12 Things: WNBA regular-season awards picks

WASHINGTON D.C - SEPTEMBER 11: Elena Delle Donne #11 of the Washington Mystics talks with Mike Thibault during the 2018 WNBA Finals practice on September 11, 2018 at George Mason University in Washington D.C. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C - SEPTEMBER 11: Elena Delle Donne #11 of the Washington Mystics talks with Mike Thibault during the 2018 WNBA Finals practice on September 11, 2018 at George Mason University in Washington D.C. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Who should take home the hardware?

The WNBA playoffs start tomorrow. In lieu of a postseason preview, let’s have some fun running through some awards picks.

Coach of the Year

Mike Thibault, Washington Mystics

The Mystics were supposed to be good and have been relatively healthy. (Emma Meesseman and Kristi Toliver each missed one-third of the season, by the way.) Looking at what has actually happened this season, that doesn’t come close to qualifying as grounds to knock Thibault out.

This team hasn’t just been good. They’re annihilating everyone. The style of play Thibault has instilled is going to push the entire league forward. The Mystics don’t just value the 3-point shot enough to take a bunch of them. They put their best players in optimal positions to create as many quality looks as possible.

Doesn’t the defense deserve some love, too? LaToya Sanders and Elena Delle Donne have been very effective switch defenders, which allows them to stall more actions out, while still cleaning up on the glass. Washington had the league’s third-best defensive rebounding percentage (70.0) per WNBA.com.

Minnesota and Seattle overcame a lot, but the bottom four didn’t exactly put much pressure on them for those final spots. Seeds two through five are separated by three wins. Thibault’s case is the one that pops.

Defensive Player of the Year

Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm

Sylvia Fowles, Nneka Ogwumike and Jonquel Jones have also been very good anchors for their respective teams. Has it just been the record that’s given some people pause with Fowles these last two seasons?

It has become much easier to view Howard through the same lens. She logged almost 200 additional minutes this season and had to perform defensively every night while shouldering the most demanding offensive workload among this bunch.

All four defenses have performed very well. Seattle relied so much on dialing the pressure up and forcing turnovers to make up for their depleted offense. That’s where Howard stood out. Whether she’s cleaning up around the basket or smothering an opposing ball-handler 25 feet from the basket, Seattle’s do-it-all forward had the smallest margin for error but continued to jump off the screen all season long.

Most Improved Player

Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm

Why not?

Doesn’t leading a team to the playoffs as a first-time No.1 option while doubling as a DPOY candidate qualify as dramatic improvement?

Frontcourt running mate Mercedes Russell has had a very nice season. Being forced into a larger role by injury isn’t a 1:1 correlation with improvement. Getting cut by the Liberty also isn’t a qualification. Sometimes teams just whiff on decisions with late-round picks!

Leilani Mitchell won the award nine years ago. She was also forced into a larger role by injury. The Mercury got incredibly lucky when no one claimed her on waivers. The off-the-bounce 3-point shooting is extremely valuable, but she’s been a serious 3-point threat for the entire decade.

The MIP is a messy award. Howard’s 2019 body of work is the only one that has felt like significant improvement that’s easy to isolate.

Most Valuable Player

Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

There’s no answer for Delle Donne. She’s shooting 52 percent on 205 jump shots per Synergy Sports. Allie Quigley (46 percent on 230 attempts) and Leilani Mitchell (43 percent on 218 attempts) are the only players in the top 45 in attempts shooting 43 percent or better.

She’s lapping the field while casually tossing in what would be described as flat-out bad shots for anyone else.

As with Thibault, accepting Washington’s dominance shouldn’t lead us to overlook Delle Donne’s part in it. She can lead this group to wins taking 12 or 20 shots. That’s up to you.

Rookie of the Year

Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx

I voted for Collier. You can find my full ROY breakdown here.

Sixth Woman of the Year

Dearica Hamby, Las Vegas Aces

A full season for Meesseman would have made this quite a debate. Stay tuned for more on Hamby later this week.

First Team All-WNBA

G—Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky

G—Chelsea Gray, Los Angeles Sparks

F—Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics

F—Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm

C—Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury

Second Team All-WNBA

G—Odyssey Sims, Minnesota Lynx

G—Diamond DeShields, Chicago Sky

F—Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

F—A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

C—Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

Vandersloot and Gray have been the best guards. There’s lots of room for debate with the other two slots.

Kristi Toliver finished one game short of the statistical minimums. Not being able to give her this nod stings. Washington has played extremely well without her. But having such a dynamic pick-and-roll player and the two bigs that can make plays and shoot it really made this group special.

Sims is Minnesota’s only player that can break somebody down or run a pick and roll late in games. The defense seen in L.A. has carried over for one of the league’s best ball-pressure guards.

DeShields sets a very high baseline utilizing her athleticism on defense, in transition and by giving her team somebody that can earn trips to the foul line in the halfcourt. She’s the only guard in the top-15 in restricted area attempts. More of the tough twos need to go in the basket moving forward (and some need to go away altogether). But opponents respect her as a 3-point threat, which frees the Sky up to win playing through her or Vandersloot without one hurting the other spending time away from the ball.

Wilson’s forward slot was the only one in question. That said, it’s probably easy to jump to the centers. The league asked voters to only slot players where they’re listed. Jonquel Jones, listed as a forward-center, is the only player that complicates things.

Does Jones get to also be a forward just because she shoots threes? I only considered her as a center. She’s just as much of a 5 as Griner, Fowles or Liz Cambage.

And while we’re here, maybe it’s unfair, then, to call Ogwumike a forward. She definitely was in the games she started next to her sister. But who between Nneka and Candace Parker is the center for the sake of awards voting? According to the Sparks roster, it’s Parker.

Phoenix finished seventh in defense. The poor rebounding continued to haunt them. Griner’s efficiency (1.066 points per possession on 334 post-up possessions) and volume is just too much to ignore. She shot nearly 55 percent on post-ups using 52 more possessions than Tina Charles (0.819 PPP), 107 more than Cambage (1.057) and 143 more than Fowles (0.995).

The Mercury needed more from Griner to at least finish fifth or sixth and have every reason to think they still should’ve gotten there. It just doesn’t outweigh everything else that needed to happen for them to give her more support.

Individual offense aside, Cambage also has some warts. The Aces’ defense got shredded in the final third. Her call-seeking behavior went too far at times in ways that actively hurt the team. She logged about 200 fewer minutes than the other three centers.

Fowles didn’t get as many scoring chances, but the gap defensively between her and Cambage/Griner was significant.

Jones only shot 31 percent from deep on 4.1 attempts per game. I’m a little worried about underrating her gravity and how essential her shooting is to Connecticut’s overall success. Alyssa Thomas can’t rampage through the lane without a stretch 5 next to her.

Opposite of that, you’ve got Fowles shooting 67.6 percent from the restricted area while leading the league in attempts (213). And that’s in a season where you’d say one of Minnesota’s biggest shortcomings was not getting the ball more!

By a slight margin, I think Fowles was still the better overall defender and made teams feel her around the basket more than Jones did from distance.

With Jones out of the running, DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas and Napheesa Collier were the other forwards considered.

Wilson is completely unguardable. She has room to improve passing out of hard doubles and finishing around length at the rim. But even away from the ball, the Aces can still get some value out of her money midrange shooting when Cambage is posting up.

As noted earlier, there’s some noise in that No. 1 defensive rating. Wilson has been the more imposing deterrent at the rim and covers more ground as a helper.

Not having a member of the Sun on either team was the toughest thing to wrestle with, but if we’re really doing this sticking to actual positions, Jones—their most deserving All-W candidate—has to be considered as a center.

All-Rookie Team

Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas Wings

Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces

Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx

Brianna Turner, Phoenix Mercury

Teaira McCowan, Indiana Fever

No surprises here. Marine Johannes had five big scoring games. Asia Durr (groin strain) ended up playing 18 games. Turner gave Phoenix a much-needed jolt with her defense all over the court. Bonus points for doing that for a banged-up team limping toward the playoffs.

First Team All-Defense

G—Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun

G—Natasha Cloud, Washington Mystics

F—Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm

F—Natasha Howard, Seattle Storm

C—Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota Lynx

The coaches make the call on these teams, but because there’s so little we can measure and quantify with individual defense, the All-Defense teams make for some of the most interesting discussion.

Cases for Thomas, Cloud and Clark are easy. They get around screens and don’t make mistakes. Thomas is one of the league’s toughest players to blow by and uses her length well in pursuit to challenge and bother shots late.

The size of Cloud (and many of Washington’s other guards) allows the Mystics to do more switching, and she’s tasked with many of the toughest assignments across all three perimeter spots.

Clark’s case might not feel as obvious only because Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore haven’t been around (much) this season. Many of the top scorers require somebody that’ll stay in plays more than whatever might happen in a few isos. For my money, I want Clark or Thomas lining up across from the league’s top pick-and-roll guards.

Second Team All-Defense

G—Jordin Canada, Seattle Storm

G—Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Los Angeles Sparks

F—Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx

F—Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks

C—LaToya Sanders, Washington Mystics

Canada has been disruptive at the point of attack all season long and has great anticipation from the weak side. Ruffin-Pratt’s presence has been more a necessity than a luxury with Alana Beard in and out of the lineup. TRP relies more on her physicality but has held up well in space, often asked to bother opposing point guards as they bring it up.

Ogwumike and Sanders will always be tough to appreciate fully for how well they hold up against bigger players night after night. Washington’s comfort in their switching would stand out even more if they didn’t blow so many teams out. Expect it to be a big weapon in the playoffs against players like Courtney Williams, Gray or DeShields.

Collier’s versatility really made a difference with the final spot, and I tried to stick to traditional positions filling both teams. Kayla Thornton, who ended up playing just 27 games, may hold up better right now one-on-one. Collier affects more plays around the rim and added value for a playoff team with her ability to switch and log minutes at both forward positions.

Executive of the Year

Cheryl Reeve, Minnesota Lynx

This one’s easy. Vegas made the Cambage trade but had some help.

Where was everybody else on some of these deals—Lexie Brown for a second-rounder, Steph Talbot for a second-rounder, Odyssey Sims for Alexis Jones, swooping in on Damiris Dantas knowing Atlanta’s guaranteed slots were already filled—that Reeve managed to swing?

In Sims, Dantas, Collier and Karima Christmas-Kelly, Reeve added four starters to a team that needed…four new starters.

Brown, Collier, Talbot, Jessica Shepard and even Bridget Carleton are cost-controlled young players that’ll ease their salary cap concerns over the next few years.

We should all be on the edge of our seats awaiting a potential Washington-Seattle rematch in 2020. But if a rejuvenated Maya Moore returns next season, the Lynx could also be right back in the running for a top-two seed with plenty of shooters to put around Moore/Fowles and the flexibility to play big or small as they please.

Last week's 12 things. Canada, Odyssey, Johannes. light

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