August 29, 2020 

The Next WNBA MVP roundtable: Fierce debate

Courtney Vandersloot, A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart all in the mix

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PALMETTO, FL – JULY 28: Courtney Vandersloot #22 of the Chicago Sky handles the ball against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 28, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

If there’s one thing the WNBA MVP has been known for over the last four years, it’s being not just the top player, but a WNBA champion — Nneka Ogwumike, Sylvia Fowles, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne all led their teams to victory on the league’s biggest stage. (We won’t talk about how the last two MVPs have not played in the season immediately following, because we don’t want The Next to be implicated in some sort of player jinx. We love them all.)

This week, seven writers, podcasters and photographers from The Next weighed in with their 2020 MVP picks. With so many strong choices, will the best player even be on the Finals-winning team?

(This ended up being a very contentious debate. Nevertheless, we persisted.)

“The MVP of this wubble season is definitely the rare and beloved four days off between games,” Washington Mystics beat writer Jenn Hatfield told me. “Not only does this give players much-needed rest, but it also gives them more time to go to the beach and produce content.”

Hatfield then sent this video from a Mystics beach trip that features two 2019 award winners — Finals MVP Emma Meesseman and Most Improved Player Leilani Mitchell:

But it turns out Hatfield didn’t need words to talk about her actual 2020 MVP pick, Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot — just screenshots:

Screenshot from WNBA Stats
Screenshot from Across the Timeline

Of the seven participants in our discussion, three were the only ones to put forth their player’s name, while two pairs selected two more players. The argument for a wide-open field was supported by how passionately each person spoke about their pick. At times, reading these replies felt like I was the person tasked with breaking a tie — like they were trying to convince me. And I loved it. So much.

As a non-participant in this round table whose answer is still the correct one (Vandersloot), I was heartened to see The Next’s rising star podcaster Pepper Persley also select the Sky’s best sharer as her MVP.

Graphic shoddily filled in by the author, feat. All Kids Network

“First of all, a point guard has never won MVP before. That needs to change, and Vandersloot would be an amazing first there,” Persley said. “Secondly, she has another WNBA point guard in Natasha Cloud, saying this: ‘I’m just gonna say this here…Courtney Vandersloot’s name needs to be at the top of the list for MVP candidates.’

“Who am I to disagree with a WNBA champion like Natasha Cloud?”

Evidently, Dallas Wings beat reporter Drew Ivery is one to disagree with Cloud, as he selected Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson as his MVP pick. The 2018 Rookie of the Year is well-backed-up by her stats, and Ivery mentioned Wilson is second in points per game this season and third in both rebounds and blocks.

“She’s put the team on her back in the bubble with the absence of [Liz] Cambage,” fellow Wings beat reporter Dorothy Gentry said of Wilson. “She’s showing her leadership skills this season — getting to the line, getting her teammates involved. Stellar work in unprecedented times.”

For Vandersloot and Wilson, both two-time All-Stars on different sides of their careers, this would be their first MVP selection. Perhaps a historic tie is in order! No one at The Next seemed willing to break this one!

Instead, the tide turned as The Next editor-in-chief Howard Megdal offered his pick — a familiar name, and another solid case (solid, if not softened by his initial acknowledgement of the merits of the previous two players, like an ice cream sandwich that’s been out in the sun just long enough to make eating it an uncomfortable experience).

“There are numerous worthy MVP candidates this season. Courtney Vandersloot, putting up a 50-40-90 while running the Sky offense. A’ja Wilson, exceeding her already-great 2018 rookie campaign. Candace Parker, a two-way force all season long,” Megdal said. “But bottom line: there’s just too many things Breanna Stewart does better than anyone else.

“Parker is third-best in the league, per Synergy, minimum 20 possessions, guarding post-ups. Stewart is first. She’s shooting 39.5 percent from three — that is, the threes at least 25 feet from the basket! She has, in every measurable way, met or exceeded her 2018 MVP season, and the Storm are at or above their 2018 performance level to date, even with less Sue Bird and Natasha Howard down from her 2018 level. She is the best player, on the best team, and it’s about as simple as that.”

Fact check: Yes, the Seattle Storm are just barely holding on to the nonexistent title of “best team” as of publication, with a half-game lead over the Aces. (But does that make them the best team? Subscribe to my similarly-nonexistent WNBA philosophy podcast, Player “Kant”-rol Foul, for further discussion.)

If the MVP must be on the “best team,” then perhaps the best team could be one that currently has a losing record, specifically the 2019 runner-up Connecticut Sun. Beat reporter Natalie Heavren offered a technical and impressively metaphorical argument for guard Alyssa Thomas.

“Her nickname is literally ‘The Engine,’” Heavren said. “The engine is the MVP of the car, and without it, the car wouldn’t run. … [T]he Connecticut Sun can’t run without her point production, rebounding, assists or steals.”

Heavren brought up the Sun’s July 30 game, where Thomas scored just 10 points on 2-of-12 shooting, but still contributed game-highs with 18 rebounds (which was also a career-high) and eight assists.

“Very few players are that productive when not scoring, but Thomas is ‘The Engine’ and she keeps the team running,” Heavren said.

Thomas — excuse me, The Engine — wasn’t the only offbeat selection. Photographer Domenic Allegra, the first and most succinct to weigh in, went with another potentially unconventional choice that deserves a closer look:

Screenshot from the author’s Slack DMs, which were aflame with hot takes this week

Now, if I may editorialize, there are some obvious issues with this pick. It’s true, the stats don’t lie: Delle Donne has not missed a shot all summer. She’s the defending MVP in a season that is down some major talent due to opt-outs, including herself. And still, the Mystics forward is a far cry from last season’s 50-40-90 outing, averaging a cool 0-0-0.

How is that possible?

Perhaps I should invite EDD on Player “Kant”-rol Foul so we can investigate this categorical imperative further.

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