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WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year candidates: Searching for a diamond in the rough

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With so many inefficient reserves in the WNBA this season, finding one worthy of the Sixth Woman of the Year award takes some work.

Photo by Getty Images.

This has probably been among the weirdest seasons for the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year award because, due to injury or team crisis, every one of the top early-season candidates is either out or has too many starts.

To illustrate the point, about a month ago I put together the numbers for a SWoY watch list that I never published for one reason or another. That list from June 18 included the following top four players:

  • Jia Perkins, who hasn't played a game for the San Antonio Stars since June 26.
  • Jantel Lavender, who (justifiably) became a permanent starter for the L.A. Sparks the next day.
  • Riquna Williams, who hasn't played a game for the Tulsa Shock since June 26.
  • Shoni Schimmel, who just hasn't played well since early in the season (All-Star explosion aside).

Player

MEV%

MVP

PER

Perkins

16.95

8.3

24.8

Lavender

12.13

5.99

17.3

Williams

10.66

5.32

20.3

Schimmel

9.07

4.8

11.1

Dolson

9.49

4.65

11.8

Montgomery

9

4.3

22.2

Sixth Woman of the Year candidates as of 6/18/14.

After that set, you have to consider players who probably would be in the mix had circumstances been different.

  • Damiris Dantas would likely be a strong candidate for the award were Rebekkah Brunson not injured.
  • Jessica Breland could easily have been a top candidate were it not for the Chicago Sky's health issues.
  • Shay Murphy was a solid candidate early, but has missed 7 games due to injury.
  • Monica Wright, my pick for 2013, began the season injured and is now starting in place of the injured Seimone Augustus.
  • Shekinna Stricklen, listed as day-to-day with a neck injury, could still be at the fringes of the discussion if she manages to make it back in the next few games.
  • Danielle Adams has started the last 8 games and if she continues to start she'll be ineligible.

It's really hard to remember when the candidates for any award have been eliminated in this fashion, especially this particular award. But with so many players eliminated, who is left as a candidate?

Swish Appeal's Sixth Woman of the Year criteria

The criteria for the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year award is pretty simple: a player must come off the bench in more games than they start.

Beyond that, I see Sixth Woman of the Year (SWOY) as the MVP off the bench - it should be the player with the greatest contribution to their team's success off the bench, rather than the "best" or the "best player on the best team", who comes off the bench in more games than they start.

The main difference between SWOY and MVP is the matter of complementary: how well does that bench player complement the starting unit or the rest of the roster? Is putting them in the game somehow a "game-changer"? To get more specific, something that really stands out this year, statistically-speaking, is the balance of efficiency and a player's contribution to their team.

The top 15 WNBA reserves by the numbers

SWoY

Mins

MEV%

MVP

PER

WS/48

Pts/empty poss.

Lavender

26.5

15.62

8.19

19.7

0.18

2.56

Griffin

20.4

10.23

4.76

12.3

0.1

1.38

Adams

20.8

9.56

4.63

15

0.06

1.91

Dolson

18.2

9.37

4.61

13.3

0.09

1.69

Christmas

21.4

9.1

4.4

12.7

0.12

1.84

Pierson

16.2

8.94

4.24

15

0.15

2.09

Howard

19.6

8.7

4.2

13

0.03

1.62

Stricklen

15.7

9.23

4.17

17.4

0.16

2.67

Harding

25.9

7.6

3.98

8.7

0

1.27

Schimmel

19.8

7.11

3.95

11.6

0.07

1.34

Phillips

20

6.64

3.89

11.9

0.13

1.93

Shenise Johnson

18.3

7.6

3.69

15.4

0.11

2.06

Peters

18.2

6.4

3.52

14.8

0.12

1.67

Montgomery

15.2

6.8

3.2

14.1

0.1

1.75

Mims

14.8

5.24

3.07

12.7

0.14

2.05

Statistics for the top 15 WNBA reserves in 2014 by MVP rating as of 7/21/14 (PER & WS/48 via Basketball reference).

Unfortunately, those number really don't clarify much - even if you don't know what they mean, they're all over the map and I included PER and Win Shares per 48 from Basketball-Reference specifically to highlight the point that there really isn't going to be a clear right answer here. This is going to be about personal tastes.

But there's something to keep in mind that seems to make this year's group of candidates particularly difficult to sort out.

An extremely productive bench player on a team that doesn't rely on her heavily - either not giving her minutes or simply having dominant starters - is going to have a low MEV% (the percentage of the team's overall production that the player is responsible for) which will in turn lower their MVP rating. An extremely productive bench player can also be undermined by playing less minutes than others and thus having less time to boost their stats.

As an example, Kelsey Griffin is really not having a great season - she's shooting just 32.8% from the field and has a usage rate that suggests she's barely involved in the Sun's offense (14.6%). But Griffin's offensive rebounding and steals on a mediocre team still makes her responsible for 10% of the team's overall production, which is more than any other (current) reserve in the league. That's why she's at the top of this list according to MVP.

So by that reasoning using that particular metric, one could argue that Kelsey Griffin is the most valuable bench player of 2014. But then you have to ask whether you can really give an award to a forward shooting 32.8% from the field. That's where that last column on the right comes in: efficiency has to figure into this.

Pts/empty possession is a simple metric: does the good a player contributes in terms of producing points outweigh the bad in terms of squandering possessions with missed shots and turnovers. You'll note that Griffin rates third-lowest by that standard out of the player's listed above. And since I know these are unconventional ones, the (slightly) more conventional ones might make the point more clearly.

SWoY

FG%

TS%

USG%

Lavender

58.7

61.4

22.3

Griffin

32.8

39.3

14.6

Adams

40.4

50.6

26.8

Dolson

50.8

54.2

19

Christmas

32.4

47.5

17.6

Pierson

48.5

57

20.8

Howard

43.4

47

24.3

Stricklen

47.2

62.6

20.8

Harding

31.4

37.6

17.5

Schimmel

36.9

48.7

21.1

Phillips

41.5

55.7

13.7

Shenise Johnson

44.4

53.6

17.5

Peters

48.1

50.2

15.8

Montgomery

38.6

49.1

22.4

Mims

48.1

51.4

16.2

Scoring efficiency numbers for the top 15 WNBA reserves as of 7/21/14 (via Basketball-Reference).

For reference, true shooting percentage is important because it incorporates the additional value of three and free throws. League average TS% generally hovers right around 50% - a little over that for posts, a little under for guards, and maybe around 47% for high volume scorers.

Short story: picking a Sixth Woman of the Year this season is going to require choosing from a group of players that includes a number of mediocre scorers. And this is a sampling of the best reserves - it's not like there's a whole lot of other efficient scorers playing rotation-level minutes out there.

So how do we narrow this list down?

The top candidates for Sixth Woman of the Year

Wild cards:

  • First, you're probably wondering why Jantel Lavender is on this list at all as someone who has started 15 of her team's 22 games - she's on pace to be ineligible for the SWoY award. However, with the L.A. Sparks struggling to the point where they fired their coach, a change to the rotation is possible. If, for some reason, new coach Penny Toler decides to shake up the starting lineup and bring Lavender off the bench for the remainder of the season, Lavender would be the clear SWoY front-runner. Unlikely, but when you look across the field of candidates, it's noteworthy.
  • Second, Shekinna Stricklen suffered a nasty neck injury against the Minnesota Lynx and is listed as day-to-day. So if she's able to return within the next few games, she'll be in the mix for this award and a pretty strong candidate: she's 7th in the league in 3-point percentage and clearly the most efficient reserve scorer this season. On the flip side, she only averages 15.7 minutes per game as she can play 20+ minutes two games straight and then play just 11 minutes and go scoreless the next. She has become a 3-point specialist, but she doesn't offer much else when not scoring, which limits her value.

  • Shoni Schimmel has a really good shot at winning this award for one reason: she was not only an All-Star but had the best scoring performance in All-Star history in arguably the best All-Star Game ever. That doesn't necessarily justify her winning this award, but in a field dominated by struggling players who aren't necessarily big names it wouldn't be shocking to see her get votes.

4. Danielle Adams, F (6-foot-1, San Antonio Silver Stars)

Adams isn't necessarily having the best season of her career, but her contributions to the Stars off the bench are invaluable. The reason is rather simple: she creates a huge matchup problem as a stretch four who can also muscle opposing posts on the low block. That she is as efficient as she is at one of the highest usage rates in the league (26.8%, sixth) further underscores her value.

For a team that has a problem keeping up with opponents in scoring efficiency and relies heavily on 3-point shooting to win games, Adams has a claim to this award as someone who fills a need on her team. Of course, that's also probably why it makes sense for her to start: she has started the last 8 games and if she remains in the starting lineup, she won't be eligible for this award.

3. Plenette Pierson, F (6-foot-2, New York Liberty)

Not only is Pierson one of the most efficient scoring reserves in the league, but she's also the most efficient scorer on her team (see Basketball-Reference) with a career-high true shooting percentage of 57%. That's impressive on its own, but more impressive considering that the Liberty are one of the least efficient offenses in the league: every bit counts and Pierson offers something they can really use.

During a season in which scoring efficiency off the bench is clearly at a premium, that can't be dismissed.

2. Karima Christmas, G (6-foot-0, Indiana Fever)

Christmas might be this year's example of why true shooting percentage is a valuable statistic: despite an extremely low field goal percentage, her TS% is approaching average. The reason: an extremely high free throw rate of 54.4% (about 5 attempts per 36 minutes) and a career-high 36.6% 3-point percentage. And yet her biggest statistical accomplishment this season is having the fifth-lowest turnover percentage in the league - that's why her points per empty possession rating is so high despite the low field goal percentage.

On a team that can struggle to score efficiently at times, Christmas is about as important to the Fever as any bench player is to their team and might even be the most underrated player in the league because of her numbers.

1. Stefanie Dolson, C (6-foot-5, Washington Mystics)

After looking through all the numbers and eliminating players who weren't eligible, Dolson's value to the Washington Mystics became more and more clear.

What's most impressive as a rookie is just how good she is defensively, ranking 10th in the league in defensive rating (97) on the strength of the second-best block percentage (4.6%) in the league - in other words, if she weren't playing at the same time as one of the best shot blockers ever, she'd deserve quite a bit more attention for her shot blocking prowes.

On a team that is already quite good defensively, Dolson's contributions might not be considered indispensable. But to know that you can go to the bench without much drop off defensively is a major asset. In a year where efficient bench scorers aren't exactly plentiful, she's even more valuable - there are quite a few teams who could really use a skilled, relatively efficient 6-foot-5 center like Dolson.

Who do you think is the Sixth Woman of the Year? Vote in the poll below or drop your thoughts in the comments.