SECAUCUS, N.J., Sept. 7, 2011 -- The 2011 WNBA regular season and the Race to the MVP have rounded the final curve and have the finish line in sight.
This season has provided a close race with a number of worthy candidates. Before the votes are cast next week, we have some questions that need to be answered.
If you subscribe to the theory that the MVP is the best player on the best team, then this year’s award should go to a member of the Minnesota Lynx, much like the MVP went to Seattle’s Lauren Jackson a year ago when the Storm ran away with the best record in the league.
But it’s not that easy. Minnesota provides one of the most balanced attacks in the league and therefore has a number of viable candidates for the honor with scoring leader Seimone Augustus and floor general and league assist leader Lindsay Whalen leading the way. Who gets the Minnesota vote? By having more than one candidate, the vote will likely be split between them, opening the door for teams with a single force to be reckoned with.
Enter Sylvia Fowles. The Chicago Sky center leads the league in minutes played, blocked shots, field-goal percentage, efficiency rating; is second in the league in rebounding; and third in scoring. Yet her team was just eliminated from the playoffs last week and must win its final three games just to get to .500 for the season. Can an MVP come from a losing team? It has yet to happen.
Is there a player that combines the league-leading statistics of Fowles and team success of the Lynx? The closest thing we have is Tina Charles of the Connecticut Sun. The team is ranked second in the Eastern Conference, and the reigning Rookie of the Year leads the league in rebounds, double-doubles, is second in blocked shots and sixth in scoring. Charles has been the leader in our rankings for the past month. But is she a lock?
Not if Tamika Catchings has anything to say about it. The veteran forward has been the MVP runner-up three times in her outstanding career, but has yet to claim the honor for her own. The question with Catchings isn’t what she has done to make herself a perennial MVP candidate, it is what doesn’t she do. When you look at five of the major statistical categories – points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – Catchings is the only player in the WNBA to be ranked in the top 15 in all five. Her team has led the Eastern Conference since June and Catchings has done whatever it takes to keep them there as she continues to pursue her first championship. Is this finally her year?
So many questions and less than a week left to make a decision. See below for this week’s rankings and come back next week when our choice for MVP is revealed.
Last ranking: 1
Two things hurt Charles' bid for the MVP over the past week. First, the Sun lost a bit of momentum and just as it appeared they might pass the Fever for the top spot in the East, they lost three of their last five games and will settle for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Second, a statistical error wiped away Charles' triple-double last week. Had it stood it would have been only the fifth one recorded in league history and a signature performance to spotlight. But she still picked up her league-leading fourth Player of the Week honor on Tuesday.
Last ranking: 3
Catchings does not blow you away with any single statistic the way Charles does with rebounding or Taurasi and McCoughtry do with scoring. With Catchings you have to look at the complete body of work. The only category that Catchings appears in the top three is steals. But if you look at every category, you'll see her name everywhere. She currently ranks in the top 13 in scoring (10), rebounding (9), assists (13), steals (5), blocks (10), efficiency (4), minutes (11), FT percentage (9) and double-doubles (4). No other player in the league contributes to her team the way Catchings does. She is the definition of an all-around player. And she's done this for a team that won the East and will finish with the second best record in the league.
Last ranking: 2
A common method in evaluating a player's value is to think about what the team would be like without them. Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com developed the WARP rating, which rated Fowles second only to Catchings at the start of September. Despite her ridiculous statistics and her value to her team, the Sky have officially been eliminated from the playoffs and will need to win its final three games just to get to .500. Without Fowles, the Sky would be worse than they are. But considering they are fifth in a six-team conference, how much worse would it be? The end result is the same. Their season will end on Sunday.
Last ranking: 4
Since the beginning of July, only Minnesota has posted a better record than Atlanta as the Dream overcame a slow start to make it back to the postseason as they look to get back to the WNBA Finals. McCoughtry has been the driving force of this resurgence with her play on both ends of the floor. She currently is tied for the league lead in scoring and is third in steals. While not the most efficient scorer, she has a knack for taking over when her team needs her most. Much like the Dream, McCoughtry has improved as the year has gone along, overcoming an injury early in the season, and is peaking at the right time.
Last ranking: 8
With the amount of talent on the Lynx, it's easy to take Whalen for granted. But keep in mind, the eighth-year pro is having a career year -- scoring (13.9 ppg is just shy of her 2008 average of 14.0 when she finished second in the MVP vote), assists (5.8 apg is a career best and leads the league) and shooting percentage (0.511 FG and 0.425 3PT are way up over her previous bests of 0.468 and 0.351, respectively). But what perhaps best sums up her value is her team's performance. Whalen is the floor general and the one distributing the ball to the talented players she's surrounded by. The fact that she's done that almost flawlessly with the addition of Maya Moore and Taj McWilliams-Franklin to the starting lineup and the return to form of Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins this year should not be overlooked.
Last ranking: 5
There are two similarities to look at between Whalen and Taurasi: 1) they have teammates that may take votes away from them (Penny Taylor for Taurasi and Seimone Augustus for Whalen) and 2) they can both be taken for granted. Diana Taurasi has won four scoring titles in her seven-year career, including the last three, and is currently tied for the league lead with McCoughtry. Because we're so used to seeing her average over 20 points a game, the next question becomes what else has she done. First, she's scored at a much more efficient clip than McCoughtry. Second, she's currently ranked 12th in the league in assists and also chips in over three rebounds a game from the guard spot.
Last ranking: 7
How important is Cappie to the Liberty? Consider the fact that she leads the team in both scoring and assists (ranked No. 5 in the league in both categories), which is testament to her ability as a playmaker for either herself or her teammates. She also chips in nearly four rebounds and over a steal a game for the playoff-bound Liberty, who are currently fighting for the three seed with the Dream.
Last ranking: 9
In a similar fashion to Catchings, Sue Bird will do whatever it takes for her team to win. When Lauren Jackson was out for much of the season, Bird responded by looking for her shot more and picking up some of the scoring slack (she is averaging a career-high 14.8 ppg, good for 13th in the league). Now that the Storm are back at full strength, she can revert back to playmaker mode, as they look to hold off the Mercury for the No.2 seed in the West. The fact that the Storm remained in the playoff race with their best player out for over 20 games is perhaps Bird's greatest claim to MVP honors. She kept the Storm together and in contention with Jackson out. Where would the Storm be without her?
Last ranking: 10
In line with her team's performance, Hammon started the season on fire, hit a few cold spells during July and August, but with their season on the line, she came through. In Tuesday's game against the Sparks, with a chance to clinch a playoff berth, Hammon was brilliant. She scored a season-high 37 points (with 26 in the second half and 17 in the fourth quarter) to lead the Silver Stars to victory and into the postseason. Much like Pondexter, Hammon is relied upon to both score and facilitate for her team and fulfills both tasks at a high level (she is ninth ranked in the league in scoring and second in assists).
Last ranking: 6
Comparing teammates in an MVP race is difficult as you try to judge which player is most important for the team's success. In the case of the Lynx, which has a team loaded with talent, I deemed Whalen as the most valuable player of their squad and thus she has a higher ranking in the standings. That is not to take away from what Augustus has accomplished and her role on the team. Augustus remains one of the deadliest scorers in the WNBA. And while her scoring average is down from her career average, keep in mind that this is the first time she's had this level of talent around her. She is a threat to score every time she touches the ball, which forces defenses to react and opens up plays for her teammates.
Last week, Lauren Hill of Mount St. Joseph University courageously took the floor for her first college game, refusing to let an inoperable brain tumor keep her from achieving her dream – and WNBA stars Elena Delle Donne and Tamika Catchings were on hand to lend their support.