In celebration of the league’s 20th anniversary, the WNBA announced its Top 20@20 players on Tuesday — a list filled with current stars, legends of the game, Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers selected by a 15-member committee composed of women’s basketball pioneers, current and former WNBA head coaches and media members.
But when it comes to selecting any group of elite players, there will always be some deserving players that are left out.
Ask Candace Parker about the Rio Olympics.
Ask Damian Lillard about the NBA All-Star Game.
Ask Angel McCoughtry and Tina Charles about this WNBA 20 at 20 team.
And while you’re at it, ask Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Dawn Staley too.
The simplest answer to why these players did not make the cut is because the list could only go 20 deep. There’s only so many spots to fill and a lot of players worthy of recognition. But even if the list was expanded to 25 (although that wouldn’t quite have the same ring to it), then we’d talking about players 26 and 27 that were left off the list.
It’s inevitable that some players will feel slighted.
And when it comes to Angel, Tina, Elena, Brittney and Dawn, there are some strong cases to be made as to why they should have been recognized.
The 2010 Rookie of the Year and 2012 Most Valuable Player, Charles has been named to the All-WNBA Teams in all six years of her pro career, with three First Team selections. She holds the WNBA record for double-doubles in a single season (23 in 2011), ranks second all-time in the category (117 in 210 games) behind Lisa Leslie (157 in 363 games).
She is the only player in WNBA history to average a double-double (17.5 points, 10.2 rebounds) and is the league leader in both scoring (22.0) and rebounding (9.8) on the day this list is unveiled. The only thing missing from Charles’ resume is playoff success as she has three playoff appearances in her first six seasons in the league, but has yet to make the WNBA Finals, let alone win a championship.
But how much should team accomplishments factor into selecting the top players in the league’s history? Only three players on the WNBA Top 20@20 team — Becky Hammon, Candace Parker and Teresa Weatherspoon — have not won a WNBA title. But most of the players that have championships have all had careers that spanned a decade. Charles is only in her seventh season now and could very well add a championship to her resume in the years ahead.
“The first name I’m gonna tell you is Tina Charles. I’ll stop there,” Weatherspoon, now a member of the Liberty coaching staff, said when asked who’s missing from the list on Tuesday. “Tina Charles is just playing tremendous basketball. She’s really completed her game, completing herself as a basketball player. Everybody knows that she can score the ball. But you see the passes that she’s making, the way she’s rebounding the basketball, the way she’s defending. She’s doing a really great job putting herself at the top of the list.”
Since she entered the WNBA in 2009, Angel McCoughtry has been a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. She won Rookie of the Year, has five All-WNBA honors (two First Team), led the league in scoring twice, led the league in steals three times, has been named to the All-Defensive First Team five times and the Second Team once. And don’t forget about four All-Star appearances, an Olympic gold medal in London and a return trip to the Olympics coming up in Rio this summer.
Only Tamika Catchings (six First Team, one Second Team) has more All-Defensive Team honors than McCoughtry since Angel debuted in the WNBA. Tanisha Wright matches McCoughtry with five First Team and one Second Team selection, but neither Wright (7.8), nor Catchings (16.3 career ppg) are the offensive force that Angel is on a nightly basis. Few players hurt you more on both ends of the floor than McCoughtry over the past seven seasons. McCoughtry’s 19.5 career scoring average is the fourth highest in the history of the league.
McCoughtry has led the Atlanta Dream to three WNBA Finals appearances (2010, 2011, 2013), but is still seeking her first win in the championship series as the Dream were swept in all three of their trips. While her teams have not found the ultimate success in the Playoffs, she has provided the top scoring performance in the history of both the WNBA Playoffs and WNBA Finals.
In 2010, McCougthry led the No. 4 seed Dream to The Finals by sweeping the top two seeds in the East – the Washington Mystics in the first round and the New York Liberty in the Conference Finals. It was Game 2 of the East Finals that saw an epic scoring duel between McCoughtry with WNBA Top 20@20 honoree Cappie Pondexter. Angel finished with a WNBA playoff record (that still stands today) 42 points to edge Cappie’s playoff career-high 36 points as the Dream ousted the Liberty.
The following year, McCougthry had another scoring duel, this time in the WNBA Finals with Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus. Angel scored a WNBA Finals record (that also still stands today) 38 points to win the personal duel with Seimone (who finished with 36), but it was the Lynx that got the victory in a thrilling Game 2.
Tina Charles isn’t the only WNBA Most Valuable Player winner to not make the WNBA Top 20@20 team. The reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne was also excluded from the illustrious honor despite coming off one of the best individual seasons in the history of the league.
Delle Donne won Rookie of the Year honors in 2013 in a class that included fellow stars Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins. After missing half of the 2014 season due to illness, she bounced back in 2015 with one of the best statistical seasons the WNBA had ever seen.
She won her first scoring title at 23.39 points per game, the fifth-highest single-season mark in league history. She shot 207-for-218 (95.0%) from the free throw line, the highest percentage of anyone that attempted at least 100 free throws in a season. Her player efficiency rating – an all-in-one measure of a player’s contributions to the game – of 32.75 ranks third in league history behind three-time MVP Lauren Jackson, who posted PER’s of 35.04 in 2007, 34.91 in 2006.
Of course, what hampers Delle Donne’s current resume is that she has such a small sample size to evaluate. Is she going to put together a career full of seasons like she did in 2015? That’s a question we can’t answer yet, and likely the reason she was left off this list. It’s reminiscent of when the NBA selected its 50 greatest players of all-time in 1996 and included a young Shaquille O’Neal, who had played just four NBA seasons when the team was announced. Shaq had already had already established himself as a dominant force in the league and led the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals, but his inclusion on that team was more about what lied ahead in his career than what he had accomplished at that point.
Should Delle Donne have received similar treatment? How about Brittney Griner, who has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards and was a prominent member of the Phoenix’s 2014 championship team? There’s an argument to be made that when all is said and done that Delle Donne and/or Griner could have a more impressive career than several of the players that made the WNBA Top 20@20 team.
That takes us back to the criteria used when selecting the team. It similar to what happens when people vote for MVP awards and have differing opinions about what makes a player most “valuable” – is it the best player on the best team or the player that is least replaceable to their team. If you are forced to make your choice simply by the resume currently on the table, then it makes sense that Delle Donne and Griner may have to wait for a potential WNBA 25@25 team before earning such an honor.
This is the third time in the WNBA’s 20-year history that the league has honored its top players with an anniversary team. The first was the All-Decade team in 1996, the Top 15 Players of All-Time in 2011 and now the WNBA Top 20@20 in 2016. There is only one player that was a member of the first two teams that was left off the most recent collection of all-time greats – Dawn Staley.
Perhaps we can spin this forward and look at how the new generation of players has elevated the talent level of the league over the past 10 years and it was impossible to put this list together without taking someone from the old generation off. But that doesn’t provide much consolation for the three-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time All-Star that made a Finals appearance in 2001 with the Charlotte Sting before retiring in 2006.