Commentary

Taurasi edges peers in tight MVP race

Originally Published: September 11, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

A sad but true story: Last year, I was in a hotel room somewhere and went over to the thermostat to put it on 72 degrees.

Then I had second thoughts. I put it on 73 … then 72 again … then back to 73. I wondered if 72 was really better. Sure it was. I walked away. However … maybe 73 really was best. OK, 73. No, let's try 72 again. But …

Regular-season awards

taurasi
Taurasi

The Mercury, Diana Taurasi and the Dream dominated Mechelle Voepel's picks for the WNBA regular-season awards and all-league first and second teams. Story

And then I realized that I had just spent several minutes debating one degree of difference in a room's temperature. Which brings me to the WNBA regular-season awards this year, for which I am one of the media voters.

Some of the award decisions almost make 72 versus 73 degrees seem like a polarized debate. Meaning that no matter how we look at it, we'll find it very difficult to see the clear separation between the player who gets the vote for an award and the ones who don't.

We can crunch advanced stats -- the PER, the WARP, the Win Share, the most times to have a piece of luggage land first on the airport baggage carousel -- ask colleagues, second-guess ourselves and third-guess ourselves.

Or I could do something really wimpy and opt for lots of co-awards. You know, like give the MVP to at least six people; present the most improved player as a group honor to the Atlanta Dream with special mention to Seattle's Tanisha Wright; make both Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry and Phoenix's DeWanna Bonner rookies of the year; and pick a 15-member all-WNBA first team.

Except … even I'm not that wimpy. Well, actually, I want to be, but my editor is never going to let me get away with that. And unlike the great debate of 72 versus 73 degrees, I must settle on my choices and stay with them.

I think there can be many ways to disagree and great cases to make for choices that might be totally different than mine. But … OK, enough stalling. Here goes:

We'll start with the MVP: Phoenix's Diana Taurasi.

There are several other legit candidates, such as Phoenix's Cappie Pondexter, Indiana's Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, Seattle's Lauren Jackson, San Antonio's Becky Hammon and Detroit's Deanna Nolan.

These are all great players, and this is a season in which one player's stats haven't necessarily given her an absolute knockout punch over everybody else.

That said, Taurasi's stats make a very good case for her. She leads the league in scoring (20.3), efficiency (21.2) and point/rebounds/assists combo average (29.5). Kevin Pelton of the StormTracker blog recently posted his WARP (wins above replacement player) rankings, and Taurasi was fourth at 6.7.

The top person on that statistical measurement -- a formula that estimates how many more victories a player helps earn as opposed to a statistically "average" player -- is Catchings at 7.9.

There are other so-called advanced stats that you can use to gauge performance, but nothing I've seen that would make the decision on MVP necessarily any more clear-cut.

I went with Taurasi by combining her statistical production and her team's success. As late as Wednesday afternoon, I was leaning toward Pondexter. Then I had a twinge toward Catchings. But I just kept coming back to Taurasi.

She's the kind of player who is so good and has had so much success in her career that you have to be wary of two opposite things. One, that you don't favor her for awards just because she is Diana Taurasi. The other is that you don't avoid her for awards just because she is Diana Taurasi.

Now, obviously, there's another element this year, and that's what impact Taurasi's DUI arrest in early July might have for some voters. Taurasi still faces the resolution of this; her court date has been postponed to Sept. 17, when it might be postponed again.

I wrote back in July that Taurasi should receive whatever was the league's most severe suspension for that offense and that she should not play in the All-Star Game. She received a two-game suspension from the Mercury, and the WNBA did not add anything to that. She was named as an All-Star reserve and played in the game at the Mohegan Sun.

I received a fair amount of angry reader comment disagreeing that her off-court trouble should impact something like the All-Star selection. My point was that the All-Star Game is not a "real" competition but rather an honorary event. It's a showcase for the league that usually involves a lot of smiles and kidding around, even if the players are giving real effort.

As such, it seemed to me a good time for Taurasi to step away and reflect on what could have happened to her while driving with what authorities alleged was a .17 blood-alcohol content.

The league had a different point of view. Taurasi came to the All-Star Game and, to her credit, did not dodge questions about the DUI. She apologized for it and expressed shame that it happened.

Considering that the incident does not appear to have affected her on-court performance and is not part of any on-going series of behavior problems for her, it's not something I factor into the MVP voting. If Taurasi's production had declined or her on-court demeanor had become negative because of it, then it could be counted in as a factor. I just haven't seen any evidence of that.

The 6-foot Taurasi, who is listed as a guard-forward, could become only the third "guard-type" to win the league's MVP award, following former Houston Comets teammates Cynthia Cooper (1997, 1998) and Sheryl Swoopes (2000, 2002, 2005).

Cooper, 5-10, is the only player shorter than 6 feet tall to have won the award. It is a tougher battle for a guard to win the MVP because posts do tend to wrack up more points and rebounds. And it's especially difficult for the pure point guard -- a player such as Sue Bird, for example -- to even get an MVP vote.

As it happens, Bird did get my vote last season, when she carried Seattle into the playoffs without Jackson for the stretch run. But that leads us to the old question of how to define "MVP." Is it, "Who is the best overall player?" or "Who is of the most value to her particular team?" (With the additional qualifier that her team has to be successful.)

I would like to say that I've settled on the definition of MVP and never waver from it year to year. But remember, I'm someone who at times can't pick between 73 and 72 degrees. Last year, I went more with the latter definition just because Bird's grit was so impressive. Other years, I've gone more with the former. In other words, I'm a waffle.

Basically, I said last year, "Sue Bird is just not going to average 20 points a game (for her career, she's at 12.6), but dang it, I think she's been of more 'value' than anyone."

So that right there tells you there is always some uncomfortable degree of subjectivity involved in awards voting. What is not involved is any kind of lobbying from the WNBA.

Yes, teams send out e-mails campaigning for their players to get awards. But the league has never in any way attempted to influence my voting. I say this because there are always conspiracy theories about the WNBA "rigging" the awards to go to certain people.

Some suggested that was the case with last year's MVP/rookie of the year Candace Parker. And all I can say is that's silly. Parker was a legitimate MVP. The only reason I didn't vote for her was because Bird barely edged her out in my waffling little mind.

Would I like to give out about five MVPs this year? Sure. But if it has to be one, I'm comfortable with voting for Taurasi.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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