Even with an atypically strong class for this year's induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, there was never any doubt that Tamika Catchings deserved to make it on her first try. The longtime Indiana Fever star and the 2011 WNBA MVP, retired as the league's all-time steals leader and in the top 10 in games, minutes, field goals, free throws, rebounds, assists and points.
Nonetheless, Catchings' historical legacy underrates her. A handful of players have staked their claim to the title of greatest of all time for the WNBA, a debate that has seemingly settled on the league's all-time leading scorer, Diana Taurasi. (The Phoenix Mercury celebrated Taurasi passing Tina Thompson for that honor by bringing in actual goats from a petting zoo.) But despite the impressive accomplishments of Taurasi and her other peers, advanced stats suggest Catchings should stand alone as the WNBA's GOAT.
Why Catchings' stats might not catch your eye
The connection between Taurasi becoming the WNBA's leading scorer and her GOAT status is no coincidence. Traditionally, the best scorer has typically been considered the best player. While that doesn't always match up with career scoring totals because of the role longevity plays there -- Tina Thompson rarely got GOAT consideration before being passed by Taurasi, much like NBA all-time leading scorers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone take a backseat to Michael Jordan in that discussion -- points per game is a strong factor.
Much like Thompson, Catchings accumulated a lot of points (she's third all-time in WNBA career scoring) without ever leading the league in points per game. She topped out at second in 2002, her rookie season, with 18.6 PPG. By contrast, Taurasi led the league in scoring five times in a six-year stretch from 2006 through 2011. Taurasi's 19.6 career points per game are most among any WNBA player whose career lasted longer than seven seasons.
Instead of scoring, Catchings' calling cards were defense and versatility. A five-time Defensive Player of the Year, Catchings doesn't just lead the WNBA in all-time steals, she blows away the competition. Having led the league in steals per game seven times, Catchings' lead on second-place Ticha Penicheiro in career steals is larger than the gap between Penicheiro and Tangela Smith, who ranks 23rd.
As for versatility, Catchings is the only player in the WNBA's career top 10 in both rebounds and assists, and Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks is the only other to average at least seven rebounds and three assists per game in a career. Catchings was capable of playing both on the perimeter and in the paint, swinging from small forward to power forward depending on her team's needs, and winning the Defensive Player of the Year at both spots.
Catch the all-time advanced stats leader
When statistical analysts have analyzed what helps teams win, we've consistently found that both defense and versatility, and the ability to generate steals in particular, are underrated. Meanwhile, scoring tends to be relatively overrated as a measure of impact.
Given that knowledge, it should probably come as no surprise that Catchings rates as the league's all-time best player by advanced stats that measure career value -- and nobody else is all that close. Basketball-Reference.com's win shares have Catchings No. 1 with 93.7 career win shares, 20 more than anyone else. (Three-time MVP Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm is second at 73.1, with Taurasi third at 65.3.) My wins above replacement player metric favors Catchings by an even greater margin, albeit with Taurasi in second:
What might be more surprising is that even though her Fever won just one championship (2012), Catchings is also the WNBA's all-time leader in playoff WARP. Because Indiana made the postseason in each of Catchings' last 12 seasons, the longest streak in WNBA history, her 68 career playoff games are third-most behind Lindsay Whalen (82) and Rebekkah Brunson (81).
Why didn't the Fever win more titles?
That raises an important question: How is it possible that the best player in WNBA history could have won a single championship? The explanation is that Catchings didn't benefit from the same kind of star teammates as her rivals. In 15 seasons, Catchings played with just one Fever teammate who was selected for an All-WNBA Team: Katie Douglas, a second-team pick in both 2009 and 2010.
The other candidates for WNBA GOAT had far more lauded teammates. While playing with Taurasi, four Mercury players (DeWanna Bonner, Brittney Griner, Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor) were named to the All-WNBA First Team five times total. Three of those four players were on the Phoenix team that defeated Indiana 3-2 in the 2009 WNBA Finals.
After breaking through to beat the Minnesota Lynx 3-1 for their first title in 2012, the Fever lost another classic, five-game Finals matchup with the Lynx in 2015. The midseason addition of Sylvia Fowles gave Minnesota four starters who had been All-WNBA First Team selections. With Douglas retired, Indiana had only Catchings with a track record on either All-WNBA team. (Natasha Howard, then a second-year reserve for the Fever, later developed into a first-team pick in 2019 after changing teams twice.)
Indiana's long streak of Catchings-led playoff appearances gave them few opportunities to make high draft picks -- unlike the Mercury, who missed the playoffs in four of Taurasi's first five seasons and again in 2012, when she spent much of the season on the sidelines. The Fever picked higher than No. 5 just once after drafting Catchings third in 2001, taking journeywoman Tan White with the No. 2 overall pick in 2005. By contrast, Phoenix made the No. 2 pick in 2006 (Pondexter) and picked No. 1 overall in 2007 (traded to Minnesota for veteran forward Smith) and 2013 (Griner), building the core of the Mercury's three title-winning teams.
We can best adjust for the impact of teammates by looking at performance with Catchings on the court and on the bench. WNBA Advanced Stats has posted net ratings with players on and off, as well as the net difference, throughout league history. Over her career, Indiana was an average of 12.6 points per 100 possessions better when Catchings played, and the difference was at least 14 points per 100 possessions seven times.
Taurasi's on/off impact has been less consistent. While the Mercury were at least 20 points per 100 possessions better with her on the court in both 2014 and 2018, her average net impact -- throwing out 2012 and 2019, when she played fewer than 10 games due to injury -- has been around nine points per 100 possessions.
Catchings had best career
To some extent, picking a GOAT means debating the definition. If you're looking at the player you'd take first to win a single game, you'd have a hard time going wrong with Taurasi (who began her career 13-0 in winner-take-all games, including the deciding Game 5 against Catchings and Indiana in 2009).
In terms of peak ability, cases can be made for Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes from the Houston Comets' four-peat teams, Maya Moore of the four-time champion Lynx and a healthy Jackson.
My definition of the GOAT, however, is the player who did the most to help her team win over the course of her career. From that perspective, Catchings' longevity and durability (she played all of the Fever's games eight times during her 15-year career), along with her ability to impact a game at both ends, makes her the right choice. Nobody in the WNBA's two decades-plus history has had a better career than the newest Hall of Famer.