As the AP and WNBA begin to announce their annual awards, Today’s Fastbreak WNBA analysts Eric Nemchock and Colin Davenport give their take on who they feel should earn the recognition for each category. They don’t always agree, but they both give their informed view on why they picked the players they have. Please note that neither Eric nor Colin have any say in actual award voting.
Most Valuable Player
Colin: For MVP of the 2016 season there is only one choice: No other player was as important to their team’s success as Tina Charles. She was named Player of the Week seven times, more than any other player. She led the WNBA in scoring and rebounding, something that has only been done twice before. She was the focal point of the Liberty attack as the team was missing Epiphanny Prince for almost the entire season.
Even with every defense in the league focused on stopping her, she remained unstoppable and completely dominated the competition on a nightly basis. Her 21.5 points per game accounted for 26 percent of her team’s scoring while her 9.9 rebounds were 26 percent of her team’s total in that category. She recorded 19 double-doubles in 32 contests. Without her, the Liberty would have finished as one of the three worst teams in the league. With her superhuman performances and consistency, they finished as the third best. You don’t get more valuable to a team than that.
Eric: There hasn’t been a more dominant player in the WNBA this season than Nneka Ogwumike (she just won AP Player of the Year). Her efficiency has just been off the charts: she set a single-season WNBA record for true shooting percentage at 73.7 percent and finished with a 31.4 PER and 9.47 Win Shares, both of which are top-10 single-season performances. No one took more shots at the rim than Ogwumike, and no one finished better, either.
Somehow, all of this came on a USG% that was more or less at her career average and a career-low in FGA per 36 minutes…and yet she still finished third in both scoring and rebounding. Can you imagine what those numbers would look like on even a slightly higher volume? Factor in that she’s the main component of a stingy Sparks defense (her ability to defend both in the post and on the perimeter is very important to them) and you have my pick for MVP.
Most Improved Player
Colin: Sugar Rodgers capitalized on the opportunity she had to fill in for Epiphanny Prince by having by far the best season of her career. As one of only two players on the Liberty to average double figures, she was an extremely important piece to the franchise with the third-best record in the WNBA. Her numbers were up across the board. Her scoring average nearly doubled from 8.1 per game in 2015 to 14.5 this year. Most impressive, however, was her drastic increase in efficiency from the floor as she converted 40.5 percent of her field goal attempts and a staggering 41.3 percent of her three point attempts. That’s a 6.5 percent and 9.3 percent increase, respectively, in just one season.
Eric: There are lots of deserving players for this award, but I have to go with Rodgers as well. Her three-point marksmanship was huge for a team that would have had no outside shooting otherwise, and the fact that she was able to place among the WNBA’s leaders in outside shooting on such a ridiculous volume (7.4 three-point attempts per 36 minutes) puts into perspective just how good of a shooter she’s become. You just don’t usually see that kind of efficiency increase to go along with such a larger role given on offense. Without Rodgers, teams would be packing it in against Charles more than they already do; out of all the candidates for Most Improved Player, she might have been the most important to her team. Can we have a MVP of MIPs?
Note: Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream was already named the recipient of this award.
Rookie of the Year
Colin: Breanna Stewart. I have already written a full article detailing her exploits and how she compares to some of the greatest rookies of all time, but to put it simply she was first in the league in minutes, second in rebounds, third in blocks and sixth in scoring. She helped her team win six more games than last year while propelling them to their first playoff appearance in two seasons.
Eric: Finally, an easy one! This is probably the most obvious Rookie of the Year selection since Candace Parker in 2008, and that’s no disservice to the other 2016 rookies. Breanna Stewart was just that good. Averaging 18 points and nine rebounds in her first season is impressive enough as it is, and she already set a single-season record for defensive rebounding. What’s so impressive about Stewart’s rookie campaign is that she came into the league with arguably no holes in her game…there are very, very few players you can say that about. And to think this is only the beginning for her!
Defensive Player of the Year
Colin: Sylvia Fowles. This is a tough one as several other players including Stewart, Elizabeth Williams, Nneka Ogwumike, Tamika Catchings and Alana Beard all made very strong cases for themselves. That said, the absolute intimidation factor that Fowles provides along with her being fourth in the league in blocks and rebounding and 11th in steals is matched by nobody in the WNBA. Players don’t fear or shy away from challenging the other players who are in consideration. They will attack them time and time again. With Fowles, her mere presence makes many players avoid attacking the rim all together, meaning they are settling for longer shots, which inevitably leads to rebounds for Fowles and fastbreak opportunities for the Lynx.
Eric: Sylvia Fowles, for one simple reason: she’s the most important defensive player on the league’s best defensive team. The Lynx allowed just 96.4 points per 100 possessions this season, per WNBA.com’s advanced stats page, and Fowles is the fulcrum of that defense. Not only can she still protect the rim at an elite level, she can defend the pick-and-roll in many different ways that you usually don’t see from a 6’6” center. Her length and versatility make a world of difference for Minnesota, giving them someone to cover for aging perimeter defenders, as well as a very strong rebounder on the inside.
Sixth Woman of the Year
Colin: Jantel Lavender. On a team that features two MVP candidates in Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker who both happen to play the same positions as her, Lavender still found a way to contribute starters numbers in under 20 minutes a contest. Her 3.6 rebounds per game were third on the team, while her 9.6 points per game were fourth. This despite playing nearly 12 minutes less a game than anybody ahead of her.
Eric: I like Lavender for this award as well. She’s taken an interesting trajectory from starting every game in 2015 to coming off the bench in every game this season, and her minutes have taken a huge hit as a result, but it hasn’t affected her production in the time she does get to play. Per 36 minutes, she scored almost 18 points per game on her usual over-50 percent shooting percentage, giving Brian Agler the option to go big if he needs to, as well as an incredibly reliable jump-shooting big. The majority of Lavender’s shots come from mid-range, which isn’t normally something I’d want from my burly center, but if she shoots 57 percent from that distance like Lavender, I can definitely live with it!
Coach of the Year
Colin: Michael Cooper. The Atlanta Dream were supposed to be in a rebuilding year. They had parted ways with Erika de Souza, Shoni Schimmel, Erica Wheeler, Aneika Henry and Delisha Milton-Jones. In their place they added serviceable reserve Layshia Clarendon and drafted Bria Holmes with the 11th pick while also bringing in two low-post projects in Elizabeth Williams and Reshanda Gray. Both of whom were coming off lackluster-at-best rookie campaigns.
Yet somehow Atlanta got off to one of the hottest starts in the league, and despite some ups and downs managed to finish as the sixth seed with a 17-17 record, a two-win improvement over the previous season. A large reason for that success is the system that Cooper implemented and his new players’ willingness to buy in from the outset. Players ranging from longtime starter Tiffany Hayes to breakout center Elizabeth Williams directly attribute both their team’s and their own personal success to Michael Cooper and his system. To have players including Williams and Clarendon have such amazing increases in their production, while also getting a surprisingly impressive performance out of a player taken 11th such as Holmes, is testament enough to why Cooper deserves to be in the conversation. The fact the team also improved noticeably in just one season is the clincher for why he is my choice.
Eric: I’m going with Cheryl Reeve here because of how the Lynx have been able to remain consistently dominant. Most of the focus this season was on how the Sparks were rolling through the rest of the league, but at the end of the day, it’s Minnesota finishing on top once again. Any coach who can properly manage the minutes of his/her star players as they age gets big respect from me. Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus both played more than 30 minutes per game last season, but that’s dropped significantly in 2016 in an effort to keep them fresh for the second half and the playoffs.
I would say Reeve’s strategy here worked, considering that the Lynx finished a franchise-best 28-6 and are the clear favorite heading into the postseason. She was also able to squeeze lots of production out of an overhauled bench, taking players like Renee Montgomery and Natasha Howard and turning them into a second unit that was able to spell her starters more than adequately.