta and Washington face the opposite problem as Fowles: when their teams got off to hot starts, they were near the top of the list of MVP candidates. I waited a week. After both teams took a bit of a backslide, strong arguments could be made that neither is even the MVP of their own team because both are complemented by strong post players who are playing very good basketball.

In McCoughtry's case, Sancho Lyttle sits right behind her on the team as the more efficient scorer and the team's best defensive rebounder by percentage. However, where these things get complicated is that McCoughtry is without doubt the go-to player on this team - she's less efficient because she's the one who has taken on the majority of the scoring burden and she's an absolute terror as a defender both one-on-one and in the passing lanes. But depending on how you look at the award, Lyttle might hurt McCoughtry's argument.

On the other hand, Currie might not even be the MVP of the Mystics after being a strong candidate to start the season - that arguably belongs to Crystal Langhorne, who is "undercoverly" one of the most efficient post players in the league. She and Currie split about a 50% share of the team's overall production thus far this season, but again while Langhorne has a larger role in the Mystics offense than Lyttle has in the Dream's, Currie has been the player with the highest usage who the team relies upon to make things happen.

If there is any comparison to be made to McCoughtry right now, McCoughtry gets the edge as the better rebounder, the higher assist rate, and lower turnover percentage.