Race to MVP: Delle Donne Leads Preseason Rankings

Note: WNBA.com’s Race to the MVP, released every Wednesday during the season, is the opinion of this writer and does not reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.

With just a few days to go until the season opener, it’s time to look at who has the best chance to hold the WNBA Most Valuable Player trophy four months from now. Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike won the award last year, earning her first career MVP honor after a historic season and capping it off with a championship.

The league is as loaded with talent as it’s ever been, from veterans like Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker to up-and-coming stars like Breanna Stewart and Emma Meesseman. While everyone in the top five of these rankings has won the MVP before, history says it will be awarded to someone new this season. Eight different players have been named WNBA MVP in the last eight years.

For now, the favorites are a bunch of familiar faces, starting with the player involved in one of the biggest trades in league history.

1. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

Perhaps she came back down to earth a bit last season after her ridiculous MVP campaign in 2015. Nevertheless, Delle Donne remained an unstoppable force, averaging 21.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 43 percent from deep last year.

Now a member of the Mystics, Delle Donne will need to take her new team to places it has never been if she wants to recapture the MVP award. She did just that in Chicago, leading the Sky to their first playoff berth and a franchise-record 24 wins in her rookie year. The Mystics, coming off a 13-21 season, have finished with a winning record just twice in the last decade, and their only series victory in the playoffs came back in 2002.

The challenge is apparent. Maybe it will take time for the new-look Mystics to develop chemistry, and that will hurt Delle Donne’s MVP stock. But on paper, Delle Donne and the other new pieces turn Washington into a contender right away.

2. Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx

Just how respected is Moore among her peers? Last summer, when the WNBA unveiled its Top 20@20 list, she was by far the youngest among the nine active players included. By age 26, Moore was already regarded as one of the league’s all-time greats.

Looking at her numbers, one might say Moore peaked in 2014 during her lone MVP season. Her scoring has dipped a bit since then, but many factors go into that, including the amount of minutes she’s played and Minnesota’s acquisition of Sylvia Fowles. Meanwhile, Moore’s assist totals have risen each of the last two years – up to a career-high 4.2 per game in 2016 – and she has managed to maintain the same turnover rate with more responsibility. Lindsay Whalen may be listed as the point guard, but Moore is the one that truly creates offense for teammates in addition to her own scoring.

Moore is the best player on one of the league’s elite teams. She’s finished top five in MVP voting every year since her rookie season, and there’s no reason why that would change in 2017.

3. Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

It has been an incredible calendar year for the league’s reigning MVP. A month after winning the award, Ogwumike hit the championship-winning shot in the final seconds of Game 5 of the Finals against Minnesota. Then, six months later, she became a EuroLeague champion with Russian club Dynamo Kursk.

Ogwumike entered last season as a three-time All-Star, but nobody could have predicted this. Especially when you consider her frontcourt partner is an annual MVP candidate in Candace Parker. And yet, Ogwumike’s 2016 campaign was by all measures one of the most dominant in league history. She averaged career highs in points (19.7 per game), rebounds (9.1), assists (3.1) and blocks (1.2), and the most impressive part was her efficiency. Ogwumike shot 66.5 percent from the field – the second-highest rate of all time – and set a new single-season record for true shooting percentage.

If she can produce numbers even close to those, Ogwumike has a great chance to repeat as MVP. She would join Cynthia Cooper as the only players to win it back-to-back years.

4. Tina Charles, New York Liberty

It’s a testament to Ogwumike’s brilliance that Charles led the entire league in points and rebounds last year, and it wasn’t enough to win the MVP. Charles became just the third player to accomplish that feat, joining Chamique Holdsclaw (2002) and Lauren Jackson (2007). Her numbers (21.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game) were good enough to win MVP most years.

Charles reinvented her game a bit last season, joining the numerous frontcourt players that are adding the three-point shot to their repertoire. She shot 35 percent from beyond the arc on 1.5 attempts per game. Before last year, Charles had never attempted more than five three-pointers in a season. She also shot a career-high 81 percent at the free throw line in 2016, and her 3.8 assists per game were by far a personal best.

5. Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks

In the same year that she was cut from the Olympic team and missed out on All-WNBA honors, Parker finally became a WNBA champion. Last October, she added the one thing that was missing from her career résumé. After countless individual awards for Parker and playoff exits for the Sparks, the Tennessee product guided her team to glory and was named Finals MVP.

Ogwumike stole the spotlight for much of 2016, but Parker showed during the playoffs that she can still be the best player on the floor when it counts. The veteran forward averaged 19.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in the postseason, up from 15.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and one block in the regular season. Even as Ogwumike ran away with the MVP, Parker still received enough votes to finish fifth. Both are likely to be in the conversation again this season.

6. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

Like the former MVPs listed above, Stewart was one of the league’s best players from the moment she got drafted. The former UConn star lived up to the hype by easily winning Rookie of the Year in 2016, and all signs point to Stewart becoming the MVP one day. Could it happen as soon as this season?

Similar to Delle Donne, Stewart’s team will need to show improvement for her to have a real chance. Every WNBA MVP since 2008 has guided her team to a top-three finish in the overall standings. The Storm made the playoffs last season and have plenty of talent around Stewart, but she will need a bit more help from that supporting cast. Seattle struggled in the minutes Stewart was on the bench last year, as evidenced by her league-high plus-minus rating.

7. Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury

Taurasi will turn 35 a few weeks into the season, and the 12-year veteran might not be quite the player she once was. But the Mercury’s offseason acquisition of point guard Danielle Robinson could pay huge dividends for the team and its superstar. Taurasi is likely to play off the ball much more than in recent years, as Robinson has consistently ranked among the league leaders in assists throughout her career. With Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner out of the picture in Phoenix, Taurasi’s scoring ability might be counted on more than ever.

Taurasi is also on track to make history early in the season. She’s just six three-pointers behind Katie Smith for the most in WNBA history, and only 178 points separate Taurasi from surpassing Tina Thompson as the league’s all-time leading scorer. Perhaps those milestones will be taken into consideration when the end-of-season awards are voted on.

8. Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

Although she’s not the first option on her own team, Fowles remains one of the most dominant two-way players in the game. The veteran earned her third Defensive Player of the Year award last season, and she has the numbers to back it up: first in defensive rating, fourth in rebounds (8.5 per game), fourth in blocks (1.8) and 11th in steals (1.3).

On the offensive end, Fowles shot nearly 60 percent from the field and averaged 13.9 points per game, highlighted by a 30-point night against Atlanta in the regular-season finale. All Fowles does these days is win – she’s coming off a second straight title with her Chinese team this past winter. She will be crucial to the Lynx’s success this year as they aim to win their fourth championship.

9. Emma Meesseman, Washington Mystics

After entering the league as a 19-year-old in 2013, Meesseman has developed into one of the game’s rising stars. The Belgian center averaged 15.2 points per game last season and hit 45 percent of her three-pointers, the highest rate in the WNBA among players with more than 30 attempts. She ranked eighth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating and sixth in win shares. Playing alongside Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver – the latter of whom she was already teammates with overseas – could help her become even more efficient.

Meesseman is expected to miss some time early in the season as she represents Belgium in EuroBasket Women 2017. Depending on how many games she misses, the 23-year-old has a chance to jump into the MVP conversation if she continues her stellar play from last season.

10. Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

Griner’s numbers were down across the board last season. She didn’t have quite the impact she usually does defensively, and it coincided with Phoenix finishing below .500 for the first time with her on the team. The Mercury allowed opponents to score 83.3 points per game last year after giving up just 72.3 per game in 2015.

And yet, Griner still led the league in blocks, something she has done every year of her career. She still put up 14.5 points per contest on an efficient 55 percent from the field. In the middle of the season, she proved her worth by dominating at the Olympics as the USA’s starting center. A three-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Griner finished top five in MVP voting in both 2014 and 2015. Let’s see if she can get back to that level this season.