Now that the 2018 WNBA regular season has come to a close, it is time for the second annual Jantel Lavender All-Stars.
For more on why Lavender is the namesake of this column, here’s last year’s team. A refresher on the criteria that have been streamlined a bit:
- No multiple-time All-Stars or All-Defense/All-WNBA selections.
- Positions matter only enough that this roster could reasonably take the floor for a real game.
- Players are considered based solely on what they’ve shown in the 2018 season.
- This is a subjective list. These players are here because they’ve been fun to watch, and just might be capable of doing even more given the opportunity.
Let’s get to it.
C — LaToya Sanders, Washington Mystics
Adding Sanders to this specific iteration of the Washington Mystics has been an absolute boon for Mike Thibault. On top of having a pretty solid case to make an All-Defense team, her shooting is what has made her such a key cog in their starting lineup. Through August 12, Sanders shot a ridiculous 60.8 percent from 11 to 21 feet (via Swanny’s Stats).
That current starting unit of Sanders, Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud and Kristi Toliver has posted a whopping net rating of 30.3 (131 offensive rating, 100.7 defensive rating) in 290 minutes in the regular season, per Positive Residual.
F — Kayla Thornton, Dallas Wings
Thornton has already become so much more than a feel good story that made it to the league as an undrafted player. Greg Bibb has completely overhauled the back end of their roster in season, and they lost veteran stalwart Karima Christmas-Kelly for the season to a knee injury. Where on earth would they be without Thornton’s presence in support of their two All-Stars?
Last season, she was a versatile 4/5 that just always seemed to outwork everybody. Now as a starter, she’s actually drawing some of the toughest one-on-one assignments from Candace Parker to Chelsea Gray — sometimes within the same game! Last year Thornton shot 27.9 percent on 61 3-point attempts. This season? 35.5 percent on 121 attempts. And at just 25, there’s reason to believe Thornton has much of her best basketball still ahead of her.
G/F — Stephanie Talbot, Phoenix Mercury
Talbot was a pretty easy choice to be a two-timer here. Mercury GM Jim Pitman lauded her attitude in staying ready even as she was handed a few DNPs this season. She’s been crucial in their on-the-fly adjustment to the loss of Sancho Lyttle. Being able to slide DeWanna Bonner to the four is great, but whoever enters the lineup next to her has to be good for it to work.
She’s making her spot up threes, crashing the glass, and playing solid one-on-one and team defense for a team that shouldn’t have any issue outscoring people if they just stay solid.
G/F — Betnijah Laney, Connecticut Sun
As with Thornton, we’re well past the feel good story. Laney made the Sun roster out of training camp but is playing now because she’s good.
Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen are not in Connecticut’s starting lineup for their one-on-one defense on the wing. Laney has given Curt Miller an option when he needs a bigger body on the perimeter, and she plays with a refreshing decisiveness on offense. When she gets it, you know she’s going to shoot, drive it hard or make the next pass to keep the machine going.
G — Brittany Boyd, New York Liberty
Boyd’s return from a devastating Achilles injury has been a bright spot in an otherwise rough season for the Liberty. She’s been an excellent on-ball defender and is the one true point guard on that roster that has given their offense more order without losing what they want to do by getting out in transition.
C — Imani McGee-Stafford, Atlanta Dream
Things really came together for the Dream once they got to the month of July in their first season under the leadership of head coach Nicki Collen. They’re scary moving forward because they’ve got top end talent, all the core pieces of the league’s best defense locked up longterm, and they have young players off the bench already contributing.
McGee-Stafford has been a big part of that bench. She’s long, runs the floor hard and flashed more and more of the shooting touch that can really take her game to another level.
F/C — Amanda Zahui B, New York Liberty
Zahui B has been another interesting player to follow out of New York this season. Katie Smith played her much more than Bill Laimbeer did in 2017 or 2016. That matters because standing where we do now, it’s important that the Liberty are at least closer to knowing what they have in Zahui B having at least given her a decent chunk of playing time for a full season.
Defense can be a bit of an adventure for her to put it mildly, but the 3-point shooting (34.4 percent on 61 attempts) is exactly what they need to get from someone on this team to open up the floor for Tina Charles moving into next season.
F — Morgan Tuck, Connecticut Sun
Watching Tuck play now, it really is night and day comparing how well she’s moving in 2018 versu the majority of last season, where she was compromised by some nagging injuries. Things get really interesting for the Sun when Miller throws her out there with Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones.
One of those three right off the bat will have a size advantage, and all three have enough game to get involving in screening actions to really capitalize on it. She’s at 34.9 percent on threes, the best of her young career to date. That can’t slip much in the future, but if that continues, Connecticut will be able to spread people out for all 40 minutes in these 2018 playoffs and beyond.
G/F — Nia Coffey, Las Vegas Aces
Coffey was a backup power forward last season as a rookie, where she was almost always at a severe size disadvantage. Bill Laimbeer moved her to the wing, where she has had some eye-opening moments running the floor in one of the league’s speediest offenses.
The outside shot needs to continue to progress. With an average 3-point stroke and more reps as a wing defender, Coffey would quickly become the kind of player the Aces need to keep around.
G/F — Rebecca Allen, New York Liberty
One potential gripe with how this Liberty season went down is that Smith didn’t trim her rotation down quite enough. And leaning so much on Charles and Boyd, it would be fair to say that Allen should have been playing more to help make teams pay for helping off of her.
Allen, 25, is a legit 6’2 and has canned 36 percent of her 116 career 3-point attempts. There’s room in this league for wings that can be above-average spot up shooters. Even if it isn’t in New York, I think Allen can contribute to a winning team given a steadier role.
G — Blake Dietrick, Atlanta Dream
The story of Dietrick’s season lines up pretty well with Laney’s — made the roster out of training camp, wasn’t expected to be a regular in the rotation, but has been helpful in the minutes she’s played. Dream head coach Nicki Collen was very confident talking about Dietrick back in early June in Los Angeles, where she logged 13 minutes after playing just four minutes to that point in the entire season. The Dream already have plenty of options to create offense for them. Dietrick has done her part filling in around that by making quick decisions with the ball and fighting hard to stay in plays defensively.
G — Odyssey Sims, Los Angeles Sparks
The league appears to have taken a collective step forward in defending the Sparks. Simply put, teams aren’t paying Alana Beard or Sims as much attention when they aren’t trying to drive to the basket. Yet Sims still manages to find seams to the basket and opportunities to cut for easy scores.
Sims really takes their defense to another level when she’s pressuring the ball and gluing herself to opposing guards as they try to duck her going around screens. Her 3-point shooting is actually up (27.3 percent from 19 percent in 2017) on a similar number of attempts. Hitting threes at a higher clip would certainly be helpful, but Sims has made it abundantly clear that all the other stuff matters, too.
1. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
2. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
3. Liz Cambage, Dallas Wings
4. Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury
5. Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks
I agreed all along that Stewart continued to look like the favorite as the season wore on. Stacking up the numbers of my top candidates side-by-side, I wavered some. But diving into what each team did defensively this season, Stewart’s part in Seattle’s rise from ninth to second in defensive rating sealed the deal for me.
Stewart and Natasha Howard flying around covering up whatever breakdowns they did make, to me, is what made their season. That’s what kept them in games and enabled them to close out more tight ones that they had in the recent past.
Stewart led the team on the glass by collecting 25.7 percent of available defensive rebounds. She finished second in the league in scoring and scored the second-most (24.9 points behind Liz Cambage’s 28.1) on a per-36 minute basis. She gets to the line (5.1 times per game, 33.7 percent free throw rate) and posted a better true shooting percentage (63.3) than every non-center not named Diana Taurasi.
I want to be able to look back on an award pick and really feel deep down that it told the story of that season. Breanna Stewart, to me, has fits that criteria and has the overall resume to back it up.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx
2. Jessica Breland, Atlanta Dream
3. Alana Beard, Los Angeles Sparks
I wrestled with this one more than any other. Would more people consider Fowles if not for some voter fatigue?
Minnesota’s 2018 defensive rating took a step back by about six points in comparison to last season’s. Rebekkah Brunson played in five fewer games, but their frontcourt rotation beyond those two completely falls off a cliff unless Maya Moore slides up to the four spot.
Fowles may not have been as dominant on the offensive end as she was in 2017, but people don’t get to hold that against her in measuring her defensive impact. She played nearly 200 minutes more than both Natasha Howard and Breland, and 300 more than Beard. At some level that has to matter.
She’s head and shoulders above the field in what she does on the defensive glass, grabbing a career-high 31.3 percent of available defensive rebounds in 2018, save for Liz Cambage (28.5 DReb%).
Per Positive Residual, the Lynx had a 100.9 defensive rating with Fowles on the court this season. Atlanta with Breland on: 97.6. Los Angeles with Beard on: 98.6. Seattle with Howard on: 99.9.
Opponents only managed an offensive rebounding rate of 19.8 with Fowles on the court this season, at least eight full points better than the Dream with Breland or the Storm with Howard.
The Lynx also were more effective in keeping opponents off the free throw line (18.4 free throw rate) with Fowles than the Dream with Breland (22.5), the Sparks with Beard (23.2), or the Storm with Howard (19.8).
How about with their respective team’s best players also out on the floor? The Lynx allowed 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 513 minutes with Fowles, Maya Moore and Brunson on the floor. (Take this lineup data with a grain of salt — I made the choices that I did in search of a relatively similar number of minutes with the best players for each team on the floor together.)
In 495 minutes with Breland, Renee Montgomery, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams, the Dream allowed 99.6 points per 100 possessions. In 419 minutes with Beard, Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks allowed 94.8 points per 100 possessions. In 533 minutes with Howard, Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Alysha Clark and Sue Bird, the Storm allowed 100.4 points per 100 possessions.
Fowles (2.9) narrowly edges Breland (2.7), Beard (1.4) and Howard (2.3) in defensive win shares per Basketball-Reference.
Howard (2.85) outranks Fowles (2.42), Breland (2.5) and Beard (2.18) in Jacob Goldstein’s WNBA Defensive Player Impact Plus Minus.
In six games against Liz Cambage and Brittney Griner, the best individual performance mustered against Fowles was Griner’s 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting on June 1. Against the best centers, the Lynx can craft a gameplan knowing they aren’t dead to rights asking Fowles to take those players on one-on-one. The rebounding, the overall numbers and the eye test still put Fowles above the rest for this season in my eyes.
Rookie of the Year: A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
6th Woman of the Year: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun
It doesn’t feel right because Jones is so overqualified to be coming off the bench. But if Sugar Rodgers can make an All-Star team and start 15 games, there’s no reason to not give this one to Jones. Early season struggles and all, of the players coming off the bench, Jones has been the best one. If you don’t like it, move to change the qualifiers and I’ll be right there with you.
Most Improved: Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm
Coach of the Year: Dan Hughes, Seattle Storm
Narrow edge to Hughes over Nicki Collen simply because I think Seattle is so much more top heavy. If we had a draft of bench players from both teams, I may take as many as four Dream players before I select somebody from Seattle.
That isn’t a knock on Collen in any way, either — the Storm were dominant from the start and posted the best record in a league where a top-two seed has quickly become the single most precious resource imaginable. Again, it’s very, very close. But I’m going with Hughes.
Executive of the Year: Mike Thibault, Washington Mystics
Thibault narrowly edges Atlanta GM Chris Sienko here for me. Both made big additions in free agency. Atlanta added Jessica Breland and Renee Montgomery as unrestricted free agents. Monique Billings was an absolute steal at 15, though that probably says more about the draft slots ahead of them than their ability to unearth her talent. The move to acquire Alex Bentley has helped the team, and as mentioned, they’ve gotten positive value from Blake Dietrick in one of their last roster spots.
No bonus points for moves with players under any form of team control for either side. Though LaToya Sanders last played in Washington in 2016, how could one not give some credit in these considerations for that move because of how incredibly good she has been? They also inked Monique Currie, one of the more underrated moves of the offseason.
Thibault found a bargain of his own in the second round of the draft in Myisha Hines-Allen. But what he knocked completely out of the park is what seals the deal. Considering where she was drafted, Ariel Atkins alone may have been enough.
1st Team All-WNBA
F — Liz Cambage, Dallas Wings
F — Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
F — Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
G — Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury
G — Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta Dream
2nd Team All-WNBA
F — Candace Parker, Los Angeles Sparks
F — Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx
F — Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury
G — Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky
G — DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix Mercury
Also considered: Alyssa Thomas, F, Connecticut Sun; Maya Moore, G/F, Minnesota Lynx; Sue Bird, G, Seattle Storm; Chelsea Gray, G, Los Angeles Sparks
The biggest ‘snubs’ here are probably Moore, and then Gray or Bird in the Vandersloot slot. Outside of the midseason winning streak, Moore just hasn’t been very efficient, nor is she creating much for her teammates. Her 2018 average of 2.9 assists per 36 minutes is the lowest of her career.
The Lynx haven’t been healthy as they’ve teetered down the stretch, but the whole body of work is what led me here over wins and losses. (I was intentional in choosing two point guards — Vandersloot by definition and Taurasi by function.)
Bonner has been a more productive pick and roll ball handler than Moore, and has been similarly efficient on more spot up attempts. If Moore can sneak in as a guard last season, I see no issue doing the same with Bonner this season.
Vandersloot has dominated more games than Gray, who undoubtedly is a better defender and more talented one-on-one scorer. But the latter hasn’t shone through in as many games. Vandersloot is the Chicago Sky offense, assisting on 43 percent of her team’s baskets and posting a 60.6 true shooting percentage in her own right.
And somehow, this season, we haven’t managed to talk much about Griner, one of the league’s top scorers and shot-blockers with a top-10 usage rate shooting over 51 percent from the midrange.
1st Team All-Defense
F — Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx
F — Jessica Breland, Atlanta Dream
F — Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm
G — Alana Beard, Los Angeles Sparks
G — Tiffany Hayes, Atlanta Dream
2nd Team All-Defense
F — Elizabeth Williams, Atlanta Dream
F — Kayla Thornton, Dallas Wings
F — LaToya Sanders, Washington Mystics
G — Natasha Cloud, Washington Mystics
G — Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm
Also considered: Jasmine Thomas, G, Connecticut Sun; Rebekkah Brunson, F, Minnesota Lynx; Alyssa Thomas, F, Connecticut Sun; Brittany Boyd, G, New York Liberty; Briann January, G, Phoenix Mercury; Odyssey Sims, G, Los Angeles Sparks
F — A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
G/F — Diamond DeShields, Chicago Sky
G/F — Ariel Atkins, Washington Mystics
G/F — Victoria Vivians, Indiana Fever
G/F — Gabby Williams, Chicago Sky
Also considered: Kelsey Mitchell, G, Indiana Fever; Azura Stevens, F, Dallas Wings; Kia Nurse, G, New York Liberty; Jordin Canada, G, Seattle Storm
What a regular season it’s been. Thank you to everyone that has read, listened, commented, followed, etc. On to the playoffs.