WNBA awards 2022: The case for MVP between Aces' A'ja Wilson and Storm's Breanna Stewart

·9-min read

Another autumn of falling leaves, another season of Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson punched on a plethora of MVP ballots. But there hasn't quite been a showing in the past as close as this one from the two leaders of the league's next generation of talented superstars.

Each already has an MVP on their shelves and are squaring off in a semifinal matchup that is arguably exceeding the hype. Game 4 between Stewart's No. 4-seeded Seattle Storm and Wilson's No. 1 Las Vegas Aces is Tuesday in Seattle at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2. The WNBA is scheduled to announce the results of MVP voting, which concluded before the postseason, on Wednesday. A Game 5, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Stewart, a 6-foot-4 power forward, has marched the Storm to a tie for the league's third-best record during her sixth season. Known by all as "Stewie," the Syracuse, N.Y.-area native won her first MVP in 2018 before missing all of the next season with an Achilles tear. She's a four-time NCAA champion and two-time WNBA champion who turned 28 in late August.

Wilson, a 6-4 power forward who moved to center in Coach of the Year winner Becky Hammon's lineup, keyed the Aces to a tie for the best record and the No. 1 overall seed in her fifth year. The Columbia, South Carolina, star who stayed home to win a title for Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks could soon be seen in your local chips aisle. She won her first MVP in 2020 and turned 26 at the beginning of August.

The race is close by the numbers and will hinge largely on what each voter deems as the definition of an MVP. The most important thing to know is how each measures up, what the ballot process looks like and what history does or doesn't tell us about what it takes to win.

Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson
Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson are once again leading candidates for MVP. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A'ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart MVP comparison

Wilson and Stewart have led the MVP conversation all season and put up incredibly comparable numbers in the regular season. A lot of voters were open about how tough of a decision it was to choose one of the two and the statistical comparison bears that out.

All numbers are from Her Hoop Stats (for more statistics here is Stewart's player page and Wilson's player page). Numbers in parenthesis are the league-wide ranking in that category and top-5 rankings are in bold. The higher-ranking stat between the two (no matter how close) is in italics. Stewart is listed first for alphabetical and seniority reasons.

BREANNA STEWART

A'JA WILSON

Minutes per game

30.9 (14)

30.0 (19)

Usage rate

28.9% (3)

27.3% (7)

Points per game

21.8 (1)

19.5 (5)

Points per play

1.10 (3)

1.06 (12)

2FG%

51.8% (35)

52.5% (30)

3FG%

37.9% (22)
67-of-177

37.3% (23)
31-of-83

EFG%

53.4% (31)

53.1 (34)

Rebounds per game

7.6 (7)

9.4 (2)

Assists per game

2.9 (31)

2.1 (55)

Assist-to-turnover
ratio

2.26 (18)

1.23 (70)

Steals per game

1.6 (5)

1.4 (12)

Blocks per game

0.9 (15)

1.9 (1)

Win Shares

8.1 (1)

7.0 (2)

Offensive rating

118.5 (4)

114.6 (8)

Defensive rating

93.8 (7)

95.1 (12)

Stewart led the league in scoring while Wilson led the league in blocks, a large reason she took home the Defensive Player of the Year award. They're both similarly heavily used and highly efficient.

They finished 1-2 in win shares, which approximates the number of wins a player produces for their team based on their offense, defense and playing time. They also finished 1-2 (Stewart, Wilson) in ESPN's Wins Above Replacement metric by Kevin Pelton.

How are WNBA MVPs determined

A panel of 56 national and WNBA-market media members were chosen by the league to vote on all 2022 awards except Executive of the Year, which is a vote of basketball executives from each team. Voting for each award looks a little different.

The MVP vote is the only one that requires voters to list their top five candidates on the ballot. For each ballot, 10 points are awarded to the player listed at No. 1. Seven points are awarded for second place, five for third place, three for fourth place and one for fifth place. Players are then listed by their total points from all 56 ballots with the player earning the most points winning MVP.

Theoretically, a player who was listed on half of the ballots at No. 1 could still fall down the final list because of being lower or absent on other ballots. This is similar to what happened with Skylar Diggins-Smith in the All-Star starter vote. It is also how Alyssa Thomas could rank so high in Defensive Player of the Year, yet slip to the second team in All-Defensive team voting (which is a completely different ballot). MVP is not who was on the No. 1 line the most in the ballots.

MVP votes are based on regular season play and are submitted by media members before the playoffs begin. Even so, Stewart and Wilson showcased why they're the leading candidates in a back-and-forth battle during Game 2 of their semifinal series. Wilson had 33 points shooting 12-of-18 with 13 rebounds, three blocks and one assists. Stewart scored 32 on a 12-of-23 outing with seven rebounds, three blocks and three assists.

Arguments for MVPs in any race

Voting on awards is highly subjective and different people make picks based on different standards. That will remain true no matter who is voting or if it switches to a player, coach or executive vote.

Some might choose awards based on success. By that metric, Wilson would receive the nod for helping lead the Aces to the No. 1 seed in the playoffs after tying for the league's best record. They had a historically great offensive year in Hammon's first campaign and Wilson was a key defender for a team that sometimes lacked in the category collectively. She may not have led the team in scoring, but she was pivotal for everything the Aces did on the court and that showed when she didn't get many touches or looks in Game 1 versus the Storm.

Others might vote for who was the most valuable for her team to win games. By that metric, the nod might go to Stewart. She arguably did not have the offensive support around her that Wilson did at nearly every position on the floor. Stewart scored 26.4% of her team's average output whereas Wilson was responsible for 21.6%. In Stewart's 34 games (she missed two in health and safety protocols), she led the Storm in points 23 times (68% of games), rebounds 18 times (53%) and assists twice. Wilson led the Aces in points 16 times (44%) and rebounds 21 times (58%).

One of Wilson's teammates, guard Kelsey Plum, will likely win MVP votes, begging the question if a team can have two MVP candidates, is either truly an MVP? (That is up for you, the reader, to decide for yourself. Again, subjective.) If two players are equally great in a voter's eyes, then does it come down to which team you'd rather take in a game of playground pickup or WNBA2K? And if that's the metric for 2022, certainly the nod goes to the Aces.

Then there's the aspect of expanding and improving one's game. How much does that matter when talking MVP? Wilson worked in the offseason on her 3-point shot and it showed this year. Her efficiency is right on par with Stewart's and she took more 3s than ever. Meanwhile, Stewart kept on keeping on with her high standard of play she has shown throughout her career.

WNBA MVP history by the numbers

The MVP race has recently varied on a year-to-year basis since the first decade of the league when every handful of years there would be a repeat winner. It's also leaned toward a player on the best team, but that wasn't always the case.

A different player has won the award the past six seasons: Jonquel Jones ('21), Wilson ('20), Elena Delle Donne ('19), Stewart ('18), Sylvia Fowles ('17) and Nneka Ogwumike ('16). All led their teams to the best record in the league except Ogwumike, whose Sparks were second. Her win concluded a six-year run in which the MVP was on a team that finished with the second-best standings, or in the 2015 case of Delle Donne, finished third.

In all, 11 of the 25 MVPs have been on the team with the best regular season record. Eight led their teams to the second-best and two to the third-best. There have been three winners whose teams had the fifth-best record, which is lower than Stewart and the Storm in 2022. They trailed the Aces and Sky by four games in the standings.

The Sparks were fifth in overall league standings (and four games back of the West leader) when Candace Parker won it in 2008. Sheryl Swoopes won her record third and final award in 2005 when the Houston Comets were fifth at 19-15. And Lauren Jackson won her first of three in 2003 when the Storm were barely above .500 (18-16) and had the fifth-best record. They were six games back of the West-leading Sparks.

Jackson won again in 2007 when the Storm were at .500 (17-17) and worse than six other teams. She is the only MVP to win without leading her team to a winning record. Jackson led the league in scoring (23.8 ppg), rebounding (9.7 rpg), effective field-goal percentage (.568), win shares (9.5) and offensive rating (127.7); and ranked second in blocks (2 bpg) and usage (28%).

Stewart and Wilson are poised to break the league record of three MVPs shared by Swoopes, Jackson and Lisa Leslie. It's only a matter of who will be the first to win No. 2 when the award is announced this week.