And your 2008 WNBA MVP ...
Averages: 15.3 points, 5.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds
The Good: I'm not kidding when I call Whalen the MVP. The final eight games of the season will play a huge roll in how that's decided (there are four to five legitimate contenders right now), but if the season were to end right now, Whalen would have my vote. She's the top point guard in the league enjoying her best season as a pro, and she, more than any player in the WNBA, drives her team. That's not to take anything away from Asjha Jones, who is vying for all-WNBA honors, but Whalen is the one with the ball in her hands, dictates the tempo of the team and has the ability to take over really any time she wants to. As she's grown into the leader of this team, Whalen has found definitive gears in her approach. There are times when she defers, defers and defers, hardly taking any shots and simply distributing. If other players are hitting, that opens up lanes for her and she can get 15 to 18 points without making a sound. Then, in the games when the Sun are struggling offensively, she simply changes course and becomes an aggressor, lowering her head and driving to the basket like no guard in this league can.
Because there isn't a point guard who is as versatile as her right now, it puts Whalen in a class that no other player can touch. She is in control of this team, and considering her off days are rare (she's had four games in single figures scoring), she's had the largest hand in making the Sun the surprise first-place team in the East.
In terms of historical context, Whalen is having one of the WNBA's greatest individual seasons, though she just barely cracked the league's top 20 in scoring. Only one other player (Nikki Teasley) has averaged 10 points, five rebounds and five assists in a season in league history, all marks Whalen is well on her way toward achieving. On top of that, she's shooting 48.1 percent from the field (an incredible percentage for a guard) and has rediscovered her touch from 3-point range; she's shooting 36.1 percent, which puts her on pace for a career high. There are several reasons for Whalen's play: There was opportunity with Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales gone (both to become a leader and a scorer), she's more mature in her fifth year in the league and she's stayed healthy outside of a sore Achilles' tendon.
The Bad: Whalen has been one of, if not the, most consistent player in the league this year, so it isn't easy to find glaring weaknesses in her game. But there were times during the Sun's losing streak when she tried to force too much when her teammates were struggling or deferred at times when she should have taken more of a scoring load. That said, these are brief instances, one or two plays among hundreds and not definitive trends that Whalen has had to correct. Her decision making has been exemplary this season, and outside a game here or there, she's been the Sun's rock. The only game I can think of she truly, truly labored through was the Sun's 73-65 loss to Chicago on July 18 when she scored a season-low two points on 1-of-8 shooting and had more turnovers (three) than assists (two).
Outlook: If the Sun continue to win, finishing first or second in the East, and Whalen continues her level of play (which I think she will), she will be a very serious consideration for league MVP. She has other contenders, but they also have things to overcome. Lauren Jackson is set to miss four to six weeks after ankle surgery, which all but ends her bid; Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie, despite possibly canceling each other out because they are on the same team, also didn't enjoy the kind of rest Whalen has over the last month; Seimone Augustus needs Minnesota to make a playoff push to be seriously considered; and the league's leading scorers, Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, are playing for the West's last place team that is three games out of playoff spot with seven games to play. If there is someone I'm leaving out, please let me know, but other than someone like Tina Thompson (who has missed time with a broken finger) or one of San Antonio's Big Three (Sophia Young, Becky Hammon and Ann Wauters), I'm not sure if there is any one else who can challenge for this award. And San Antonio's balance, as good as it is, may actually hurt any of those three players chance of being named MVP.
Of course, things can change in the season's final month, but I like Whalen's chances. WNBA.com recently asked her a few questions, too, on the Sun and the regular season's home stretch.
On deck: Tamika Whitmore