The top 20 at 20: a statistical analysis of the WNBA’s best all-time players

Tamika Catchings guards Candace Parker last summer. Parker and Catchings rank first and second, respectively, in a statistical analysis of the WNBA's top players of all time. Photo by Ron Hoskins/Getty Images/NBA.
Tamika Catchings guards Candace Parker last summer. Parker and Catchings rank first and second, respectively, in a statistical analysis of the WNBA’s top players of all time. Photo by Ron Hoskins/Getty Images/NBAE.

Every year WNBA fans debate which players are the best, and who is the best of all time. There is even more such talk this year, as the league has begun its 20th season.

To statistically analyze which players have made the biggest impact on the league the last two decades, engineer Tarsha Eason took a sample of the top athletes and compared their statistics in six categories. The goal was to objectively determine which players are the WNBA’s top 20 of all time, based on their on-court performance.

Eason began with a random sample that included the WNBA’s top 15 players of all time from the 15th anniversary season, members of the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams, the “three to see” from 2013, and a few other notable players in WNBA history. She then gathered career statistics for each player through May 20, 2016, which included points per game, rebounds per game, steals per game, assists per game, blocks per game and minutes played per game.

Player stats were then ranked from 1 to 41. The lower the score, the less the player’s stats tend to deviate from the mean, and thus the more consistent she plays. From that, Eason was able to get an average rank score for each athlete, and an overall rank. The data and analysis is summarized on the power point.

The raw data, including the full list of player names and their statistics, is on slide 4. The statistical summary, on page 5, shows the mean and standard deviation of the stats, and the distribution of player stats. The sample includes 19 historical players and 22 current players – 37 percent of whom are able to play multiple positions on court.

The summary of the ranked data is on slide 7, and the rankings are on slides 8 and 9. On average, the top 20 players average 17.1 points, grab 6.2 rebounds, dish out 2.9 assists, block nearly one shot per game, snag 1.4 steals and play 31 minutes per game.

Eason did one final comparison, using the advanced stats that the WNBA has rolled out this season.

Based on the results, the WNBA’s top 20 players in its 20th anniversary year are:

  1. Candace Parker
  2. Tamika Catchings
  3. Lisa Leslie
  4. Maya Moore
  5. Chamique Holdsclaw
  6. Sheryl Swoopes
  7. Cynthia Cooper
  8. Diana Taurasi
  9. Tina Charles
  10. Angel McCoughtry (tied for 9th)
  11. Lauren Jackson
  12. Yolanda Griffith
  13. Cappie Pondexter
  14. Sylvia Fowles
  15. Elena Delle Donne
  16. Odyssey Sims
  17. Nneka Ogwumike
  18. Tina Thompson
  19. Skylar Diggins
  20. Sue Bird

3 COMMENTS

  1. The person doing the calculations has missed 185 players in her research. There have been 872 women, to date, who have played at least 1 game in the WNBA. That is a pretty epic fail, forgetting over 20% of the participants. The names on the list are probably correct, however.

    • Here is Tarsha Eason’s reply:

      I did notice on the league’s T20 announcement that Renee Brown said there were more than 850 players…. much greater than the number I saw when I pulled the names. When I was doing the analysis, I couldn’t find the total number of players listed anywhere, so I gathered the names of historical and current players from the W site and counted them. I pulled the names again today and noticed that many names were added that weren’t there when I retrieved them last month. Apparently, they did some updates and who knows if they are finished! Just to give you a quick snapshot: There were 541 historical players listed on 5/21/16, but today I counted 732. There were relatively few changes on the current player list.

      When I started playing with the numbers and looking for stats earlier this year, I had to cull data from alternate sources for the historical players because the information wasn’t readily available on the site at that time. At any rate, I only used the total number of players to provide background context to the study. It was not used in the statistical analysis I did to compare the player stats. Isn’t it amazing that so many players have played in the league?

      • The place I got the most info from was Basketball-Reference.com/WNBA. The WNBA itself has a crappy website. There were a couple of players cut from rosters, and already they do not show on their team’s individual sites for this season’s stats. I have not run across this before, so the situation seems to be worsening. If MLB.com can track baseball players from 7 different major leagues spanning 146 years, you would think that WNBA.com could at least track 872 players across 20 years.

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