The Reluctant MVP Candidate
You get the sense that Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird isn't entirely comfortable with the campaign that has sprung up supporting her for the WNBA's MVP award. It's not that she doesn't appreciate the "M-V-P" chants that filtered down from the KeyArena stands in last Saturday's win over Minnesota, the comments from Storm Head Coach Brian Agler and her teammates, and the election-themed campaign launched by the Storm's PR department. It's just that Bird would probably be as happy if the Storm was still winning but the attention was going elsewhere.
"I don't know," Bird said earlier this week. "It's obviously definitely flattering. It's something that I don't think I've ever experienced in my career, not just professionally but in general. So it's cool. There's something nice about it."
For one, Bird would surely prefer to have mate Lauren Jackson alongside her in the lineup. Were it not for the reigning MVP missing the Storm's last five games before the Olympic break to train with the Australian National Team and undergoing ankle surgery at the conclusion of the Olympics, Bird might never have emerged as an MVP candidate. Bird's leadership, not to mention her scoring punch and clutch play, has been invaluable as the Storm has gone 7-4 without Jackson.
Count Agler, Bird's biggest supporter, amongst those who believe she would have been part of the MVP talk either way - "I would have been saying the same thing about Sue if she would have been playing the same way and we would have been doing the same thing," he said recently. However, multiple MVP contenders on the same team have been a rarity in the WNBA. In the last six years, no pair of teammates has finished in the top five in MVP voting.
As long as she's healthy, Jackson's game demands that she be considered an MVP candidate. Even though she won multiple national player of the year awards as a senior at UConn and finished fifth in MVP voting during her rookie season, Bird believes her situation is different.
"I'm not the dominant player that Lauren is or Diana (Taurasi) or you can go down the list," she said.
"Really both times (Lauren) won it, she was just so dominant. Lauren really could have won it three or four times, to be honest. Players like her, she's just so special. She's in the MVP running no matter what her team does in a lot of ways."
Not so for Bird, whose value is more likely to be seen in her team's performance than in eye-popping numbers. When she was highly decorated in college, it came when she helmed a 39-0 Connecticut team that won the National Championship. This year's Storm squad has won plenty, recording a franchise-record 21 victories despite facing heavy injuries in the second half of the season. No wonder then that Bird has entered the MVP discussion.
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The ultimate recipe for an MVP is to put up the big numbers in the context of a winning team. That's what Bird has done in Jackson's absence, averaging 17.5 points per game and going off for 20 or more five times in a six-game stretch. Despite teams trying to keep the ball out of Bird's hands by double-teaming her away from the ball on inbounds passes, Bird has found ways to score and has done so while actually improving her efficiency and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.
Bird has come up big for the Storm during the fourth quarters of several close games. Last Thursday in Chicago, she outscored the Sky all by herself during the Storm's comeback, putting up 13 fourth-quarter points on 5-of-5 shooting, including three three-pointers. Bird also came up with a crucial assist in the last two minutes. Two days later, Bird scored 21 of her 23 points in the second half as the Storm came back once more against Minnesota.
Play like that has made Agler the most vocal spokesman for Bird's MVP candidacy - whether she wants it or not.
"Sue's the MVP of the league," he said before the win over the Lynx. "There's no question in my mind. I've said that the last two or three games, and she's always proved me right after she's said that, so I hope she continues to do it. If you look at a player that provides the kind of value to a team that she does, I don't know if there's one that is more valuable to a team than she is to us.
"She's humble and she's not going to talk about it like that. You all know her - you guys know her better than I, probably. But that's reality. There's no reason to sugarcoat it. It is what it is. If she's on the floor and she's playing well, we've got a chance to win every game."