WNBA

Handicapping the 2019 WNBA MVP race

As we head down the stretch of the 2019 WNBA season, here’s a look at the MVP race, hitting both favorites and dark horses.

As the curtain rises on the second half of the WNBA season, a mere glance at the standings will underscore the league’s remarkable parity.

The Connecticut Sun ran out to a 9-1 start before a slump dropped them to 13-6 at the break, tied in the loss column with the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics. These three teams are collectively considered the likeliest to win a WNBA title this season.

But three more teams sit just two back in the loss column — Los Angeles, Chicago and Phoenix — while even the New York Liberty, at 8-11, are both out of the playoff field as of today, while just three losses back of the fourth seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.

That has larger ramifications for the postseason, not least of which because the league’s playoff system rewards the top two seeds far more than 3-8. But it also means that the race for Most Valuable Player is as wide open as I ever remember by this point in the season.

Let’s stipulate a few things: the vote is due at the end of the regular season. I have one of these votes. And typically, players need to be on winning teams — teams that finish near the top, if not at the top of the standings — to win the MVP award. Accordingly, my rankings here reflect several biases, not least of which the teams I think are likeliest to emerge from the pack over the season’s final two months.

So without further ado, here is my handicapping of the WNBA MVP race, as of July 30, 2019!

Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

Here’s something fun: Elena Delle Donne has been the most productive player in the league by almost any measure, and yet she missed three of Washington’s first 18 games thanks to some lingering soreness from last year’s injury, then a nasal fracture that’s turned her into more superhero than player, thanks to a facemask she’s donned since returning.

Delle Donne is doing what she always does, which is to create a series of impossible-to-answer questions for opposing defenses. You can crowd her and send her to the free-throw line, where she’s making 94.7 percent of her attempts, reinforcing her crown as the best-ever at that skill. She makes about half of her attempts from the field inside the arc, and an array of drives and midrange moves, while she’s right at 40 percent from 3, shots she can also get whenever she wants by shooting over her defenders, a frequent occurrence for a 6-foot-5 guard.

But she’s actually taken her game to another level on the boards, with a 28.8 percent mark on the defensive rebounding side, best in the league, and she continues to prove impossible to rush into mistakes, with a 7.4 turnover percentage that is, again, among the best in the league. (Her 6.5 career mark is the best in league history.) She is 29, having the ultimate Elena Delle Donne season in what is already a Hall-of-Fame career, and clearly in the pole position to win MVP honors if Washington finishes with a top-two seed.

Liz Cambage, Las Vegas Aces

Like Delle Donne, Cambage started the year slowly, also still recovering from an injury sustained last fall. You wouldn’t know it from her overall body of work, though, except by comparing it to her otherworldly 2018 season, and even her 2011/2013 campaigns. The shooting percentage was down significantly, both inside and beyond the arc, but it has been climbing steadily over the past nine games, her increasing minutes leading to more repetitions and wearing opposing defenses down, a key component to the 6-foot-8 Cambage’s edge.

She’s going to need to do more, too: after co-existing extremely well with A’ja Wilson, building her 19.8 assist rate out of high-low sets with her, she’ll need to take on more of the scoring load as Wilson recovers over the next several weeks with a high ankle sprain. Anyone who’s watched Cambage for, say, a minute understands she is more than capable of doing this. If she approaches her Dallas levels of points per game while Las Vegas finishes atop the league without Wilson, Cambage has a real shot at winning the MVP.

Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun

It’s been an unconventional rise to stardom for Jonquel Jones, perhaps why she isn’t talked about like the inner-circle superstar she is. But she has performed at a top-six level in the league in Win Shares per 48 minutes since she was a rookie, and that hasn’t changed in 2019, despite a leap in responsibility and a greater share of the offensive load, with Chiney Ogwumike traded to Los Angeles.

Notably, however, her field goal percentage, including beyond the arc, is down significantly over each of her first three seasons. Another way to think about this is, especially with an uptick in her last four pre-break games, is that Jones has another gear to reach over the season’s final two months. Considering that Connecticut is 13-6 anyway, a combination of continued defensive prowess — her 7.0 block percentage is a sign that she has finally become the rim protector Curt Miller has urged her to be for four years — and more efficiency from the field could catapult Connecticut into the top seed they’ll need to avoid another do-or-die game against Diana Taurasi in the state of her alma mater, which has ended each of their past two seasons.

Next: An unsettled identity could keep the Sparks from a deep playoff run

Also in the mix: Sylvia Fowles, incidentally, leads the WNBA in Win Shares so far this season, managing to retain her levels of efficiency and defensive prowess despite a huge changeover of the Minnesota roster. The Lynx are 10-10, but a run that gets them into the top four could, or at any rate should, land Sylvia Fowles high up on MVP lists and Cheryl Reeve atop Coach of the Year voting… speaking of overachieving, Seattle is 12-9, and Natasha Howard’s remarkable evolution is a big reason why. She’s being asked to essentially move into Breanna Stewart’s role — no easy feat — and she’s doing it, defending as well as ever, doubling her assist percentage and taking on the responsibilities of primary scorer with Stewart and Sue Bird out due to injuries… a similar case can be made for DeWanna Bonner in Phoenix, though she and Brittney Griner are jointly taking on the shots Diana Taurasi isn’t while the legend recovers from back surgery… Nneka Ogwumike is doing that in Los Angeles, reunited with her sister and playing through a pair of extended Candace Parker absences. The woman with the greatest shooting season in the history of the league on her resume is hitting 41.7 percent of her 3s while taking nearly as many already as she did in winning the 2016 league MVP.

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