Welcome back to The Follow Through, my weekly look around the WNBA. This week, we’re talking about the MVP race and, specifically, how to make sense of Tina Charles’ place in that race. Plus, that’ll be followed up by some random notes about other things happening around the league that have caught my eye.
Tina Charles and the MVP Race
I was guilty of something that a lot of people in WNBA media were guilty of: thinking Tina Charles’ best days were behind her.
And hey, it was a fair concern. In 2019 with the Liberty, Charles shot just 38.9 percent from the floor and 18.6 percent from three. Her volume helped her average 16.9 points per game, but the efficiency issues were just really, really worrisome.
But it turns out that maybe all the former MVP needed was a change of scenery and a chance to play for Mike Thibault, who has a way of maximizing production from whatever bigs play for him.
Through 16 games, Charles is averaging a career-high 25.8 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting. She’s also never shot better, recording a .557 True Shooting Percentage, mainly thanks to her great efficiency from beyond the arc, while taking career-high 5.4 three-point attempts per game. And after shooting 18.6 percent last year from deep, that jump to 36.0 percent is eye-opening.
There’s probably an interesting case for Charles to win Most Improved Player, but former MVPs in their early 30s don’t really win awards like that. Instead, a lot of talk around Charles has been about her MVP case.
So, what is that case?
It depends on what you think of when you hear “MVP” and what you value when making your pick.
For example, if you think of MVP as being either a) the best statistical performer in the league or b) the player who is most important to their team, Charles has a really good case.
Charles is the WNBA’s leading scorer this season at 25.8 per game, with a pretty sizable gap back to second-place Jonquel Jones at 21.1. Charles is also fourth in rebounds per game and 16th in blocks per game.
From an advanced stats perspective, Charles is 10th in Estimated Contribution this season and 8th in EC-Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Not necessary MVP-level numbers, but still strong numbers for a player who is on a team that sits at just 7-10. The only player ahead of Charles in WAR to not play for one of the league’s top teams is her teammate Ariel Atkins, who is third in WAR.
Charles’ numbers are definitely up there among the top players in the league. Jonquel Jones has a stat-based case for MVP as well, but I think Charles has a strong argument for producing the best numbers this season.
As for the “player who is most important to her team” part of the equation, Charles has a great argument here as well.
The Mystics are decimated up front. Emma Meesseman is in Europe. Elena Delle Donne hasn’t played yet this year. Myisha Hines-Allen is injured. The team is playing Theresa Plaisance extended minutes at the four.
Charles being so high up in Estimated Contribution seems to confirm just how important she is for this team, but this is also one where the eye test comes into play. Just watch how the Mystics use Charles so much. Watch how the offense runs through her. How she makes such good passes to set up her teammates. How if she wasn’t taking 30 shots per game, those shots would be going to players who wouldn’t be producing as much as Charles.
So, that’s the pro-Charles argument. She’s been really good. Washington needs her.
But the Mystics are also currently sitting at 7-10 on the season, which puts them in ninth place. Can a player win MVP on a team that either misses the playoffs or just barely sneaks in?
Maybe, but we haven’t really seen that. 2008 was the last time the MVP came from a team that didn’t finish in the top four at the end of the season, as Candace Parker won MVP for the fifth-seed Sparks, who went 20-14. Before that, Lauren Jackson was the 2007 MVP for the seventh-seed Storm, 2005 was Sheryl Swoopes for the fifth-seed Comets, and 2003 was Lauren Jackson for the Storm, who were in a four-way tie for the fifth seed.
That’s it. That’s all the times a player won MVP for a team that wasn’t in the top four. It hasn’t happened since 2008. It requires an impressive effort. And the worst record for an MVP’s team was still .500.
I don’t want to write off Charles just yet, but it seems that WNBA voters really like voting for the best player on one of the two or three best teams in the league. Barring an extremely unexpected end to the season, Charles won’t be the best player on one of the best teams. Instead, she’ll be the best player—or second-best if Delle Donne returns at her best, though Charles’ 2021 resume would still make her standout as the team’s top performer—on a team that just sneaks into the postseason.
That makes it really tough to pick Charles as MVP, even if she’s playing some of the best basketball of her career.
Random Tidbits From Around The League
We didn’t have a Follow Through last week, so let’s just cover some intriguing stuff that’s happened lately.
- The Fever waived Lauren Cox, who then signed in Los Angeles and has been decent in her brief time there. I’m not going to get into a Fever rant right now, but I’ll just say this: Cox looks like a rotation piece in L.A.
- Speaking of the Fever, Bernadett Határ is starting for them now. Határ is a fascinating player—she’s 6’10’’, giving her a huge height advantage inside. But while Határ is a really, really interesting piece, she’s also 27 already. So, going with her over Cox only makes sense if the Fever are really, really high on Határ.
- Over the last five games, Brionna Jones is second in the WNBA in points per game with 21.6. She’s shooting 65.2 percent over that span. Most Improved Player?
- Sami Whitcomb is averaging 7.2 three-point attempts per game over the past five games. There was a lot of chatter about Whitcomb being a snub from the All-Star Game. I wouldn’t have her on my 12-player roster, but she deserved to be among the 36 options who could have been picked. She wasn’t. Neither was Jackie Young, but Elena Delle Donne was despite not playing a single game. And Whitcomb’s Liberty teammate Michaela Onyenwere was on the list, as were players who didn’t play nearly the kind of role that Young has played. But the biggest thing learned from the vote is that there were more backcourt players who deserved recognition than there were and then maybe too many options at forward, as the frontcourt players on the list of 36 included Mercedes Russell and Candice Dupree.