Player rankings can be fun to argue about and get into discussions over who exactly is the best player in the WNBA. However, when it comes to understanding how teams approach building a championship contender, tiered rankings are more useful. In any given year there is more than one player who is a “championship winning” level player. So much depends on who is put around those superstar players.
Part of what makes the very best players the top is that having one of them makes gives a team more flexibility in who to put around them. Putting the players in tiers helps to give a sense of how various teams may look to build going forward.
Seth Partnow of the Athletic did a excellent series doing this very thing for the Athletic. I wanted to see something similar for the WNBA, so decided to do it myself. The way I went about making my tiers is similar to how Seth did his for the NBA. If you subscribe to the Athletic and are interested in the NBA, team building, or especially both, I recommend it.
As Seth explains in his section on why tiers:
Player production and value are too contextual to feel really good about ordered rankings. When choosing between two players of similar ability, the preference for which player a team would rather have is usually “it depends.” Each tier and sub-tier is meant to reflect the group among which “it depends.” By comparison, players in higher tiers will almost always be preferred to players in lower, with some obvious positional caveats.”
Mine will be similar to Seth’s in that it is weighted towards winning a championship next year. So this will impact for instance where Arike Ogunbuwale places vs. Kristi Toliver. A tier that looked at value over the next 4 years would be different for each player. This is only looking at next year.
Seth puts 125 players in the NBA into his tiers, a league in which there are roughly 450 spots for players. The WNBA in contrast has roughly 144 spots. For my tiers, I am going to count down the top 50 players in the WNBA for next season, similar to the percentage of the NBA that Seth puts into tiers.
As a starting point, I used PIPM, Jacob Goldstein’s metric, and Estimated Contributions, from Positive Residual. PIPM is no longer publicly available because Jacob was hired by Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Mystics and Wizards, but I will use what I have. I am averaging the past three years worth of PIPM and Estimated Contributions, weighted by minutes played. Quite a few players have missed one season over the past three for a variety of reasons, in which case I use the 2 years we do have.
All in one stats are a better starting point than me somewhat randomly guessing. But all in one stats have their limitations, as both PIPM and estimated contributions tend to overvalue good role players on the best teams. For instance, Ariel Atkins’ PIPM went from 2.8 in 2019 to .6 in 2020, worse than her rookie year in 2018. Atkins did not regress at basketball, but rather, she went from playing with Elena Delle Donne and co. to not playing with Elena Delle Donne and co. Similarly, Alysha Clark had a 4.6 in Estimated Contribution in 2020, good for third in the entire WNBA, behind two of her teammates in Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. The year before with no Stewart or Sue Bird, she was at 1.5, tied for 25th in the WNBA. Clark did play better in 2020, but not that much better.
As Seth does in his piece, I try to make it so a team would prefer to have a player in a higher tier than in a lower tier. Positional overlap is the one exception. The Aces being the clear example of this potential issue, as we will get to, with their two best players being centers. Within a tier, players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
Playoff success matters here too. Players who have clear weaknesses in their games can be game planned more easily in the playoffs, and players who are versatile, and can get their own shots, are much more valuable in a playoff setting with defenses that are focused and can scout a specific opponent.
Here is the fifth tier, with players 30-50 in the WNBA. I am not going to go through every player in this tier, but I will highlight a few to show my reasoning.
Inclusion I changed my mind about:
An early draft did not include Kelsey Mitchell. In terms of players who were not rookies in 2020, her numbers are the lowest of those included. What ultimately swayed me into keeping her is that her advanced stats on offense are quite good. What is killing her advanced stats is her defensive numbers. Defensive stats for perimeter players in particular are not that good, and it is hard to blame her for the defensive woes of the Indiana Fever. Especially at a position, shooting guard, where it can be tough to find good contributors, she deserves to be in the top 50.
Based on stats only, biggest snub:
Chiney Ogwumike and LaToya Sanders both have a case to be in a higher tier based on their stats alone. Both have much higher PIPM than any of the other players here. My view is that the replacement level of production for bigs who can not shoot and generate their own offense from the outside. A’ja Wilson being a key example of that kind of center, is much higher than it is for other positions. (link to center pieces.)
This upcoming season will be a good test for this proposition, as one of the exciting things about the upcoming season is that there is a decent chance that both Ogwumike and Sanders might be on the move from where they currently play, and we will see how they do in a different situation, with different, likely worse, teammates.
Biggest name excluded entirely:
Tina Charles did not make my list. Charles was a great player for so many years, but her last couple of years in New York were simply not good enough to justify putting her in this list. Could she be added back in after playing well with the Mystics? Absolutely. But as it stands, I would rather have Sanders, Chiney Ogwumike or Brianna Turner as a small ball 5 than Charles in a playoff series against the very best. Charles seems to have lost a step, so I wonder how she would hold up on defense against the Storm for instance, compared to the other centers on this list.
Which is interesting, given that the Mystics seem to disagree. And needless to say, in a disagreement between Mike Thibault and myself, all of the relevant experience and track record says to listen to Thibault. 2021 WNBA season can’t come soon enough, to help us figure such questions.
For Tina Charles, or any other player as we go forward who I did not include, its more interesting if you think I am wrong for excluding them to include who you would take out instead of them.
One of the reasons I don’t vote for second year players for Most Improve Player is because second year players always improve. I included these 4 rookies, Satou Sabally, Crystal Dangerfield, Sabrina Ionescu, and Chennedy Carter, because all 4 held down starting spots in their rookie season, even Ionescu if only for a few games, and all 4 are highly likely to remain starters in year 2.
Ionescu is the most speculative, as she unfortunately had her season cut so short, but she showed enough to at least be a solid starter next year. And possibly more, given that the game before she went down with injury, she put up a 33 7 7 state line.
I will be releasing these every Monday until all 5 are up, so look back next Monday for Tier 4.