On a day when most of you are off celebrating American history, I thought it only appropriate to finally make some decisions of my own about WNBA history. Yes, it’s about time I stopped collecting splinters in my backside, jumped down off the fence, and made my picks for the Top 15 Players in WNBA history. Remember, the official instructions state that ‘Players should be selected on the basis of overall contribution to the WNBA since its inception in 1997, including such factors as on-court performance, leadership, sportsmanship and community service as well as contributions to team success.’ So we’re not just looking for the top 15 performers on the court – there’s a bit more to it than that.
The easiest way to get started with lists like this are to fill in the players who just seem so obvious that you can’t see how anyone could leave them out. I’m already at ten with players who fit that criteria for me, which makes things easier. First, the exceptionally easy ones – players who’ve won the Most Valuable Player Award multiple times. It’s not the awards themselves per se, but winning more than one is a useful cut-off point for an initial group. That gives us Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Lauren Jackson. Cooper is still the greatest pure scorer and winner that the league has seen, won its first two MVP awards and four straight championships, and you can’t leave her out. Assuming the league survives and they keep making these lists, at some point people are going to question whether she played enough years in the WNBA to justify inclusion ahead of those who featured for far longer. At this point, four exceptional years is still more than enough. Her teammate on those Houston Comets championship squads, Swoopes was an elite player in the WNBA for over a decade. An exceptional defender as well as a scorer, she was a key piece when the league started, and ambassador for the game and the WNBA, and again can’t be ignored for the top-15.
Leslie is the best center the modern women’s game has seen. A three-time MVP, twelve seasons playing at an elite level, two championships as the leader in Los Angeles – the evidence is overwhelming. Lauren Jackson is the best non-American female basketball player of the modern era. It was something of a risk taking an Australian kid with the #1 overall pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, but after three MVP awards, two championships and development into the best inside-out big in the women’s game, she’s proven to be distinctly worth it. A top-15 list would look silly without her.
Two more MVPs walk on to the list with ease – the remaining two who’ve featured for at least half the years that the WNBA has been in existence (you’ll see why that qualifier’s important later, if you haven’t worked it out already). Yolanda Griffith won her MVP in her first year in the WNBA after coming over from the defunct ABL in 1999. In her prime, she was one of the most dominant and powerful interior presences you’re ever likely to witness on a basketball court. A fearsome defender and rebounder, Griffith’s lack of offensive polish might make her the kind of player who fades from prominence in future discussions, when many of the people debating lists like this will have never seen her play. Those who witnessed won’t forget. Diana Taurasi isn’t likely to disappear from the memory any time soon. Very much part of the ‘new era’ of players who came after the group that launched the WNBA, Taurasi has now been around long enough to easily make the top 15. Brash and confident, Taurasi is an extraordinary scorer and competitor who simply finds ways to put points on the board. Pretty good passer too, when she feels like it. Considering those extra qualifiers about sportsmanship and community service, I could understand someone not voting for Taurasi due to the endless technical fouls she picks up, the multiple suspensions she’s received and the DUI conviction from a couple of years ago. However, for me, her on-court performance is too outstanding to ignore, even if you don’t appreciate some of the less savoury aspects of her time in the WNBA.
The other four players who I personally wouldn’t contemplate leaving off, are Tamika Catchings, Tina Thompson, Sue Bird and Katie Smith (probably in that order, if you really wanted to push me). Catchings could easily be on that list of MVPs, but that trophy (along with a championship ring) ha so far eluded her. The consensus best defender in the league for several years, Catch has been the heart and soul of the Indiana Fever ever since she was a rookie. Her offensive game has developed over the years as well and her passion for the game and desperate desire to win is out there for all to see whenever she’s on the court. Thompson is the only player left who has featured in every one of the WNBA’s 15 seasons. That alone would give her an argument for making a list like this, but as part of Houston’s ‘Big Three’ back at the dawn of the league, and an elite-to-very-good player in every year since, she can’t be ignored for the top 15. Still a central piece of LA’s team this season, Thompson’s longevity and consistency is remarkable (although obviously the league was perfectly timed for her, leaving college just as it started), and easily places her among the elite.
Sue Bird’s been around a long time now, which frankly makes me feel old. Part of that same new breed as Taurasi, Bird has simply been one of the best point guards in the league since the day she arrived, and has been the epitome of consistency ever since. She’s a different player now from the one that first entered the WNBA, less offensively aggressive, fewer drives, but her game has refined itself into a more controlled, balanced whole. She may not have quite the leadership skills of Weatherspoon or Staley, the vision of Penicheiro or the natural scoring ability of Hammon, but Bird’s all-round skills put her above all of them. At just 30, she’s not done building that resume for lists like this in the future, either. Probably not much time left to build on Katie Smith’s resume, but it’s already plenty thick enough. One of the most outstanding scorers the women’s game has ever seen, Smith was another who entered the WNBA a little late due to a couple of years in the ABL. For over a decade since, she’s just carried on knocking down shots, and has also become one of the strongest and most versatile defenders in the game. She’s simply another legend that can’t be left off.
So I’m down to five spots. Firstly, the reason several players among the 30 candidates didn’t make my list (and as ever, you’re all welcome to disagree and think I’m an idiot). Some of the 30 candidates will always be sidekicks or supporting players in my head, and as such can’t make my top-15 of all-time. For me, that rules out DeLisha Milton-Jones, Tangela Smith, Shannon Johnson, and even Taj McWilliams-Franklin. That may be harsh on DMJ and Taj especially, who both had years where they were very good players on very good teams, but I just can’t see either as top-15. Smith is only top-30 because of just how long she’s stuck around piling up stats (which is impressive in itself, but not enough for a list like this) and Pee Wee Johnson was a good point guard, but never great. Just can’t see it.
Ruthie Bolton doesn’t make it because she wasn’t anywhere near good enough for long enough; Dawn Staley meant a lot to the game of women’s basketball and Team USA, but not enough to the WNBA or her respective teams to warrant inclusion; and Seimone Augustus is a beautiful scorer at her best but has been blighted by injuries and bad teams. Which again raises the issue of longevity. Can you make a list like this when you were an exceptional player, but only for a short period, even in a league that’s only been around for 15 years itself? Cheryl Ford has maybe four years where she was truly at the peak of her powers and survived full seasons, before injuries took their toll. Natalie Williams, another exceptional rebounder who also produced more points than Ford ever managed, had a similarly brief WNBA career (although not quite as brief) due to unfortunate timing. Both are right on the fringes of my choices, but don’t quite make it in large part due to the limited number of years where they were truly elite players in the WNBA.
Now for the most conspicuous absence from my list: Candace Parker. She just hasn’t played enough in this league. Sorry, I fully understand those who do select her among their top-15, but in my opinion one MVP-caliber rookie season, followed by three years where she’s missed at least part of the year and often played under-strength when she was available, just isn’t enough. If she can get healthy and stay healthy then I’m sure she’ll make future lists – and I fully expect her to be voted onto the official top-15 by the fans this time around – but I can’t put her on my list this time. Just not enough time served.
Now for those who skipped out on the WNBA through their own choice, rather than injury or father-time tapping them on the shoulder. Nykesha Sales was a very good player in the WNBA for a lot of years, but I find myself not really wanting to make room for her on my top-15. Her leaving the league when she was still more than capable of playing in it gives me a handy extra excuse. She seemingly flirted with returning several times but never felt the need. Deanna Nolan is unfortunately missing from the WNBA right now, more through choice than anything else. Once the Shock left Detroit and she could no longer play near home, the gifted athlete who could score over anyone and won three rings and the 2006 WNBA Finals MVP Award gave up on the WNBA. She’s still right in the top-15 discussion thanks to her skills and production when she was around, but she’d almost certainly be on my list if she’d played the last two years. Deciding she prefered Russian money to American basketball pushes her just off the edge.
Chamique Holdsclaw is an even more complicated case. On pure numbers and production, there’s no doubt that she’s top-15 worthy. It’s not even close. But her career’s always felt like something of a disappointment. Coming out of college she was supposed to be the next big thing, the player who’d take the women’s game forward, and while she piled up stats for years in Washington that never happened. Plenty of great players have been trapped on terrible teams of course, but the issues she then had in later years with walking out on teams on multiple occasions, arguing with coaches, and just generally seeming like she was more trouble than she was worth have tarnished her legacy. Some of those events could be put down to her recognised problems with depression; some of them were just Claw being Claw. In trying to make this list, Holdsclaw was one I always had off to the side until the end. If I could only come up with 14 I wanted, she might slide on; if I found a full 15, I wasn’t going to have a problem leaving her on the sidelines.
So that’s four (or five, depending on Mique) left to pick, with seven options remaining. Katie Douglas was easy for me to knock off, in all honesty. Now an elite player as part of a double-act in Indiana (although always that little half-step behind Catchings, until maybe this season), she was a supporting player for a lot of years in her WNBA career. Doesn’t quite cut it for my top-15. Cappie Pondexter, on the other hand, was easy to put in. She’s only been in the league for five-and-a-bit years, but she’s a glorious scorer who can get her shot off whenever she feels like it and break anyone down off the dribble. While the way she got to New York wasn’t particularly nice, last season with the Liberty proved she was capable of carrying a team as it’s only star. Cappie’s one of those rare players who’ll make even the most dyed-in-the-wool NBA-only basketball fan admit that some women can flat out play.
Now for my admitted biases. I love point guards. Quick ones, heady ones, scoring ones and natural ones, if you’re a point you’re probably starting from a good place with me. I also love players who make everyone around them better. So Ticha Penicheiro and Teresa Weatherspoon both make my personal top-15. In both cases, I can understand why others would leave them off. Neither could ever really shoot, and scoring at the rim was a rarity for both for long stretches of their careers as well. That obviously allowed other teams to focus on stopping the other four players from scoring. But both of these two were truly gifted point guards. A consummate leader and orchestrator, Spoon was at the heart of those early Liberty teams that came so close but could never quite bring home a title. She was also one of those players from the formative years of the WNBA who always just got what this league was about, and what it meant (and could mean in the future) to so many people. Penicheiro has always been able to see angles and passing lanes before anyone else even dreamt they existed. Both of them, in different ways, were also exceptional defenders. I can’t bring myself to leave either off.
I’m down to one (or two) spots from three players. And this is really hard. Becky Hammon is a one-of-a-kind player, and as a short white guy who had to find a way to play the game amongst bigger and better athletes (although obviously on a far, far, far lower level) I can’t help but appreciate her skills. Still, she was a bench player for a lot of years, then a good player on bad teams in New York, and only a truly elite WNBA player since she was moved to San Antonio. You can question whether that’s enough. Swin Cash was a great player in her early years in Detroit, strong, tough and versatile, and probably the best player on the Shock championship team in 2003. Then she blew out her knee. The last year or two in Seattle she’s returned to her former glories, but there were a lot of years in the middle there when she was a shadow of her former self, and a supporting act alongside Ford, Nolan and Smith. That’s a knock on her. Finally, Penny Taylor is a wonderful basketball player, capable of playing inside and out, adapting her game to provide whatever the team needs from her, and one of the best finishers at the rim I’ve ever seen for someone her size. But she’s missed time in multiple WNBA seasons through choice, and invariably been an exceptional supporting player, rather than the leader or star attraction.
Ultimately – and I’ll probably change my mind by tomorrow – I take Hammon and Holdsclaw for the final two spots (and not just because it’s nicely alliterative). A 5-3 (if that) guard who’s somehow turned herself into an incredibly effective scorer and creator without even being that quick, my tiny little guard heart can’t ignore her. Taylor and Cash have both had great WNBA careers (and have time to build them further), but not enough yet to overwhelm the volume of Claw’s production. I kind of hate putting her on, with the way she’s messed WNBA teams and fans around, but she was just that good.
So my list in full (not in definitive 1-15 order, but with a bit of structure):
I don’t expect anyone to have to agree with me, but that’s my 15.
In other news…
Tulsa finally filled their spare roster spot, and it goes to Doneeka Lewis, bizarrely enough. Twin sister of San Antonio’s Roneeka Hodges (the surname’s different due to Lewis’s marriage), she’s a wing shooter who hasn’t been seen in the WNBA since 2008 in Indiana, and hasn’t played any real minutes since Los Angeles in 2006. She hasn’t even been up to much in Europe in the last year or two (where her acquired Bulgarian passport allows her to play as a European, which increases her value). At least she’s an actual perimeter player, but it’s hard to see her helping Tulsa out much. Then again, a 25-year old Cheryl Miller would probably have trouble helping that team.
Players of the Week weren’t announced today, likely due to the holiday weekend.