WNBA MVP debate: Breanna Stewart, Alyssa Thomas or A'ja Wilson?

Friday, September 8, 2023

WNBA voters are stressed. Ballots for the 2023 season awards are due Sunday night, and many voters still haven't decided who they'll pick for MVP.

It's largely regarded as a three-player race between theLas Vegas Aces' A'ja Wilson, who is the reigning MVP and defensive player of the year; theNew York Liberty's Breanna Stewart; and theConnecticut Sun's Alyssa Thomas.

All three have put together historic seasons and catapulted their teams to the top of the WNBA standings. Wilson could become the fourth player to win the award three times, all the more impressive considering she is only 27. Stewart could win her second MVP (she also has two Finals MVPs in her trophy case). This would be Thomas' first MVP award.

The past few weeks have only made it more difficult for voters. Stewart recorded her fourth 40-point game of the season Tuesday, tying Diana Taurasi for the most in league history. That same night, Thomas registered her sixth triple-double of the season behind an unprecedented line of 27 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists and 6 steals. Wilson has been on a tear the past few weeks, earning her first 40-point game before following it Aug. 22 with a 53-point outing, which tied the league's single-game scoring record.

The closest WNBA MVP race between three candidates came in 2013, when just 45 points separated winnerCandace Parker (234) and the third-place vote-getter, Elena Delle Donne (189). Maya Moore finished second at 218.

The closest overall finish was in 2005, when Sheryl Swoopes won by two points over Lauren Jackson, although Jackson got four more first-place votes. The difficulty of choosing between Stewart, Thomas and Wilson also is reminiscent of 2000 to 2007, when Swoopes (3), Lisa Leslie (3) and Jackson (2) claimed those eight MVP awards. Jackson then won her third in 2010.

Voters rank their top-five MVP candidates, and the Los Angeles Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike, Minnesota Lynx's Napheesa Collier, Dallas Wings' Satou Sabally and Seattle Storm's Jewell Loyd could also garner votes.

ESPN.com's M.A. Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Kevin Pelton -- official voters -- offer the case for Wilson, Thomas and Stewart, debate who should win coach of the year in another stacked category and share their picks for all of the awards.

The case for Stewart

Remember back in the preseason, when we thought it would be harder for the league's top two players to show their value on superteams? Remarkably, despite teaming up with three other All-WNBA players, Stewart has remained as indispensable to her team as ever. That's most evident from New York coach Sandy Brondello playing Stewart 34.2 MPG, her most minutes since her rookie season. It's hard to blame Brondello when the Liberty are getting outscored with Stewart on the bench despite having two of those All-WNBA picks, Courtney Vandersloot and former MVP Jonquel Jones, on the court more than half the minutes Stewart doesn't play.

Since Stewart's share of the offense is slightly higher in terms of usage rate (28%) than her previous MVP campaign with the Seattle Storm in 2018, she's putting up career highs in PPG (23.3, second only to former teammate Loyd) and APG (3.8). Notably, Stewart is doing that with a career-high 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio, a huge differentiator from Wilson (1.1) and better than Thomas (2.3).

As a result, Stewart has fended off a strong push from Wilson and leads the WNBA in my wins above replacement player value metric. -- Pelton

The case for Thomas

Thomas said it best Tuesday after her sixth triple-double: "I'm doing something that's never been done in the league before, and I'm making it look easy." Thomas has rewritten the triple-double record books this season and also boasts a league-record 27 double-doubles. The 6-foot-2 forward is within reach of becoming the first player to lead the league in assists and rebounds. And she remains one of the league's most versatile and toughest defenders.

Thomas' season is even more impressive given she's doing all of this playing point center, losingBrionna Jones in June to a season-ending injury, performing with a new head coach/system and having a new cast around her.

Where would the Sun be without Thomas? Probably not in the playoffs, let alone the No. 3 seed. The Sun have one other All-Star (DeWanna Bonner), and unlike the Aces and Liberty, don't have former MVPs, No. 1 draft picks or national team members filling out the roster. The load Thomas carries on both ends of the floor on a team with mostly role players, while playing the second-most minutes in the WNBA, makes her the true definition of most valuable player. -- Philippou

The case for Wilson

Wilson could become just the second player named the league's MVP in back-to-back years. Houston Comets guard Cynthia Cooper did it the first two seasons of the WNBA in 1997 and 1998.

Obviously, being an incumbent hasn't meant much when it comes to MVP. But it might carry more weight with Wilson, because she is having an even better season statistically than she did in either of her previous MVP seasons (2022, 2020). Her 61.8 true shooting percentage tops her previous best of 58.5 last year, and it's the same with win shares, 9.5 to 6.5. She's also averaging a career-best 22.3 PPG.

The Aces expected to have the veteran presence of center/forward Parker for this run at a repeat, but she has been out with an injury since July 7. Wilson is the Aces' low-block scoring threat and also their best defensive player. There is no way to go wrong with any of these three MVP candidates, who are all statistically brilliant and their team's leaders. If the Aces finish as the No. 1 seed again, maybe that's a tiebreaker for Wilson. -- Voepel

What's the one thing that swings your vote in MVP race?

Voepel: In every MVP vote for every sport, there is always debate about what the main criteria should be. And there is no definitive answer; it is what each voter thinks it is.

There is no question that Wilson and Stewart have more top-level talent on their teams this season than Thomas does, and some voters might see that as a key point. Others might say, "Who is the best overall player?" And others will ask, "Who is the best player on the team with the best record?"

Right now, I'm leaning toward the latter, but won't finalize my vote until just before sending it in.

Pelton: Stewart passing Wilson in terms of value on a per-minute basis. Statistically, Wilson has been better this season than either of her previous two MVP campaigns, and for much of the season Stewart's advantage owed solely to playing more minutes -- partially, though not entirely, a function of Las Vegas resting Wilson in the fourth quarter of many blowouts. Stewart's strong finish has clarified that choice.

Philippou: I couldn't decide who to vote for until the last minute last season and that was only a two-person race. I doubt any player will do anything over the next three days to clarify my choice; it'll come down to which philosophy for what makes an MVP I'm most comfortable basing my vote on.

Coach of the year also feels as competitive as ever. Who gets your vote?

Pelton: I went with Sun coach Stephanie White. Already in a difficult situation taking over a team that went to the Finals with Curt Miller at the helm last season but lost Jonquel Jones via trade, White saw All-Star center Brionna Jones go down with an Achilles tear early in the season and still kept Connecticut as the top threat to the more star-studded teams. Miller deserves a lot of credit for transforming the Sparks' defense, and I think it's easy to overlook Becky Hammon's role in guiding the Las Vegas Acesto the likely top seed, but White gets my vote.

Voepel: In the early years of the WNBA, the quality of coaching was one of the more inconsistent parts of the league. That's far from the case now; there could be a reason to give the award to every coach of the playoff teams for different reasons. White gets the nod from me for the reasons that Kevin details. It's great when you have stalwart vets like Thomas and Bonner to carry the team on their shoulders. But White has connected well with them and kept the Sun at the same high level the franchise has been for several years.

Philippou: Multiple coaches deserve this award -- White and Hammon for the reasons stated above -- and you could even make cases for theMinnesota Lynx's Cheryl Reeve and the Liberty's Sandy Brondello, as well as the Sparks' Curt Miller if L.A. makes the playoffs.

What makes me go with Latricia Trammel has less to do with precise tangibles and more so with the new culture she has installed in Dallas, one that has led to greater player buy-in and trust, qualities that seemed lacking in previous years. That has translated onto the court, too: TheWingsare the only team to have beaten the Aces, Liberty and Sun this season, and they could still secure their best playoff seeding since the franchise relocated to Dallas.

Award picks

Which player is your pick for WNBA MVP?

Kevin Pelton: Breanna Stewart, New York

Alexa Philippou: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut

M.A. Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas

Who is your WNBA Coach of the Year?

Pelton: Stephanie White, Connecticut

Philippou: Latricia Trammel, Dallas

Voepel: Stephanie White, Connecticut

Who is your WNBA Rookie of the Year?

Pelton: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever

Philippou: Aliyah Boston, Indiana

Voepel: Aliyah Boston, Indiana

Who is your WNBA Defensive Player of the Year?

Pelton: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut

Philippou: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut

Voepel: Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut

Who is your WNBA Sixth Player of the Year?

Pelton: Sami Whitcomb, Seattle

Philippou: Alysha Clark, Las Vegas

Voepel: Alysha Clark, Las Vegas

Who is your WNBA Most Improved Player?

Pelton: Satou Sabally, Dallas

Philippou: Satou Sabally, Dallas

Voepel: Satou Sabally, Dallas

Which five players are on your All-WNBA first team?

Pelton: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas; Breanna Stewart, New York; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut; Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles; Jackie Young, Las Vegas

Philippou: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas; Breanna Stewart, New York; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut; Napheesa Collier, Minnesota; Satou Sabally, Dallas

Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas; Breanna Stewart, New York; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut; Napheesa Collier, Minnesota; Jackie Young, Las Vegas

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