The WNBA regular season came to a close with a bang on September 8th, with literally every team in the league playing in 6 simultaneous games. An appropriate ending to an exciting, highly competitive summer of basketball. This WNBA season saw new stars break out, and established legend reaching new levels of greatness. As we prepare for the playoffs to tip off tomorrow night in Chicago, the biggest question on our minds is who will take home the WNBA’s regular season awards. Here are my picks, halfway between predictions and a wishlist, for the league’s highest honors.
Executive of The Year: Bill Laimbeer, Las Vegas Aces
It’s very easy to look at the Las Vegas Aces entering the playoffs in the fourth seed and see a team that fell short of expectations. When the Aces traded for Liz Cambage in mid-May, the media was very quick to name the Aces the favorites to win it all this season. Afterall, Bill Laimbeer, head coach and general manager of the Aces, had managed to assemble a team with three superstars; Cambage, Kayla McBride, and 2018 Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson; in a league where few teams have two. Even I must admit that I was ready to hop on the Aces bandwagon early in the season. What I and others failed to account for was how much time it takes to create a system that highlights the talents of three superstars, especially considering the Cambage trade happened a mere 9 days before the start of the season. Teams built around ‘Big Threes’ rarely win a championship in their first season, and NBA ‘Big Threes’ have almost 50 more games to experiment in before the playoffs. When I look at the Aces, I see a tremendous amount of growth and promise. Bill Laimbeer has led this franchise to their first winning season–and first playoff berth–since 2012. The team has literally changed its name twice since then. Bill Laimbeer has led this team back from the brink of nonexistence, helping build a serious contender only one season after the franchise relocated to Las Vegas. If the Aces manage to resign Cambage, they’ll be contenders for years to come. And who’s to say the Aces’ Big Three won’t click on a new level in the playoffs?
Coach of the Year: James Wade, Chicago Sky
As I said in my last piece about the Chicago Sky, rookie head coach James Wade has managed to transform this team, which missed the playoffs last year entirely, into an offensive powerhouse with little roster overhaul at all. Wade’s new dynamic offensive scheme emphasizes ball movement and pace, allowing the Sky to take high quality shots on the perimeter and score at a higher clip than their opponents. The Sky have also turned around their weak rebounding, turning into a dominant force on the backboards under Wade. Rather than lean into a rebuild, Wade has revised this team structurally to best support the talents of their elite backcourt, Courtney Vandersloot, the league’s best playmaker, and her wife Allie Quigley, one of the most accurate shooters in the league. Wade has also done amazing player development work with second year breakout Diamond DeShields, who’s shown improvements in essentially every statistical category this year. James Wade has managed to help an underachieving talented squad achieve their full potential with a modern offensive scheme and amazing leadership. He’s instilled this team with a winning mentality and a serious competitive drive. He deserves to take home Coach of the Year honors, no other coach has so dramatically changed their team’s outlook through coaching alone this year.
Sixth Woman of The Year: DeArica Hamby, Las Vegas Aces
Many players had wonderful seasons off the bench this year, but none stands out as much as the season that DeArica Hamby had. Despite the addition of a third star to the starting frontcourt, Hamby, a forward herself, has managed to carve out a bigger role for herself off the bench, leading to improvements in most major statistical categories. Hamby averaged 11 points and 7.6 rebounds off the bench this season, while posting the best defensive rating of her career at 95 points allowed per 100 possessions. Hamby has been a problem for opposing benches on both ends of the floor this year, and is certainly talented enough to start on another team. The Sixth Woman race is definitely tight this year, but I think Hamby breaking out while playing behind two All-Stars truly sets her aside.
Defensive Player of The Year and Most Improved Player: Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm
The reigning champion Seattle Storm entered the 2019 WNBA season with a fairly grim outlook. Their two best players, Sue Bird and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart, were both set to miss the entirety of the season with a knee injury and torn ACL, respectively. The season seemed lost, the Storm doomed to a trip to the lottery. So why are they playing the Minnesota Lynx in the first round of the playoffs tomorrow night? In two words: Natasha Howard. Natasha Howard has taken the Storm’s fate into her own hands, stepping up to become the team’s leader on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Howard is scoring like she never has before, she’s fourth in the league with 18.1 points per game (up from 13.2 in 2018). Howard has never figured largely into a WNBA offense, and has made the leap into being one of the leagues top scorers in a single season. Even more impressive has been Howard’s dominance on the defensive end, she’s grabbed a career high 8.2 rebounds per game, combined with 2.2 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. You would think that taking on the leading offensive role would limit the amount of energy Howard has to spare on defense, but instead she’s taken the leap into being arguably the league’s best defender. Howard paces the league in defensive win shares (0.179), and has the best defensive rating (92.3) of any player logging 20 or more minutes per contest. In a time of crisis for her team, Natasha Howard has played the best basketball of her career and established herself as an elite two-way player, a star on both ends of the floor. Howard is a sinch for Defensive Player of the Year this season, but I think the growth in her all-around game earns her the Most Improved nod, too.
Rookie of the Year: Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings
Rookie of the Year is, by far, the most difficult award to make a decision on this year. Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx has been elite, accruing the league’s second most defensive win shares (.0172) while putting up great all around shooting numbers, better than those of Arike Ogunbowale. I’ve seen calls for the award to be split between Collier and Ogunbowale, which I honestly think would be the most fair outcome, and I do hope the voting falls that way. But, if I had to choose one, my choice would be Arike Ogunbowale. The 22 year-old’s 19.1 points per game has been a flash of hope for a Dallas Wings team recovering from Liz Cambage forcing her way off of it. Ogunbowale has quickly established herself as one of the league’s elite volume scorers, with her efficiency showing improvement as well over the back half of the season. What really clinches it for Ogunbowale in my eyes is her run of 4 consecutive games with 30 or more points during the last weeks of the season. No rookie has ever hit this mark, in fact, Ogunbowale is only the second player in WNBA history ever to have a run of four 30 point games. Ogunbowale also began to show flashes of playmaking excellence during the last few games of the season, averaging 6 assists per game during the last five games of the season. Arike Ogunbowal has taken her place as the centerpiece of the Dallas Wings, and is already proving to be one of the most dynamic scorers in the league, maybe in the league’s history. If she can continue to hone her skills as a distributor, and improve at the defensive end, she’ll be one of the most devastating players in the league.
Most Valuable Player: Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
There’s a reason that this isn’t a very original take: Elena Delle Donne has had one of the best regular seasons in professional basketball history. To say that Elena Delle Donne has had a good season offensively is a massive understatement. She torched defenses from every single spot on the floor, getting any shot she wanted to. She has a unique combination of size and skill that few other professional basketball players can claim. Delle Donne can clober you inside, finesse you with a layup, take you off the dribble from deep–her bag of tricks is bottomless. Delle Donne is an unstoppable force, both a raging warrior and a sharp-eyed, deadly assassin. After getting swept in the Finals last season, Delle Donne and the Mystics came into 2019 seeking revenge. The Mystics annihilated defenses, with the Mystics leading the league in scoring while Delle Donne herself posted the highest offensive rating of any player who played significant minutes this season, with the Mystics scoring 116.3 points per 100 possessions with Delle Donne on the floor. With her ability to score efficiently at a high volume, Delle Donne is an offensive system unto herself, and a terrifying opponent to face. And of course, there’s the big stat that everyone’s been discussing: This season, Elena Delle Donne became the first player in WNBA history to join the elusive, exclusive 50/40/90 club, shooting 51.5% from the field, 43% from deep, and an unthinkable 97.4% from the free throw line. Sorry, let me put that another way: Elena Delle Donne took 117 free throws this year, and she hit 114 of them. She only missed three free throws the entire season. There is no plan that can contain Elena Delle Donne, no player that can lock her down. Add elite post defense and pulling down the tenth most rebounds of any player this year, and you have an excellent all around player whose scoring anchors the league’s best offense. Elena Delle Donne has led her Mystics to become title favorites, and in doing so, has reached a benchmark of efficiency that only 8 other professional basketball players have ever reached. There is no question in my mind that Elena Delle Donne will win the MVP this season, she should do so unanimously.
All stats taken from Basketball-Reference or stats.wnba.com, unless otherwise noted. For definitions of advanced stats, check out Basketball-Reference’s glossary.
Dani Bar-Lavi is a comedian, writer, and guest contributor to SportsAreFromVenus. You can find them on Twitter @dblfluidity.
Image Source: AP Images