After dominating the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year race for the past two seasons, Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner is going to have a tough time hanging on to it in 2011.
Perhaps that's more of a testament to the growing talent in the WNBA than anything about Bonner or the Mercury's early-season performance this season - a number of younger players have stepped up to contribute to their teams this season as well as a number of old faces in new places.
So although there are 2-3 very clear front-runners for the award, given that it's early in the season and some players' production will taper off as others improve this early season list will look at 10 players who have distinguished themselves as particularly valuable off the bench.
And in terms of how the list was determined, "Most Valuable Bench Player" is probably a good way to conceptualize it - it's essentially the same statistical framework for determining MVPs minus the focus on whether the candidates are leading their team.
- Contribution to team success: Marginal victories produced (read more)
- Credit for team success: The percentage of a player's valuable contributions to the team (read more)
- Impact on the floor: For MVPs, this would be plus/minus, but that's a little bit harder to use for players coming off the bench - as an extreme example, if a player were to come off the bench to replace a star player, their plus/minus should be low only because a drop-off should be expected (that, by the way, is part of what "adjusted plus minus" is for). Instead, I'm going to use the player's overall contribution to the team's Four Factors (effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and free throw rate). That does two things: not only is a reasonable proxy for a player's impact, but it also takes versatility into account, which I would argue is valuable for a bench player.
- Points per empty possession: This doesn't just reward players who score well - it rewards players who make good decisions with the ball and creates more scoring possessions than empty possessions. In other words, player who do more good than harm. (read more)
Two things you'll notice:
- This is not an objective evaluation of talent, but how a player comes off the bench and contributes to their team.
- There are intangibles - the great thing about having a player as versatile as Bonner is the ability to use her with different lineup combinations given matchups. There's also the matter of defense, both on-ball defense and fitting within a team concept. Yes they exist; no there's not a perfect way to figure that out.
So, from that came this list of ten players:
|1. Danielle Adams||8.0||12.5||1.44||3.30|
|2. Jessica Davenport||7.5||14.2||1.41||2.36|
|3. Kristi Toliver||7.2||13.12||0.65||2.43|
|4. Ebony Hoffman||6.1||11.02||0.94||2.23|
|5. DeWanna Bonner||5.2||11.3||1.32||2.11|
|6. Jia Perkins||6.1||9.6||0.74||2.56|
|7. Kelsey Griffin||5.1||9.4||1.16||2.08|
|8. Jeanette Pohlen||4.9||9.3||1.20||3.58|
|9. Alison Bales
|10. Le'coe Willingham||4.3||9.4||1.19||1.75|
Update: Kalana Greene, who has started every game, has been replaced by Le'coe Willingham.
1. Danielle Adams, F, San Antonio Silver Stars: It's hard to choose between Adams and Davenport and you could certainly go either way - both have arguably won a game for their team and give their teams a huge boost. But what separates Adams is her scoring efficiency, which is actually something of a remarkable statement when considering that she has shot 21 threes this year. The other thing that helps is that she turns the ball over less often. But perhaps the most underrated thing: Adams brings a rebounding presence off the bench that means more to the Silver Stars - among the worst rebounding teams - than anything Davenport adds to the Fever. If Adams doesn't win Rookie of the Year - and there's a strong argument for her being near the top of that race - she could very well win this one.
2. Jessica Davenport, C, Indiana Fever: Davenport continues to make strides in her career and although she's not the most efficient player on this list, she's come off the bench a few times now to give the Fever a boost. She's much more comfortable operating in the post than she has been in the past and defensively she's averaging 2 blocks a game. Part of her value to the team as well is that right now she's outplaying the Fever's starter at center, at least statistically.
3. Kristi Toliver, G, Los Angeles Sparks: Although Adams and Davenport are probably the clear top contenders for this award, Toliver is not that far behind for all the reasons she showed on Sunday in the Sparks' impressive win against the Seattle Storm. Like Davenport, she will probably also be in consideration for the Most Improved Player award this season as well. The reason she's not higher is probably obvious relative to the two ahead of her - she doesn't add quite as much in terms of the Four Factors.
4. Ebony Hoffman, F, Los Angeles Sparks: Best bench in the league? The Sparks are certainly making their case early in the season. Hoffman isn't contributing quite as much to the team's statistical bottom line as Toliver, but which player is more important is certainly debatable - as one might expect based on positions, Toliver is the more efficient ball handler and shooter while Hoffman is the better rebounder and defender, with rebounding being a huge need for the Sparks. Take your pick between these two.
5. DeWanna Bonner, F, Phoenix Mercury: Why did Bonner leapfrog people on this list with better numbers? Mainly because of her versatility and what she's able to do defensively on a team that could always use more of that. What's hurting her right now is a very low 2-point percentage of 34.78%, but the fact that she doesn't turn the ball over much when on the floor is to her benefit.
6. Jia Perkins, G, San Antonio Silver Stars: Don't fixate on the strength of the Sparks' bench without considering that of the Silver Stars. With Adams, Perkins, plus two other rookies coming off the bench they have a potent rotation. What Perkins offers the team is a scoring threat as a guard with an impressive 57.14% 2-point percentage, an alternate ball handler and defense.
7. Kelsey Griffin, F, Connecticut Sun: What Griffin is doing extremely well - as expected give her college numbers - is rebounding, on both ends of the floor. But more subtly, her steal percentage of 3.8% (1.2 spg) shows the type of excellent instincts she has as both ends as well. Griffin isn't higher because a) she doesn't contribute as much to her team as others and b) her shooting percentages are below average for her position. But she's a valuable asset particularly because of her intangibles and the fact that rebounding, though not bad for the Sun, is one of their weaker areas.
8. Jeanette Pohlen, G. Indiana Fever: Pohlen is turning out to be a valuable scoring threat off the Fever's bench and has she earns more minutes, her standing on this list - and the Rookie of the Year race - will improve. Her 78% true shooting percentage is outstanding and her 50% 2-point percentage is solid. But the reason she isn't higher on this list is she's a scorer with a low usage rate, thus far - her usage rate of 12.5% is what Ken Pomeroy might call nearly invisible offensively.
9. Alison Bales, C, Atlanta Dream: Bales was among the people on the radar last season and she gets the nod here for contributing more to the Dream than Le'coe Willingham does to the Seattle Storm. Other possible options for these last two spots would be Porsha Phillips, Danielle Robinson, and Tan White, but think of it this way: if a team has three candidates for any award isn't the third player generally so much less likely to win that she's no longer a candidate?
10. Le'coe Willingham, F, Seattle Storm: This one requires some explanation - Willingham is somewhat representative of the Storm's struggles as a team. Her points per empty possession is low, which doesn't help a team that is already struggling with shooting efficiency out of the gate. Nevertheless - and I missed this at first - Willingham has the third-highest true shooting percentage on the team. Why? She has a free throw rate of 75% and is shooting 83% from the line. That's particularly important for the Storm, who currently stand at 11th in the league in terms of free throw rate, according to Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com. Willingham will almost certainly rise on this list as the season goes on.