And the winner is ...

Originally Published: September 15, 2004
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Lauren or Lisa? That's the biggest question right now in the WNBA.

Should Seattle's Lauren Jackson, the reigning MVP, become just the second player in WNBA history to win the award for two straight seasons. Or should Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie win the league's top honor for the second time in her career?

And if Diana Taurasi is the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year, is the first-year Mercury player good enough for the all-league first team?

For those answers and one person's opinion for which players should take home the hardware this season, keep reading. And of course, SportsNation invites you to vote for your pick, too.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Lisa LeslieLisa Leslie, Los Angeles Sparks, center
Stats: 17.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 48.8 FG %

This really has been a two-player race, and at various times throughout the season, both Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson seemed to have the edge. And both are playing exceptionally well right now. But Leslie has separated herself. She has significantly elevated her game since the Olympic break, and since the league resumed, is averaging 25 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and shooting 55 percent from the field. She also notched the league's only triple-double of the season in that time, and leads the league with 17 double-doubles.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Diana TaurasiDiana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury, guard
Stats: 16.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 41.4 FG %, 33.7 3FG %

Since the day she landed in Phoenix, Diana Taurasi has lived up to and surpassed every expectation heaped on her. She stepped right in and, even as a rookie, remains one of the best leaders in the league. She is a big-time player with big-time game, who has yet to disappoint.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Wendy PalmerWendy Palmer, Connecticut Sun, forward
Stats: 9.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 41.9 FG %, 24.1 mpg

Wendy Palmer, an eight-year veteran, has nearly doubled her scoring average from a year ago when she scored just 4.7 points per game. She got herself in shape, looks invigorated and is rebounding again. This season, she has grabbed 129 defensive rebounds, and ranks 11th in the league in defensive rebounds per game (4.3). Palmer has gone back to doing the simple things -- making layups, smart passes -- and is really playing as a steady veteran.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Lisa LeslieLisa Leslie, Los Angeles Sparks, center
Stats: 17.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 48.8 FG %

Lisa Leslie ranks first in 14 different statistical categories in the WNBA -- and many of the big numbers come in defensive categories. But the best thing about Leslie isn't just her ability to rebound or block shots. Rather, it's the way she alters the opponents' shot. And most importantly, her mere presence helps her entire team take more chances on defense. For example, Nikki Teasley knows she can cheat and try for a steal on the perimeter, because even if Teasley gets beat, she has Leslie -- let's call her a lifesaver in the lane -- behind her. Leslie is just tough and smart out there. Statistically, she ranks first in rebounds per game (10.0), total defensive rebounds (265), defensive rebounds per game (8.3), total blocks (96) and blocks per game (3.0). Leslie also is eighth in total steals (50) and ninth in steals per game (1.56).

COACH OF THE YEAR
Carrie GrafCarrie Graf, Phoenix Mercury, first season

Phoenix won eight games in all of 2003. But with three games left in the regular season, the Mercury already have doubled that total. At 16-15, the Mercury also are on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Yes, Graf had the luxury of adding Diana Taurasi with the No. 1 pick, and perhaps the top 3-point shooting trio in the league. But these players have come together and exceeded every expectation, with Graf leading the way.

ALL-LEAGUE FIRST TEAM
Tamika CatchingsTamika Catchings, Indiana Fever, forward
Stats: 16.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 37.7 FG %

Tamika Catchings is pretty much unstoppable. She's extremely difficult to guard at the 3 or 4, and is a matchup nightmare for opponents. No one in the league can match her intensity, stamina or tenacity. She's the type of player who, despite playing your best, can make you go home and cry.
Lauren JacksonLauren Jackson, Seattle Storm, forward/center
Stats: 20.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 47.5 FG %

Last year's MVP has put in another incredible season. Lauren Jackson gets better game by game, possession by possession. The scary part? If she's this dominant at 23, how much better will she get over the next few years? I can't imagine where her skills will tap out. Jackson has added something to her game every year, is an incredible ball player who is even more mentally tough this season than last.
Lisa LeslieLisa Leslie, Los Angeles Sparks, center
Stats: 17.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 48.8 FG %

We've said it before, but Lisa Leslie truly is the pro's pro. Other players need to look at how she approaches the game, her conditioning and how she takes care of her body. She is a model of success. And she's tough as nails. Leslie is all business on the court. She's not there to be your friend. She has one goal, and that's to win.
Katie SmithKatie Smith, Minnesota Lynx, guard
Stats: 18.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 43.1 FG %, 43.2 3FG %

Katie Smith is one of the all-time great players our game has seen. She has one of the most diverse games of anyone who has ever played, with the ability to play the 1 or even the 4. Smith's physical attributes are incredible, and her intelligence and understanding of the game are second to none. One of her greatest -- and most often overlooked -- strengths, however, is her defense. Smith is a great perimeter defender and post-up defender. She's just a winner.
Diana TaurasiDiana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury, guard
Stats: 16.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 41.4 FG %, 33.7 3FG %

No 22-year-old is supposed to understand the game this well. But Diana Taurasi -- who has range, confidence and charisma -- belies her age. The game is on her shoulders, and she will be a great part of the future.

All stats through Sept. 14.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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