Sylvia Fowles’ Unique Path To The MVP

The WNBA Most Valuable Player narrative has been rather predictable in recent years.

A highly drafted player makes a splash in the league upon their arrival, earns a few accolades in their first few years as their game develops and adjusts to professional competition on a nightly basis. Then between years three and five, they make the proverbial leap and capture MVP honors.

In 2014, it was Maya Moore that captured the award after putting up the best numbers of her career in her fourth WNBA season. Her 23.9 points and 8.1 rebounds that season remain career-best marks.

In 2015, it was Elena Delle Donne’s turn to follow the script as she put together her breakthrough season in her third year in the league. Similar to Moore, her 23.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks remain her top marks for a season.

In 2016, it was Nneka Ogwumike that made the leap from All-Star to MVP. In her fifth WNBA season, Ogwumike put up career-best marks of 19.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 66.5% field goal shooting en route to the award.

Year four, year three and year five. That is when the leap is supposed to happen. That is what the script says.

Sylvia Fowles didn’t follow that script. She wrote her own narrative to the 2017 Most Valuable Player award as the veteran center had the best year of her career in her 10th season in the league.

The numbers are simply outstanding: 18.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.2 steals, 1.5 assists and 65.5% shooting – the fourth-highest mark in WNBA history. Her combination of dominance, efficiency and consistency set her apart from every player in the MVP race – a race that wasn’t really that close.

Unlike Moore in 2014, Delle Donne in 2015 and Ogwumike in 2016, Fowles did not set career-best stats across the board this season. She’s averaged more points (20.0 in 2011). She’s averaged more rebounds (11.5 in 2013). And she’s averaged more blocks (2.5 in 2010). All of those numbers came during Fowles’ time with the Chicago Sky.

And they did earn her some MVP consideration. Fowles finished third in MVP voting in 2011 and fourth in 2013 and won Defensive Player of the Year in each of those seasons. But after an injury-shortened 2014 season, Fowles was ready for a change as she made the transition from Chicago to Minnesota to join a Lynx team with two titles under their belt and a core built to win more.

After joining the team midway through the 2015 campaign, Fowles shined during Minnesota’s run to their third championship, earning Finals MVP honors in the process. The following year, Fowles would earn her third Defensive Player of the Year award, but was not part of the MVP conversation. In fact, since finishing in fourth place in the MVP voting in 2013, Fowles did not earn a single MVP vote until this year.

 

What was so different this season? Not only did Fowles become more of a focal point of the Lynx offense – she attempted 388 shots in 2017 compared to 306 in 2016 – she also made the most of her opportunities. Fowles knocked down nearly two-thirds of her shot attempts as she dominated opponents in the paint with post ups, cuts to the basket and putbacks on offensive boards.

According to Synergy, Fowles ranked third in the WNBA in points scored on post-ups (298) and second on both putbacks (108) and cuts (131). She was also incredibly efficient in transition (98th percentile) and as the roller in pick and roll sets (94th percentile). Her dominance inside also freed up her teammates for more open looks as the Lynx finished with the highest offensive rating (108.3 points per 100 possessions) in the WNBA.

Fowles was the only player in the WNBA to finish in the top five in scoring (fifth), rebounds (second), blocks (second) and field goal percentage (first). And she did that on the team that finished with the best record in the league for the second straight year and the fifth time in the last seven seasons.

She also finished as the runner up for the Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the All-Defensive First Team for the sixth time in her career; she also has two Second Team honors for her defensive prowess. She was a consistent force on both sides of the ball all season long for Minnesota.

“Every game, you know what she’s capable of,” Lynx teammate Maya Moore said last month. “Just watching her get Finals MVP in 2015, you know what she’s capable of. But it’s been awesome to see the consistency. That’s something that she prides herself on, to be consistent for her team. So as the season went on, we just got more and more excited and wanted to let her know that we have her back no matter what.”

Fowles and Moore will have each other’s backs for years to come as Fowles recently signed a contract extension that will keep her in Minnesota for what should be the remainder of her prime.

 

Of course, that assumes that Fowles follows a typical career trajectory, which she’s already proven doesn’t apply to her.

How rare is it for a player to win their first MVP award in their 10th season or later? Fowles is just the second WNBA player to ever do it – joining Tamika Catchings in 2011. In the NBA, only three players have ever done it – Hakeem Olajuwon in his 10th season (1993-94), Karl Malone in his 12th season (1996-97) and Kobe Bryant also in his 12th season (2007-08). That’s pretty good company to keep.

Catchings had been knocking on the MVP door for years before finally breaking through in her 10th season. Fowles was off the MVP radar for three years and then kicked down the MVP door with authority this season.

To see how unique Fowles and Catchings were in capturing their first MVP so late in their respective careers, take a look at the chart below.

 

Prior to Fowles winning the award, the average experience for a first-time MVP was 3.83 seasons, while the average age was 27. At 31, Fowles is the third-oldest first-time MVP winner behind Catchings and Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper, who won league’s first two MVP awards at age of 34 and 35, respectively.

When looking back at the history of MVP winners, Fowles is the 13th player to win the award and the fifth center to do so. She joins the illustrious group of three-time winners Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson as well as Yolanda Griffith and Tina Charles. So how does Fowles’ 2017 campaign compare to the previous MVP seasons by centers?

Season PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG%
Griffith 1999 18.8 11.3 1.6 2.5 1.8 54.1
Leslie 2001 19.5 9.6 2.4 1.1 2.2 47.3
Leslie 2004 17.6 9.9 2.6 1.4 2.8 49.4
Leslie 2006 20.0 9.5 3.2 1.5 1.6 51.1
Jackson 2003 21.2 9.3 1.9 1.1 1.9 48.3
Jackson 2007 23.8 9.7 1.3 1.0 2.0 51.9
Jackson 2010 20.5 8.3 1.2 0.9 1.1 46.2
Charles 2012 18.0 10.5 1.7 0.5 1.4 49.9
Fowles 2017 18.9 10.4 1.5 1.2 1.9 65.5

 

Fowles’ numbers stack right up with legends on this list as well as Fowles’ current counterpart in Tina Charles. Fowles joins Griffith and Charles are the only three players to average a double-double in their MVP season. Fowles also dominates this elite field in shooting percentage as she shot more than 11 percent better than her fellow MVP centers.

It may have taken Fowles longer than others to join the MVP club. But now that she’s made it, she can take her rightful place among the best centers the WNBA has ever seen.