Bring On Some More A’ja-Stewie Battles
11:41 AM EDT on August 16, 2022
Thank god for the block. Without it, WNBA awards voters and fans everywhere might've been paralyzed by one section of their ballot. How to choose between two players enjoying excellent, statistically similar seasons, leading their teams to contention, and leaving every other player in the dust? The MVP question had been looming for months, and there still wasn't a satisfying answer Sunday afternoon, as the two got ready to face each other on the final day of the regular season. Then, with about a minute left in a close game, one stuffed the other at the rim, securing the victory and the one-seed. It felt like a silly tiebreaker. But at this point, some viewers welcomed any tiebreaker, no matter how silly.
The MVP deliberations might be over (votes were due Sunday), but Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson won't escape each other any time soon. The weekend brought certain eras to a close—Sylvia Fowles retired; Sue Bird finished up her final regular season—and Sunday's marquee Storm-Aces game signaled that we're in something of a new one: Stewart and Wilson, anchors of the Olympic team and the new faces of their sport, should run this league for a while. "Should" is an important qualifier. It wasn't too long ago that WNBA fans imagined epic future playoff battles between Stewart and Elena Delle Donne, battles that have had to stay in the imagination thanks to an Achilles injury, a back injury, and a pandemic. But everyone's health permitting, this is The Rivalry We Care About Now, and it's so extremely awesome to watch.
The first and only time Stewart and Wilson faced each other in a playoff series, in the 2020 bubble season, the Storm's three-game sweep didn't leave much room for debate. Wilson, cast as a power forward then, took a flawed, depth-devoid team to the WNBA Finals, where the Aces stood no chance against a transcendent Stewart and her versatile All-Star teammates.
The circumstances are weirdly flipped this year. Wilson, in a different role under a different coach's different system, has thrived as the centerpiece of a star-studded offense. (Her teammate Kelsey Plum's MVP case isn't as strong, but it's a case.) Stewart, meanwhile, has been left to shoulder a heavier offensive workload as her teammates have signed elsewhere, experienced down seasons, or, in the case of Sue Bird, just gotten old. She hasn't withered under the pressure. Breanna Stewart is the points-per-game scoring leader, one of the game's smartest defenders, and still the best player in the world. Her proportions and her grace have no business sharing a body. People with 7-foot-1 wingspans should not be able to handle the ball like that or pull up and hit dead-eye threes. That is gross, frankly. That is weird.
Wilson always excelled at the things she did, but now she's doing more things. She told reporters before last season that she wanted to work on her three-point shot; "I hope not," Bill Laimbeer responded when someone asked him for his take. Becky Hammon's first order of business when she took over as head coach was to let the threes fly. Her second was to shift Wilson to the five, where could finally be a mobile big with plenty more spacing. This is one cool thing about Wilson's season, that she might win MVP as a different player than she was when she first won the award in 2020. Here's an insane stat for you: Wilson attempted two three-pointers total in her first four WNBA seasons. This year, she has attempted 83 and made them at a 37-percent clip. The new philosophy has transformed the Aces offense into the league's most lethal. On the other end of the floor, Wilson might be named Defensive Player of the Year. Not to be outdone, Stewart, whose outrageous arms are good for a block and a couple steals per game, is a pretty good candidate for the award herself.
The best player on the best team has won MVP for the last five seasons, so that's one point in Wilson's favor. But one-seed Vegas and four-seed Seattle could meet in a semifinal series if they advance past the first round, a prospect that should excite everyone. The next battle is just around the corner.