In Search of the WNBA GOAT (Part 2: WS/40)

Trying to rank the greatest men in NBA history by Win Shares produces an interesting magic number of sorts. Every NBA player who has at least 125 career Win Shares is either in the Hall of Fame already or will be once he is eligible—the list of those latter guys includes LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol, James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Vince Carter.

Nobody in WNBA history has 125 career Win Shares. The seasons are only 34 games long, after all, but there’s still a Mendoza Line of sorts.

If we assume that Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles will make the Hall of Fame once they’re eligible (they’re still active), and that Lyndsay Whalen’s 59.79 WS will get her a Hall nod after a 15-year career that featured five All-Star appearances, five All-WNBA nods, and the third-most assists in WNBA history, then the line we draw for Win Shares is 54.

Sheryl Swoopes is above that line at 56.06; Taj McWilliams-Franklin, at 53.86, is the first woman below it, and since she retired in 2012 and has yet to be honored, it is entirely possible she will define that floor for Hall consideration ever after.

Total Win Shares in a career also does a fine job of informing a GOAT debate on the men’s side; the top five guys are, in order, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan.

Break that down further by WS per 48 minutes, and your top five becomes His Airness, David Robinson, Wilt, Neil Johnston, and CP3, with LeBron sixth and Kareem seventh.

“Who’s Neil Johnston?” you ask. Between 1951-52 and 1958-59, he had an eight-year career with the Philadelphia Warriors, making six All-Star teams, winning three scoring titles, leading the league in field goal percentage three times, leading in Win Shares five times, and then blowing out his knee before he had a chance to decline, retiring as the clubhouse leader in WS/48 and being surpassed by just three men.

So let’s look at the women’s side of this same equation, substituting WS/40 for WS/48 since women’s games are just 40 minutes long.

The leader in WS, by a country mile, is Tamika Catchings. Her 93.66 career WS is over 20 more than Lauren Jackson‘s 73.03, and those two are the only two women to top the 70-WS mark.

Taurasi is still active and enters her age-39 season with 68.64 WS; while she’s had trouble staying on the floor, she did manage 3.0 WS in Phoenix last season and has 0.4 already this year for the 2-2 Mercury.

She’s not going to catch Catchings, but she’s got a chance to push past Jackson if she plays past 40 and stays effective.

Fowles, meanwhile, is just 35, and despite playing just seven games in 2020 for Minnesota, as recently as 2019 she posted 5.3 WS. She too has a fair shot at stealing the silver medal but seems vanishingly unlikely to get near Catchings’ record.

So you could argue based on career Win Shares that Catchings is the greatest women’s professional basketball player of all time, and if you’re an Indiana Fever fan, that might be plenty enough.

So let’s move to a rate stat. Let’s break it down by 40 minutes.

Basketball Reference doesn’t provide a convenient list of women ranked by WS/40, so we’ll have to instead pull that data and present it here a bit more piecemeal.

We’ll start with Catchings, who sets the mark at .260 WS/40. Let’s move down the list.

Jackson’s total is .288. Not for nothing was she a 3-time MVP in Seattle as the face of the Storm for a decade.

Taurasi is at just .192; only once, in 2008, did she top Catchings’ career WS/40 total in a single season, posting .273 WS/40 in the only year between 2005 and 2009 that she wasn’t an All-Star. Seems women’s ball isn’t immune to the same problem the men have, where a player can post eye-popping advanced stats and get snubbed from the All-Star team.

Fowles is on .241 for her career, and her 2017 season, when she posted .350 WS/40, is one of the most mind-blowing seasons in basketball history, men or women. That’s the kind of individual dominance that comes along once in a generation for the men. It’s a 2016 Stephen Curry kind of year, or Kareem’s insane three-year run of dominance in the early 1970s in which he posted three of the top four seasons in NBA history in WS/48.

Let’s move on to sixth place and Lisa Leslie, who posted .206 WS/40 for her career, and you start to see a steady decline in WS/40 among women with enough Win Shares to achieve immortality for both dominance and length of career.

With all of that having been said, it’s starting to look like we’re down to a two-horse race for the WNBA GOAT between Tamika Catchings and Lauren Jackson. There have been other great women in the 25-year history of the WNBA, but those two stand so far ahead of the pack that we’re going to have to dive deep into both women’s careers and decide once and for all who’s the greatest professional women’s basketball player of all time.

Tune in Thursday. We’re going to settle this once and for all.