September 23, 2023
Choosing the 2023 WNBA MVP with video games and clones
Welcome to the WNBA Clone League, a truly absurd endeavor
By Jacob Mox and Em Adler
As the announcement of the 2023 WNBA MVP approaches on Sept. 26, you will see many impassioned and thoughtful cases made for each of the three leading candidates (including here at The Next!). This is not one of them. Welcome to the WNBA Clone League.
Since we can’t place real-life A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Alyssa Thomas in a controlled league where everything is equalized, we did the next best thing: We put them in NBA 2K24. An exercise that began as a very serious and practical discussion about how to talk about MVP cases
devolved into this method of balancing each candidate’s teammates by simply ensuring that they had none. More precisely, they still had teammates, but they were their own teammates. All 11 of them.
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The rules are simple: For each WNBA team, we cloned its leading MVP candidate to create a roster consisting of 12 exact copies of that player.
Below are the 12 representatives along with their 2K24 ratings at each position:
|Atlanta Dream||Rhyne Howard||85||84||85||81||80|
|Chicago Sky||Kahleah Copper||80||82||85||83||82|
|Connecticut Sun||Alyssa Thomas||82||85||87||87||87|
|Dallas Wings||Satou Sabally||83||85||87||86||86|
|Indiana Fever||Aliyah Boston||78||83||86||88||88|
|Las Vegas Aces||A’ja Wilson||91||96||97||98||98|
|Los Angeles Sparks||Nneka Ogwumike||87||90||92||93||93|
|Minnesota Lynx||Napheesa Collier||86||88||89||87||86|
|New York Liberty||Breanna Stewart||93||95||97||97||97|
|Phoenix Mercury||Brittney Griner||82||87||90||92||92|
|Seattle Storm||Jewell Loyd||87||87||88||85||84|
|Washington Mystics||Elena Delle Donne||88||90||92||91||91|
We updated positions so that each team had three point guards, three at their natural position and two at the remaining positions. This ensured the game didn’t break when it was time for All-Star voting. Coaching philosophies and gameplan focuses were also optimized to each player’s strengths.
We simulated a 40-game regular season with these teams as if it were a normal season. The final standings determined a 12-team bracket where the top four teams received a first-round bye.
The four “play-in” games to determine which teams advanced to the second round were single elimination. Except for the play-in games, the bracket was just like the real-life playoffs. There was a best-of-three series for the quarterfinals and a best-of-five series for each of the final two rounds. The winner of the bracket was crowned the 2023 WNBA Clone League champion and named MVP.
If you want to play out this scenario yourself, you can download the roster “WNBA Clone Roster” and the MyWNBA league set-up “WNBA Clone League.”
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In the regular season, one development jumped out: Thomas — one of the real-world MVP frontrunners — was near the bottom of the standings, finishing ninth with a record of 13-27. How did this happen? The offensive production was the primary concern, as the Sun averaged just 78.7 points per game to finish dead last. That was simply too low, even with the league’s fourth-ranked defense.
As is evident by her MVP-caliber season this year, a point forward like Thomas can be extremely successful. However, this only works if you can sprinkle in even the tiniest amount of spacing. Building the entire team out of players with no threat of scoring outside of the lane just doesn’t work. In total, Thomas attempted just 45 shots from three or above the key all season, making just seven. Anything can happen in the playoffs, though, and maybe she will get hot at the right time.
Among other notable trends, there was a big separation between the top four teams and the rest of the league. The Aces (37-3), Liberty (33-7), Wings (32-8) and Sparks (26-14) were the only teams to finish above .500 and were also the only teams to finish with a positive point differential. Wilson and the Aces especially showed out, posting the league’s best scoring defense and the second-best scoring offense.
The Liberty didn’t put up nearly as dominant defensive numbers as the Aces, but they were prolific on offense. Stewart and the Liberty shot an incredible 44.4% from behind the arc on just over 28 attempts per game.
Indiana’s Aliyah Boston put together a great season, finishing with the No. 5 seed after going 20-20. She also accounted for every spot on the All-Rookie teams, though it helps that she was the only rookie. She was a force on the boards and led the league in second-chance points per game at 15.4. Her one weakness was guarding the 3-point line, allowing a league-worst 44.3% shooting from deep.
At the bottom of the standings, defense was by far the largest concern. The Storm and Jewell Loyd finished 10th and got pushed around inside as the only player shorter than 6’ in this experiment. Seattle was the only team to allow over 100 points per game, while the Dream (No. 12 seed) and Sky (No. 11 seed) weren’t far behind.
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The play-in games were mostly blowouts. No. 8 seed Phoenix and Brittney Griner walked all over the No. 9 seed Sun and Thomas. Griner used her size and the strategy of not shooting lots of 3-pointers when you don’t excel at it. Thomas’ coaching staff didn’t get the same memo.
For how hands-off this experiment was, it was a painful end to the season for a player who without question deserves to be in a front-runner in real life. You can call it #disrespeCT if you’d like — we were equally confused and bummed about it — but that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Boston put up an incredible fight against 12th-seeded Rhyne Howard, shooting 83.3% (34-for-42) from 2-point range on the game. But the game seemed too happy to let Boston shoot 16 times from behind the arc while converting only four. This was no match for the blistering shooting of Howard, who took advantage of Boston’s struggles guarding the perimeter and shot 26-for-44 from behind the arc. Howard also generated 19 points off turnovers while not committing a single turnover herself. It was simply too much for Boston to overcome.
In No. 7 seed Washington’s matchup with Seattle, the 6’5 Elena Delle Donne was simply too much for Loyd to handle, especially on the interior. The Mystics cruised to the largest margin of victory in the playoffs, 132-79.
In the only close game of the play-in round, No. 6 seed Minnesota and Napheesa Collier outlasted a relentless effort from Chicago and Kahleah Copper on both ends of the court. Copper forced Collier into countless errant passes and 24-second shot clock violations, but Collier came through in the clutch. She sank a game-winning 3-pointer with six seconds left on the clock and Copper draped all over her. Not only did Collier make the shot, but she also turned to the home crowd and celebrated before the ball was in the net. Ice cold.
The quarterfinals were uneventful, with the higher seed winning each series and sweeping in three of the four. Very few games were close, though Delle Donne gave Stewart a challenge for three quarters in a winner-take-all third game before Stewart pulled away.
With the top four teams so clearly separating themselves from the pack in the regular season, there was far less drama in these games than in the play-ins. This set up a semifinals featuring the Aces versus the Sparks and Nneka Ogwumike, while New York would have to get past Dallas and Satou Sabally.
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This round is where things got much more interesting. Both of the higher seeds were upset on their home courts in Game 1, putting some serious pressure on them to bounce back.
No. 3 Dallas (Sabally) vs. No. 2 New York (Stewart)
Sabally in particular was in a prime spot to pull off the series upset, beating Stewart by 21 points in Game 1. But Stewart bounded back with consecutive single-digit victories to get momentum back on her side.
It was all Sabally early in the next game, with the Wings star leading by as many as 12 points. Stewart quickly took over the game, though, and earned a dominant 142-117 victory in the decisive Game 4. Stewart shot an incredible 39 free throws, making 35.
No. 4 Los Angeles (Ogwumike) vs. No. 1 Las Vegas (Wilson)
In the series between Wilson and Ogwumike, Ogwumike gritted out a four-point victory in Game 1. The difference came at the stripe, where the Sparks forward converted on four more attempts than Wilson.
In Game 2, Ogwumike shot better than Wilson from the floor, but Wilson shot 33 free throws to just nine for Ogwumike. That difference was barely enough for Wilson to come out with the three-point victory and avoid an 0-2 hole before heading to Los Angeles.
Ogwumike dominated in all facets in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Ogwumike held Wilson to a paltry 33.3% (17-of-51) shooting mark from inside the arc while shooting 56.3% inside the arc herself.
Facing elimination in Game 4, Wilson once again overcame Ogwumike’s more efficient scoring by making 17 more free throws. She won by 10 points to force a decisive Game 5.
Game 5 was an offensive clinic from both sides, as both teams shot at least 62% from the field, including at least 45% from behind the arc. No team led by more than six points in the entire game, and each quarter was within four points in either direction.
After trailing by three points with 1:47 to play, Wilson went on a quick 5-0 run, including some acrobatic finishes to pull ahead by one. Then the two teams trading buckets as Wilson eventually reclaimed a one-point lead with 43 seconds to play. Following a Sparks timeout, Wilson got a defensive stop and brought the ball up the floor with a chance to drain the clock. Instead, she canned a dagger of a three with 10 seconds on the shot clock to pull ahead by four.
After some defensive stops and Ogwumike fouling to extend the game, Wilson went to the line leading by five points with just over seven seconds to play. As she stepped to the line to ice the game and clinch a meeting with Stewart in the Clone League Finals, the home crowd erupted in thunderous “M-V-P” chants. Wilson shot an incredible 13-for-17 from the field with four threes, which proved crucial to securing the six-point victory.
Finals: No. 2 New York (Stewart) vs. No. 1 Las Vegas (Wilson)
This matchup is about as dramatic as you could hope for, between the winners of three of the past five real-life MVP awards. These are certainly the two most evenly matched rosters in this very weird and contrived scenario.
Game 1 wasn’t particularly close, coming down to a very simple truth: 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers. Stewart went off from behind the arc, totaling 27 3-pointers on just 41 attempts (a ridiculous 66%). She also made each of her four free-throw attempts, bringing her point total to 85 without even counting her 18 2-pointers on 21 attempts. The final score was 121-87.
Stewart’s offensive explosion in Game 1 was largely thanks to playcalling, repeatedly leveraging the same off-ball double-screen motion to create wide-open shots. Wilson bounced back in a major way in Game 2, coming away with a six-point victory in a high-scoring matchup. Stewart still exploited the unguardable double-screen play quite a bit, but Wilson managed to sniff it out just enough to force contested shots and even jumped the passing lane to get out in transition.
Game 3 was the most tightly contested game of the experiment to that point, as neither team led by more than eight points. Both teams traded buckets throughout the final minute of regulation, going shot for shot as the Liberty home crowd got increasingly raucous.
With 3.8 seconds to play and trailing by two, Wilson used a physical post move to create enough space for the game-tying bucket. Stewart airballed a deep three as the game clock expired and Game 3 went to overtime.
The back-and-forth action continued into overtime, and the Aces held a one-point lead entering the final minute. Wilson jumped the passing lane with 57 seconds left to start a fast break with a chance to find an easy shot and extend the lead to three. Instead, she forced a contorted layup that was off the mark. That allowed the Liberty to get out in transition themselves, capped off with this ill-advised but somehow successful alley-oop layup to retake the lead with 40 seconds to play.
Wilson answered with an improbable play of her own, airballing a step-through jumper in the lane only to grab the offensive board and put up a heavily contested shot with 22 seconds to play. That second-chance attempt was also off the mark, but she again outworked Stewart on the boards, finally converting on an easy bucket from the right block with 19.2 seconds remaining.
Rather than shooting early and leaving open the possibility of an offensive board, Stewart waited until the game clock had nearly expired and put up a contested three. It was off line, giving the Aces a 98-97 victory and putting Stewart and the Liberty on the ropes in the series.
Game 4 couldn’t live up to the chaos of the prior game, as the Aces came away with a comfortable eight-point win to close out the finals and this experiment. It was a bit of an anti-climactic ending, but that’s fitting.
The Aces were the 2023 WNBA Clone League champions, and so, according to this exercise, Wilson is the WNBA MVP.
What can we learn from this experiment? Outside of 2K not being able to comprehend what Thomas is doing in real life, not much. Guards were definitely at an inherent disadvantage: Playing the 5’11 Loyd at center is far riskier than having to play the 6’9 Griner at point guard.
If this experiment wasn’t about leaning into the goofiness, maybe we would have surrounded our stars with average teammates instead of their own clones. But that would’ve been nowhere near as fun.
Stay tuned for The Next’s actual MVP voting results, and keep up with the rest of our awards coverage here.
Written by Jacob Mox
Jacob Mox is a an editor at The Next, as well as a writer and contributor with Her Hoop Stats where you can find his work explaining the WNBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement and Salary Cap rules.