Note: WNBA.com’s Race to the MVP is the opinion of this writer and does not reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.
From May to September, WNBA.com’s Race to MVP narrowed down the league’s leading stars into a Top 10 hierarchy. With the 2016 season in the books, the race for the real award can definitively be narrowed down to two contenders.
Nneka Ogwumike scored at an efficiency level never before seen in basketball, fueled the L.A. Sparks’ 20-1 start on both ends of the floor, and finished third in both scoring and rebounding.
Tina Charles delivered the best of her seven seasons, ranking first in both scoring and rebounding — and becoming the third player ever to accomplish that feat — and leading the New York Liberty to the Eastern Conference’s best record for the second straight year.
So who will it be? A coronation for Ogwumike, who earned her place among the game’s superstars during her fifth season? Or a repeat for Charles, who won MVP honors with the Connecticut Sun four years ago.
Here’s our tale of the tape…
The Sparks were the talk of the 20th season through the Olympic break in late July, which L.A. entered with a league-leading 21-3 record. That scorching stretch included a 20-1 start, matching the 1998 Houston Comets for the best record through 21 games.
Things went south upon their return from the break, however. L.A. lost seven of 11 games during one stretch and relinquished the No. 1 seed to the Lynx. Still, the near-perfect start created a gap between Ogwumike’s Sparks and Charles’ Liberty that New York never narrowed. The Liberty endured similar struggles coming out of the break and finished as the No. 3 seed, five games behind the Sparks.
The five-game gap in the standings looks less like a strike against Charles when you consider the circumstances. An injury to co-star Epiphanny Prince threatened to limit the Liberty’s ceiling even before the season began. Instead, Charles assumed perhaps the largest load of any star player in the league — in fact, her 30.7% Usage Rate ranked behind only Angel McCoughtry.
Ogwumike, meanwhile, had the benefit of playing alongside four other former All-Stars. Teaming up with Candace Parker and Kristi Toliver in particular — ranked No. 3 and 14 in assists per game, respectively — freed up Ogwumike to thrive in her role. While Ogwumike thrived as an off-ball cutter and fast break machine to rack up a 67% shooting percentage, Charles fell to 44%, hampered by the lack of scoring threats around her.
Charles (21.5 PPG, 44% FG) remained the league’s premier post threat, but Ogwumike (19.7 PPG, 67% FG) developed into a force down low herself. Both forwards stretched their games further than they ever have, with Charles making a career-high 17 threes on 35% and Ogwumike sinking an incredible 16-of-26 (62%).
Add up Nneka’s output and her efficiency is almost literally off-the-charts; she finished with a 73.7 true shooting percentage, a mark unmatched across WNBA or NBA history (as researched by VICE Sports). But again: What would Charles’ shooting percentages have looked like if she played alongside four All-Stars? What about Ogwumike if she was forced to create more of her own offense?
In the end, we’ll call it a draw.
The raw numbers favor Charles, the leader in rebounds per game by 0.8 boards. (Breanna Stewart ranks second in between the two at 9.3.) But a deeper look reveals that Ogwumike grabbed 18.5% of available rebounds (3rd in the WNBA) compared to 16.7% for Charles (T-12th). That’s mainly due to Nneka’s relentlessness on the offensive glass, although her team tasks her with crashing the boards more than Charles.
This one’s a near coin-flip, but we’d guess Nneka is the tougher box-out of the two.
Slight Edge: Ogwumike
Both forwards finished top-22 in assists with career-high marks, yet another sign of how well they expanded their games. Charles established herself as the best playmaking big outside of Candace Parker, though, averaging 3.8 to Ogwumike’s 3.1.
Slight Edge: Charles
The No. 2 and 3 seeds not surprisingly owned the league’s second- and third-ranked defenses, and Ogwumike and Charles served as their anchors. Charles has turned a weakness into a strength during her time in New York, but Ogwumike leaped to another level defensively this season. Whether she wins MVP or not, she deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Numbers hold significant weight, especially in this new age of advanced stats, but who doesn’t love a good narrative?
The Sparks dominated headlines for much of the first two months, and Nneka’s breakout season reached otherworldly levels — 70-plus percent shooting for most of the year; a stretch of 23 straight made baskets; a 13-for-14, 38-point, 11-rebound, 5-block game. Left off the USA Olympic roster, Ogwumike made the MVP statement many expected from her teammate, Candace Parker.
Charles, meanwhile, joined Lauren Jackson (2007) and Chamique Holdsclaw (2002) as the only players ever to lead the WNBA in both scoring and rebounding. After a heartbreaking loss in the Conference Semifinals last year, she came back stronger than ever. Considering that she’s the face of her hometown team and its emotional leader, Charles arguably shouldered more responsibility than any other franchise centerpiece this season.
It’d be difficult to find a closer MVP race in sports, let alone WNBA history, than this one. According to this ballot, Ogwumike — the Race to MVP leader in each of the seven weekly features published since July — edges Charles in our seven categories, 3-2-2.
Their duel raises all of the questions of a classic MVP debate. If you removed each player from their respective teams, the Sparks would almost assuredly be in better shape. But Ogwumike gets the nod here because her play this season reached transcendent levels. She set such a high standard that averaging 19.5 points on 53% shooting September seemed like “tailing off” down the stretch. With the 20th season in the books, Ogwumike’s dominance resonates as the prevailing storyline more so than Charles’ steady stardom — and that’s why she deserves the hardware by the slimmest of margins.