And crunch time is when MVPs are supposed to rise above the rest. While there’s only 11 days of the regular season left and essentially only one playoff spot – between New York and Chicago – still up for grabs, Connecticut and Indiana are still fighting for the top spot in the East and San Antonio and Los Angeles are vying for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The outcomes of those battles for playoff positioning and conference supremacy will go a long way to determining these rankings and ultimately the MVP voting, which right now looks like a three-horse race between Tina Charles, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker. As for the rest of the top 10, how players have performed in the second half carries extra weight and that’s why you see Maya Moore making an enormous leap this week while Sylvia Fowles is steadily falling down.
Tina Charles’ teammates did her a big favor on Wednesday night by beating the Phoenix Mercury as she sat out to rest a sore hip/groin. With the win, the Sun kept a game-and-a-half advantage over the Fever for the top spot in the East. Indiana’s Tamika Catchings is creeping up these rankings and the MVP could very well go to which player leads their team to a division crown. Connecticut has four games left, including a showdown with Indiana on Sept. 19, so the Sun will need Charles back on the court very soon. Charles not playing on Wednesday seemed like more of a precaution and she was actually seen doing Yoga during warmups to help her flexibility.
Connecticut is 7-4 since the Olympic break despite playing without Charles’ Olympic teammate Asjha Jones, the team’s second leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, and Charles is reason this team has stayed afloat. In the 10 games she’s played, she’s recorded four double-doubles (she now leads the league in that category) and grabbed at least eight rebounds in eight of those games (she also leads the league in rebounding).
Tamika Catchings climbs to No. 2 this week and her ascent may only continue if the Fever catch the Sun in the Eastern Conference. Catchings has led the Fever to a 10-2 record in the second half and the Fever are looking like a dangerous team come playoff time. The 12-year veteran scored at least 12 points in every game since the break and, in typical Catchings fashion, is affecting the game in all aspects. Take Indiana’s win over the Storm on Wednesday night for example. Catchings scored just 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting, but she chipped in with seven rebounds, five offensive, and six steals.
After finishing in the top five of the MVP voting seven of nine years before finally winning the award for the first time last year, Catchings is very capable of winning the award back-to-back years, something accomplished only when Cynthia Cooper of the former Houston Comets did it in 1997 and 1998. Surpassing the Sun in the East may be a prerequisite for that, however, so Catchings is going to have to be at her best in Indiana’s five remaining games because the Fever still have two dates with the Lynx and one with the Sun on the schedule.
Candace Parker slips down to No. 3 this week but she’s still a viable candidate for the No. 1 spot. She falls because over the last five games, a stretch where the Sparks have gone 1-4, Parker’s averaging only 13.4 points while shooting only 44.4 percent from the floor. Now – I know what you’re thinking – those numbers aren’t that bad, and they’re not, but before the Olympic break Parker was averaging 19.0 points per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the field. That minor dip in production may have hindered the Sparks in their attempt to not only win the West (which Minnesota has already clinched) but also to secure the No. 2 seed since the Sparks currently are only 1.5 games ahead of the slumping Silver Stars for that spot.
Let’s not forget, however, that Parker dominated these rankings for the majority of the year and she can still win the award. The Sparks have four games at home to close out the regular season and if the Sparks and Parker turn it around and clinch the No. 2 spot in the West, it might be hard for voters to ignore Parker’s incredible season, her best since her MVP campaign in 2008.
Maya Moore’s play in the second half raises her above her teammate, Seimone Augustus, in this ladder. The 2011 No. 1 overall pick has been on a tear since early July – she continued that stellar play in the Olympics -- and you could now venture to say that she’s the best player on the league’s best team, a formula used many times for picking a league MVP. Moore, recently named Western Conference Player of the Week, is averaging 18.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.2 steals per night since returning from London.
In 10 games since the break, Moore scored at least 14 points each night while registering four double-doubles. Two other games she came only one rebound shy of that distinction. Moore has said that she modeled her game after Indiana’s Tamika Catchings (No. 2 on this list) and she is now showing the ability to do a little bit of everything on the court, just like the reigning MVP. All due respect to Moore’s fellow Olympians Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, Moore may now be the driving force for Minnesota’s quest for a second-straight title.
Kristi Toliver just edges out Seimone Augustus this week and she enters the top five for the first time this year. The 5-foot-7 guard has scored at least 17 points in 13 of L.A.’s last 14 games and she’s picked up the scoring slack for Candace Parker who has stumbled slightly in the scoring department in the second half. The Sparks have lost four of five, however, so if they don’t start winning soon and lock up the No. 2 seed in the West, Toliver’s reign in the top five could be very short lived.
L.A.’s recent swoon may be partially explained by Toliver’s shooting. Ever streaky from the outside, Toliver is 4-for-11 (36.4 percent) from 3-point range in September. That’s not a terrible percentage, but it pales in comparison to her hitting 19-of-29 (66.5 percent) in August, a month that saw the Sparks go 4-1. Sparks fans will be hoping that this recent slip in accuracy is not a repeat of Toliver’s topsy-turvy first half. In May and July, Toliver connected on 45.5 percent of her attempts from deep (27-for-60) but sandwiched those months by shooting only 24.4 percent (10-41) from 3-point range in June. Not coincidentally, L.A. went a combined 9-1 in May and July and only 6-5 in June.
Seimone Augustus slips a few spots this week mostly because she missed Minnesota’s last two games after suffering a right ankle injury in Minnesota’s 2OT thriller against Atlanta on Sept. 7. It makes sense to rest the star guard because the Lynx already clinched the No. 1 seed in the West, but missing games this time of year is a sure-fire way to descend on this list.
When on the court, Augustus is the same old Augustus. She’s scored in double figures in all 25 games she’s played this year and she’s hit the 20-point plateau in four of the eight games she’s played since coming back from London. While she’s Minnesota’s most polished scorer, she doesn’t affect other facets of the game as much as Maya Moore does and that’s why she checks in at No. 6. Her efficiency, however, has been what’s made her so valuable. Excluding her six-game campaign in 2009, Augustus is setting career highs in field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.
On talent alone, Cappie Pondexter matches up with just about anyone in the league. There’s no doubt that she’s almost singlehandedly carried the Liberty into playoff contention and that’s why she remains on this list despite New York having a losing record. In large part due to Pondexter’s play, the Liberty have won four of their last five and currently hold a half-game advantage over the Chicago Sky for the fourth playoff spot in the East.
Everybody knows Pondexter can score – she’s third in league in that category – but in New York’s recent five-game stretch, the 5-foot-9 guard is also averaging 6.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists. That kind of complete effort is just what New York needs the rest of the way. The Liberty have four games left – three of which are on the road – and with games against Washington, San Antonio and two against the Tulsa, the Liberty are in the driver’s seat for the last spot.
A win against Tulsa on Sept. 12 ended San Antonio’s five-game skid and the Silver Stars did not pick an opportune time to start slumping. While Young isn’t slumping herself, the Silver Stars’ inability to move up to the No. 2 seed in the West while the Sparks were also racking up losses is a bit of a concern. That said, Young is enjoying a stellar season that’s seen her exceed her career averages in points and rebounds while setting a career high in field goal percentage.
Moving forward, Young will be as important to San Antonio’s playoff run as any player on that team – including Becky Hammon. Not to mention, the Silver Stars still have a chance to catch the Sparks for the No. 2 seed out West. If they are able to do that, Young could vault back up this list after taking a bit of a dive this week.
You can’t ignore that Angel McCoughtry has missed 10 of Atlanta’s 31 games this year and whenever you miss roughly a third of the WNBA season – for whatever reason – it’s hard to be a legitimate MVP contender. That’s why, even after some solid performances since returning from suspension, McCoughtry stays here at No. 9. Her value to the team, however, can be proved with rather easily. When McCoughtry plays, the Dream are above .500 at 12-9. Without her, they are 5-5.
As for her recent games, McCoughtry shined on Sept. 7 by scoring 30 points in 36 minutes as the Dream pushed the Lynx to double overtime before losing, 97-93. Most recently, the 6-foot-1 guard scored 23 points and filled up the box score with three rebounds, three assists and four steals in a 77-61 win over Seattle. She still leads the league in scoring and steals – as well as turnovers – and McCoughtry will undoubtedly be a key figure in the postseason league-wide.
After a tremendous start to the season for both Fowles (she was No. 1 on this list on June 29) and the Chicago Sky (they started the season 7-1) the wheels have fallen off, quite literally. The 6-foot-6 center has missed Chicago’s last two games after aggravating a calf injury and she’s now missed four games in the season’s second half. The Sky are a half-game back of the New York Liberty for the No. 4 seed in the East and this is when the Sky could use the Olympian the most. The fact that she’s out of commission in this crucial time is why she finds herself at this low point, her lowest ranking of the season.
When on the court, Fowles hasn’t been the same player since returning from London. In eight games since the Olympics she’s recorded only one double-double and three times she failed to play 20 minutes because of a nagging injury. She hasn’t attacked the glass with the same ferocity she displayed in the first half and she no longer leads the league in that category, that distinction goes to Tina Charles. Fowles needs to return shortly and help her team to a playoff berth if she hopes to stay in the top 10.
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.