August 12, 2022
All-WNBA First, Second Team awards to become positionless
“This process change allows us to celebrate the best of the best going forward.”
On Friday, Aug. 5, the WNBA announced it would be changing the way some end-of-season awards are handed out. Beginning this season, votes for All-WNBA teams will be cast without consideration for a player’s position. Voting for the All-Defensive Teams will continue to depend on position, while voting for the All-Rookie Team will remain “positionless.”
“As we evaluated our approach to end-of-season awards and spoke with our general managers, head coaches and others, it became clear that the most deserving players, regardless of position, should be recognized at season’s end,” said Bethany Donaphin, the WNBA’s Head of League Operations.
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The voter pool consists of 32 national and 24 local media members, two from each of the 12 WNBA markets. Previously, voters were required to select two guards, one center and two forwards on their First and Second Team ballots.
Players then received “points” for each vote (five for a First Team vote, three for a Second Team vote). If a player received votes at multiple positions, they were counted at the position where they received the most votes.
But, as the game has changed over the past decade, the need to update the voting system to better reflect its evolution has followed suit.
“As greater emphasis is placed on spacing and pace of play, the players have expanded their multifaceted skill sets,” Donaphin also noted in her statement. “This process change allows us to celebrate the best of the best going forward.”
The evolution of play in the WNBA is no clearer than in the rapid expansion of the typical frontcourt player’s skillset. “Positionless” bigs have dominated All-WNBA First Team frontcourts in recent years, though they’ve been best characterized by a point guard.
These players comprise some of the most recognizable names in women’s basketball right now: Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Candace Parker, Elena Delle Donne, and A’ja Wilson, to name a few. All of them have received All-WNBA First Team nods in the past five years.
Yet, under the position-based voting system, only three of them could possibly receive a First Team spot, regardless of how many of them were deserving of it in that year.
“To me, it’s a no brainer,” former WNBA player and ESPN analyst and broadcaster Rebecca Lobo told The Next. “If the 10 best players in the league were all centers then we should still be able to vote those players onto… the First and Second team.”
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The WNBA, as far as has been made public, has never indicated an interest in shifting its All-WNBA voting process prior to Friday’s announcement. The NBA currently selects its All-NBA teams using positions but has considered shifting to positionless voting as recently as June.
“In terms of determinations for All-NBA, I think a fair amount of consideration is going into whether [voters] should just be picking top players than be picking by position,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said to media just two months ago.
A league source told The Next that discussions on end-of-season (EOS) award voting between league executives, team front offices and representatives of the player’s union began earlier in the season. NBA league executives, while not actively involved, were knowledgeable of these discussions.
While it’s unclear whether there was any communication between Silver and WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, it wouldn’t be the first time changes in the WNBA have forecasted or mirrored the interests of the NBA.
In 2016, the WNBA let go of conference consideration for playoff seeding, the season immediately following Silver’s public consideration of the same modification for the men’s league. More recently, in May of 2021, around the same time as the official announcement of the Commissioner’s Cup, consideration for a similar in-season tournament within the NBA’s season was intensifying.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that the NBA had considered “a scenario of pool play embedded into the regular-season schedule to determine those teams advancing into the single-elimination tournament,” a format nearly identical to that of the Commissioner’s Cup, which was announced days prior. An in-season tournament was also instituted in the NBA’s G League, and league sources told Bleacher Report at the time that this was “no coincidence.”
Lobo also pointed to how TV coverage of the WNBA has inspired coverage for its counterpart. “[The WNBA] was the first one to do the coach interviews and the end of the first and third quarter,” she noted. “We’ve now moved to player interviews but we were the first to do those. And then the NBA did them.”
It’s no surprise, then, to see the WNBA pop up as an example of positionless voting as the NBA inches closer to negotiations for their new CBA, where this topic is all but guaranteed to make an appearance.
Per the current WNBA salary bonus schedule, All-WNBA First Team members earn $10,300 per player, while Second Team members earn $5,150 per player. For a player like the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, whose base salary for this season sits at $76,297, the bonuses associated with a First Team nod alone would represent a 13.5% bump to her expected WNBA salary.
Notably, however, these bonuses have hardly increased in value since they were first introduced. Since 2008, the All-WNBA First Team bonus has increased just $300 and the Second Team bonus has increased just $150. In order to keep up with inflation, the First Team bonus would have needed to go up by ~$3,750, and the Second Team bonus by ~$1,900.
For contrast, the NBA currently passes out All-NBA bonuses in connection to a player’s forthcoming contract, which has allowed massive salary increases to be tied to contract extensions depending on whether the player has received the honor or not.
While the practice has come under fire more recently, it has resulted in potential salary increases of upwards of $30 million for the NBA’s top players. At present, the WNBA only ties All-WNBA honors to qualifying offers for players completing rookie-scale contracts.
However, bonuses and playing contracts are far from the only source of income for WNBA players. A player’s endorsement deals and opportunities may also have ties to EOS award nods, as well as the potential for overseas contracts.
As the WNBA barrels toward prioritization, however, the financial considerations players will have to make when deciding how and where they’ll play the 2023 season will be significant.
Pay increases are far from the only benefit of receiving an All-WNBA nod. They also act as a way of preserving the character of a single season; what play styles dominated the league? Who stood out in the crowd, and who dominated all season long? By their nature, these awards also provide a critical opportunity for fans and media to discuss and debate the results.
“When the first and second teams come out, there will be debate,” Lobo explained. “Should this person have been on First Team instead of Second? Should this person have been on one of the teams and isn’t? That’s all good. It’s all good for the league.”
And then there’s the recognition, the value that comes with being recognized for your work and your impact on the game in a given year. All-WNBA nods make frequent appearances on the long lists of awards used to emphasize just how great any given player was.
“It matters in the moment to be recognized,” Lobo added. “But then in terms of a player’s legacy, it matters down the road as well.”
Only time will tell how this move affects the conversation around player pay, whether the NBA follows suit, and, ultimately, the composition of this year’s All-WNBA teams. But, what we do know is that the long-term impact of these awards and their value-add to the safeguarding of the history of women’s basketball is priceless.
In addition, the WNBA also announced a schedule for this year’s EOS awards announcements, which can be found below:
|Aug. 19||Sportsmanship Award|
|Aug. 22||Executive of the Year|
|Aug. 25||Rookie of the Year; All-Rookie Team|
|Aug. 26||Coach of the Year|
|Aug. 29||Most Improved Player|
|Sep. 1||Sixth Player of the Year|
|Sep. 2||Defensive Player of the Year; All-Defensive First, Second Team|
|Sep. 7||Most Valuable Player|
|Sep. 15||All-WNBA First, Second Team|
Written by Isabel Rodrigues
Isabel Rodrigues (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Next from upstate New York who regularly covers 3x3 and the state of women's basketball in the U.S. and internationally. She also covers women's sports for The Daily Princetonian, the independent student newspaper of Princeton University.