What The Numbers Say About the WNBA MVP

by Clay Kallam

So now that L.A. dissipated any real interest in the last weeks of the WNBA season by collapsing in the fourth quarter Tuesday, we’ve got a little time to look at some other aspects of the summer—such as who really is the best player.

There are a lot of candidates of MVP, but for the sake of discussion—OK, maybe even an argument—a look at the latest Player Efficiency Rankings list can add some actual data to the conversation.

First, what’s PER? It’s a complex formula developed by John Hollinger that attempts to rate players by assessing their statistical contributions. Unfortunately, there are a lot of assumptions built into the formula (such as how often a particular player handles the ball, the positive value of an assist as opposed to the negative value of a turnover, etc.) not to mention a fuzzy (at best) acknowledgment of defensive contributions, but it’s still a lot better than just referring to points and rebounds per game.

And all misgivings aside, PER is still a reasonable way to start any analysis of the top players in the game, though again it’s important to remember that defense isn’t really accounted for.

So who do the numbers love? CP3—and no, I’m not talking about Courtney Paris. Candace Parker can obviously score and rebound with the best of them, but she’s rewarded as well for her very low turnover percentage and her ability to draw fouls. Her PER is 27.58, which doesn’t mean much except that the average is artificially set to 15.0, and that a strong MVP candidate should be around 27.5.

We’re done here, right?

Well, not quite. For one thing, Parker missed 15 of L.A.’s 32 games, which brings up the persistent question of how many games does a player have to play to be eligible for an award? Sylvia Fowles hasn’t missed any games, and her PER is 26.27, so doesn’t she get credit for durability?

And that brings us to point two: Parker’s devotion to defense has never been all that fervent, while Fowles is a force at that end of the floor. Acknowledging that PER doesn’t really give defense its due would move Parker down and Fowles up—and they’re not that far apart to begin with.

Third and fourth on the list are Tamika Catchings and Penny Taylor, both of whom have the advantage of playing on playoff teams—neither Parker nor Fowles will be present in postseason, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that an MVP in a league in which eight of the 12 teams advance to postseason should be good enough to carry her team into the playoffs.

Catchings probably has the most convincing case of those two, as many will argue that Taylor isn’t even the best player on her own team—and sure enough, Diana Taurasi is sixth overall, just two spots behind Taylor. In between is the pouty Angel McCoughtry, probably the best defender of that trio, but also the most mercurial (even though she plays for the Dream).

Overall, though, the numbers suggest pretty strongly that Catchings is the logical choice for the MVP, especially considering that she’s one of the best defenders in the world, and is underserved by the PER formula.

And now, just for the fun of it, let’s see what PER has to say about the MUP, or Most Unvaluable Player—and that list begins with Andrea Riley. Riley has had an abysmal year, but she does have a pretty good excuse: She gave birth to daughter Tiana March 29, and has struggled with conditioning and recovery all summer.

Phoenix guard Ketia Swanier has no such excuse, though, but she is reputed to be a good defender, so maybe her score could be adjusted up from 4.90. The next four on the list are also considered strong on defense (Shyra Ely, Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Kerri Gardin and Scholanda Robinson), but Iziane Castro-Marques is not—and her PER of 8.08 is a big reason she dropped out of Atlanta’s starting lineup.

Two 2011 first-round draft picks also aren’t faring that well, as Courtney Vandersloot (9.32) and Jasmine Thomas (9.45) are well below average.

And speaking of average, who does PER says is closest to being just a regular, ordinary, run-of-the-mill player? Why, ageless Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who checks in at 14.91. Matee Ajavon and, surprisingly, Swin Cash are also close to the 15.0 middle mark, which pretty much completes a look at the PER spectrum.

Still, it hasn’t really solved the MVP quandary. Parker has the numbers, but she’s missed 15 games and doesn’t really defend; Catchings is a barely above average shooter (according to another advanced stat called efficient shooting percentage), and that’s one of the single most important factors in winning games. And Fowles couldn’t even get the Chicago Sky into the playoffs, so how good can she really be?

So in the end, as usual, it comes down as much to feel as analysis—and which player you’d rather have on your team.