With Labor Day Weekend in the books, the summer – at least here on the East coast – is unofficially over. Sunscreen will give way to sweatshirts, beach towels for rakes, Frisbees for footballs. And here on WNBA.com, with the change in the seasons comes a change in the Race to the MVP.
Candace Parker, WNBA.com’s preseseason pick for MVP, had validated that selection through the season’s first half and all but monopolized the top spot. She has, however, slowed down a bit since the Olympic break, and it’s now time to give someone else a shot at the No. 1 ranking. The change at the top should signify that this race is far from over and, like the jugs of apple cider on the horizon, the best is truly yet to come.
For the second time this season, Tina Charles takes the top spot in the Race to the MVP. While Parker’s sputtered a little since returning from London, Charles has displayed little to no Olympic fatigue. After a sluggish first game back in a loss to the Liberty, Connecticut’s star center has averaged 18.0 points and 10.4 rebounds in the Sun’s last seven games, right around her impressive season averages. In that seven-game stretch, the Sun have gone 5-2 and continue to hold a 2.5-game advantage over a surging Indiana team atop the Eastern Conference.
As prolific in racking up double-doubles as anyone in WNBA history – she did break her own all-time record for most in a season with 23 in 2011 -- the 6-foot-4 center has registered four double-doubles in a row, three of them being of the 20-10 variety. For the season, Charles has a league-high 16 double-doubles, with seven games left to play.
Unlike Charles, Parker appears to be suffering a bit of an Olympic hangover. In seven games since returning with gold, Parker is averaging only 11.3 points per game (down from her 19.0 average before the break). She’s stayed active in the paint, averaging 8.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, but those numbers also lag behind the frantic pace that she set in the first half. Meanwhile, the Sparks have lost three in a row.
These past two weeks are most likely just a hiccup in what has been Parker’s best overall season since 2008. And, if it weren’t for the lofty standards that Parker set with her first-half play, her post-Olympic play might look a lot better. Expect Parker to start putting up eye-popping numbers again and know that she can very quickly wrestle the top spot away from Charles.
Aside from the Minnesota Lynx, no team has been better since the break than the Indiana Fever, and Tamika Catchings is a big reason for that. The do-it-all veteran won Eastern Conference Player of the Month for August and has really hit the ground running after coming back from London. In her nine games back, she’s posted three double-doubles and twice fell only a rebound shy of one. The Tennessee product in her twelfth year is fifth in the league in scoring and fifth in steals, displaying her talent on both the offensive and defensive side of the court.
Despite going 7-2 since the Olympic break, the Fever still sit 2.5 games behind the Connecticut Sun for the top seed in the East. With a challenging schedule left – and one matchup with Connecticut looming – Catchings will be called upon more than ever. If she can rally the Fever to the top seed in the East, she could be looking at back-to-back MVP awards. Watch her in action here.
Sophia Young soared up this list as the Silver Stars did the same in the standings. Now that they’ve lost four of five, her position in the top five is very much in jeopardy. Not that her individual performance has done anything to suggest that this ranking is too high. In San Antonio’s current three-game losing streak, Young is averaging 23.7 points and 8.0 rebounds, which includes a season-high 32 points on 14-for-20 shooting in San Antonio’s most recent loss to Phoenix.
Young ranks in the top 10 in the league in scoring and rebounding and in the top five in steals and shooting percentage. In fact, that’s the biggest difference in Young’s game this year. A career 46.9 percent shooter, she is now connecting on 53.4 percent of her attempts. For someone that can rebound and defend like she can, that kind of offensive efficiency is the key driving force that’s taking her to that next echelon of stars.
The accolades just keep pouring in for Seimone Augustus. After being named 2011 WNBA Finals MVP, Augustus not only won gold with Team USA in London but she also became the all-time leading scorer in Minnesota Lynx history on Monday, surpassing Katie Smith. With the Lynx in the driver’s seat to defend their title, this could truly be a banner year for the former No. 1 overall selection.
It’s all about scoring for Augustus, and few people in the league can do it with the consistency she can. In fact, the 6-foot guard has scored in double figures in all 24 games she’s played this season. The only other player to do that on this list is Angel McCoughtry, the league’s leading scorer, although McCoughtry’s only suited up for 18 games. Meanwhile, Augustus’ scoring touch has gotten even hotter since coming back from London, averaging 19.9 points in seven games.
Kristi Toliver has been the Sparks’ best player since the break – she won Western Conference Player of the Month for August – but she stays at No. 6 because of L.A.’s current three-game losing streak and her own five-point performance on 1-for-7 shooting against Minnesota on Tuesday. When you remove that game, however, Toliver had been averaging 22.5 points over her last 11 games, not once scoring less than 19 points.
Toliver’s efficiency has been the key to her surge. Since the Olympic Break she is 20-for-32 (62.5 percent) from 3-point range. And something that probably gets lost in all of her explosiveness is that she is also second in the league in free-throw percentage, connecting on 91.1 percent of her attempts from the charity stripe. She has hit the second most free throws this season (112) of anyone in the WNBA.
Like Parker, Fowles has seen a dip in production since returning from London. Before she joined Team USA, Fowles had been averaging 18.5 points per game. In the seven game she’s played since – she missed two for personal reasons –the 6-foot-6 center is averaging only 12.7 points a night. In those seven games, she’s recorded only one double-double, compared to her 14 in 17 games in the first half.
Not helping Fowles’ cause is the play of the Chicago Sky, who have lost 15 of their last 18 games and are in a tight battle with Cappie Pondexter (No. 8 on this list) and the New York Liberty for the fourth playoff spot in the East. Statistically alone, Fowles is having an MVP-caliber season, but her late-season swoon and Chicago’s free-fall in the standings has her slipping down these rankings fast.
As it stands now, the New York Liberty are a half-game ahead of the Chicago Sky for the fourth playoff spot in the East. It’s safe to say that if not for Pondexter, the Liberty wouldn’t even be in the conversation. Pondexter, one of the notable players not on Team USA, has started the second half on a mission, scoring at least 16 points in eight of nine games and leading the Liberty to a 5-4 record in that span. The 5-foot-9 guard is second in the league in scoring average and has scored more total points than anyone in the league since the league’s top scorer, Angel McCoughtry, has missed several games.
While it would be difficult to crown an MVP on a team with a losing record, it’s hard to ignore what Pondexter has done for the Liberty’s playoff hopes. In fact, she essentially is their playoff hope. Stay tuned to see if Pondexter can lead the Liberty to the playoffs down the stretch. Watch her in action here.
With Angel McCoughtry you get both the good and the bad. The Good? How about scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter to spearhead a win against East-leading Connecticut on Sept. 2? In that game she finished with 24 points in 19 minutes off the bench. Why was she on the bench? Well, that’s the bad. After a tumultuous few weeks in Atlanta that had some wondering who was calling the shots for the Dream organization, the star Olympian was suspended for violating an unspecified team rule and sat out two games.
McCoughtry’s currently leading the league in scoring and steals, but also in turnovers – once again, the good with the bad – and her placement on this MVP ladder is a dicey proposition. Drama aside, there is no player with as much pure offensive talent in the entire Eastern Conference, but she’s missed 10 of Atlanta’s 28 games, and even came off the bench for four that she’s played in, so without a full-season body of work, it’s going be hard to take home MVP hardware.
Years from now we may look back at the 2012 Olympics as the time Maya Moore evolved into the superstar that everybody knows she can be. Well, that’s how history will remember it at least. In all actuality, that transition appears to have really started a few weeks prior to her traveling to London as she tore through the Lynx final four games of the first half, averaging 23.5 points per game. After a strong showing for Team USA, Moore has stayed hot, and is starting to fulfill the enormous hype that she generated as the No. 1 pick in 2011 WNBA Draft. Never was that more evident than in her 23-point, nine-rebound, seven-steal performance in a win against the Sparks on Tuesday.
Moore was 2011 Rookie of the Year but given her potential, her 2011 season merely hinted at what she could become. The UConn product appears to be putting it all together now – she can affect all aspects of the game the same way that her idol Tamika Catchings can – and she is on her way to becoming one of the most complete players in the game. Case in point, she’s averaging 8.1 rebounds per night since returning from London.
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.