Monday, September 15, 2008

MVP ... and more

I touched upon the MVP race in today's story, mostly focusing on the prospects of Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones' winnings against the four other perceived candidates (Sophia Young, Becky Hammon, Sue Bird and Candace Parker). But I saved my opinions and projections for here.

Though, before I get to that, there is more to the story today than I couldn't squeeze into the 30-plus inches that ran in the newspaper. This year's MVP race really is unlike one this league has ever seen. Between the number of candidates and who they actually are, it's a sign of growth in the league that the award has moved from who can score the most points to who truly is the most valuable to a team's success. (And how far it's moved that way will ultimately be decided by who wins.)

"You talk about impact players in a different kind of way," Sun coach Mike Thibault said. "None of (the candidates) are going to lead the league in scoring (outside Parker), but their teams absolutely need them for what they're going to do."

Perhaps most interestingly, three point guards (Whalen, Bird and Hammon) are in the mix, an unprecedented development that Thibault said, "says something about the evolution of the league."

"It's more of a recognition of the impact point guards have on the league in general and their teams," he continued. (For the record, Thibault has always put a heavy premium on point guards, and knew he had a great one in Whalen the first time he saw her. But more on that later.)

"All the point guards we're talking about in this discussion all have different strengths and skills, too," Thibault continued. "Lindsay's the best rebounder and the most physical. Sue's maybe the best passer in transition. Becky may be the best 3-point shooter. They're all different. But all three of them have worked to become great players."

Whalen and Jones' inclusion, meanwhile, shows a sign of respect for two players who have largely flown under the league's radar. Thibault has said on more than one occasion they don't get the respect from officials that other stars in the league do, but after the season they've had, the league would be hard-pressed not to award them in some way (i.e. All-WNBA status).

The pair, though long difference-makers for the Sun, has also grown a lot this year, from the beginning of the season when they were designated as the franchise players to now, where without a doubt, they've earned that title and more. And the Sun coaching staff has seen this for a while. Thibault perhaps scouted no player prior to the 2004 season more than Whalen, who the first time he saw her practice, knew she could be an impact player. He also had to sweat out the NCAA tournament when Whalen carried Minnesota to an unexpected Final Four run, all but sky-rocketing her up draft boards and, perhaps, out of the Sun's reach. That's what prompted the Sun to trade up, ultimately dealing away a current All-Star in Pee Wee Johnson for a future one. (A note: The Sun were faced with a similar position last year when they loved Armintie Price but watched her play her way up the draft board and out of their reach in the NCAA tournament. The Sun settled for Kamesha Hairston, which turned into a miss on their part.)

Jones, meanwhile, played two decent years in Washington before the Sun traded for her prior to that 2004 season. Thibault talked extensively with UConn coach Geno Auriemma, among others, before making the deal to get a better feel for Jones' potential.

"And he (Auriemma) said she could be the best of this group ever," Thibault said, referring to UConn's senior class that year, that without a doubt, is the best to ever come through that program and perhaps college basketball. "And he's been right about that. She's been everything that I hoped for."

Think about it: The players to come out of UConn in 2002 were all great and all went within the top six picks (Bird at No. 1, Swin Cash at No. 2, Jones at No. 4 and Tamika (Williams) Raymond at No. 6). Raymond has remained a great leader and an invaluable part of this Sun team, but scoring and rebounding-wise, Jones has developed into the more dangerous player. Before her knee injury four years back, Cash was one of the league's best forwards, but injuries and their wear-and-tear have reduced her from great to good. Bird remains one of the league's elite point guards and has a better chance of winning the MVP than Jones, but number-for-number, Jones is the bigger producer. It simply took Jones longer to develop than the other three.

As for the MVP race, Thibault is admittedly biased and choosing a team MVP is all but impossible (I'm guessing they'll go with co-MVPs). But Whalen does stand out for him on the league's landscape.

"I just think that the one thing for Lindsay that stands out more than other players in the league is you have a point guard who is averaging close to six rebounds a game and is leading the league in assists," he said. "I just think that's huge. It might not be Magic Johnson in L.A., but in a 40-minute game as opposed to 48, those are big numbers. I think that's a plus."

As for my picks, the season is not officially over yet (Sacramento and Houston finish things tonight at Texas State University, thanks to Hurricane Ike). But I'm going to jump the gun a little bit and lay out who I feel will take home the season's major awards. They won't officially be announced until during the playoffs, but these are honors based solely on regular-season play, and if given more time, I've always felt professional leagues should hand these out before the postseason if they truly don't take into account playoff performances. Usually they don't, but it's hard to give an award to somebody when their team has already been knocked out of the playoffs, sometimes by the next closest candidate. (I think back to last year even, when, as a Sox fan, I believe Josh Beckett should have won the Cy Young over C.C. Sabathia based on the regular season. Beckett than proved most Sox fans right, providing the big blow in eliminating Sabathia, who won the award, and Cleveland.)

Nevertheless, I'm going to save MVP for last because it may be the most complicated and hotly debated of any of the awards. Without further ado ...

Rookie of the Year: Candace Parker, LAS
Other candidates: Candice Wiggins, MIN; Sylvia Fowles, CHI.
Explanation: There really is no discussion here. Parker may have dissenters when it comes to her winning MVP, but between her numbers (18.5 points, a league-leading 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 52.3 shooting percentage) and the fact that she's lived up to all her hype, she's had this year's top rookie season and perhaps the best of all time.

All-Rookie team:
G Matee Ajavon, HOU
G Wiggins
C Fowles
F Parker
F Nicky Anosike, MIN
Explanation: Wiggins and Parker are locks. Fowles missed essentially half a season with a knee injury, but her performances in the games she did play in proved she's the impact player Chicago needed. Ajavon has been a spark-plug for Houston all year and one of the league's best reserves, period. Anosike is rostered as a center, but I give her the nod at forward over teammate Charde Houston because she has been more consistent and a better rebounder.

Coach of the Year
: Mike Thibault, CON
Other candidates: Dan Hughes, SASS; Bill Laimbeer, DET
Explanation: Considering all the changes the Sun underwent and the extremely low expectations everyone set out for them, I think there's no question Thibault is Coach of the Year. The Sun led the East for large portions of the year, and even though they fell into second in the end, it's the body of work that counts more than the finish in this case. Hughes, of course, gets a nod for coaching the best team in the league, though he returned a lot from last year's team (which he wont last year's award for) and added Ann Wauters. Laimbeer deserves a lot of credit for Detroit once again rising to the top of the East despite some youth, and continuing to forge on even after the brawl with L.A. and losing Cheryl Ford. He, like Thibault, gets big points for all the personnel moves he made as much as his on-the-court work.

Sportsmanship Award: Kara Lawson, SAC
Explanation: This award always seems to be a crap-shoot (which is why I am not even putting other candidates). But it also depends on team success, and Lawson helped the overachieving Monarchs reach the playoffs while being a class act once again. She also gets points for her devotion to the Olympic team, which picked her largely because of her commitment there and prospered because of it.

Sixth Player of the Year: Candice Wiggins, MIN
Other candidates: Plenette Pierson, DET; Barbara Turner, CON
Explanation: Wiggins made just one start this year, and was clearly the best scoring reserve in the league at 15.7 points per game. She also added 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game, both respectable totals, but unfortunately will likely undergo knee surgery in the offseason. Pierson (11.9 points per game) was again a difference-maker for Detroit, as was Turner (8.0 ppg, a team-best 44 3-pointers), especially from the outside.

Most Improved Player: Ebony Hoffman, IND
Other candidates: Le'Coe Willingham, PHO; Barbara Turner, CON; Shameka Christon, NYL; Jia Perkins, CHI; Ivory Latta, ATL
Explanation: Outside of the MVP race, this award may have included the most candidates. Turner transformed herself into a deep threat and one of the league's best reserves, while Christon and Perkins both elevated themselves into two of the league's top scorers after several years of steady improvement. Latta, meanwhile, finally got the opportunity for significant minutes and proved a legitimate scorer (11.4 points per game) in her second year, albeit on the worst team in the league.

But I really felt this award came down between Hoffman and Willingham. Indiana needed Hoffman to be a major contributor with the departure of Tamika Whitmore and the absence of Tamika Catchings early on, and she responded. She more than doubled her scoring average from last year (10.4 from 4.2) and nearly did the same in rebounding (7.8 from 4.0). As importantly, two years after being a full-time starter, she's never played more minutes or shot better.

Willingham, meanwhile, took a contract and the opportunity to start with Phoenix and ran with it. She never averaged more than 3.0 points or 2.8 rebounds in her first four years as a reserve with the Sun and never in the same season. But this summer, she averaged career-highs of 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, started 27 games and was sixth in the league in shooting (57 percent). I give Hoffman the nod over her, though, because of team success and Hoffman's hand in lifting Indiana into the postseason.

Defensive Player of the Year: Lisa Leslie, LAS
Other candidates: Candace Parker, LAS; Janel McCarville, SAC
Explanation: Leslie has been the league's biggest defensive force in the paint this year, averaging a WNBA-best 2.94 blocks per game and doing so while remaining one of the league's top scoring threats as well. It's gone largely unheralded, but her ability to come back this year after giving birth to a child and remain one of the elite players in the league is amazing. This is an easy choice. Parker, because of her numbers, gets a nod, while McCarville has been able to guard a number of frontcourt players with different abilities and has good numbers to show for it.

All-Defensive Teams:
First Team:
F McCarville
F Parker
C Leslie
G Jia Perkins, CHI
G Tully Bevilaqua, IND

Second Team:
F Tamika Catchings, IND
F Sophia Young, SASS
C Lauren Jackson, SEA
G Deanna Nolan, DET
G Ticha Penicheiro, SAC

All-WNBA First Team:
F Seimone Augustus, MIN
F Sophia Young, SASS
C Candace Parker, LAS
G Diana Taurasi, PHO
G Lindsay Whalen, CON

All-WNBA Second Team:
F Asjha Jones, CON
F Tina Thompson, HOU
C Lisa Leslie, LAS
G Sue Bird, SEA
G Becky Hammon, SASS

Explanation: These are slightly unorthodox teams I have here, as Parker isn't a normal center (but can be), nor is Bird a two-guard (though I think she can qualify here). But this, as always, was very difficult to choose. Taurasi hasn't been in the MVP discussion because of Phoenix's poor record, but when you lead the league in scoring and do as much as she does, you're a first-teamer. Perhaps this shows my opinion of where Whalen stands in the MVP race with Bird and Hammon, as well.

I didn't include Jackson, though she had the numbers and played great this season, because she missed too much time. Between her surgery and taking time to practice with the Australian Olympic team, she played in just 21 games this season. That's too few to make it over players like Jones or Thompson, who can make this team every year.

Other notable absences include any Detroit Shock players. That team has flown so far under the radar, I don't think people even realize how solid Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith have been again this year. But Detroit is so deep, they don't have the numbers to warrant spots.

MVP: Sophia Young, SASS
Other candidates, in descending order: Lindsay Whalen, CON; Sue Bird, SEA; Becky Hammon, SASS; Candace Parker, LAS; Lisa Leslie, LAS; Asjha Jones, LAS; Diana Taurasi, CON
Explanation: Part of this is who I think should be MVP and who I think will be voted in. Sometimes they can be too separate things, but I feel Young is the pick here because she has been so consistent, she has the numbers (17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 47.8 percent shooting) and San Antonio finished the season strong compared to other candidates' teams, namely Whalen and Connecticut.

If Whalen hadn't gotten injured, she, in my mind, would have to be MVP. She was the most important player on her team (even though it won games with her out) and she has had an all-around season unlike any other player. Plus, I feel, hands down, she is the most talented guard in the league, just with what she's able to do on the court and the control she has over games. But Young is arguably the best player on the best team and her versatility makes San Antonio so difficult to play against. Young, more than anything, may be the "safe pick" for this award, and in a year where there's no clear favorite, a lot of people will most likely learn her way.

As always, I welcome any comments, criticisms and suggestions, especially if you feel strongly one or another about any of these picks.

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