The MVP is somewhere in between the most important individual award a player can attain…and absolutely meaningless. Receiving – rather, earning – the award is a testament to a player’s colossal contributions to her team. It signifies that her presence meant more to her team’s win total than anyone else in the league. And yes, along with jaw-dropping stat lines and signature moments, team wins will play a critical factor in who climbs the MVP ladder this year.
That said, if you talk to any of the players that appear on this list throughout the year, which we will, I would not be going out on a limb by saying that none of them -- team players that they are -- will admit to focusing on or caring about the award in the first place.
But, at the end of the year, somebody has to win it - even if just by sheer accident.
So, who will be the inadvertent winner of the league’s most coveted individual award be in 2012?
Last year it was Indiana’s Tamika Catchings. A seven-time All-Star and two-time MVP runner-up, Catchings finally received the elusive award -- not that she was aiming for it, of course. Her individual stats -- 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game -- meant less to her than the fact that the Fever won an East-best 21 games (tied with Connecticut) in the regular season, even with their starting point guard on the shelf with an ACL tear.
Will Catchings repeat? History says no. Only in the league’s first two seasons -- 1997 and 1998 with Cynthia Cooper -- did a player record back-to-back MVPs. But it will take a campaign as statistically stellar as Catchings’ in 2011 for a candidate to be awarded the highly sought-after trophy (that nobody admits to actively wanting) this season.
This season WNBA.com will keep you updated on the MVP race in a weekly series titled Race to the MVP. While games don’t tip off until Friday when the Los Angeles Sparks take on the Seattle Storm, here is a list outlining the top contenders for the MVP.
#1. CANDACE PARKER, LOS ANGELES SPARKS
If healthy, there may be no more productive (and exciting) player in the WNBA. Her versatility and skill level is virtually unmatched – at Tennessee, the 6-foot-4 Parker was listed as a guard, forward and center. That said, Parker has been unable to stay on the court the past two seasons, only playing a combined 27 games in 2010 and 2011. With a talented and deep front line this year, including newcomers Nicky Anosike and No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks have the flexibility to limit Parker’s minutes and hopefully keep her healthy.
In 17 games last season, Parker averaged 18.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in 32.6 minutes – all team highs. If she can put up those kind of numbers, which she can presumably do in her sleep, for a Sparks team that figures to compete near the top of the West, Parker could very well win her second MVP award. Parker’s immense potential is why she leads this list. One misstep, however, and Parker’s MVP hopes would be finished.
For a decade, Bird has done it all for the Storm. She will be asked to do even more this year, which could only enhance her MVP credentials. With three-time MVP Lauren Jackson missing the first half of the season to be with her Olympic National Team and Swin Cash now in Chicago, the bulk of Seattle’s scoring will have to come from Bird, who the majority of GMs around the league view as the league’s top point guard.
Bird, who was hampered by lingering injury issues last year, still finished fourth in MVP voting in 2011 after averaging a career-high 14.7 points and shooting 44.9 percent from the floor last season. At full strength, she may be able to (and may have to) improve on those career-highs.
Phoenix is going to go as far as Diana Taurasi takes it this year. With Penny Taylor out for the season with a torn ACL and Temeka Johnson now running the offense in Tulsa, Phoenix is without two of its top offensive weapons from a year ago. Taurasi, a fixture on the All-WNBA team, led the league in scoring last year with 21.6 points (.07 points above Angel McCoughtry) but, like Bird, may be called upon to do even more this season.
Taurasi, the 2009 MVP, will almost without a doubt post MVP-caliber numbers. She is the early favorite to win the scoring title, but her candidacy is going to come down to how many games a shorthanded Phoenix squad can win in a stacked Western Conference. Boatloads of points for a losing team will not win this award, but if the Mercury make the Playoffs, it will likely be on the back of a monster year by Taurasi.
Death. Taxes. And Catchings being in the running for MVP. Consistent as it gets, Catchings finished among the top five MVP vote-getters in eight of her 10 seasons. This season, however, Catchings is adjusting to a new position as coach Fever coach Lin Dunn intends to use her at the power forward position as opposed to her natural small forward position. Catchings, who will be 33 in July, led the Fever in rebounding last year (7.1 rpg) and the switch will have her in position to grab even more this year.
Offensively, the reigning MVP will likely be featured in a lot of pick-and-rolls and also be afforded scoring opportunities closer to the basket. How the veteran handles the position switch -- which everyone expects to be like a true professional -- will go a long way in determining if she can repeat.
After winning Rookie of the Year in 2010 and finishing second in MVP voting last season, Charles is on the cusp of her first-ever MVP trophy. One of the truly dominant post presences in the league, Charles led the league in rebounding with 11.0 per game last season and was second in blocks with 1.8 per game. On the offensive end, Charles added 17.6 points a night, making way for her to break her own WNBA record with 23 double-doubles.
Connecticut should be a contender in the East and the 6-foot-4 Charles will be the biggest reason for that. Charles will not have to improve on her statistics significantly in order to win the award.
It’s rare that a rookie could run away with the Rookie of the Year award, like Moore did last season, and feel like she wasn’t at her best. With Moore, however, that is precisely the case. The former UConn standout and No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft was slowed by sore knees her rookie campaign – not that you could tell with her 13.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game on a team that steamrolled to a championship. Therefore, maybe more so than anyone in the league, Moore is a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2012, which is why she sits at No. 6 on this list.
In 2012, with another year of experience under her belt and healthy knees under her 6-foot frame, Moore could become the focal point in what is a stacked Minnesota lineup. It’s not easy to win an MVP on a team with as much talent like the Lynx, but Moore will likely take that next step into elite company this year.
Of all the players on this list, individual awards may be furthest from McCoughtry’s mind because of the fact that her Atlanta team got swept in the Finals the previous two seasons. But, if the Dream are to make a push for that elusive championship, much of the responsibility will fall on McCoughtry – and by default, she may need to produce MVP numbers for her ultimate goals to become a reality.
McCoughtry, who was voted by league GMs as the league’s most athletic player, averaged a career-high 21.6 points (tied for first in the WNBA with Diana Taurasi) and 5.2 rebounds in 2011. If she can improve on those numbers slightly – she finished sixth in MVP voting last year – and she guides Atlanta to one of the top seeds in the East, she could be a logical MVP choice.
If Augustus carries over the momentum she generated from the WNBA Playoffs , especially the Finals, then she could very well hoist the MVP trophy at year’s end. In the WNBA Finals, Augustus averaged 24.7 points, including a 36-point effort in Game Two. She averaged 22.0 points during the entire Playoffs, nearly six more than her season average of 16.2, and she shined brightest amongst a team full of stars.
Last year, the Lynx had two of the top eight players in MVP voting – Augustus and Lindsay Whalen – as well as two others (Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore) that received a vote. While Augustus may be the most accomplished player on the league’s best team, playing with a group of All-Star caliber players may actually impede her chances of winning this award, especially if Maya Moore (No. 6 on this list) breaks out like many, including this prognosticator, expect.
Much like Tina Charles, Fowles is an immovable object in the paint. At 6-foot-6, she led the league in blocks (2.0), was second in rebounds (10.2) and was third in the league in scoring (20.0). While she makes scoring in the paint a nightmare for other teams, she converted 59.1 percent of her field goal attempts last year – the next best in the league was Candice Dupree of Phoenix with a 54.8 shooting percentage.
There are few, if any, players in the world with Fowles’ abilities and if Chicago becomes a contender in the East, then Fowles is as strong an MVP candidate as anyone in the league, much higher than No. 9 on this list. Despite Chicago finishing 14-20 last year, Fowles was third in MVP voting.
Pondexter makes the Liberty go. While her efficiency was down last year, she still led the Liberty in points (14.7) and assists (4.7). In 2010, when the 5-foot-9 guard shot over 48 percent from the field, 43.0 percent from 3-point range and averaged 21.4 points, she finished third in the MVP voting. If Pondexter can return to those bench marks -- and there’s no reason to think she won’t be able too -- she could re-position herself in the MVP mix.
Pondexter is also the only member of this top-10 list that is not on the U.S. National Team. This will give Pondexter a valuable rest in the middle of the season and the ability to be fresh in the second half as the Liberty likely make a push for the Playoffs.