September 25, 2023
The Next’s 2023 WNBA Awards: MVP
Do you think they’ll cut the trophy in half horizontally or vertically?
Welcome to The Next’s official* 2023 WNBA awards, continuing with Most Valuable Player. A panel of 19 of our WNBA reporters, beats and analysts submitted full awards ballots, selecting their top five candidates for MVP. In accordance with how the W scores ballots, players received 10 points for a first-place vote, seven for a second-place vote, five for a third-place vote, three for a fourth-place vote, and one for a fifth-place vote.
In a stunning result, The Next’s 2023 WNBA MVPs — plural — are New York’s Breanna Stewart and Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson. Both earned a 74.2% vote share (the percentage of the maximum possible points a player received), while Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas narrowly finished behind them with a 70.5% vote share despite earning the most first-place votes. This trio combined to collect every voter’s first-, second-, and third-place votes, with the lone exception of a single third-place vote for Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike.
Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier earned a down-ballot (fourth- or fifth-place) vote from a majority of voters, while Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, Dallas’ Satou Sabally and Las Vegas’ Jackie Young also received recognition.
To emphasize the chart above: Wilson, Stewart and Thomas were so even in this year’s MVP race that they essentially each finished an average of second on our voters’ ballots.
Stewart started off her Liberty career with a bang, setting a franchise record for points in a game during her Brooklyn debut and doubling up the previous record for 40-point games in a single season, per Sports Reference, all while setting career-highs in points and assists. Wilson followed up her MVP-winning 2022 campaign with a 2023 for the ages: per-game averages of 22.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.2 blocks on 62.7% true-shooting and her highest usage since her rookie season, good enough to lead the league in pWAR for the first time. Thomas led the league in defensive pWAR while recording six triple-doubles — three times the previous single-season record, per Her Hoop Stats — including a 21-point, 20-rebound, 12-assist, three-steal game without a turnover and a 27-point, 12-rebound, 14-assist, six-steal game.
Stewart previously won MVP in 2018 and finished second to Wilson in both 2020 and 2022, in addition to a third-place finish in 2021 and a sixth-place in 2016, Stewart’s rookie year. The fifth top-three finish of her career moves her into a tie for third all-time, on a list that certainly includes several of the top 10 players in league history:
Another MVP trophy for Stewart also moves the Storm into a tie with the Comets for the second-most such awards in league history. Seattle center Lauren Jackson received the league’s top honor three times (2003, 2007, 2010) in addition to Stewart’s prior win, while Houston saw Cynthia Cooper-Dyke (1997-98) and Sheryl Swoopes (2000, 2002, 2005) win five of the league’s first nine awards. (Los Angeles leads with six selections (Lisa Leslie, three times; Candace Parker, twice; Ogwumike, 2016)).
An MVP for Wilson makes her just the second back-to-back selection, following Cooper-Dyke, who won the league’s first two awards (1997-98). It also moves Wilson into the Three-Time MVP Club, joining Swoopes (2000, 2002, 2005), Leslie (2001, 2004, 2006) and Jackson (2003, 2007, 2010).
Though it is mathematically possible in theory, the WNBA has never had a tie in MVP voting. It has only happened twice in major American sports history: in MLB, where the 1979 National League MVP award went to both Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell, and the NFL, where the 2003 MVP went to both Peyton Manning and Steve McNair.
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Our voters also shared why they selected who they did up and down their ballots:
The case for A’ja Wilson
This was a tough one, but it just comes down to energy. A’ja … changes the entire game on both ends of the floor. She’s dynamic, she has epic energy, and she manages to stay on the floor (she’s 12th in the league in fouls per 40 minutes with 2.8, which is wildly impressive given she’s a shot blocker and rim protector). She’s the anchor of an extremely talented team, which I understand could work against her in the voting, but I’d argue actually demonstrates her true strengths — she still draws the most attention, enabling even stronger ball movement, rhythm, and dynamic play from her guards. MVP status.
This is about as difficult a choice as any (obvious caveat). Thomas’ performance is MVP-winning in at least half of WNBA seasons, but this year, it’s third to me.
Coming down to Stewart or Wilson, Wilson did just a little bit more with a little bit less around her. The Aces dealt with some roster issues all year, especially once Parker got hurt. Yet somehow, Wilson’s become more efficient on offense even at a very high volume. Her defense has also continued to be stalwart, and being over two blocks a game is sensational.
It’s a genuinely impossible choice, but Wilson just barely edged ahead for me.
There really is no wrong answer for who to pick in the 2023 MVP race. I was very close to picking Alyssa Thomas here, but A’ja’s scoring explosion in the last month of the season pushed her over the top for me. She tied the single-game scoring record, had another 40-point game (notably against the Mystics and not the Fever) and scored 30 in three consecutive games to finish out the season.
The case for Breanna Stewart
Breanna Stewart was the most dominant player in the WNBA in 2023, scoring at will and at ease. … And this award is for Most Valuable Player. Before her arrival, the New York Liberty finished with a 16-20 record and the No. 7 seed in 2022. With Stewart this season, the Liberty claimed the No. 2 seed with a 32-8 record and could easily win the title.
With Stewart, the case begins with her versatility as an offensive engine and switchable defender – it’s truly one of a kind. Additionally, despite joining a team with Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones, and Courtney Vandersloot, she averaged more points (23.0), assists (3.8), and steals (1.5) than her MVP campaign in 2018.
The case for Alyssa Thomas
Most great teams are built to leverage the skills of one or two elite players, elevating them to their best while others benefit from their strengths and cover their weaknesses — Vegas with A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum, New York with Breanna Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu. But the Sun instead take the unique talent of Thomas and turn her into an unstoppable force that makes All-Star-level teammates out of role players. Connecticut won a game this season by almost 25 points just by running empty pick-n-roll with AT raising hell as a short-roller. No great team is as reliant on its superstar as the Sun are with AT.
Thomas has long been known as a unique player, a tough defender and a matchup nightmare in the WNBA. But this season, she’s doing things that have never been done before. Her six triple-doubles jump out, but there’s also the fact that, as a 6’2 center, she became the first player ever to lead the WNBA in both total rebounds and total assists. She’s doing all this even though teams know she doesn’t often take jump shots, which would ordinarily be a liability. With Thomas carrying a bigger load than most players in the league, the Sun have exceeded most preseason projections and could threaten the two superteams in the playoffs.
In a year with three legitimate MVP candidates, it feels necessary to expand the definition of value beyond ‘value contributing to team wins.’ There’s also value to the individual’s career, value to the league, and value to the sport. In addition to the considerable value she provided for her team, detailed extensively elsewhere, Thomas provided enormous value to the league and sport of women’s basketball. Similar to a historic home run race in baseball, AT’s triple-double dominance not only made league history, but brought attention to women’s basketball via a stat that any basketball fan can understand and revere.
The down-ballot case for Napheesa Collier
In her first year as Minnesota’s hands-down, go-to player, Collier was remarkable, ranking fourth in the WNBA in scoring while also posting her most efficient shooting season since 2020 – a blend of both volume and efficiency typically seen from only a handful of the WNBA’s truly elite players.
There’s no question that Collier is in that tier now, and while her impressive individual statistics still weren’t quite as eye-popping as those of Wilson, Stewart or Thomas, the context of Minnesota’s season as a whole puts her in the MVP conversation. The Lynx had a few nice surprises here and there, but their overall level of talent and experience paled in comparison to that of several other teams they were battling for playoff position with, and it’s hard to imagine them finishing among those teams — or even making the playoffs at all — if Collier didn’t have the type of season she did. … It’s easy to see how much Collier drives winning basketball, and when both the individual and team-level results are stacked against the less-than-optimistic preseason expectations, you get a player who should unquestionably be considered among the WNBA’s most valuable.
The down-ballot case for Jewell Loyd
I feel that an MVP should be a player who impacts the team the most and is essentially carrying their team on their back and that is Jewell Loyd. She didn’t have the supporting cast that some of the other players in the MVP race had. While her team struggled as a whole, she was able to break the single-season scoring record and have the best individual season of her career.
* Official relative to our preseason and midseason awards. The Next’s 2023 WNBA Most Improved Player award is as official as The AP’s, which is to say it won’t show up on Across The Timeline.
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