In Search of the WNBA GOAT (Part 1: Rings and Counting Stats)

The men’s NBA has a pretty well-settled debate on who its true greatest of the great are, the players who go beyond the Hall of Fame and onto discussions of a would-be Mount Rushmore.

If you’re the type to count rings, Bill Russell is (and will quite possibly always be) the greatest. Nobody is ever winning 11 championships again. Even LeBron James reaching Russell’s 12 career NBA Finals will be tainted by “Russell went 11-1 and James went (if he wins them all from here out) however many-and-6.”

If you want to deal in counting stats, until someone scores their 38,388th career point, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will always have a strong claim on the GOAT title. He’s the all-time scoring champion, and oh by the way he also has 10 career Finals appearances and six rings, including the only championship the Milwaukee Bucks have to their name in an over 50-year franchise history. If you want to give LeBron extra credit for bringing a title to Cleveland in 2016, you have to do the same for Kareem bringing a title to Beer Town (the only major-sports title Milwaukee has with its current franchises, and no, the Green Bay Packers don’t count because last I looked, Green Bay isn’t part of Milwaukee.)

And if you want to talk about overall impact on the game in terms of individual and franchise glory and being the face of the entire league for an extended period of time, that’s where you look at guys like Michael Jordan and LeBron.

But this isn’t about any of those guys. This is an attempt to take the same criteria we apply to the men’s game and, with as much dispassionate hard data crunching and ball-don’t-lie objectivity, try to crown a queen where once we used these methods to crown a king.

In other words, since it’s what inspired this piece, where does Tamika Catchings, 2020 Hall of Fame class member (and, because COVID, 2021 inductee) rank among the greatest women’s professional basketball players in the 25-year history of major professional women’s basketball in the United States—namely, the WNBA?

Let’s start with the basics. Rings and counting stats, the proto-argument starters that elevated Russell and Kareem to their position in the men’s pantheon.

We’ll start this off with Maya Moore. Her eight-year career between 2011 and 2018 featured four championships for the Minnesota Lynx, six All-Star appearances, 18.4 points per game (7th all-time in WNBA history), 4,984 points overall (23rd all-time in just eight years), an incredible 19.0-point on-off Net Rating split in her final season, and nearly endless speculation about whether she’s going to make a comeback now that a harrowing personal journey that saw her play a role in getting her husband out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit has come to a successful conclusion.

Moore is a champion on and off the court. Four rings, seventh-highest-scoring player per game in league history, we have our starting point.

Next, let’s talk Sue Bird. Seattle icon, 20-year career (and counting!), 521 career games in a league that plays a 34-game season (compare that to the men’s game, with 82-game seasons, and it works out to 1,256 games, not true apples-to-apples but as close as we’re going to get.) Bird has scored 6,273 points (seventh all time), dished 2,901 assists (first), yoinked 659 steals (fourth), and oh by the way that 521 games is tops all-time among women. So’s her 16,481 career minutes.

Throw in four rings in four WNBA Finals appearances and you’ve got another fine statistical case for the GOAT.

What about the old-school players, relatively speaking, like, say, that lady who’s now getting coaching experience with the men in San Antonio?

Becky Hammon was a bridesmaid the way Karl Malone was a bridesmaid for the men. She was on a New York Liberty team that kept running face-first into the Houston Comets in the infancy of the league, then ended up on a San Antonio squad that went to and fell short in another Finals at the hands of the Bill Laimbeer-coached Detroit Shock in 2008.

But in 450 career games, Hammon was always a solid contributor, first off the bench in New York, later as a starter and a six-time All-Star.

She is also one of the greatest free throw shooters, male or female, who ever lived, hitting all 35 of her charity tosses in 32 games in her final season while shooting 95 percent or better three other times. She hit 37.8 percent of her 3-point shots and posted a career eFG% of .533.

As a point of reference for the men’s game, that’s the same eFG% that Devin Booker and Kyle Kuzma both posted in 2021. It’s better than Bradley Beal, Brandon Ingram, Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Davis, or Trae Young posted, and let’s not even talk about the men who can’t shoot at all like, say, Dwayne Bacon, whose horrendous .443 eFG% was the worst among players qualified for the leaderboard, or John Wall and Russell Westbrook, fourth- and seventh-worst respectively.

Hammon doesn’t have the accolades for WNBA GOAT, but any discussion of all-time greats needs to mention her.

I could go on. There’s Sheryl Swoopes (4,875 career points) and Cynthia Cooper (2,601 points in just five seasons, the last of which she played just four games at age 40), who led the Comets to the first four WNBA titles and helped put the women’s game on the map.

There’s Lisa Leslie (13 years, 6,263 points, two rings in Los Angeles, and a post-playing career making Shaquille O’Neal look like a dope on TNT whenever the two are in the same room together.)

And, of course, there’s Tamika Catchings, the inspiration for all this, possibly the third-best player of the four sharing the spotlight (sorry, Kobe Bryant) at the induction—yeah, I said it, both Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett had better careers among the men, and Catchings might have had one among the women.

In her 15-year career, Catchings was the 2011 MVP, put up 93.7 Win Shares (most ever by a WNBA player), scored 7,380 points (third all-time), grabbed 1,074 steals (first), snared 3,315 rebounds (third), was 12-time All-WNBA, five-time Defensive Player of the Year, a 10-time All-Star (and got snubbed in 2010 in one of the most egregious snubs anyone of either gender not named Horace Grant has ever endured), and got her ring in 2012 with the Indiana Fever.

We have the baseline of a GOAT debate. But over a couple of articles next week (plan’s for Monday and Thursday, but schedule slip has been brutal lately, sorry about that), we’re going to bust out the advanced stats and really boil this down to a winner. Or maybe, like the men’s game, two winners that depend on your point of view to settle the argument—looking at you, MJ and LeBron.

But Tamika Catchings’ Hall of Fame bona fides? She’s right up there with the men she shared the honor with for legacy and impact in traditional categories.