WNBA MVPs: Most. Valuable. Player. Sounds simple enough, no? Yet season after season, year after year, those three words seem to throw folks for a loop. What does “valuable” really mean, we ponder. Does it mean “valuable” or does it mean “best?” Is there a difference?
We’re here to answer everything you could possibly want to know regarding the WNBA’s MVP award. An esteemed honor, just 15 women on planet Earth can boast that they’ve earned. Elite company is an understatement.
Each MVP season was special in its own way. No two MVP stat lines are the same, despite the fact that we’ve seen a handful of repeat winners. Yet there are common themes that link these transcendent seasons, and that may serve as indicators for what to look for in our future WNBA MVPs.
For instance, how many MVPs have come from the top overall seed in the regular season? And how many MVPs ended up winning the championship, or winning Finals MVP in the same season? We’ve got the answers. Buckle up because you’re about to be taken on a very, very valuable ride.
We’ll start at the beginning. Here we’ll reveal who’s won the MVP award. Explore the very first ever MVP. And discuss some of the latest WNBA MVPs, as well as the skill sets that placed them in a position to win.
We’ll begin with the basics. Thanks to our friends over at Across the Timeline, you can find a tidy table revealing every WNBA MVP in league history here.
Every discussion revolving around the WNBA MVP award must begin with Cynthia Cooper. Consider this: Cynthia was 34 years old when she claimed the inaugural WNBA MVP trophy in 1997.
Having played overseas professionally for more than a decade, Cynthia was elated at the formation of a women’s pro basketball league in America. It meant she could be closer to her mother, Mary Cobbs, who was battling breast cancer and unable to attend games in Europe.
Playing for the Houston Comets, Cynthia Cooper in no way looked past her athletic prime. Despite being but one person on a stacked roster, it was Cynthia who seized the spotlight and led the show.
Point guards who can score will never go out of style. She led the league in scoring with 22.2 points per game, shooting over 41 percent from three-point land. At a time when long-range specialists were far less omnipresent.
Cynthia Cooper was far from a one-trick pony, however. She expertly used pump fakes, teasing her jump shot before spurting into the lane and getting to the rim. She was phenomenal at evading bigger defenders, flaunting a euro-step long before it became the most popular move in hoops. Her quickness and finishing abilities electrified crowds across the states.
Per a Sports Illustrated article written by Johnette Howard in August of 1997, Cynthia broke the single-game scoring record three nights in succession, dropping 30 against Sacramento, 32 against Phoenix. And then 44 in a rematch with the Monarchs. Said New York Liberty guard and new Dallas Wings coach Vickie Johnson in the article, “[Cooper] is the best all-around player I’ve ever faced.”
You want to hear something truly curious? Cynthia won the MVP award in 1998, too. Since then, nary a single point guard has been honored as the top player in the league. In 1997, Cynthia Cooper averaged 4.7 assists per game (to go along with 4 rebounds and 2.1 steals).
No MVP has topped that mark. In fact, no MVP has even topped Cynthia’s 4.4 dimes per contest in her repeat MVP season. Cynthia set the bar, showing us what an MVP point guard was supposed to look like, and no one has yet to match her mettle.
Cynthia was just as dominant when the lights shined brightest as she was on any given evening in the regular season. The Comets claimed the top overall seed in 1997 and 1998 (they went an astounding 27-3 in ‘98).
Both seasons (and the two following seasons), Houston reigned supreme in the WNBA Finals, with Cynthia adding a pair of Finals MVP awards to her regular season hardware. There was no doubt as to who the best player was in this budding league.
As fans became familiar with Cynthia’s game, they grew to love her signature celebration: raising the roof. Cynthia Cooper sent crowds into a frenzy by extending her hands towards the ceiling and pushing them upwards, as if raising a roof or perhaps dislodging it entirely.
Like we said, no discussion about WNBA MVPs is valid unless you begin with Cynthia Cooper.
The future of this league is brighter than a sunny August afternoon. Look no further than the last three women to be deemed the W’s Most Valuable Player: Breanna Stewart (2018), Elena Delle Donne (2019), and A’ja Wilson (2020).
The 2016 WNBA Rookie of the Year, Breanna Stewart beat out Liz Cambage and Elena Delle Donne by a comfy margin in the 2018 voting. Her shooting percentages – 52.9 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from three, and 82 percent from the line – were spectacular. Propelling the Seattle Storm to a 26-8 record and the No. 1 overall seed.
Breanna finished top ten in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals per game. Establishing herself as one of the league’s premier two-way threats. She won the award just one day before her 24th birthday. As a newly minted 24 year old, Breanna Stewart led the Seattle Storm to the WNBA title, snagging Finals MVP in the process.
Elena Delle Donne’s MVP win in 2019 was special. Because it marked the first time that a player claimed the award with two different teams. After taking home the MVP trophy in 2015 with the Chicago Sky, Elena Delle Donne again rose to the WNBA mountaintop four years later with the Washington Mystics. Elena received 41 of 43 first place votes, outpacing Brittney Griner and Jonquel Jones.
She became the first player in league history to exceed 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 90 percent from the charity stripe. Though Washington went on to win the title much like Seattle the year prior, Elena was not named Finals MVP, an award that went to her frontcourt teammate, Emma Meesseman.
Just like Breanna, A’ja Wilson was the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year before winning MVP in her third professional season. As was the case in 2018 and 2019, A’ja ran away with the award. Breanna finished second with Candace Parker in third.
A’ja Wilson didn’t miss a game in the “Wubble,” leading the league in blocked shots, finishing second in scoring, and sixth in rebounding. She made and attempted more free throws than anyone else in the WNBA, showing a penchant for finishing through contact and getting to wherever she pleased in the paint.
Defensively, A’ja was often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player. Keeping her Las Vegas Aces afloat in a grueling playoff victory over the Connecticut Sun. Due to an outmatched supporting cast, Las Vegas fell to Seattle in the 2020 WNBA Finals.
It’s also worth noting that neither Breanna nor Elena were able to put forth a follow-up campaign to their preeminent seasons. Breanna missed all of 2019 with a ruptured right Achilles tendon and Elena opted out of the 2020 WNBA bubble season due to a pre-existing health condition.
Here we have a three-way tie between three-time winners: Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Lauren Jackson.
Sheryl Swoopes was the first player to collect three MVP trophies, completing her trio in 2005. That year she averaged 37.1 minutes per game, the most ever by a WNBA MVP. In fact, all three of Sheryl’s MVP seasons double as the three highest minute per game totals of all 24 MVP seasons. No one saw the floor more than Sheryl.
Lisa Leslie was named MVP in 2001, 2004, and 2006. Playing in Los Angeles, she is one of the first names folks associate with the early years of the WNBA. Lisa did some of everything. A true leader who’s length gave defenders fits and who more than carried her own on both sides of the ball.
Lisa also capitalized on a passing of the torch of sorts. After the Comets peeled off four straight WNBA Finals victories behind the excellence of Lisa, Sheryl, and plenty of others, there was an opening for someone to become the new face of the league. Lisa seized it and never looked back.
Lauren Jackson took home MVP honors in 2003, 2007, and 2010. Playing alongside Sue Bird, Lauren developed a chemistry that could not be matched. She was impossible to stop rolling downhill towards the rim. Doing everything you could possibly ask for from a big.
One wonders how she would fare in today’s WNBA, with pick-and-rolls being an even more emphasized element of every professional offense. Our guess is she would thrive. Lauren trails only Tamika Catchings in career win shares, per Basketball Reference.
Now you know who the WNBA MVPs are. So what do their stats show about the types of players most likely to be awarded in the future? Here we breakdown a few features and skill sets MVPs all seem to have in common.
Earlier, we mentioned how Cynthia Cooper was the only true point guard to win the WNBA MVP. It’s abundantly clear when taking a gander at the stat-lines of the W’s 24 MVP seasons that members of the frontcourt have a massive advantage when it comes to claiming this award.
The only other pure guard to win MVP was Diana Taurasi in 2009. We’ve already discussed three-time winner Sheryl Swoopes, who was capable of playing both the 3 and the 2 but was more small forward than shooting guard. Regardless, the takeaway is clear: players who operate closer to the basket have largely dictated who is named most valuable.
The last nine MVP award winners have averaged at least 8 rebounds per game. Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, and Tamika Catchings (7.1 boards per game when she was named the 2011 MVP) are the only players to average fewer than 8 rebounds per game and still win MVP.
Comparatively, only Cynthia (1997, 1998) and Sheryl (2005) averaged greater than 4 assists per game as MVPs.
Workload is another interesting aspect of the common MVP profile. Only two players – Candace Parker in 2013 and Elena Delle Donne in 2019 – averaged under 30 minutes per game and were named the league’s top force.
This is part of a greater trend in which player health is prioritized over short-term payoff. If you look at the first 12 WNBA MVP seasons, you’ll see high minutes per game figures to the tune of a 34.2 mpg average. Meanwhile the most recent 12 MVP seasons combine for an average of 31.6 mpg.
Though a little more scattered if dropped on a plot, field goal percentage and overall efficiency numbers have risen over the years as workload has decreased. The only two MVPs to exceed 60 percent from the field did so in back-to-back seasons, with Los Angeles’s Nneka Ogwumike shooting 67 percent in 2016 and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles shooting 66 percent in 2017.
Defensively, you better be making things happen and disrupting opposing offenses if you want to be named the WNBA MVP. “Stocks” is a rather simple stat that combines blocks and steals per game. All but two MVP winners have averaged two stocks. Tina Charles (2012) and Elena Delle Donne (2019) fell just short, notching 1.9 stocks.
Elena made up for it with her aforementioned 50/40/90 shooting percentages. Tina made up for it by being one of three MVP winners to average a double-double, posting 18 points and 10.5 rebounds per game for the Connecticut Sun. The other two double-double MVPs were Sacramento’s Yolanda Griffith in 1999 (18.8 points, 11.3 rebounds), and Sylvia in 2017 (18.9 points, 10.4 rebounds).
Many MVPs have exceeded three stocks and a few have exceeded four. Yolanda Griffith in 1999 and Lisa Leslie in 2004 set the standard, each averaging 4.4 stocks per game in addition to their immense offensive output.
We know what you’re thinking: “what about the most obvious stat of all – points!?” Fear not, reader, for we saved the most alluring stat for last. What’s interesting here is that there is less variance among the WNBA’s best when it comes to points per game than anywhere else on the box score.
Lisa Leslie’s 17.6 points per game in 2004 were the fewest scored by an MVP in league history. Maya Moore’s 23.9 points per game in 2014 was the highest mark ever posted by a WNBA MVP. To claim the league’s top honor, you must score in the high teens to low twenties on a nightly basis. Simple as that!
Want to see the greatness for yourself? Here’s a sampling of some of the best YouTube has to offer in the “WNBA MVP” department:
Here’s where this article may begin to approach the controversy zone. It’s a daunting task, aiming to select the best of the best. But we’re not here to shy away from big questions. Quite the opposite.
To us, one season stands out. That’s not to say there aren’t other close contenders. We’re splitting hairs in trying to determine where one exceptional season differs from another.
Personally, we feel that no one has ever touched the level of play reached by Houston’s Sheryl Swoopes in 2000. Maya Moore’s 2014 campaign, Lauren Jackson’s 2007 campaign, and Cynthia Cooper’s 1998 campaign round out our Mount Rushmore of WNBA excellence.
Again, this was an impossible task. To assist in our endeavor, we glanced at a number of advanced stats to buttress the more traditional numbers we covered earlier on in this piece. Advanced stats are extremely valuable, but need to be viewed in conjunction with other measures and aspects of player performance, rather than as the be-all-end-all.
As a result, we looked at three overarching advanced stats: Basketball Reference’s Player Efficiency Rating (or PER), Basketball Reference’s win shares statistic, and Positive Residual’s Estimated Contribution metric. Only Sheryl Swoopes placed in the top five of all three advanced stats.
There’s an argument to be made that Sheryl put forth the best defensive season ever in the year 2000. She averaged a nearly unfathomable 2.8 steals per game that season. A mark she matched once again as the league MVP in 2002. No MVP has come close to that mark since.
Sheryl’s brand of defense was so valuable, not only because she forced turnovers but also because of her ability to guard a variety of players. Sheryl added over a block per game, helping Houston post the league’s best defensive rating.
Offensively, Sheryl was no slouch either; quite the opposite, in fact. She averaged nearly 21 points per game, was efficient from just about every area on the floor, and combined for over 10 assists plus rebounds per game.
As far as all-around seasons go, this one cannot be beat. Naturally, Sheryl led the Comets to a fourth straight WNBA Finals victory. Where her teammate, Cynthia Cooper, claimed yet another Finals MVP. Never again has the league seen such an outstanding pair of players.
Maya Moore’s 2014 season falls just short because she may have outdid herself a year prior. When Candace Parker won her second league MVP award. Though both seasons were spectacular, the advanced stats prefer Maya’s 2013 to her 2014 season. Regardless, the Lynx small forward carved her spot on the WNBA Mount Rushmore by putting forth the greatest per game scoring season in league history.
You could rightfully argue that Lauren Jackson reached heights never before seen in her 2007 journey with the Seattle Storm. PER posits that Lauren logged three of the five best seasons ever. Offensively, this is hard to argue with. Lauren could not be stopped in the pick-and-roll, bulldozing opposing bigs to the tune of 23.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game on sterling efficiency.
We gave Sheryl the nod over Lauren because we feel defense has long gotten the short end of the stick. And while Lauren was far from a slouch on that end, she can’t compete with Sheryl’s ridiculous two-way output.
Before moving on, we must once again mention Cynthia Cooper, who seemed to perfect the concept of point guard play as a 35 year old in 1998. Cynthia is the only player in WNBA history to exceed 10 win shares in a single season. It’s a record that will be extremely difficult to beat.
We just covered the greatest single seasons in league history. It’s only natural to keep the ball rolling and name an all-time starting five. To clarify: these aren’t the five greatest MVP seasons in league history. That would be rather redundant, as we just revealed our top four.
Instead, this is about the perfect mix of players, a team you would feel confident about if a group of extraterrestrial beings landed on Earth and challenged the humans to a basketball game for all the marbles. Again, this is a subjective exercise where our personal preference will factor into the results. Sorry. Those are the breaks!
At point guard, we’re going with 1998 Cynthia Cooper for obvious reasons. There’s no one we’d rather have running the show.
At center, we’re going with 2017 Sylvia Fowles. This is a tough break for Lauren Jackson, who we know has submitted a handful of the greatest seasons in WNBA history. The thing is, there will be no shortage of scoring on this team. And while Lauren is far from a one-tool player, we’re selecting Sylvia because we want to gobble up every missed shot attempted by the opponent.
Per Basketball Reference’s Total Rebound Percentage statistic, Sylvia holds four of the top 20 rebounding seasons in league history. Combine that with her two blocks per game and her elite offensive efficiency, and you have an ideal super-team center.
Figuring out who to slot in at the 2, 3, and 4 was extremely difficult. There’s no wrong answer. Here’s what we came up with:
Good luck, extraterrestrial beings! With Cynthia playing point, Elena at the 4, and Sheryl (over 37 percent from deep on nearly three attempts per game) on the wings, our team has more than enough shooting to compensate for Sylvia’s lack of range at center.
Both Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne would form fearsome pick-and-roll tandems with Cooper. There will be loads of space for Maya Moore to create her own shot.
Defensively, this team would be impossible to score on.
Who forms your all-time MVP starting five? Make your team here.
Find out what WNBA MVPs actually win, who votes, and who the next WNBA MVP might be.
Those named WNBA MVP are awarded a bronze trophy created by sculptor Marc Mellon. That said, there is very little accessible information on the backstory behind the creation of this trophy, exacerbated by the fact that it remains nameless.
Only seven times has the regular season MVP doubled as the Finals MVP. Cynthia Cooper did it twice, in 1997 and 1998. Lisa Leslie (2001), Diana Taurasi (2009), Lauren Jackson (2010), Sylvia Fowles (2017), and Breanna Stewart (2018) each did once.
Perhaps surprising to some, only 10 times has the WNBA MVP been a member of the top overall playoff seed. That said, the last four MVPs have come from the No. 1 seed.
10 times, the WNBA regular season MVP has been a member of the WNBA Finals title winner.
Select media members vote to determine each year’s MVP. Each media member is asked to rank their selections 1-through-5, with points being awarded in descending order from one down to five. The person who receives the most total points is the WNBA MVP.
Fantastic point! How dare we?!? Candace Parker is the only player ever to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Why? Because she did everything well.
Candace didn’t take many threes at all, but she hit over 42 percent of them. She was unstoppable in transition and has always been a better passer than given credit for. Defensively, she can guard a multitude of player-types and is adept at knowing where to be and when.
Candace Parker’s 2008 was perhaps the most emphatic statement season in league history. It’s also worth noting that Candace finished third in MVP voting in 2020, over a decade after she claimed the award in her first professional season.
We’ll conclude this epic of an article by taking a gaze into the future about who could be the next WNBA MVP.
We believe that the 2021 WNBA MVP will come from this group of eight players: Jonquel Jones, A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, Napheesa Collier, Arike Ogunbowale, Diamond DeShields, and Liz Cambage.
Furthermore, we’re betting on Jonquel Jones, who was stellar for the Connecticut Sun in the 2019 WNBA Finals before opting out of the 2020 season, to take home the award.
WNBA MVPs are some of the most astounding women on the planet. Now you know a little more about who they are, the stats they’ve achieved, and the impact they’ve made on the game.
Written by Owen Pence, a freelance journalist who’s work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and Star Tribune. You can find more of his women’s basketball writing over at Winsidr, or follow him on Twitter @OwenPence.
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