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W25: The GOAT case for Cynthia Cooper

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The first great star of the WNBA remains the greatest of all time.

2000 WNBA Finals - Game Two: New York Liberty v Houston Comets Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

One of my favorite stats about the WNBA is that no championship team has repeated since 2002. Of all of the greats who have come through the league since then, and who have won multiple championships during their careers, none of them has sustained dominance for more than one season at a time since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002.

The only team to ever win three titles in a row was the Houston Comets, who captured the first four WNBA crowns and remain (tied) atop the franchise leaderboard for championships despite having disbanded in 2008. When thinking of WNBA dynasties, the Comets are really the only one.

That’s why any discussion of the WNBA greatest of all time has to start and end with that Houston team. Consistently winning with a target on your back is the mark of true excellence, and no team has been able to do that like the Houston Comets, which means their leader, Cynthia Cooper, has to be the WNBA GOAT.

Houston Comets vs Seattle Storm
The WNBA GOAT.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In four full seasons in the WNBA, she won four titles and was named the Finals MVP each time. Cooper was on the All-WNBA First Team all four seasons, was a scoring champion her first three years, and was the league’s MVP in 1997 and 1998. She remains the league’s leader in career points per game at 20.98.

If advanced stats are your jam, Cooper holds the record for most win shares in an individual season with 10.02 in her 1998 campaign. She has three of the top seven seasons of all time more than 20 years later.

The WNBA put together a list of seven criteria to determine the pool for the top 25 players of all time. If we’re selecting a GOAT, the qualifiers should be even more strict. At the bare minimum, the greatest of all time should be a player who was the best in the league for at least one season, and on the highest stage. Realistically, a GOAT should have at least one MVP and one Finals MVP for this designation.

That leaves us with 10 players eligible for the honor: Cooper, Yolanda Griffith, Lisa Leslie, Lauren Jackson, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, and Breanna Stewart.

It’s hard to find much fault with any player on that list. Jackson was a menace at her peak, and her fellow Storm forward Stewart is widely regarded as the current best player in the world; Leslie was a back-to-back champion and the first great center; and Catchings and Taurasi’s careers are unmatched in their longevity.

1999 WNBA Finals - Game Three: New York Liberty v Houston Comets
The best team of all time was led by the league’s greatest player.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

But Cooper’s individual peak was greater than any of theirs. Although she only played four years in the WNBA because she was 34 years old at the league’s inception, she optimized her time better than anyone else.

Cooper was the first face of the league, despite the WNBA powers that be having no idea just how good she was. Val Ackerman told The Undefeated in 2016 that the league wouldn’t have paired Cooper and Swoopes together had they realized how talented the eventual four-time champion was. But Cooper got the opportunity to play with Swoopes and Tina Thompson, and she took full advantage to show the American audience what they had been missing out on before the WNBA’s existence.

Admittedly, rings aren’t the only measure of the success of a player, and it’s unfair that Catchings in particular suffers historically because of the absence of a good supporting cast on her Indiana Fever teams. Griffith is the victim of a similar fate.

But when we’re talking about the greatest of all time, the full resume matters. And Cooper’s is as decorated as anyone else’s in spite of how short her career ended up being. At her best, a rate of play that she maintained for almost the entirety of her brief WNBA career, Cooper’s performance was unparalleled. She helped birth the league and a dynasty at the same time.

The story of the WNBA is incomplete without Cynthia Cooper. She set a standard for future players to meet, and everyone who has come since is still working to clear that bar.