Last week, on Twitter/X Rebecca Lobo offered her estimation of the 2023 WNBA MVP race:
This year’s MVP vote will be a reflection of voter philosophy:
1.) Best player in the league
2.) Most outstanding player on the team with the best record
3.) Player most valuable to her team
And you can’t go wrong with any of them.
— Rebecca Lobo (@RebeccaLobo) September 6, 2023
No. 1 is the New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart, No. 2 is the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson and No. 3 is the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas.
Fans in Las Vegas likely protest the suggestion that Stewart, not Wilson, is the league’s best player. Likewise, fans in Brooklyn and Vegas will claim that Stewart and Wilson are just as valuable to their teams as Thomas is to hers.
Nevertheless, Lobo succinctly captures the state of the 2023 MVP race, where a voter’s interpretation of “valuable” will determine whether they see Stewart, Wilson or Thomas as most worthy, albeit not singularly worthy, of winning MVP. However, she did omit players from non-contending teams, thereby establishing winning at a high level as an unstated prerequisite for MVP consideration.
Below, Eric Nemchock, Edwin Garcia and Cat Ariail will outline the MVP credentials for Stewart, Wilson and Thomas before Chelsea Leite argues that the Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd also belongs in the conversation.
Stewart’s signing with the Liberty was perhaps the biggest move in an eventful WNBA offseason. And while the team name on her jersey may have changed, her impact on winning basketball hasn’t. As we’ve grown accustomed, Stewart statistically was one of the best players in the league in 2023, putting together an incredible all-around per-game stat line: 23 points (second in the WNBA), 9.3 rebounds (third), 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals (eighth) and 1.6 blocks (fourth). The more advanced metrics love her, too, with Stewart’s 7.0 offensive win shares and 6.9 percent turnover rate both leading the WNBA—the latter figure being particularly impressive for a player who has the ball in her hands as often as Stewart does.
Breanna Stewart last night
Broke the WNBA record for points in a single-season (885)
Broke the record for most 40 PTS/10 REB games in history (3)
Broke the record for most 40-PT games in a season (4)
Tied the franchise record for double-doubles in a season (20) pic.twitter.com/asDlxLey6Z
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) September 6, 2023
MVP isn’t an award based solely on statistics, though, and the “valuable” part can be somewhat ambiguous. If you’re looking for more of a narrative, Stewart has that covered as well: The Liberty went from narrowly making the playoffs with a 16-20 record in 2022 to cruising to the WNBA’s second overall playoff seed at 32-8 in 2023, going from winning 44.4 percent of their games to 80 percent in Stewart’s first year with the team. And while one could certainly point to the Liberty’s other offseason acquisitions such as Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot as factors (and they undoubtedly are), there’s no question that Stewart is the team’s go-to player; her usage rate of 27.5 percent is right in line with that of her career average (Basketball Reference) and she consistently showed up when the Liberty needed her the most, dropping at least 40 points in a game a WNBA-record four times. — Eric Nemchock
A’ja Wilson should be the MVP this year. She was the MVP last year. And she is the perennial MVP of the Las Vegas Aces. Her impact and value cannot be overstated. She’s the catalyst of everything, never missing a game and leading the team in points (22.5) and rebounds (9.5).
The five-time All-Star is having a career year as the best player on a super team that will end the season the best record in Las Vegas Aces history, and one of the best records in WNBA history. If the Aces repeat as champions, it will be the first time a team has repeated since 2002.
Wilson is the definition of a two-way player. She won the Defensive Player of the Year last season and is a candidate this season due to her rim protection, athleticism and league-leading 2.2 blocks per game. Offensively, Wilson is as unstoppable as it gets. When she gets the ball in her spots, it’s just impossible to stop. She’ll use her strength and footwork to drive to the basket; if you help too much, she’ll kick the ball out to her lethal guards—Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray or Kelsey Plum—for an easier basket.
#TopTier people do top tier things‼️
For the first time since 2018, a 50-PT single-game performance has been dropped in the WNBA
— WNBA (@WNBA) August 23, 2023
There are a plethora of games that demonstrate Wilson’s value, but her 40-point and 12-rebound performance against the Washington Mystics was special. She set a then career high while shooting 17-for-25 from the field. With no 3-pointers—a feat no one has ever done and is mind-boggling to imagine in the modern game! Not to get hyperbolic, but I doubt we ever see another 40-point game without a converted 3-pointer. Oh, she also tied the WNBA’s single-game scoring record with a 53-point performance versus the Atlanta Dream.
What does valuable even mean? According to Merriam-Webster, valuable is defined as “having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities.” Wilson not only brings that on the court, but she does it off the court. On a team full of stars, she shines brightest. She took the tough questions after a brutal loss against the Liberty in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship, graces magazine covers and is a vocal leader on and off the floor for Las Vegas. When you think of the Las Vegas Aces, the first person that comes to mind is Wilson. So yes, she won it last year, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t the MVP this year. When you look at on-court production, the value she brings to the team, win-loss record and her intangibles as a leader on and off the floor, the only answer is A’ja Wilson. — Edwin Garcia
Alyssa Thomas (Connecticut Sun)
On one hand, it’s easy to make a MVP case for Alyssa Thomas. She has compiled an unprecedented single-season statistical resume. She owns the single-season record for triple-doubles (six) and double-doubles (28). She’s also the first player to lead the league in total rebounds (394) and total assists (316), a statistical pairing that captures Thomas’ wide-ranging impact on the action. And she’s top three in total steals. She’s attained this collection of record-setting statistical accomplishments because she is the ultimate workhorse, appearing in all 40 of the Sun’s games and playing a total of 1446 minutes, second only to the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbowale.
Alyssa Thomas is the 1st player in WNBA history to finish the regular season averaging 15+ PPG, 9+ RPG, and 7+ APG.
— Across the Timeline (@WBBTimeline) September 10, 2023
Then, there is the team-wide success. The Sun underwent an organizational refresh after last season’s WNBA Finals loss, with the departure of former MVP Jonquel Jones and the arrival of new head coach Stephanie White. All-Star center Brionna Jones’ late-June Achilles injury then ushered in more change for Connecticut. But with each change and challenge, Thomas assumed a greater burden, often playing point forward on one end of the floor and small-ball center on the other. Through it all, she ultimately led her team to a winning percentage just shy of last season’s mark.
Finally, there’s the intangibles. Thomas exudes intense effort as she imposes her imprint all over a game’s action. She’s physical, forceful and often undeniable. When tuning into a Sun game, one cannot help but notice Thomas, and not just due to her awkward shooting motion that is the product of the two torn labrums that she refuses to have repaired. In a hoops’ world that increasingly favors refined, finesse play, Thomas thrives by bucking trends as she—somehow, some way—sneers and snarls her way into outlier statistical performances.
On the other hand, it is a challenge to articulate Thomas’ value. She trails her two toughest MVP competitors—Stewart and Wilson—in almost all analytical statistics. Such data has emerged as the preferred method for offering informed analysis of what matters when it comes to winning basketball games; in other words, what matters when it comes to determining what is most valuable. Among others, Thomas ranks sixth in wnba.com’s Player Impact Estimate, 11th in Basketball Reference’s Player Efficiency Rating and fifth in Kevin Pelton’s latest Wins Above Replacement Player update. According to these numbers, Thomas is really good, but not quite at MVP level.
Yet, it is important to recognize the limitations of single-number metrics that seek to capture a player’s impact. The inputs used to calculate such numbers are chosen by humans, and thus contain human biases about what does, or does not, contribute to winning basketball. And, as Rebecca Lobo outlined in her recent post on Twitter/X, different people rightfully can have different basketball philosophies; while certain perspectives might be more prominent than others, one should not dominate.
When asked about how to square Thomas’ impact on her team with her lower placement in most statistical models, Sun head coach Stephanie White had this to say:
As a basketball analyst, I love those numbers…As a coach, I hate those numbers…because numbers can be manipulated into anything you want them to be…So yes, while analytics and looking at numbers is great, you also have to use the naked eye…If you’re someone that doesn’t study this game and watch this game and all you’re doing is basing it on the numbers, you’re probably not going to vote for Alyssa Thomas. I think that does every player in this league a disservice. To really just watch the nuances of what she does—and the position that she’s doing it from.
Of course, a head coach is going to cape for her star player. So, let’s close the case for Thomas with the words of rival, provided by the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud:
I think it’s really crazy that AT can dominate the way she does every night. Which hasn’t been done EVER statistically in our league….and is not front runner for MVP talks.
A rare talent deserves her flowers. Opponent or not… @athomas_25
— Natasha Cloud (@T_Cloud4) September 9, 2023
— Cat Ariail
Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm)
It’s an age old debate: Should a team’s standing affect a player’s MVP eligibility? These days, people tend to lean towards, “Yes, it does.” Which unfortunately means Jewell Loyd has been left out of this year’s MVP conversation.
The Seattle Storm not making the playoffs has not stopped Jewell Loyd from playing the best basketball of her career. She’s always been a bucket! But in previous years, she was not the first option for the Storm. The retirement of Sue Bird and the departure of Breanna Stewart not only sent Seattle into a rebuilding phase, but also launched Loyd into a full-on leadership role.
Loyd has averaged 24.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists on the season. She has scored 30-plus points 12 times in the 2023 season, and scored a career-high 41 points in the Storm’s Jun. 29 game against the Minnesota Lynx—a game the Storm unfortunately lost in overtime. That’s been the name of the game for Seattle this season, playing incredibly entertaining games only to come up short in the end.
Loyd also was in a race with former teammate Breanna Stewart to finish the season with the most points scored in a single season in WNBA history. With 28 points in the Storm’s Sunday afternoon win over the Los Angeles Sparks, Loyd finished the season with 939 points, giving her the record over Stewart.
Obviously, Loyd has put up MVP-level stats. Unfortunately, the Storm’s position as a team not heading into the playoffs has prevented Loyd from being a genuine contender for this year’s MVP award. She definitely deserves recognition for the way she has played this season. — Chelsea Leite