In Search of the WNBA Goat Part 3: The Winner!

Welcome, the small and dedicated subset of you who care about my thoughts about women’s basketball.

When last we left off, we’d narrowed down the WNBA GOAT debate to two names, one with an impressive advanced stat profile across a long career, the other the face of a championship franchise without a men’s team to divide the city’s attention.

The former is Tamika Catchings, longtime Indiana Fever stalwart and 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

The latter is Lauren Jackson, who if nothing else has on lock the greatest-of-all-time moniker in her native Australia.

Let’s put them together for a straight-up side-by-side comparison and settle the debate once and for all…or run into the same problem the men have where people will argue LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan until the end of time.

The Counting Stats

Catchings averaged 16.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 2.4 steals per game in her 15 professional seasons spanning 457 games. For totals, that’s 7,380 points, 3,315 rebounds, 1,488 assists, 1,074 steals, and let’s throw in the 385 shots she blocked just for good measure.

Jackson had just a 12-year career spanning 317 games, averaging 18.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.8 blocked shots (Jackson, at 6’6”, is five inches taller than Catchings.) That’s 6,005 points, 2,444 rebounds, 435 assists, 360 steals, and 586 blocked shots. Every total counting stat advantage except blocks goes to Catchings, but the averages favor Jackson for points, rebounds, and blocks and Catchings for assists and steals.

That’s a close call, but points off for Jackson being a less dominant rebounder despite being taller.

But counting stats start arguments. Advanced stats finish them, so let’s get right to it.

The Advanced Stats

Jackson finished her career with .288 WS/40, including an utterly bananas .414 WS/40 in 2006, more or less singlehandedly carrying a rotten Storm team to an 18-16 record and a playoff appearance. Jackson’s 8.8 Win Shares were nearly half the team’s win total, and Sue Bird‘s 3.6 (and .135 WS/40) were a distant second. That team had one superstar and everyone else just taking up space (a strange thing to say about Bird, one of the best women’s ballers in her own right, but 2006 wasn’t her year.)

Catchings never had a year like Jackson’s 2006. But her overall .260 WS/40 is solid in its own right and comes with 14 of her 15 seasons topping out over the .200 mark. In women’s ball as in men’s ball, .200 WS/however many minutes are in a game means a team full of those sorts of performers would be expected by the stats to go undefeated.

Catchings had a career TS% of .543; Jackson’s was .570. Jackson’s .506 eFG% also tops Catchings’ .468, a sign of how much more efficient bigs are in basketball, men’s or women’s, to whom those stats tend to skew (unless, as is often seen in men’s ball, a big guy’s an atrocious free throw shooter; Jackson hit 84.2 percent of hers and Catchings 84.0 percent, in one of those interesting statistical shows where a feat less of pure athleticism and more of precision tends to be something women can do as well or even better than the men.)

Catchings does have one glaring advantage here; because her career longevity was greater than was Jackson’s, her 93.7 career WS is, by almost 30 percent, the WNBA record which Jackson must settle for the silver medal (73.0 WS) on.

That’s significant. That’s the kind of significant that will always keep Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hanging around the conversation for the men until someone breaks his career scoring and Win Shares records. LeBron may yet get there—he will almost assuredly pass Wilt Chamberlain next year, and if he makes it to 40 like Kareem did, he might close the 31.4-WS gap.

Overall Impact

Here’s where we get the distaff counterpart to the Jordan-vs-LeBron argument about championship mentality and all that other intangible stuff that stirs the pot in the many barbershop debates about men’s ball.

Jackson has two championship rings, but she also has eight first-round exits.

Catchings has one ring, two other WNBA Finals appearances, and five other Eastern Conference Finals appearances. Her Fever teams got deeper into the playoffs and generally fell short only against some true powerhouses, like the Bill Laimbeer-coached Detroit Shock in the East or a loss to Maya Moore‘s Minnesota Lynx in the 2015 finals.

Two rings to one is a nice advantage, but “couldn’t get out of the first round” is where the legacy of guys like Carmelo Anthony live in men’s ball. Catchings is more like the LeBron in this scenario, making deep playoff runs but falling short against better teams.

But you’ve got one woman who is 6-8 in playoff series and the other who is 12-12. Advantage Catchings, in a big way.

THE VERDICT!

Look, Jackson was good. Real good. One of the best.

But with all the career records she set, with her greater impact in the playoffs on a more consistent basis, and in terms of having more longevity, this one seems to have a clear winner.

Tamika Catchings is the greatest women’s professional basketball player of all time. The WNBA may never see her like again.