Note: WNBA.com’s Race to the MVP, released every Wednesday during the season, is the opinion of this writer and does not reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.
As the tip-off of the WNBA’s historic 20th season opens, we’ve had a chance to reflect on the first two decades of its history and celebrate the players and teams that build the foundation of this league. A look at the past winners of the WNBA Most Valuable Player award is a showcase of some of the best players the women’s game has ever seen.
Names like Cynthia Cooper (the only back-to-back MVP winner), Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Lauren Jackson (the three-time winners of the award) and Yolanda Griffith highlight the league’s past.
While names like Candace Parker (2008, 2013), Diana Taurasi (2009), Tamika Catchings (2011), Tina Charles (2012), Maya Moore (2014) and Elena Delle Donne (2015) represent the active players continuing to drive the league that the legends established before them.
All of the six active players that have already won an MVP are among the top 10 in the first Race to the MVP for the 2016 season. These players have made headlines their entire careers and we’ve included a headline for their race toward the league’s top individual honor this season.
1. Elena Delle Donne
Ready for an encore?
The reigning MVP put together one of the most spectacular individual seasons in WNBA history in 2015 – she led the league in scoring (23.4 ppg), had the highest free throw percentage ever (95%, min. 100 attempts), the third highest PER ever (32.7, trailing only Lauren Jackson), and was third in the league in both rebounds (8.4) and blocks (2.1). And the scary thing is that EDD is only in her mid-20s and is entering her fourth season as a pro. That means she’s still getting better.
2. Maya Moore
The champ is here!
In her first five seasons in the WNBA, Moore has won three titles, been to the Finals four times, and won a regular season MVP (2014) and a Finals MVP (2013). Moore is a do-everything player for the defending champion Lynx and ranked in the top 10 last season in points (2nd, 20.6), rebounds (9th, 6.7), assists (8th, 3.5) and steals (6th, 1.64). She was the runner-up to Delle Donne for the MVP last season, but went on to win the ultimate prize in the WNBA championship. Moore is in prime position to compete for both again this season.
3. Diana Taurasi
Did you miss me?
Absence makes the heart grow fonder and after taking the 2015 WNBA season off, Diana Taurasi is back to the delight of WNBA fans – especially those that cheer for the Phoenix Mercury, who are automatically thrust into the championship conversation with Diana’s return to the court. In her last WNBA season, Taurasi was the runner-up to Moore for MVP honors, but went on to win her third WNBA title and second Finals MVP award. Taurasi, who’s career scoring average of 20.1 points per game ranks third all-time, owns a league-record five scoring titles in her 11 seasons in the W. She should challenge Delle Donne and Moore in scoring and in the MVP race this season.
4. Candace Parker
I’m not an Olympian?!
Candace Parker didn’t need any extra motivation to go out and have the best season of her WNBA career, but she sure got some when she was left off the U.S. Olympic team that is headed to Rio this August. Parker, who already has two WNBA MVPs on her resume, put up unbelievable numbers after returning the Sparks in the second half of last season: 19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.8 blocks. Those numbers are unmatched in WNBA history and if Candace can do that for a full 34 games rather than last season’s 16, she’ll be well on her way to joining the elite company of three-time MVP winners.
5. Tina Charles
Double up on MVPs
Tina Charles is the queen of the double-double – the sixth-year pro enters the season averaging a double-double for her career (17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds). Charles is the anchor for a New York Liberty squad that finished with the league’s top regular-season record last season. Charles, who won MVP honors back in 2012 as a member of the Connecticut Sun, will be even more of a focal point for the Liberty this season with All-Star guard Epiphanny Prince sidelined with a knee injury. Charles is coming off a season in which she averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds – great numbers for most, but not the best that she has put up in her career. If she can get closer to her career-best marks of 18 and 10, she may very well earn another double – that is doubling the number of MVP awards in her trophy case.
6. Skylar Diggins
My knee is fine
Skylar Diggins returns to the court for the first time since suffering a season-ending ACL tear during Tulsa’s win over Seattle on June 28 of last year. At that time, the Shock were 8-1 and Diggins was averaging 17.4 points, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game and ranked second in that week’s Race to the MVP behind Delle Donne. After putting in the work to rehab her knee, Diggins is ready to lead her team once again – this time in a new city (Dallas) and with a new name (Wings). It would be easy to end this with a question about whether or not Diggins can soar over the competition in the MVP race, so let’s not go there. Instead, let’s keep an eye on Diggins early on this season to see how she responds to being back in WNBA competition. As hard as she worked during rehab, there is nothing that can replicate the speed and intensity of a real game and Diggins is about to play in her first WNBA game in nearly 11 months this weekend.
7. Brittney Griner
Get that outta here!
If there is any player that can challenge Tamika Catchings’ record of five Defensive Player of the Year awards, it is Griner, who already has two DPOYs in her first three WNBA seasons. Griner has led the league in blocks in each of her first three seasons in the league, notching a career-best 4.04 per game last season, and continues to improve her game on both ends of the court. She has averaged 15 points and eight rebounds in each of her last two seasons, but it may take a little more offense for Griner to seriously contend for the MVP – something that may not be needed in Phoenix with the return of Taurasi and Penny Taylor.
8. Angel McCoughtry
Try to stop me!
Angel McCoughtry is one of the best two-way perimeter players in the WNBA. She is consistently ranked among the league leaders in scoring and steals – she was third in scoring (20.1 ppg) and second in steals (2.1) last season – and no player carries a heavier load for her team than Angel does for the Dream. Last season, she led the league with a 32.5% usage rate, meaning she used nearly one-third of the Dream’s possessions while she was on the floor. McCoughtry holds WNBA records for points in a playoff game and points in a Finals game, but her team missed the postseason last year for the first time in her career. In order to climb the MVP ladder, McCoughtry will have to lift the Dream back into the playoff picture this season.
9. Tamika Catchings
Going out on top
Tamika Catchings has announced that this will be her final WNBA season, as she intends to retire come October. But Catchings isn’t just playing this season to have a farewell tour and receive adulation from WNBA fans across the country. No, Tamika has some unfinished business to take care of after missing out on her second WNBA championship with a Game 5 loss to Minnesota in last year’s WNBA Finals. Avenging that loss would be the storybook ending for Catchings, as she would exit the WNBA with a second championship and most likely a fourth Olympic gold medal in her final year. In order to get back to the Finals, the Fever are going to need to have a vintage season from Catchings, who can affect nearly every aspect of a basketball game. She can score, pass, rebound, defend and bring a passion and intensity that few can match and none have topped during her 13-year career.
10. Sylvia Fowles
Don’t forget the Finals
The last player to hold up a WNBA trophy that included the title of Most Valuable Player was Sylvia Fowles, who was named MVP of the 2015 Finals after leading the Lynx to their third WNBA title and the first championship for Fowles in her eight-year career. Fowles joined the Lynx midseason and proved to be an incredibly valuable piece to their championship puzzle. (The team re-signed her during the offseason.) Being on a team so loaded with talent can make it more difficult for an individual player to stand out and shine above the rest. Playing alongside fellow Olympians in Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen may make it difficult for Fowles to climb the MVP ladder.