It was clear even before the WNBA All-Star Game in July that three players were making a strong case for the league’s 2023 MVP award. Since then, analysts have said many times that the Connecticut Sun‘s Alyssa Thomas, the New York Liberty‘s Breanna Stewart and the Las Vegas Aces‘ A’ja Wilson all were deserving of the honor.
However, when there’s no “wrong” choice, there’s also no “right” choice — meaning MVP voting was going to make one team/fan base happy and two others upset.
Tuesday, Stewart won her second MVP with 446 points over Thomas (439) and Wilson (433) in a vote of national media. Wilson was trying to become the fourth three-time MVP and just the second player to win the award in back-to-back years. Thomas was attempting to become the second Sun player to be named MVP.
For the second time in WNBA history, the MVP did not get the most first-place votes. Stewart had 20 to Thomas’ 23, while Wilson had 17. In 2005, Sheryl Swoopes won the honor with 16 first-place votes to runner-up Lauren Jackson’s 20.
The MVP, like the WNBA’s other season honors, is decided before the playoffs even begin. Votes had to be sent in to the league office by Sept. 10, the last day of the regular season. So nothing players have done since then — Wilson is averaging 28.7 points on 64.3% shooting over three playoff games, while Stewart’s shooting has dipped to 28.8% in three postseason games — had any impact on who won the MVP.
What does have an impact is how voters measure performance and how they define what MVP means. Which stats do they weigh heaviest? If they were splitting hairs trying to decide between three great seasons for players on the league’s top three teams in the standings, how did they split them? And in the end, placement on the ballot made the difference, as Stewart had 23 second-place votes and 17 for third place, compared with Thomas’ 12 and 25, and Wilson’s 25 and 17.
Before all three players take the court in Tuesday night’s Game 2 WNBA semifinal doubleheader — New York hosts Connecticut at 8 ET (ESPN/ESPN App), followed by Dallas-Las Vegas at 10 ET (ESPN/ESPN App) — ESPN’s Michael Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Kevin Pelton, who are all WNBA award voters, examine the MVP outcome and reaction.
Just how close was this race?
What made this year’s MVP vote unusual was three players getting such a large share of the first-place votes. The previous closest three-way race in league history came in 1999, when Yolanda Griffith (23), Swoopes (15) and Cynthia Cooper (13) all got double-digit first-place votes, with teammates Cooper and Swoopes splitting support for the league-leading Houston Comets.
Even in 1999, however, there was still a clear divide between the top three candidates. Griffith finished 33 points ahead of runner-up Swoopes — far larger than the gap between this year’s first- and third-place finishers.
On the NBA side, the most similar three-player race to this came in 1989-90, when Charles Barkley (38), Magic Johnson (27) and Michael Jordan (21) split first-place votes. Despite getting the most first-place votes, like Thomas, Barkley finished second to Johnson because more voters had him lower on the ballot. The difference from Johnson to Barkley (22 points) was greater than between Stewart and Wilson this year, but there also was a larger voting pool.
One interesting distinction between this and past close races is that nearly every voter agreed that Stewart, Thomas and Wilson were the three most valuable players. Only one voter had any of them outside the top three, with Wilson’s teammate Chelsea Gray getting a single third-place vote (and it appears that voter selected Wilson for fourth place).
That’s different from past close races. In 2005, when Swoopes topped Jackson overall with fewer first-place votes, two voters did not have Jackson on their ballot at all. Had those voters put Jackson fifth, she would have finished tied with Swoopes.
As narrow as Stewart’s margin was, no single voter changing their mind would have altered the final finish.
Another key distinction from past close races: In 2005, both Jackson and Swoopes had already won MVP, and they would finish their Hall of Fame careers with three apiece. Barkley eventually got his MVP award in 1992-93, joining previous winners Johnson and Jordan. Although Wilson already has two MVPs, Thomas has never won and this might have been her best opportunity to do so. — Pelton
How the voting worked
The 60 sportswriters and broadcasters with WNBA voting privileges, from local markets and national media members, submitted their top five candidates for MVP, in order, with their first-place selection receiving 10 points, second-place receiving seven points, third-place five points, fourth-place three points and fifth-place one point. Whichever player earns the most points in that process is the MVP.
Stewart’s domination of the first two voting spots is essentially what helped her edge Thomas and Wilson for the award, even though she did not have the most first-, second- or third-place votes individually.
Gray was the only other player to get a top-three vote, with a No. 3 vote on one individual’s MVP ballot.
Breanna Stewart’s top plays from her MVP campaign
Check out Liberty star Breanna Stewart’s MVP-caliber plays from the 2023 WNBA season.
The case for Stewart
As the voting electorate has gotten more stats-savvy, my wins above replacement player box-score metric has tended to predict the winner of MVP more often. After just four of the first 17 MVP awards went to that year’s WARP leader, this makes eight times in the past 10 years the WARP leader has taken home the hardware.
By advanced stats, Stewart was overdue for a second MVP. She led the league in WARP in 2020 and 2022, both years when Wilson won MVP by virtue of her Aces finishing with a better record than Stewart’s Seattle Storm teams.
The margin was much closer this time around. Wilson’s strong final weekend of the regular season meant she had a better player net rating than Stewart, the per-minute component of WARP that doesn’t take playing time into account. With Stewart’s additional 137 minutes factored in, she finished with 12.0 WARP to Wilson’s 11.7 — the third-smallest margin between the top two finishers in WNBA history.
In 2003, both Tamika Catchings and Lauren Jackson finished with 11.3 WARP and Jackson won MVP with Catchings finishing second. In 2008, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi had 9.3 WARP apiece, with Parker winning and Taurasi fifth in close voting. — Pelton
Alyssa Thomas’ 28-point double-double sends Sun to the semifinals
Alyssa Thomas shows out with 28 points and 12 assists to help the Sun advance to the WNBA semifinals to face the Liberty.
The case for Thomas
That Thomas earned the most first-place votes but didn’t win the award — essentially because a plurality of voters had her third on their ballots — outraged many fans on social media after the voting splits were announced. That hasn’t happened often in WNBA MVP voting history: As Pelton mentioned, Jackson and Swoopes ultimately ended up with three MVPs each and had both already won when that unusual vote panned out in 2005.
Thomas’ case centered on the way she elevated her game to a new level, with less talent around her, and amid a slew of offseason and midseason changes within Connecticut, all while doing things never before seen in the league: She led the WNBA in total rebounds and total assists this season, not to mention her six triple-doubles.
Her game isn’t always flashy, but what Thomas does is incredibly difficult, and there’s no guarantee she’ll replicate that. In that sense, her 2023 was truly a special season.
If there’s one thing we know about Thomas, her primary motivation is to win a WNBA title, and the Sun are five wins from being able to do that. Falling short of winning MVP has no bearing on her and Connecticut’s quest, but it could fuel her determination even more. — Philippou
A’ja Wilson’s efficient 34-point performance leads Aces to Game 1 win
A’ja Wilson records 30-plus points for the second playoff game in a row as the Aces take down the Wings in Game 1.
The case for Wilson
This was a season in which an advocate for each player could have made a powerful presentation that left you saying, “Yeah, it’s got to be her.” So we knew this announcement was going to bring out a lot of the same debate we’ve had all season. And that debate is fine — it’s part of what happens in all pro sports — if it doesn’t dissolve into disparaging any of the three extremely deserving candidates or suggesting some nefarious conspiracy was at work in the voting.
I didn’t finalize my vote until an hour before the deadline, and stayed with the player who had been at the top in my mind most of the season: Wilson. She won the honor last year and then had an even better season this year, finishing with career-high averages in scoring (22.8), rebounding (9.5), blocked shots (2.2) and shooting percentage (55.7).
With Candace Parker being injured and sidelined since before the All-Star Game, Wilson was the Aces’ only elite post scoring threat. Yes, the Aces have three All-Star guards in Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. And center Kiah Stokes does a great job in fulfilling her role in the offense.
But Wilson — who was looking to join the Houston Comets’ Cynthia Cooper (1997-98) as the only back-to-back MVPs — is the force everything else orbits around for the Aces, who finished with the league’s best record (34-6) and seemed to be getting stronger down the stretch. So she got my vote, but I wouldn’t argue in the slightest with votes for Stewart or Thomas. If there was ever a season in which MVP realistically couldn’t be narrowed to one player, it was this one. — Voepel
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
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