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Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Who’s My GOAT?

With the 2021 regular season nearly over, most of the playoffs spots secured and The W25 team revealed, the big question of the moment – which will soon give way to title talk – is the question of “The GOAT”.

Who is the Greatest of All Time in the WNBA?

It’s a question that begs more questions. What makes a player the GOAT? Is it scoring? Championships? Longevity? All-around play? MVP Awards?

My answer: yes.

The WNBA’s GOAT conversation, in my mind, is one about a body of work. And let’s make no mistake, the players who occupy this short list, have incredible bodies of work. And the margins between them will be slim. And some bodies of work might be left out entirely.

But let’s start this conversation with a list of names, accolades, and the pros and cons arguments.

In alphabetical order:

Sue Bird

The Resume: The only player who played in the league with or against every player on the WNBA 25 list.

  • 4 time WNBA Champion with Seattle.
  • 12-time WNBA All-Star (league record).
  • 5-time All-WNBA First-Team.
  • WNBA All-Time Assists Leader.

The Pros: In her 18th season, no one in league history has played at such a high level over a sustained period of time, and having played her entire career with one team – Seattle – Bird will go down as the league’s all-time most accomplished and respected floor general with a mix of steadiness and flair that is unmatched. The only player in league history to win a title in three different decades, Bird is a shoo-in Hall of Famer.

The Cons: Bird’s scoring numbers, a career average of 12.0, isn’t eye-popping compared to the other players in the conversation.

Is she the GOAT?: Bird will be known as the greatest point guard in league history and one of its most influential players. It’s hard to imagine a season starting without her. But just short of GOAT status.

Tamika Catchings

The resume:

  • WNBA All-Time leader in steals
  • WNBA Champion: 2011
  • Third All-Time leading scorer
  • 5-time Defensive Player of the Year
  • 10-time All-Star
  • Naismith Hall of Fame

The Pros: Catchings is the essence of across-the-board impact, the most well-rounded talent in this bunch when you consider that she ranks among the league’s top 10 in games, minutes, field goals, free throws, rebounds, assists, and points and that the Indiana Fever made the playoffs in each of her last 12 seasons in the league. When she retired, she ranked 1st all-time in career playoff scoring, and 1st all-time in career playoff rebounds. She will go down in history as perhaps the most tenacious defensive player in the game’s history.

The Cons: One championship in a 15-year career is the lowest on this short list even if it doesn’t diminish a Hall of Fame career.

Is she the GOAT? She is the most complete player on this list and her presence in the league is still missed. She has to be considered.

Cynthia Cooper

The resume:

  • 4-time WNBA Champion
  • 3-time league scoring champion
  • Only 4-time Finals MVP in league history
  • Only Back-to-Back MVP in league history
  • Naismith Hall of Fame

The Pros: Cooper came to the WNBA a bit unknown to the majority of fans and five years later, she left a legend and a champion. She led Houston to four titles as their thrilling heart-and-soul player, she put together a 92-game double-figure scoring streak from 1997 to 2000 and when she retired in 2000, Cooper became the first player in WNBA history to score 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 2,500 career points.

The Cons: She came into the league at 34 years old and used her five years incredibly well to make her mark on WNBA history, but her shortened career limited her impact over a longer stretch. Additionally, Coop was never known as a lockdown defender. She was a scorer.

Is she the GOAT? Cooper was literally and figuratively a Comet in the WNBA. Longevity is the deciding factor here.

Lisa Leslie

The resume: 

  • 2-time WNBA Champion
  • 2-time WNBA Finals MVP
  • 8-time WNBA All-Star
  • 3-time WNBA MVP
  • 2-time Defensive POY
  • Naismith Hall of Fame

 

The Pros: A pioneer in every way, Lisa Leslie set the standard for play in the WNBA that would model the way for players such as Candace Parker, Breanna Stewart, and Elena Delle Donne. She was the league’s first dominant post player, and widely regarded as the best player in the world because of her versatility and toughness. Leslie was a nightmare of a matchup for players at both ends of the floor because of her length and athleticism. She ended her 12-year career as the league’s leading scorer and rebounder.

The Cons: Both Leslie’s scoring and rebounding records ended up in other hands in the years after her retirement and her two titles come up a bit short when compared to some of her compatriots with more championship rings.

Is she the GOAT? If you asked this question 10 years ago, the answer would have been a definite yes.

Maya Moore

The resume:

  • 4-time WNBA Champion
  • 6-time All-Star
  • 3-time All-Star Game MVP
  • WNBA MVP: 2014

The Pros: A player who leads her team to four WNBA Championships in eight years as a pro has to be considered on this list. Moore’s career average of 18.4 points per game, matched with her big-game moments in Minnesota and her versatility and leadership comprises one of the greatest individual runs in league history.

The Cons: Moore’s decision to halt her career – albeit for noble, world-changing reasons – leaves a lot of ‘what-if’ wonderings about how much more she could have added to her basketball resume.

Is she the GOAT? She might have been. Without a return to the court to add to her legacy, Moore leaves us all wanting more.

Sheryl Swoopes

The resume:

  • 4-time WNBA champion with Houston
  • 3-time MVP
  • 3-time Defensive POY
  • Naismith Hall of Fame
  • 6-time All-Star

The Pros: Swoopes is one of the league’s founding players, the first women’s player to have her own shoe, and one of the most recognizable names in the history of the game. And she backed up all of that hype with an extraordinary WNBA career that included four titles with the Houston Comets in the league’s first four seasons. Swoopes twice won the league’s scoring title, averaging 15.0 points a game over her career, and was the first player to post a triple-double in both the regular season and the playoffs. Her multi-dimensional game – as both an offensive and defensive standout – elevates her GOAT candidacy.

The Cons: Swoopes played nine WNBA seasons and didn’t win another title after Cooper was out of the league.

Is she the GOAT? Swoopes moves on to the final list

Diana Taurasi

The resume:

  • WNBA All-Time Leading Scorer
  • 3-time WNBA Champion
  • 10-time All-Star
  • 10-time All WNBA First Team (most in league history)
  • 1-time WNBA MVP
  • 2-time WNBA Finals MVP
  • 5-time WNBA scoring champion

The Pros: Taurasi already has plenty of people’s GOAT vote heading into this competition as the league’s all-time leading scorer, a record she will hold by a wide margin by the time her career comes to an end. She leads the league in playoff scoring (in 61 postseason games), 3-point field goals, and is the only player in league history ​​with at least 8,000 career points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,500 assists, 1,000 3-pointers, and 300 blocks. And beyond all of Taurasi’s accolades, she brings a heavy load of intangibles, the toughness, the swagger, the innate ability to meet a big moment.

The Cons: It seems nearly impossible to process that Taurasi has only won the WNBA MVP once, and while her offensive accolades are never in question, she’s never been considered a standout defensive player. Her five Olympic gold medals and her international success make her a definitive front-runner for the sport’s greatest player ever, but does she have the best WNBA body of work?

Is she the GOAT? It’s pretty hard to argue that she’s not.

THE VERDICT

Final Three: Swoopes, Catchings, and Taurasi

My GOAT vote: Taurasi by a hair over Catchings because she is the league’s most feared and admired player to this day.


Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.