Individual awards don't do Nolan, Smith justice

Drumroll, please ...

As the 2009 regular season winds down, it’s time for some awards. Here is how I voted for the honors the WNBA will announce during the playoffs. This is Part 1. I’ll have my Coach of the Year, MVP and All-WNBA Team next week. I suppose my bias is evident; all my picks in Part 1 reside in the East.

Some of the statistics below may change or have already changed as teams continue to play out the stretch. The numbers used below are simply what they were when I made my selections.

And I used numbers, a lot. Having gone through this process for the second time, I have discovered it’s hard not to pour over the statistics available, which has brought me to another conclusion: the presumed media bias “against" the Shock is real.

Most voters, especially those on the West Coast and in the national media who aren’t able to watch the Shock as routinely as I do, cannot appreciate how Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith play the game. They are two of the most uniquely talented athletes the WNBA has ever seen. They can take over a game like no one else, both with big shots and by harassing an opponent’s leading scorer.

Inherently unselfish - both, admittedly, to a fault on occasion - Nolan and Smith can carry the Shock, but prefer to let their teammates share in the heavy lifting. With three consecutive Finals appearances and five championships between them, they epitomize what it means to lead a team to victory.

When it all shakes out, however, they are not exceptional from a statistical standpoint. They compare favorably against other All-Stars at their positions, but not in any fashion that would blow you away - especially if you had not seen how they compiled those numbers.

Knowing all that, you have to ask yourself some pretty tough questions when it comes time to a put a name on the ballot. When you see a player close in the single-season steals record, can you really deny that player the distinction of Defensive Player of the Year? When a player ranks top-three in scoring and assists, can you keep her off the All-WNBA First Team?

You can, but it’s a decision you won’t make easily. That’s the dilemma of Detroit.

Tamika Catchings.
Ron Hoskins (NBAE/Getty)
Defensive Player of the Year: Tamika Catchings, Indiana

Dwight Howard was runaway winner of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009 after leading the league in blocks (2.92) and rebounding (13.8). Someone in the WNBA is duplicating Howard’s feat, leading the WNBA in blocks (1.9) and rebounding (9.2) - the Sparks’ Candace Parker.

Parker, the league’s reigning MVP, missed the first month of the season after the birth of her daughter. That’s a lot of time away when you consider other candidates who played in 30 or more games. Parker will undoubtedly be a Defensive Player of the Year several times over. Just not in this year, in my book.

Other post players - Erika deSouza, Lauren Jackson, Sylvia Fowles - were worthy of consideration but I couldn’t distinguish between them.

And that brings us to Catchings, a two-time winner in 2005 and 2006 who has been on the All-Defensive First Team every season of its existence (2005-08). Her name is synonymous with this award.

After two injury-riddled seasons, Catchings stayed healthy and apparently will play in all 34 games for the first time since 2005. What has she done with all that time on the floor? As of Thursday she had a career-high 97 steals with two games to play, three shy of Teresa Weatherspoon's WNBA-record 100 steals in 1998.

This is Catchings' fourth campaign with 90 or more steals, and her first since winning her second Defensive Player of the Year award in 2006. Weatherspoon is the only other player to surpass 90 steals, and she only did it the one time.

Is it any surprise the Fever allowed the second-fewest points per game in 2009?

Sancho Lyttle.
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty)
Most Improved Player: Sancho Lyttle, Atlanta

This award is often more about an athlete finding a better opportunity than it is about actual improvement. That’s certainly the case with Lyttle, a fifth-year forward.

The 6-foot-4 Lyttle spent most her first four seasons as a backup in Houston behind starters Tina Thompson and Michelle Snow. She never averaged more than 18.1 minutes per game, but produced at a level that hinted at her potential.

When the Comets folded, Lyttle was the first pick in the dispersal draft by the Dream, who had also signed Snow as a free agent. Lyttle opened the season by scoring in double figures 13 times in 14 games, displacing Snow in the lineup after the third game. Lyttle tallied 20 points and 15 rebounds in her first start and hasn’t looked back, averaging career highs across the board.

Playing 27.5 minutes per game, Lyttle is posting 13.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.4 assists this season. She helped Atlanta take two of three meetings with Detroit, averaging 12.0 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Lyttle is the only player ranked in the top-five in both defensive rebounding and steals, making her worthy of consideration for another award, Defensive Player of the Year. Not bad for a player who didn’t even start for a 17-17 team last year.

Angel McCoughtry.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Rookie of the Year: Angel McCoughtry, Atlanta

McCoughtry, the No. 1 overall pick, broke open a close three-way race with Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner and Detroit’s Shavonte Zellous when she stepped in for Chamique Holdsclaw in late August. McCoughtry elevated her game to heights that Bonner and Zellous simply couldn’t match.

On the night Holdsclaw, Atlanta's leading scorer, went down in the first quarter against San Antonio, McCoughtry dominated the floor: 34 points on 12-of-18 from the field and 10-of-17 at the free-throw line, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block.

Overall in August, McCoughtry averaged 17.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 3.4 steals - a stat line comparable to Catchings’ rookie season. The 6-foot-1 forward was not nearly as consistent as Bonner or Zellous throughout the season, but by the end, no one was asked to do more for their playoff-bound team than McCoughtry.

Bonner, a 6-foot-4 guard, has impressive statistics (11.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) that are probably enhanced by playing in Phoenix’s fast-paced offense. But she’s nonetheless proven she’s a going to impact the league for a while.

The same goes for Zellous, who has kept her name in the discussion from the beginning of the season, but probably was never the front-runner. There’s no shame in that, especially when you remember Zellous wasn’t even a top-10 draft pick, coming to Detroit at No. 11. I'll make it up to her.

Shavonte Zellous.
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
Sixth Woman of the Year: Shavonte Zellous, Detroit

Rick Mahorn hit a home run with his first lineup change as head coach of the Shock when he removed Zellous as a starter after four games. No player in the league has packed more of a scoring punch off the bench than Zellous, whose 11.7 points per game is highest average among reserves.

Zellous, Detroit’s first rookie to start the season opener since Cheryl Ford in 2003, went from overwhelmed to outstanding. In her first reserve appearance at Indiana, she scored 13 points on 4-of-6 from the field, her first game in double figures. The next game she scored a season-high 25 points and shattered numerous franchise records by making 17 of 19 free throws.

Zellous has shown a knack for scoring even when her shot isn’t falling, a skill rarely seen from a first-year player. She has attempted the second-most free throws in the league - a remarkable distinction for a reserve.

While McCoughtry solidified her Rookie of Year nod in late August, so too has Zellous with remarkable late-season consistency. She scored in double figures for 13 straight games from Aug. 9 until Wednesday night, when she scored seven points.

She’s not outstanding defensively, but she’s not a liability, either, and in a city where Vinnie Johnson made being the Pistons’ “Microwave” a marquee role, Zellous typifies what it means to be a sixth woman.