Sun

Is Thomas’ Track Record Enough for MVP Title?

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Co-written by Ethan Arcata, Kayla Dos Santos, and Johnell Pannell

Alyssa Thomas has had a historic season.

She’s shattered the single-season record for both double-doubles (28) and triple-doubles (6), recorded the first ever 20+ point, 20+ rebound, 10+ assist game in WNBA history, and she’s the first WNBA player to lead the league in assists (317) and rebounds (394) outright in the same season.

But will this impressive résumé be enough to secure her the MVP title?

Breaking on to the Scene

Thomas has been a welcome addition to the MVP discussion, one that has mostly centered around Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson in recent years. And while there’s a certain monotony in the duality that has enshrouded the race, the two former MVPs remain the perennial favorites. That doesn’t mean Thomas’s case can be swept under the rug, however.

Nicknamed “The Engine,” Thomas is the impetus behind the Connecticut Sun’s success. She leads her team in assists, rebounds, steals and minutes played. Without her Herculean efforts, Connecticut would likely be out of playoff contention. A far cry from the No. 3 seed they clinched going into this postseason.

Quite simply, no player is more valuable to their team’s success than Thomas it to the Sun. Connecticut’s net rating is nearly 30 (29.95) points per 100 possessions better when she’s on the court. When she’s off the floor, the Sun collapse. The team has an abysmal -22.05 net rating with her on the bench. That level of team value attributed to a single player is unmatched.

In Comparison

To put this into context, the Liberty are 14.82 points per 100 possessions better with Stewart on the floor, while the Aces are 16.46 points higher with Wilson on the court. Neither squad faces the catastrophic dropoff in play that the Sun do with their MVP candidate on the bench. New York has a -1.66 net rating with Stewart off the floor and the Aces still boast a positive 2.49 net rating with Wilson on the sidelines.

Wilson and Stewart are surrounded by much stronger supporting casts than Thomas, though. This explains why their respective squads are still able to compete without them in the game. The Sun don’t have that luxury. Thomas has had to play the second-most minutes (36.2 MPG) of any player in the league this season due to the fact the Sun operate like an unoiled machine without her.

DeWanna Bonner, Thomas’s fiancé and teammate, who also happens to be the WNBA’s sixth all-time leading scorer, put it best:

“She’s the MVP of our season. You look at our team. If you look at these other teams they got All-Stars, they got freaking U.S.A players, we don’t have one. We got one other All-Star (Bonner points to herself) but we only have one national team player, and that’s her (Thomas).”

“It’s just impressive how she leads us night in and night out, every single night. These stat lines are insane, you haven’t seen it in WNBA history. She is the freaking MVP. And I’m not biased because she’s my fiancé,” Bonner said with a chuckle.

Supporting Cast

As previously mentioned, Stewart and Wilson are surrounded by a wealth of talent. This includes former MVPs, a plethora of former No. 1 picks, and First-Team All-WNBA selections. Two of those extraordinary players are Courtney Vandersloot (Liberty) and Chelsea Gray (Aces), a couple of the best point guards in the history of the game.

And while it’s obvious that Stewart and Wilson are generational talents, their games are greatly elevated by those two elite playmakers. 76.2% and 75.5% of Stewart and Wilson’s made baskets, respectively, have been assisted on this season.

Meaning, just 23.8% and 24.5% of their made field goals have been unassisted. In comparison, 41.9% of Thomas’s made baskets have been unassisted. The percentage of buckets Stewart and Wilson get without assistance is nothing to dote on and is also partly due to position. However, one can make the argument that Thomas has had to work a little harder for her points, which should be taken into consideration. She simply hasn’t had the benefit of playing alongside a world-class point guard to find her in easy scoring positions. 

Scoring the Ball

It is no secret that both Stewart and Wilson are elite scorers. They are second and third in scoring, averaging 23 points per game (PPG) and 22.8 ppg respectively. But it’s worth mentioning that the Aces also have Kelsey Plum, who was eighth in scoring at 18.7 PPG, and Jackie Young (11th) who averaged 17.6 PPG. The Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu (16th) averaged 17 PPG. The Sun’s duo of DeWanna Bonner (14th) and Alyssa Thomas (19th) averaged 17.4 and 15.5 PPG respectively before seeing Tiffany Hayes at 12.1 PPG, just outside of the top 30.

When it comes to offensive ratings (ORtg), the top three players in this category are Aces players – Kelsey Plum (117.4 ORtg), A’ja Wilson (116.1), and Jackie Young (115.8). The top five players and 11 of the top 15 are Aces or Liberty players! The first mention of a Connecticut Sun player is DeWanna Bonner at 21, followed closely by Alyssa Thomas.

This by no means is taking anything away from Thomas’ Sun teammates. She’s also playing with a bunch of professional basketball players. But it’s impossible to deny the difference in supporting casts.

Defense

The defensive end of the floor often is left undervalued when it comes to MVP talks. And while all three candidates are astute defenders, Thomas’s prowess on that end of the floor deserves to be highlighted.

Baseless claims are often made that certain players can “guard one through five.” Thomas actually can and has throughout the entire season, though. For this reason, she is a defensive nightmare for any opposing offense. Her strength and versatility are unparalleled. Combine that with a relentless motor and the fact that she embodies the “never take a play off” mentality, Thomas should be a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year as well. 

She led the league in defensive rebounds per game (7.9), was second in defensive win shares (2.7), and third in steals per game (1.8). 

“You can’t really put on paper what she brings to this team from the defensive end of the floor,” Head Coach Stephanie White said.

“She’s the defensive anchor. She can guard one through five. Her versatility is key and if you take her off of our team, we are a completely different team.”

Adversity

Thomas’s record-breaking season is even more impressive when one takes into account the adversity that she has played through. The Sun went through a massive roster overhaul in the offseason. Notably, they lost starter Courtney Williams to the Chicago Sky in free agency. They traded their former Most Valuable Player Jonquel Jones to the New York Liberty. Head Coach, Curt Miller, resigned before inking a new deal with the Los Angeles Sparks. 

The Sun lost All-Star center Brionna Jones to an Achilles injury just about a month into the season. The offense had to be almost completely restructured as a result. Even with all of the team turnover and injury, the Sun won a franchise-record 27 games this season, largely due to Thomas.

The injury to Jones has put Thomas in arguably the most unique position on the court in league history. She’s playing the center position on offense, while sometimes bringing the ball up the court. Not only is she doing it, she’s doing it well, and making it look easy. Most importantly, it’s leading to winning basketball for her team.

Points Accounted For

Across the WNBA, teams averaged roughly 68 field goal attempts per game. Of those 68 attempts, 22 of them were three-pointers. The league average was about 35% from behind the arc and an overall 44% from the field. Knowing this, we can calculate that there were about 30 made field goals per game with somewhere between seven and eight of those being threes. 7.5 made three-point field goals divided by the 30 made field goals per game gives us a 25% clip that three-point shots are being knocked down at. Since an assist will always account for at least two points, we’ll use the number 2.25 to get an estimate for the number of points from assists this season for the top three MVP candidates. 

  • A’ja Wilson – 912 points scored + (64 assists x 2.25) = 1,056 points accounted for
  • Breanna Stewart – 919 points scored + (150 assists x 2.25) = 1,256 points accounted for
  • Alyssa Thomas – 619 points scored + (317 assists x 2.25) = 1,332 points accounted for

In Conclusion…

While there are plenty of statistics that give Thomas the edge, there are other statistics that give Stewart or Wilson the edge. Fans and voters can’t bury their heads in the sand when it comes to these debates. Many of the new-age, advanced metrics probably wouldn’t even have Thomas in contention for the award. Looking at statistics like win shares, player efficiency rating, and effective field goal percentage, Thomas is nowhere close to the top of those leaderboards, where Wilson and Stewart are.

White was asked about these specific statistics, and what she would say to the people who might argue against Thomas because of them.

“Numbers can be manipulated into anything you want them to be…There are so many other pieces that come into some of those metrics. You know, not having a Brionna Jones on the floor affects some of those numbers.”

“So, I would say that yes, while analytics and looking at numbers is great, you also have to use the naked eye. And if you’re someone who doesn’t study this game, and watch this game, and all you’re doing is basing it off the numbers, you’re probably not gonna vote for Alyssa Thomas. I think that does every player in this league a disservice.”

This award will likely come down to voter philosophy. Seemingly every year in every professional sport, there’s a debate about what truly makes a player the “Most Valuable.” Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the most dominant player? Is it the player doing more with less? The race is as tight as it’s ever been, but Sun fans are certainly hoping the MVP trophy returns to Uncasville once again.

All player statistics are courtesy of Her Hoop Stats and PBP Stats

About Ethan Arcata

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