WNBA Dissected: 2021 Alternative WNBA Awards
From entertainment value to monetary value to finally taking a leap, we hand out some trophies that the official WNBA awards may have overlooked
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Last week, I offered you my picks for every single official end-of-season WNBA award. Since then, the league has started handing out the trophies, with no real surprises (and largely the same as my selections, apart from Defensive Player of the Year). This week, we're going to hand out some unofficial awards. There's no voting panel for these, so inevitably the results are going to be skewed towards the opinions of your committee of one, but I did try to be fair. Mostly.
You didn't necessarily have to be good to make this squad, but it certainly helped. We're generally watching basketball games in the hope of seeing good basketball, after all. However, what we're really looking for here is someone who brings that special spice to the game, who gets people off their seats in the arena or yelling at their screens at home.
The easy first pick is Marina Mabrey, whose energy and passion brings excitement on its own, and had the bursts of electric scoring to back it up. There wasn't quite the consistency of production from game-to-game that the Wings might've liked but the entertainment was rarely lacking. Her backcourt partner in Dallas, Arike Ogunbowale, also makes it in for the moments where she can light up a game. Again, the efficiency wasn't perfect, but she's fun to watch. She also led the league in technicals for people who like that kind of thing (and you could even argue that her poor defense might help the opposition be more entertaining as well).
On the wing (yes, we're sticking at least vaguely to positions, even for the fake awards) Atlanta's Courtney Williams was worth the price of admission as ever. The Dream may not have won many games, but seeing Williams rise like a salmon to snare a rebound or nail a jump shot is always a sight to behold. At the 4, where she did play much of the season, is Williams's teammate Crystal Bradford. Especially when coming off the bench, Bradford was instant energy and excitement, often in a positive way but even when things went wrong it was appointment viewing.
At the center position we're pretty much forced to go towards regulation star performers, as the entertainment value came primarily from All-WNBA candidates. So let's go with Jonquel Jones, whose combination of smooth perimeter shooting, interior production and that unguardable fadeaway is always worth watching. It's just that this year she did it so well that it also won her MVP.
Honorable Mentions: Courtney Vandersloot, Erica Wheeler, Sami Whitcomb, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi
Bargain of the Year
This one's about producing value. In a salary-cap world, especially under the newish Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can't just pay everyone the max. They have to pinch pennies and find the right players on the right deals. So who produced the most for the least? A couple of qualifiers here - no one on a rookie-scale contract counts, and neither does anyone on a max (or supermax) deal. Top-end youngsters are obviously a bargain until they can sign for what they're worth, and superstars are naturally underpaid due to the max restrictions.
First, let's mention a few candidates who probably should count, but who I'm ruling out on a technicality. Sylvia Fowles and Jewell Loyd both signed long-term deals under the old CBA which were the max back then but left them thoroughly underpaid once the new system was in place. So did Tiffany Hayes, for that matter. None of them are allowed to win (but Fowles and Loyd in particular obviously outperformed their salary). Candace Parker, who technically played for less than the max ($190,000 when her max in Chicago was $190,500), also doesn't count.
Taking a little more of a discount than Parker, and therefore a slightly more reasonable candidate by the spirit of this award, Tina Charles gave Washington superstar-level production for $175,000. Ultimately a discount the Mystics didn't need due to Alysha Clark's suspension and Emma Meesseman staying home, but Charles's number stays the same.
In the mid-range veteran tier, players like Kahleah Copper, Sami Whitcomb and Isabelle Harrison all produced useful seasons for anything from $150,000-165,000. However, to find the real bargains, you have to take another step down the list of salaries. Two of Los Angeles's best players were thoroughly underpaid vets, with Brittney Sykes ($110,000) and Nia Coffey (vet minimum of $70,040) having useful years amongst the losing in LA. It's still a mystery why Sykes signed for so little. Meanwhile over in Minnesota, the Lynx found themselves a starting point guard in Layshia Clarendon, who they paid a total of $51,608 after signing her a couple of weeks into the season. However, Clarendon also received $120,000 in a buyout from the Liberty, which complicates the candidacy.
In reality, there are two contenders here. Brionna Jones re-signed in Connecticut for $120,000 because that was all the Sun had left once others were taken care of (and possibly because offers for her on the open market weren't great). Jones took another step forward in her play and was the third-leading scorer on the best team in the league, playing over 30 minutes a night while ranking 3rd in total Win Shares in the WNBA this season. She and her agent may be regretting signing a two-year deal that will also only pay her that same $120,000 next year.
However, our winner is over in Las Vegas. Riquna Williams took a below-market deal to play for a contender (although her available offers were undoubtedly affected by her legal issues), and started all year for one of the best teams in the league. At only $91,250 she gave them double-digit scoring, strong perimeter defense and the kind of uneventful season that everyone wanted to see after the headlines from the past. An impending unrestricted free agent, Vegas may not have the necessary cap space to keep her next year if she looks around the league for a new deal paying her closer to what she's worth.
Misspend of the Year
You knew this was coming. The other end of the spectrum from the bargains, who took their team's money and ran this year?
Players who missed the entire season due to injury are ruled out of contention for this 'award', but those who only missed some of it have to at least be mentioned. Technically, the likes of Elena Delle Donne, Alyssa Thomas and Angel McCoughtry all played this season. All of them were very well paid, in WNBA terms. None of them produced much (in the regular season, anyway - Thomas could still be valuable in the playoffs). Similarly, giving this trophy to Chiney Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Bria Hartley, Cheyenne Parker or even Natalie Achonwa would seem a little unfair. Or at least if I did that, my editor would probably ask me to re-write. (Editor’s Note: Correct.)
As you might expect, my list of less-injured candidates comes primarily from the league's bad teams. It works both ways round - the good teams are usually smart enough not to spend heavily on the wrong players, and teams that were lucky enough not to end up with unfortunate contracts often end up at the right end of the standings. Indiana had multiple candidates, with Jantel Lavender, Danielle Robinson and Jessica Breland all wildly overpaid compared to their production. Similarly in Atlanta, spending on that mid-tier of free agents did not go well. Parker didn't work out (first due to Covid, then pregnancy), neither did Tianna Hawkins, and Shekinna Stricklen was still around this year on the unfortunate multi-year deal they gave her in 2020 that paid her $175,100 in 2021. She'd be our winner for a dreadful season shooting below 26% from the field (21% from three, for a player who's supposed to be a perimeter sniper) - if it wasn't for a very special bonus category of player.
You see, then we have the buyouts. The players that teams literally paid not to play for them. It would seem unfair to give the award to Karima Christmas-Kelly (injured), Layshia Clarendon or Odyssey Sims. Clarendon and Sims proved elsewhere that they probably could've produced for the teams that paid them to go away if given the chance. However, Astou Ndour-Fall didn't do a lot in Chicago after being bought out by Dallas and is our runner-up. The Wings will still be paying her $111,579 next year, along with the $108,421 this season. She's beaten out by Candice Dupree, whose free agent deal in Seattle was a disaster, and is part of why the Storm were so short in the post when Breanna Stewart got hurt. Seattle paid Dupree $142,000 for 16 appearances before they parted ways, swiftly losing her starting spot before falling out of the rotation entirely. 6 points and 2 rebounds per game with a staggering -23.8 difference in net rating when she was on the court vs off-court was not what the Storm were hoping for.
Clark's Corner All-Stars
Let's get back to a more positive area of discussion. Regular readers of my WNBA Dissected column will be aware of the section named after Alysha Clark. It honors those players that every team needs, the ones that may not lead you in scoring but play important roles doing the dirty work that often goes unnoticed. They take charges, dive onto the floor for loose balls, often defend the other team's best player and make the smart decisions that coaches love. Sadly Clark wasn't around to make the team herself this year, but plenty of others were.
Someone else who this team could easily have been named after is Briann January, who makes it for her sheer effort and energy on the defensive end, and her unparalleled ability to make sure that officials notice when someone has made contact with her. Which is not flopping. Honest.
In some ways New York has too many of these types of players. Sami Whitcomb is a deluxe variant, while Jazmine Jones and DiDi Richards do a lot of the same work off the bench just without the perimeter gunning. Richards makes the squad for her relentless work rate, regardless of which type of player the Liberty ask her to guard. A player I wasn't sure could stick in this league has turned me into at least a semi-believer over just one season.
Cheryl Reeve can't keep Bridget Carleton out of her rotation, and there are good reasons for that. The Lynx spent heavily on wing players in the offseason and due to injuries Carleton's role fluctuated over the course of the year. But whoever else was available, she was always in the rotation somewhere, working her tail off whenever she was on the floor. The shooting wasn't quite as sharp as last year, but the Clark-esque effort and heady plays were still in effect.
Dearica Hamby's a little too mainstream for this team these days, which leads us back to Crystal Bradford for a 4. Constant energy from a player that everyone had forgotten about before she made the Dream roster this year after last appearing back in 2015 made her impossible to ignore. The Dream weren't good, but when Bradford was on the floor they were at least worth watching.
For a classic under-the-radar but filling an important role player at center, it's also impossible to ignore Mercedes Russell in Seattle. The Storm tried a few players alongside Breanna Stewart in the paint before settling on the clear choice in Russell. Quietly solid defense, decent rebounding and good finishing when called upon made her a great fit next to Stewart. These players often don't need to jump out at you - they just need to consistently do their job.
Honorable Mentions: Stefanie Dolson, Monique Billings, Bella Alarie, Riquna Williams, Sophie Cunningham, Nia Coffey
About Damn Time Award
Finishing up, our final trophy recognises players who made improvements in key areas. Which is great. It's just that part of us wants to know why it took so long.
Tina Charles, for example, at the age of 32, was finally convinced this year that shooting threes instead of mid-range twos might be a good idea. She proceeded to shoot 37% from beyond the arc, well above league-average, on over five attempts per game - having never even managed three per game in any previous season. She ended up back in the MVP conversation even on an unsuccessful team, and both her free-throw rate and rebounding percentage were better than her last couple of years in New York.
Despite being a very different kind of player, it was a similar story with Courtney Williams. Wildly entertaining ever since she came into the league (at least once she got out of Phoenix), those of us who like to think about efficiency always had some reservations with Williams. The mid-range game is great, but when you don't shoot threes and don't get to the free-throw line, you have to hit a ridiculous percentage on those twos to make up for it. This year, Williams seemed to acknowledge that three is significantly more than two. She still took lots (and lots, and lots - it was really a lot) of long twos, but at least she stepped behind the arc on occasion. However, she can't win the award because she still took 282 shots from 16-21 feet, when no one else in the league was above 114. Which is insane.
On to our winner, whose improvement nearly led to an MVP award. Instead, Brittney Griner will have to make do with this slightly less prestigious one. For years, many had questioned Griner's rebounding. For someone so big and agile, it felt like she ought to be able to fall into more rebounds than she actually collected. After floating around 7.5 per game for years, this season she stepped it up to 9.5 per night, despite having Brianna Turner next to her as more of a threat to grab them away than other frontcourt partners Griner has had over the years. There was no drop-off in Griner’s block rate from the last couple of seasons, just the jump in rebound percentage to 16.4% after a career around 14.5%. That's a meaningful step from a player who's looked significantly more focussed overall this year. It was about damn time.
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