With our 2012 Olympians trading in their national team jerseys for their WNBA colors -- six of the top 10 players on this list earned gold for Team USA and one, Becky Hammon, also competed in the Olympics -- it’s time to restart the Race to the MVP. And with the London games now far in our rearview, the race truly becomes a sprint as we’re less than a month away from the postseason.
As we prepare to flip the calendar to September and as teams across the league fight for a playoff berth or playoff seeding, it’s time for those on this list – the legit MVP candidates – to act like it. It’s all about team success now and as a result you’ll start seeing those on losing teams – like Sylvia Fowles whose Chicago team has lost 14 of 16 – start sliding down the list as players on winning teams – like Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver whose L.A. team has won nine in a row – fortify their spots on the ladder.
In her four games since coming back from London, Parker is only averaging 11 points per game – thus thinning her lead in the top spot – but she has still been active by twice grabbing 10+ rebounds, twice blocking four shots and against San Antonio on Aug. 23 dishing out six assists in only 18 minutes. It's taken many of the 2012 Olympians a little time to get back into the swing of things against their fresher adversaries and it should only be a matter of time before Parker starts putting up gaudy numbers again, like she did the entire first half.
For all Parker’s exceptional skills on the perimeter for a 6-foot-4 player, it’s in the paint where she’s been most effective as she is still leading the league in blocks and is third in the WNBA in rebounds. The Sparks, who have vaulted up to No. 1 in WNBA.com’s Power Rankings, are in the midst of a nine-game win streak and the presence of Parker makes them one of the favorites for the WNBA title.
If you throw out a sluggish first game back – where she scored a season-low four points on 1-for-7 shooting – Tina Charles has been solid since returning with gold. After that opening game, the Sun have gone 3-1 and Charles has averaged 18.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. She earned her first double-double of the second half with a 24-point, 14-rebound outing against a Sylvia Fowles-less Chicago Sky on August 28.
Charles is top five in the league in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes and the Sun are in first place in the Eastern Conference. It’s been an interesting subplot to the season seeing which center – Charles or Fowles – would emerge and have the better season. It appears that Charles is primed to win that battle.
Quietly, although not surprisingly, Tamika Catchings is firmly entrenched in the Race to the MVP. The 6-foot-1 forward is actually averaging two more points a game than she did in her MVP season last year while the rest of her numbers in all other major statistical categories are almost identical. Will that be enough to win it again this year? Only time will tell because there are plenty of players having stellar seasons, but it’s safe to say Catchings has put herself in serious contention once again. If this surprises you, you haven’t been watching the WNBA for, oh, the last decade.
The Fever are 5-1 since the break and they’re only 2.5 games back of the Sun for first place in the East. If Catchings and the Fever can make a run at the Sun for the top spot, the 12-year veteran could be looking at back-to-back MVP trophies.
Their 12-game winning streak might be over, but the Silver Stars have already clinched a playoff spot, in large part due to the play of Sophia Young and Becky Hammon (No. 9 on this list). During the streak, Young scored over 20 points five times and shot 56.3 percent from the floor. Young has been a steady scorer – she had a streak of 16 straight games scoring in double figures snapped on August 19 – and rebounder as she leads the Silver Stars in both of those categories. She is also fourth in the league with 2.3 steals per game.
At 6-foot-1, Young is a versatile player that any team could plug into their lineup and see immediate dividends. In a stacked Western Conference, the Silver Stars need Young to continue to play at this near-MVP level if they are to keep up with the Lynx and Sparks.
If you were to look at Fowles’ 2012 statistics alone, she could easily pass for an MVP favorite. Unfortunately, when you get a full look at her resume, you see that her Chicago team, which has won only two games since June 14, is plummeting down the standings in a hurry and is in danger of missing the playoffs after a 7-1 start. And, quite frankly, if your team is not going to be playing in October, you are not the league’s MVP. Adding to her descent on this list is that Fowles has actually missed the Sky’s last two games for personal reasons.
If the Sky doesn’t stop falling – and if Fowles doesn’t get back on the court – the 6-foot-6 center will fall even lower on this list, which will be a shame for what has been a stellar individual season this year.
Much attention is be paid to MVP frontrunner Candace Parker and Rookie of the Year favorite Nneka Ogwumike, but it’s impossible to speak of the Sparks’ success without mentioning Kristi Toliver. In fact, since coming back from the break, Toliver has been L.A.’s best player. In four second half games, Toliver is averaging 24.5 points per game, hitting the 20-point plateau in each game. Her accuracy from downtown – something that was a catalyst for the Sparks in the first half – has been superb as she’s hit 16 of her 25 attempts (64 percent) from 3-point range. If she keeps connecting like that, the Sparks are going to be very difficult to beat.
Toliver’s first half was marred with inconsistency, but since being held scoreless in 17 minutes against San Antonio on June 28, the 5-foot-7 guard has scored at least 19 points in every game, a nine-game stretch, coincidentally the same length as L.A.’s current win streak. A few more similar performances and this guard who was not even L.A.’s opening day starter will reach the top five of this list.
As gifted a scorer as there is in this league – her crossover still ranks as one of the most devastating moves in the WNBA – Augustus is, for better or worse, handicapped in her pursuit of the MVP because she is surrounded by so much talent in Minnesota. She has still scored in double figures in every game she has played this year, however, and since coming back from the break she’s putting up 19.6 points per night.
Sporting a career average of 19.2 points per game in her seven-year career it’s hard to imagine that Augustus could keep getting better, but since she is surrounded by so many capable players in Minnesota, it appears she’s learned to be more efficient. The former No. 1 pick is shooting 52 percent from the floor, a career high if you don’t count her six-game campaign in 2009, and she’s only five 3-pointers shy of matching her career high from 2010. That year, however, she shot 33.6 percent from behind the arc. This year she’s connecting at a 46.3 percent clip.
The do-it-all guard for New York has been buried on this list because of the Liberty’s below .500 record. New York has been slowly improving, its won five of its last 11, and with Chicago slumping, the Liberty are currently in the fourth spot in the East. If the Liberty are able to make the playoffs after a 0-5 start, much credit has to be put on Pondexter’s shoulders.
The Liberty have dealt with injuries to many key players but Pondexter’s explosiveness has made up for it. She’s second in the league in scoring and has scored at least 20 points in eight of her last nine games. Since the Olympic break she’s scoring 23.3 per game and shooting over 50 percent from the floor. For good measure, she also leads the Liberty in assists and steals.
If you were to argue that Becky Hammon is just as important to the Silver Stars as Sophia Young (No. 4 on this list) you would have a valid argument. The point guard’s stats, however, fall a little short of Young’s so that’s why she ‘s down here at No. 9 with the potential to move up. Hammon came out of the gates in the second half on fire after starring for the Russian National Team in the Olympics, but in her last three games, where San Antonio went 1-2, the guard in her 14th season has averaged only 10.3 points while shooting 9-for-38 from the floor (23.7 percent).
There’s no doubt Hammon is a top-3 point guard in this league and if San Antonio is going to make a serious run at a title, Hammon will be an integral part. If she gets her shot back – which we all expect – she could easily rise up this board.
McCoughtry takes a nose dive in the rankings this week and the only reason the mercurial superstar stays in the top 10 is that she’s shown herself to be as gifted as any player in the league this year, both for the Dream and for Team USA. Sure, she’s leading the league in scoring and steals, but you need to be on the court to win MVP and so far McCoughtry has already missed nine of Atlanta’s 25 games this year (36 percent) for a multitude of reasons. Currently dealing with an indefinite suspension, that number could grow.
What happens with McCoughtry in Atlanta will be one of the biggest stories of the second half. At 12-13, the Dream are in position to make the playoffs, but they are not guaranteed a spot just yet. If McCoughtry returns and has Atlanta in position to make another deep postseason run, she may be able to re-climb this ladder in spite of her missed games.
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.