As the rest of the WNBA jockeys for seeds and the final playoff spot ahead of Sunday's regular-season finales, the Connecticut Sun have already clinched home-court advantage in the 2021 WNBA playoffs.
And in addition to setting a franchise record with their 13th consecutive victory on Wednesday, the Sun also saw the return of forward Alyssa Thomas, the glue of the team who made a surprise comeback just eight months after suffering a torn Achilles tendon while playing overseas in January.
In short, the rich just got richer.
Connecticut forward Jonquel Jones, one of only two players in the WNBA this season to average a double-double, is among the leading candidates for the 2021 MVP award, and she's likely not the only Sun player -- or coach -- being considered for the WNBA's annual end of season awards. Our panel -- ESPN's Kelly Cohen, Dana Lee, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel -- weigh in with their picks for MVP, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player, plus cast their votes for the all-league first team.
Jonquel Jones is this group's unanimous pick for MVP. Why does she deserve the award?
Kevin Pelton: I think I'm most impressed with Jones taking on a larger share of the offense this year without sacrificing efficiency. As good as Jones was before this season, she'd never averaged more than 15.4 PPG or finished more than 23% of the team's plays. Now that's up to 27.5% usage, good for third among players with at least 300 minutes, yet Jones' .614 true shooting percentage also ranks fifth among that group.
Kelly Cohen: When Jones was overseas playing for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the FIBA European women's basketball championship in June, the Sun went 2-3 and struggled offensively and defensively without her. No other player in the league has such an impact on her team at both ends of the court. It's hard to imagine the Sun are the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs and championship front-runner this season without Jones, who didn't even play in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. In addition to averaging a double-double, Jones' 19.5 PPG, 2.8 APG and 1.3 SPG are all career highs.
Dana Lee: Jones could potentially be the first player in league history to win Most Improved Player and MVP. She received 32 of 40 votes for MIP in 2017 after setting the WNBA single-season records in both rebounding average and total rebounds. But even if Jones doesn't win the MVP award this year, she is still the only player to have won MIP and Sixth Woman of the Year (2018).
Mechelle Voepel: It will be interesting to see how voters react this season. Jones has been a top candidate all season, and the fact that the Sun have the No. 1 seed could make this vote heavily in her favor. She's getting my vote.
But let's look at the past decade. The last seven seasons, the MVP winner got a dominant percentage of first-place votes. Elena Delle Donne's 97.4% percent in 2015 was the highest in that period, and the second-highest was her 95.3% in 2019. But 2011 MVP Tamika Catchings got 52.5% of first-place votes. In 2012, Tina Charles got 61%. And in a year where there just wasn't a consensus pick, Candace Parker got 25.6% in 2013. Maya Moore got the same number of first-place votes as Parker that year (10) but finished 16 total points behind her.
Jones has made her case pretty airtight. But perhaps some votes will go to WNBA leading scorer Tina Charles of the Washington Mystics, Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury, Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm and 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces, the other players who are in the top five in the league in scoring, along with Jones.
As Mechelle Voepel wrote last week, Michaela Onyenwere is the Rookie of the Year favorite by default. Has she been the best rookie?
Pelton: The question of how to handle a rookie that plays a lot but not necessarily better than replacement level -- the typical performance of a player signed for the minimum -- is one we often confront with All-Rookie teams. In this case, because this year's rookie class has struggled for the reasons Mechelle detailed, it's true of the Rookie of the Year debate, too.
Clearly, Onyenwere of the New York Liberty is going to win the award. She has played more than 50% more minutes than any other rookie and has per-game stats to match. But after a terrific start as a shooter, Onyenwere has slumped to 32% on 3s and a below-average .524 true shooting percentage. And her inability to fill out the box score with many rebounds, steals or blocks has carried over from UCLA. As a result, she's rated 0.9 wins worse than replacement level by my WARP metric.
The challenge is figuring out who else to pick if not Onyenwere. Just three rookies have rated better than replacement, with the Atlanta Dream's Aari McDonald the only one to do so in more than 200 minutes.
Voepel: Onyenwere will win be the Rookie of the Year, but she knows there's still a long way to go with her game. The Liberty are a young team without a lot in the way of mentorship from older players, which has to be taken into some consideration.
All of Kevin's points are on the money. We also can look at some positives, including Onyenwere's 14 points Wednesday against the league-leading Sun. She was 5-of-6 from the field, and it was her best scoring outing since she had 18 points in late June vs. Atlanta.
Who is your pick for WNBA Coach of the Year?
Pelton: I'm going with Connecticut's Curt Miller, who has successfully navigated the loss of Alyssa Thomas to an Achilles rupture and managed a lack of depth to lead the Sun to the league's best record.
Lee: I like Miller for Coach of the Year, and will add Cheryl Reeve's name to the discussion. Consider the beginning of the season, when the Minnesota Lynx went 0-4, were plagued by injury and hampered by players' overseas commitments. The Lynx, who won seven straight heading into the Olympic break, hardly look like the same team. They recently clinched a playoff spot for the 11th straight season, the second-longest streak in the league.
As general manager and head coach, Reeve has managed to integrate new signing Kayla McBride onto the team, brought Layshia Clarendon on in May, and let Sylvia Fowles do her thing. Props to Reeve, by the way, for hiring the only all-female coaching staff in the WNBA.
Voepel: Miller has done a fantastic job with the No. 1-seeded team that most of us thought was going to finish a lot lower without Alyssa Thomas. Some years, the COY is a challenge because there are several different directions you could go. This year, it's an easy vote.
The Most Improved Player Award seems like a two-player race between Connecticut's Brionna Jones and the Dallas Wings' Marina Mabrey. Which player gets your vote?
Pelton: I'm going with Jones. After her strong start, I'm not sure Mabrey has improved that much from last season, when she made 42% of her 3-point attempts. After an incredible start, that has dropped to 34% this season, meaning Mabrey has been less efficient while shouldering a much heavier offensive load for the Wings. Jones has not only shown that last season's play in place of namesake Jonquel Jones was sustainable together, she has improved on it by lifting her usage rate and developing into a 79% foul shooter.
Lee: I'm with Kevin here -- Mabrey was a lock for most improved at the beginning of the season, but Brionna Jones has a more compelling case as of late. Jones ranks third in win shares (5.7), fourth in field goal percentage (.572) and ninth in player efficiency (22.2). To add context, FiveThirtyEight did a breakdown of previous award winners and found that players who won in the past had increased numbers in minutes, points, rebounds and assists. Jones has done all of the above and added much-needed depth for the Sun.
Voepel: Brionna Jones took a big step forward in 2020, and was at least in the conversation for MIP then, but Betnijah Laney understandably took the honor. Jones has taken the next step this season and deserves the 2021 award. She has become a player the Sun really depend upon, and that was crucial this year with Thomas missing most of the season until this week.
Las Vegas' Kelsey Plum, who is averaging a career-high 14.3 PPG, is another player who merits mention. She averaged 8.5, 9.5 and 8.6 PPG her first three seasons, mostly in a starter role. She didn't play last season because of an Achilles injury. Now, coming off the bench, she's a constant spark for the Aces.
Who is the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year?
Cohen: Sylvia Fowles is having an unreal season, especially at age 35. Joining Jonquel Jones as the only other player in the league averaging a double-double (16.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG), Fowles also grabs 8.0 defensive rebounds and a career-high 1.8 steals per game (1.8). Her 1.9 BPG rank second in the league. Minnesota doesn't turn around its season without her and the veteran leadership she brings to the locker room. Fowles can defend on the perimeter but cleans up the glass, too, and has already won this award three times (2011, 2013, 2016). This should be the year she gets her fourth DPOY trophy.
Pelton: I'm going Jonquel Jones here, too. Connecticut boasts the league's best defensive rating and, notably, has held opponents to worse shooting in the restricted area around the basket than Minnesota according to WNBA Advanced Stats. Both Joneses deserve credit, but Jonquel leads in Positive Residual's estimated defensive contribution, just ahead of Brionna Jones and Brittney Sykes of the Los Angeles Sparks, with Fowles in fourth.
Voepel: I lean toward Jonquel Jones, too, for the reason Kevin lists. Connecticut always has been a very strong defensive team under Miller, but this year's group is exceptional. And while that credit is rightfully spread around to everyone, including Brionna Jones and Briann January, Jonquel Jones is the centerpiece.
That said, there will be a lot of sentiment for Fowles, as Kelly said, because she has been so critical to everything the Lynx do defensively. It's been a challenging year for the Sparks, but Sykes has been a big bright spot and is the top guard defender this season. This award tends to go more to forwards and centers, so it's no small thing to be a guard that is heavily in the mix the way Sykes is.
And Phoenix's Brianna Turner is someone who seems likely to win a DPOY award someday. She and Brittney Griner, a two-time DPOY winner, have been quite a pairing inside for the Mercury.
Name your All-WNBA First Team (two forwards, two guards and one center)? Who's your first player left off?
Cohen: Forwards Jonquel Jones and A'ja Wilson, center Sylvia Fowles and guards Diana Taurasi and Arike Ogunbowale. The Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart is my first player left off.
Pelton: Jones and Stewart at forward, Brittney Griner at center and Skylar Diggins-Smith and the Chicago Sky's Courtney Vandersloot at guard. Fowles or Griner is pretty close to a coin flip and Wilson is right there at forward, too.
Lee: Jonquel Jones, Stewart, Fowles and Ogunbowale and Diggins-Smith. I bounced between Fowles and Tina Charles.
Voepel: Jonquel Jones and Stewart at forward, Griner at center and Diggins-Smith and Chelsea Gray at guard. The hardest players to leave off are Wilson, Fowles, Charles, Ogunbowale and Vandersloot. Brutal.