This has been a record-breaking season across the WNBA, but it might be most remembered for the stunning and historic MVP race. After one of the closest voting margins in league history,.
She narrowly edged out Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas and Las Vegas Aces forward, and 2022 MVP, A'ja Wilson. Stewart received 446 total points, compared to 439 for Thomas and 433 for Wilson. Notably, Stewart received only 20 first-place votes, compared to 23 for Thomas, but still won the award because of her second-place tallies. She is the second player ever to win MVP without winning the most first-place votes, joining Sheryl Swoopes in 2005,
Note: This story was originally published on Sept. 12, following the deadline for official award ballots to be submitted. Below, CBS Sports' Jack Maloney explains his vote for Stewart and his full ballot.
We'll begin with a quick rundown of each player's stats.
To little surprise they were both phenomenal and put together historic seasons. Stewart had a career-high in both scoring and assists, while Wilson had career-highs in scoring, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage.
There's little to separate either player here, with Stewart's playmaking advantage standing out as the one significant difference. While Wilson's field goal percentage is much higher, her lead in the efficiency department is less glaring when you consider true shooting percentage, which takes into account the fact that Stewart is a solid 3-point shooter.
In the end, "who had the better numbers?" comes down to each voter's philosophical view of the game. Is Stewart's far superior playmaking and 3-point shooting more important? Or Wilson's efficiency and slightly better rim protection? Like a lot of this exercise, you're splitting hairs.
Overall team performance
As expected, the Aces and Liberty quickly established themselves as the two best teams in the league. While that was certainly in part due to the vast array of talent on both rosters, the two superstar forwards were the primary reason that both of these clubs put together historic regular seasons.
The Aces jumped out to a 16-1 start, and cruised through the majority of the season. Their only rough patch came in late August, when they seemed to run out of gas during a long road trip. They closed the season on a four-game winning streak, though, to set a new WNBA regular season wins record of 34. In addition, they finished first in offensive rating (113.0), defensive rating (97.7) and net rating (plus-15.3). Their offensive rating was the best in league history, and they became the eighth team to lead the league in all three categories in one season.
While the Liberty were racking up wins early in the season, their performances weren't as convincing right away, owing to the fact that they assembled essentially a completely new roster in the winter. But after the All-Star break, they found their stride. They were the best team in the league in the second half of the season, and closed on a 14-2 hot streak that brought them to within two games of the Aces in the race for the top spot. Their 32 wins are the second-most in a season in WNBA history, and they finished second in offensive rating (109.6), third in defensive rating (99.4) and second in net rating (plus-10.3).
Not including the Commissioner's Cup championship game, which did not count as a regular season contest, these two played each other four times this season, with each of their teams winning twice. The Liberty won their two games by a combined margin of 47 points, while the Aces won their games by a total of 30.
Looking at their individual performances, Wilson was more efficient, but Stewart had better numbers in every other category. They also each had one real stinker during the head-to-head games.
The Liberty star averaged 18 points on 35.6% from the field and 22.2% from 3-point line, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.6 blocks. She also had the best single performance, which came on Aug. 6, when she went off for 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks in the Liberty's 38-point statement win. Wilson, meanwhile, put up 17.3 points on 59.7% shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists. 0.5 steals and 1.8 blocks.
Both of these superstars can do so much on the court that no one really thinks of them as pure scorers. But while Jewell Loyd received plenty of attention for winning the scoring title in historic fashion, both Stewart and Wilson were etching their names in the history books as well. Here's how many players have ever averaged as many points as Stewart and Wilson did this season: eight – all either current or future Hall of Famers. Furthermore, they now rank second (919) and third (912), respectively, on the all-time single-season total points leaderboard behind Loyd.
Wilson is the most dominant interior scorer in the league. Of the 13 players who took at least five shots per game within five feet, none were more efficient than Wilson, who converted 68.5% of her six attempts. She's simply too skilled, too big and too athletic for most opponents, and can either overpower or out-maneuver them.
Stewart, though, isn't far behind in that department. While she didn't get to the rim as often as Wilson, she still took just over four shots per game within five feet and made 65% of them.
They are also both foul-drawing machines. Wilson shot 7.2 free throws this season, while Stewart took 6.0, which was good for second and third, respectively, in the league.
Despite proving last season that she can shoot 3-pointers at a solid clip, Wilson focused her game around the paint this summer, with 70.1% of her field goals coming within 10 feet. She is a very reliable mid-range shooter, though, and has greatly improved her off-the-bounce game, which helps keep defenses honest and gives her another way to attack the rim besides posting up.
Stewart, on the other hand, often operates more like a guard. She will bring the ball up the floor on her own to initiate sets, is a capable pick-and-roll ball handler, runs off screens and excels playing off the catch. Her 3-point shooting can be streaky at times, but she's a true three-level threat who can create a shot whenever she wants. When she gets going, her size and ability to shoot over opponents makes her essentially unstoppable.
This aspect of the game is by far the most meaningful difference between the two players. Wilson is not a playmaker, and had nearly as many turnovers (62) as assists (64).
Stewart, on the other hand, is one of the best playmaking forwards in the league. Among players 6-foot-4 or taller, only Satou Sabally dished out more assists. Stewart rarely turns the ball over, and finished seventh in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.59, a stunning accomplishment for any player, but especially a forward who has the ball in her hands as much as her. Stewart this season became only the second player in league history to play at least 34 minutes per game and average 1.5 turnovers or fewer.
The most impressive aspect of Stewart's playmaking is her varied approach. She isn't just racking up assists by swinging the ball to open shooters. She can run a pick-and-roll, drive and kick, pass out of double teams and lead fastbreaks. Her ability to draw defenders and make the right read to create open shots for her teammates is a major reason why the Liberty had the third-best offensive rating in league history this season.
Considering offense as a whole, Wilson's interior scoring and efficiency stand out, but she is not as versatile as Stewart, who is the most complete offensive player in the game. Over the course of the season, Stewart created 1,259 points to Wilson's 1,078 – a sizable margin.
Both Wilson and Stewart are fantastic defensive players, and will be top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, just as they were last season when Wilson won by a narrow margin over Stewart and Alyssa Thomas.
They have many similarities on that end of the floor, as their size, length, athleticism and understanding of the game allows them to bang in the post, step out to the perimeter when needed and cause havoc as back-line help defenders. Just watch at how they're able to erase entire areas of the court.
In terms of specific skills, Stewart is a bit more adept at playing away from the basket, whether that's trapping or moving her feet with guards, which gives the Liberty some added flexibility with their coverages.
Wilson, however, is the better pure rim protector. Part of that is she spends more time playing as the five, so she's around the basket more often. But she's also a wizard with her timing and instincts. And when you can move and anticipate plays like she does at her size, it's a big problem for opponents.
Again, we're working on the margins here, but rim protection is the most important aspect of defense, and Wilson does it better than anyone in the league. For that she gets the nod.
What other players think
Earlier this month, The Athletic published a series titled "WNBA Confidential," in which players were asked various questions about the state of the league and offered the opportunity to respond anonymously. Forty-six players, just about one-third of the league, participated.
One of the most interesting queries was "who is the best player in the league?" To little surprise, Stewart and Wilson received the vast majority of the votes. It was a bit interesting, though, that Stewart came away as the clear winner at 54.3%, while Wilson checked in with 31.4%. Only one other player, Nneka Ogwumike, received more than one vote.
While this poll is certainly not the be-all and end-all in this race, it's another data point to consider. We usually don't get to hear from players on these awards, at least not on a large scale, and it's worthwhile to acknowledge their perspective.
Both players have made all sorts of history this season, but two particular items stand out.
For Wilson, it was her 53-point game against the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 22. She poured in 16 points in the first quarter to get off to a hot start and never relented, finishing with 53 on 16-of-23 from the field and 20-of-21 from the free throw line. With that performance she tied Liz Cambage for the WNBA's all-time single-game scoring record, and established both a new career-high and an Aces franchise record. Furthermore, she became the second player in league history to make 20 free throws in a game.
Stewart's achievement, on the other hand, came over a series of games on May 21, July 5, Aug. 13 and Sept. 5. She had 40 points in all of those outings, including a career-high 45 against the Indiana Fever on May 21 and the second 40-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game in league history on July 5 versus the Phoenix Mercury. Her four 40-point games are the most ever in a single season, and put her in a tie with Diana Taurasi for the most all-time; Stewart produced 11.4% of the 40-point games in league history in this season alone. In addition, she now also has the most 40-point, 10-rebound games (three) in a single season and all-time.
Here is another situation where voters' philosophical views shape their decision. Do you put more stock in Wilson's singular, all-time performance? Or Stewart reaching incredible heights more often?
This was one of the most entertaining and enjoyable MVP races in league history, and it was a joy and honor to watch these women compete at this level on a nightly basis. The downside was an extremely difficult voting process. Even after months of games, and hours of film and statistical study, I was left undecided until the final day.
With just minutes until the deadline for ballots arrived, I finally submitted my final choice: Breanna Stewart, by an extremely narrow margin over A'ja Wilson.
The rest of the ballot
3. Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun
First, a glance at Thomas' numbers:
The Connecticut Sun lost Jonquel Jones in the offseason and Brionna Jones to a torn Achilles tendon in June, yet still finished with the No. 3 seed. That was almost solely down to the heroic efforts of Alyssa Thomas, who put together an extremely impressive and unique season. We've never seen someone fill up the box score in the manner that she did this summer, as she became the triple-double queen, setting both the single-season and all-time marks in that category.
Thomas is going to get MVP votes, and she certainly has a valid case. However, much of her candidacy rests on the argument that she took a Sun team that otherwise would have been a borderline playoff team at best and turned them into one of the three best teams in the league. That is undoubtedly true. But Stewart and Wilson did similar work, just at a different scale. While they had more talent around them, they took playoff teams and made them historically great, which is equally as impressive and valuable.
When you consider that all three players singularly elevated their teams, it becomes hard to make the case that Thomas was a better player this season. That is no slight to her, but rather a testament to the all-time greatness in the league these days. In nearly every other season in WNBA history Thomas would have been the runaway MVP, but not this one.
4. Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx
First, a glance at Collier's numbers:
After missing the majority of last season while on maternity leave, Collier took a few weeks to find a rhythm, which played a major role in the Lynx's brutal 0-6 start. Once she did, she reasserted herself as one of the league's best, and most versatile players. She dragged the Lynx back to the playoffs by making them significantly better on both sides of the ball when she was on the court. While she's not going to win MVP this season, her play is worthy of a spot on the ballot. All-WNBA and All-Defensive selections should be coming her way as well.
5. Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks
First, a glance at Ogwumike's numbers:
The Sparks were decimated by injuries and illnesses this season, but still nearly made the playoffs because of their long-time leader and best player. Ogwumike was a stabilizing force for the Sparks this season, who were a disaster when she was off the floor. While she would have preferred to make the playoffs, on a personal level this was one of the best summers of Ogwumike's storied career, as she posted numbers that were nearly identical to her MVP campaign in 2016.