Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes after winning their third WNBA Championship in 1999. All three made the league's top 20 players of all time list. Photo by
Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes after winning their third WNBA Championship in 1999. All three made the league’s top 20 players of all time list. Photo by

On Saturday, June 25, 2016, the San Antonio Stars honored one of the most crafty and competitive players in WNBA history.  We’ve heard her story:  small, undrafted, not super quick but she took the league and basketball world by storm. Whether donning her New York Liberty or (Silver) Stars jersey, she was always dropping dimes, swishing threes and navigating through the “trees” to hit utterly ridiculous circus shots.  Tough, resilient, smart, gritty, willing to take the road less traveled and though she never won it all on the court:  She HAS won on her own terms!  Now as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, Becky Hammon is a shining star.  She is a great success story of this league and an amazing source of pride and inspiration.   Why am I waxing poetic about Becky?  Well because she’s great, yet even with all this gushing, she actually didn’t crack our original top 20.  How is that possible? Am I crazy?  Was the study flawed?  Perhaps, but would it surprise you to know that we were not the only ones?

In this 20th season, there has been significant conversation regarding the 20 best players in WNBA history.  Last week, the league and a number of others unveiled their top 20 lists.  The criteria for selection was quite varied ranging from all time stats and the number of championships to the great “closers” and those who pushed the game forward, both on and off the court.  A little over a month ago, we published a story entitled, “The top 20 at 20: a statistical analysis of the WNBA’s best all-time players” which presented a means of objectively selecting the WNBA’s best ballers by ranking their per game stats. The goal was to “…remove emotion and bias out of the selection and let the numbers speak…” as we searched for the best all-around players, past and present.  As a follow-up, we decided to compare the results from the top 20 lists released and see how they stacked up.

Table 1 provides an alphabetized summary of the 7 lists compiled from the league , our stats based Top 20, and 5 sports writers, bloggers and women’s basketball lovers including: Rob Knox, DishNSwish, Eric Nemchock, Jim Fuller and our very on Hoopism (by conversation). All of these lists are chocked full of amazing athletes who have firmly etched their names in WNBA’s history.

Table 1
Table 1. Summary of Top 20 lists. Shading denotes players selected for only one list.

While the lists had many names in common, there was a broad distribution in the number of lists that included a particular player (Figure 1A).  Of the 39 players included, only 16 (41%) were selected for 4 or more lists and there was an equal amount of players (N=9,  23%) unanimously selected for all 7 lists as those included in only 1(Figure 1 B and C).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Top 20 summary displaying the (A) Boxplot of number of lists including each player, (B) Number of players on N lists and (C) Percentage of players on N lists, where N = 1, 2,….7 . No player was selected for exactly 6 lists.

Unanimously selected were: Tamika Catchings, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Yolanda Griffith, Lauren Jackson, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Tina Thompson, Maya Moore and Candace Parker (Table 2).

Table 2
Table 2. Number of lists including each player.

With only two players below 31 years old, it is not surprising that most of the lists were skewed toward retired/historical players (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Most of the lists are skewed towards of historical players.

The stats based approach deviated from that trend and is primarily populated with active players.  By looking solely at per game statistics, the method teased out an apparent and growing trend in basketball:  Young, hybrid players.  Many of these players got a nod in the WNBA’s left off the list write-up highlighting the next generation.   We recognize that it’s not a new phenomenon for players to do more than just score, pass or rebound; however, today’s game is full of them, reflecting a key tendency in the evolution of the game.  We’ve heard this change discussed anecdotally and although we were answering a slightly different question than most of the pundits (including the league), the approach helped to confirm the trend statistically.  As today’s athletes emulate the powerful women who have preceded them, it is natural that they strive to enhance their versatility which gives them a competitive edge and in effect, transforms the game.  It is good for them as they expand their skill sets and good for us who love to watch them do their thing.  Keep going and keep growing ladies!  #WatchThemWork

There will always be debates, but in the effort to determine “the 20 greatest and most influential players in its history”, I’d say that the league got it right.  The truth is that the “greats” are not always the best all-around players, but they are amazing at what they do and responsible for some of the most incredible things we’ve seen on and off the court.

While completing this installment, I witnessed the New York Liberty celebrating their first team ever and all of them were in the house!  It reminded me of how excited I was when the league started and how excited I continue to be.  Cheers to the ladies of the W, both past and present. We are thankful for you and proud of you.  We’ve been with you from the 1996 Olympics to “We’ve to Next” to “Watch Us Work” and look forward to many years to come.  Thank you so much for sharing your gifts!

In the spirit of celebrating “best-evers,” I close with a heavy heart thinking of the greatest.   I don’t really have the words to express how awesome Pat Summit is and the impact she continues to have on basketball and beyond.  All of the posts and tributes have been amazing and the Lady Vols in the league have played utterly inspired.  Mike Robinson did a wonderful job chronicling her awards and achievements, but her true legacy lives on in the lives of those she touched.  Let’s keep her loved ones and the Vol family lifted up in prayer.