WNBA Tiers: Tier 3

alyssa thomas dribbles

Before I get to Tier 3, I need to return to a moment to Tier 4 and Tier 5. Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast helpfully pointed out that I had left Ariel Atkins off of my tier list. She should have been on it, so a brief explanation of where she would have gone. 

Ariel Atkins should have been a tier 4b player. Along with Alysha Clark, Atkins is the prototype for a super role player 3 and D player. While I had hoped to see more shot creation from her on a team starved of shot creation, particularly after Aerial Powers went down, Atkins was still an effective player.

Atkins would have knocked Courtney Williams to tier 5. A Courtney Williams who shot 5 3s per game would remain tier 4b, but that is not the player we have seen outside of a few Sun playoff games in 2019. Courtney Williams would have knocked Jordin Canada off of the tiers.

Canada is maybe the best backup pg in the league, and is good enough to start for the Storm. But the bar for a player who is a not a center and can not shoot 3s is very high, and Canada does not quite clear that bar. The Storm were noticeably less effective on offense without the shooting of Sue Bird.

Tier 3.

Now is when the differences in players become even finer. All of the players in this tier and up are capable of being the best player on a semifinal team. The players in this tier, as opposed to in tier 2 and tier 1, have certain weaknesses that make it a challenge for their teams to win said semifinals games without pairing with a similar or better teammate. 

Age related decline

The trickiest group in this section were the players who will be entering their year 35 or higher season. But age is the main reason Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, and Sylvia Fowles are where they are. Each has missed parts of a season the past 2 years due to injury and even when playing, have not quite been their prime.

Candace Parker is the player closest to the tier ahead. A Tier 1 player as recently as 2017, when she lost in the finals to the Lynx and the other Tier 1 player that year in Maya Moore, Parker showed in 2017 she is still very effective. The loss in the playoffs to the Sun was not her fault, as she was the Sparks player who played the best. If that had been a series, as it should be, and Nneka Ogwumike had returned healthy, the Sparks still had a chance to move on.

Still, Parker is not quite able to be the hub of a top offense anymore, as the Sparks were middle of the pack in offense at 6th. Her defense is still good, and the Sparks were smart to play her more at center this year, which is typical, as players age they often move up in positions.

Diana Taurasi, even at age 38, was the most effective shooting guard on offense in the entire WNBA, which is absurd. She combined efficiency and usage at levels no other player managed. Typically usage and efficiency are negatively correlated, but Taurasi has been able to be effective with a heavy burden into her late 30s by harnessing the power of the 3, both shooting deeper than anyone else and drawing more shooting fouls. But heading into her age 39 season, this is as high as one can reasonably put even an all time great.

Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard

Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard are both in a similar situation in that they are very good at everything that one expects of a player at their respective position, but they are not quite at the level of shot creation and impact to make it to 3a. This is as much based on their experience in 2019, when they were the best players on a team that lost in the second round of the playoffs. 

Jewell Loyd is the closest to the next group in this section, as she made major strides in her offense in 2020. While of course some of that was because she was playing with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart again, her ability to shoot 3s off the dribble, the single most valuable skill for a guard, was a real improvement and not dependant on teammates. 

Natasha Howard is one of the best defenders in the WNBA, but does not quite have the all around offensive game of the players above her. She is an adequate shooter, especially at the 5, but suffers more when played at the 4 as she was in 2019. The real separator from her and the players above her though is passing. A negative assist to turnover ratio in both 2019 and 2020 makes it hard her to even be the second option on a good playoff team on offense.

Alyssa Thomas

As I mentioned in the second on Jordin Canada above, to be on this list and not shoot from 3, one needs to be excellent at everything else. Hello Alyssa Thomas. Alyssa Thomas can guard in a pinch all 5 positions on defense, and she is as devastating in the halfocurt as they come. She is quintessential big in the pick and roll who can make all of the passes out of the short roll, while also being surprisingly effective attacking the basket even though her opponents know she won’t shoot.

She does require certain specific situation to succeed, however, which makes it trickier to build around her than the players above her. The Sun have done a good job of maximizing her by, in a non-pandemic year, pairing her with the only center who is both above her in tiers while also able to shoot the 3, thus allowing Thomas to be the one total non-shooter.

Liz Cambage

On the right night when Cambage’s shot is falling, she can look like a tier 1 player. Her 52 point explosion in 2019 was as exciting a game as they come. However, while Cambage is a willing shooter, she is not the most accurate of shooters. While she is a good post player, and a good passer, she is not necessarily exceptional enough at either to reach the higher bar needed to make it as a center. It is simply harder for one’s best player to be a center, as teams can double or triple team them.

Cambage has also not necessarily been put into position to maximize her talents in the WNBA. While individually productive on the Dallas Wings, she was caught up with the most poorly run team in the WNBA and barely squeaked into the playoffs in 2018. She was then traded to the Aces.

The Aces in 2019 were a much more successful team, but one that effectively was playing two centers. While A’ja Wilson can be a good 4, she is at her best when able to play at the center next to a more mobile 4, like Dearica Hamby. Cambage and Wilson together tend to suppress both their numbers.

The other aspect of Cambage’s game that keeps her from tier 2 is her defense. While she is a smart defender who uses her size well near the basket, she can struggle at the highest levels of playoff basketball having to defend in space. The other centers, including her teammate, who are above her, are all enough better than her to make a difference.