Statistics are great. I took a bunch of classes to earn a math minor in them. But they’re not the be-all, end-all. They’re the foundational blocks of a photograph that lack the vividness of a masterpiece. And in sports, with so many stats at our disposal, different ones can be manipulated to make different cases.
So here’s why I etched Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas as the 2023 WNBA MVP in my ballot picture over Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson. The full five-player ranking on my ballot: Thomas, Stewart, Wilson, Napheesa Collier, Satou Sabally.
Thomas trails both Stewart and Wilson in win shares (a stat that hinges largely on team wins), effective field-goal percentage and offensive and defensive rating. Her point production (15.5 ppg) lingers behind Stewart's (23 ppg) and Wilson's (22.8) by a large margin. Yet, I don’t care. Because while it’s important to score in basketball, it’s also not the only important line on the sheet.
The six triple-doubles Thomas has accumulated this season are historic. They also illustrate her importance to every facet of the game, and thereby the wins that have the Sun seeded No. 3 in the postseason.
Thomas averaged near a triple-double with 15.5 points (22nd), 9.9 rebounds (first) and 7.9 assists (second) per game. She adds on average 1.8 steals (fourth) a game. No player in WNBA history has averaged even a 7-7-7 season. At times this season, she’s led the league in assists despite playing at the five spot after Brionna Jones’ season-ending injury. With less help around her than Wilson or Stewart, she’s facing more defensive pressure than them and still finding ways for the Sun to score.
Her impact is larger than that of Wilson or Stewart with a league-leading 17.16 Kitchen Sink Win Probability Added (kWPA) that quantifies win probability for every box score stat sheet measurable and attributable, via Inpredictable. Stewart ranks second (15.80) and Wilson ranks 11th (11.38).
Few have been as impactful to their team’s all-around success as Thomas. The Sun’s net rating is 28.6 points better when Thomas is on the court versus off, compared to the Liberty’s 16.2 for Stewart and Aces’ 13.5 for Wilson. Is Thomas the better player of the three? No. I’d probably lean Stewart with Wilson a close second. But Thomas is the most valuable of the three this season and that’s how I assess my MVP vote.
This year’s MVP vote will be a reflection of voter philosophy:
1.) Best player in the league
2.) Most outstanding player on the team with the best record
3.) Player most valuable to her team
And you can’t go wrong with any of them.
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) September 6, 2023
All-WNBA First Team: Thomas, Stewart, Wilson, Nneka Ogwumike (Sparks), Collier (Lynx)
All-WNBA Second Team: Sabally (Wings), Kelsey Plum (Aces), Jewell Loyd (Storm), Aliyah Boston (Fever), Chelsea Gray (Aces)
Most Improved Player: Jordin Canada, Los Angeles Sparks
This is honestly the most difficult award for me every season because of the incredible subjectivity of it. I’ve written before that I think it should be scrapped — maybe for a Comeback Player of the Year award — or given parameters beyond a player “who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons.”
Because that’s a whole lot of players in a plethora of different ways and approaches that are difficult to compare. It would be easy to argue Wilson and Stewart have improved. Same for Sabrina Ionescu, whose 3-point shooting is 10% better than any other season on a career-high attempts. How about 2022 winner Jackie Young, who was a handful of made free throws away from joining the 50-40-90 club. She was 52.7% overall, 45.1% from 3 and 86.7% from the free-throw line. Granted, none of those might be considered “dramatic.”
The widely named candidates: Sabally (Wings), Alanna Smith (Sky), Kalani Brown (Wings) and Jordin Canada (Sparks). Arguably, Sabally (knee, ankle injuries in 2022), Smith (waived by Fever after nine games) and Brown (waived ahead of 2022 season) are all making “comebacks” of sorts, even though for Smith and Brown it's an improvement from being out of the league. But were they just in bad spots before?
In the spirit of the award, it goes to Canada.
Canada, who signed with the Sparks on a training camp contract, increased her scoring production 44.6%, largely from vast improvement beyond the arc, going 40-of-121 (33.1%). She had never attempted more than 55 3s in a season and averaged 16.8% (29-of-173) over her career. She averaged 3.1 rebounds (38.1% increase), six assists (9%) and 2.2 steals (57%) this season.
Sixth Player of the Year: Alysha Clark, Las Vegas Aces
Much like the MVP conversation, Sixth Player of the Year came down to who became most important to her team. Losing Candace Parker was a huge blow to the Aces’ domination, and Clark’s minutes became even more important on a team lacking the depth of, for comparison, the Liberty.
She didn’t score the most of any reserve, but did lead all in net rating (12) and was one of the most efficient shooters (56.6 effective field-goal percentage). Dana Evans (Sky), Kayla Thornton (Liberty) and Dijonai Carrington (Sun) were all strong contenders for this award.
Rookie of the Year: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
Aliyah Boston, the Fever’s first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history, had a historic rookie season that put her in the same air as former WNBA MVPs Wilson, Stewart, Parker and Tamika Catchings. The ROY has long been Boston’s to lose and it would have taken a large fall-off for that to happen. Her 57.8 field-goal percentage ranked third and she attempted 10 field goals per game. She averaged 14.5 points (27th), 8.4 rebounds (ninth), 2.2 assists (50th), 1.3 steals (13th) and 1.3 blocks (ninth).
All-Rookie team: Boston, Diamond Miller (Lynx), Dorka Juhász (Lynx), Jordan Horston (Storm), Maddy Siegrist (Wings)
Miller, the No. 2 overall pick, and Juhász, a second-round steal, played big minutes for the playoff-bound Lynx, and Horston was also one of the most productive rookies in the class.
The final spot was a toss-up that included Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (Storm), Li Meng (Mystics), Zia Cooke (Sparks) and Grace Berger (Fever). These players are all bunched together playing limited minutes, therefore with limited production.
I opted for Siegrist over Fankam Menjiadeu because she’s done the most in her 8.3 minutes per game (ranking 115th in the league, per Her Hoop Stats). She’s hitting 50.9% of her shots (56-of-110) to rank 16th overall and is 27-of-29 from the free-throw line, no small deal for a Wings team with a 2.6 net rating. Her 21.5 points per 100 possessions rank third of rookies who have played more than 10 games and outpace Fankam Mendjiadeu (14.4), though the Storm center leads all rookies with 16.1 rebounds per 100 possessions and is shooting 52.3% from the field.
Defensive Player of the Year: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
It was another tight battle between Thomas and Wilson that was decided by a slim margin.
Thomas is one of the elite defenders in the league and can guard any player from point guard to center even though she’s undersized for a center at 6-foot-2. The Sun are ranked second in defensive rating (98.8) behind the Aces (97.7), who have slipped at times this season and are anchored by Wilson in a similar role. DPOY often goes to those who collect the most blocks (with steals added into consideration) because it’s the easiest to quantify. Thomas impacts ball-handlers from farther out than the paint and muscles them into turnovers.
Thomas, Stewart, Wilson, Brittney Sykes (Mystics) and Canada (Sparks) made first-team all-defense honors. The ballot is now positionless.
Coach of the Year: Stephanie White, Connecticut Sun
White, whose previous WNBA head-coaching experience was two seasons in Indiana, took over a 2022 Finals team from former Coach of the Year Curt Miller, lost 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones in a trade and yet kept the Sun in the top three. She had to quickly pivot when star center Brionna Jones sustained a torn ACL in the 13th game of the season, yet her team has still been in the top tier with the Aces and Liberty. Also impressive is that none of her three assistant coaches (Briann January, Abi Olajuwon, Austin Kelly) had experience as an assistant in the league before being hired by the Sun.
Coach of the Year is not a ranking system on the ballot, but if it were I’d list Sandy Brondello (Liberty), Becky Hammon (Aces), Latricia Trammell (Wings) and Cheryl Reeve (Lynx). That White had to pivot midseason after the loss of a highly productive starter put her over Brondello, whose work melding together her super-team started in the offseason, and Hammon, who deserves credit for drawing more out of her team defensively.
Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever
The Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award is designed to honor a player who best represents the ideals of sportsmanship on the court. It’s named for the late Kim Perrot, who won the first two WNBA championships with the Houston Comets and died in 1999, seven months after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
The league provides a candidate for each team, but few include their honorees in their award season pitches and it’s a shame. Voters are often working on limited information that they can’t easily look up in a database. Tell us why you have the sports(wo)man of all sports(wo)manship.
Candidates: Monique Billings (Dream), Elizabeth Williams (Sky), Rebecca Allen (Sun), Natasha Howard (Wings), Aliyah Boston (Fever), Alysha Clark (Aces), Karlie Samuelson (Sparks), Rachel Banham (Lynx), Courtney Vandersloot (Liberty), Megan Gustafson (Mercury), Sami Whitcomb (Storm), Ariel Atkins (Mystics).
A lot of these votes came down to a gut feeling with the deadline looming, and this was no exception. I spent time around Boston in Las Vegas and Indianapolis this season, as well as heard from her teammates, and opted for Boston. Clark, who has shown good sportsmanship while all 11 teams were coming for the reigning champ every night, was a close second.
Schedule of awards
Thursday: Executive of the Year (selected by the league’s general managers)
Sunday: Coach of the Year
Sept. 18: Sixth Player of the Year
Sept. 21: Most Improved Player
Sept. 26: Most Valuable Player
Oct. 2: Rookie of the Year, All-Rookie Teams
Oct. 5: Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defensive First and Second Teams
Oct. 13: All-WNBA First and Second Teams
Oct. 24: Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award