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Do The WNBA’s Most Improved Players Keep Up Their Success?

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The 2020 WNBA season was unlike any other, in its bubble on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In just 74 days of games, we saw A’ja Wilson outduel Breanna Stewart for Most Valuable Player, Courtney Vandersloot and Sue Bird set single-game assist records, and many other players surprise us with their improved performance from a season ago. One of the biggest of those surprises was the performance of Atlanta Dream guard/forward Betnijah Laney.

In 2019, Laney had averaged a then-career-high 5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for the Indiana Fever, but a few weeks before teams reported to Bradenton this year, the team cut her. A week later, the Atlanta Dream signed Laney, hoping she could bring defensive energy and versatility.

Laney did that and much more, defying the preseason scouting reports that labeled her an offensive afterthought. She started all 22 games for the Dream and averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game en route to winning the 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player award.

The MIP award has been given out since 2000, when New York Liberty forward/center Tari Phillips won the inaugural award. Since then, there have been co-MIPs once (Connecticut’s Wendy Palmer and Indiana’s Kelly Miller in 2004), and only one player has won the award multiple times (Leilani Mitchell in 2010 with New York and in 2019 with Phoenix).

But what, exactly, does a player have to do to be Most Improved? And do winners usually use the award as a springboard to even better performances in the next season, or do they regress to their previous level of performance? To answer those questions, we compiled data from Her Hoop Stats on all 22 award winners in their MIP season and the seasons directly before and after.

What is the profile of a Most Improved Player?

Most Improved Players tend to win the award relatively early in their careers. On average, MIPs are in their fourth WNBA season, but eight of the 22 winners (36 percent) have been second-year players.

During their winning season, Most Improved Players played an average of 29.5 minutes per game and averaged 12.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. In 2001, Houston Comets guard Janeth Arcain was the iron woman of this group, averaging 36.0 minutes per game, while Erin Buescher in 2006 (19.6 minutes per game) remains the only player to win the award while averaging less than 20 minutes per game.

On average, winners played 13.4 more minutes per game than in the previous season and recorded 7.5 more points, 2.7 more rebounds and 1.0 more assists. Every MIP increased her statistics in all four categories except for Indiana guard Shavonte Zellous in 2013, whose 1.7 assists per game equaled her 2012 average.

Almost all MIPs got better in every major category

Change in per-game stats for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player from the year before winning the award to the winning season

Season Player Minutes Points Rebs. Assts.
2020 Betnijah Laney +7.5 +11.6 +0.7 +2.3
2019 Leilani Mitchell +15.5 +8.4 +1.6 +1.7
2018 Natasha Howard +13.9 +8.9 +4.0 +0.3
2017 Jonquel Jones +14.4 +8.6 +8.2 +0.9
2016 Elizabeth Williams +23.0 +8.6 +4.9 +0.8
2015 Kelsey Bone +5.8 +6.1 +1.0 +0.6
2014 Skylar Diggins-Smith +8.8 +11.6 +0.6 +1.2
2013 Shavonte Zellous +9.0 +7.2 +0.7 +0.0
2012 Kristi Toliver +7.9 +6.3 +1.3 +2.0
2011 Kia Vaughn +20.0 +8.0 +5.3 +0.8
2010 Leilani Mitchell +16.0 +6.9 +1.4 +1.6
2009 Crystal Langhorne +14.2 +7.2 +3.9 +0.5
2008 Ebony Hoffman +13.6 +6.2 +3.8 +1.0
2007 Janel McCarville +7.0 +5.9 +1.3 +0.3
2006 Erin Buescher Perperoglou +10.6 +6.4 +2.6 +0.4
2005 Nicole Powell +16.7 +6.4 +1.3 +1.3
2004 Wendy Palmer +10.5 +4.3 +2.2 +0.4
2004 Kelly Miller +16.8 +4.6 +1.6 +1.7
2003 Michelle Snow +15.3 +5.3 +4.0 +0.8
2002 Coco Miller +21.4 +7.6 +3.1 +2.2
2001 Janeth Arcain +5.5 +10.1 +0.5 +1.0
2000 Tari Phillips +21.1 +9.7 +5.9 +0.6
Average +13.4 +7.5 +2.7 +1.0

Source: Her Hoop Stats

Increased playing time can account for some of the increased production, but MIPs were also generally more efficient on offense. Winners’ effective field-goal percentage increased by an average of 4.2 percentage points, while their player efficiency ratings rose from 13.0 in the previous season — slightly below the league average of 15.0 — to well above average at 18.8. Some winners, such as Arcain and Laney, took on much larger offensive roles, but on average, winners’ usage rates increased by less than 3 percentage points, and five winners actually had lower usage rates than in the previous season.

Finally, offensive and defensive ratings — which indicate the number of points a player scores and allows, respectively, per 100 possessions — have risen steadily since the WNBA’s inception in 1997, making them less informative measures of player effectiveness for this analysis. However, the winners’ net ratings — the difference between their offensive and defensive ratings — show that these players have been an average of 12 points per 100 possessions better in their MIP-winning season than in the season prior.

This year’s candidates

Laney’s minutes increased only modestly from 2019 to 2020 (+7.5) compared to previous award winners, but her leap from 5.6 points per game in 2019 to 17.2 in 2020 was tied with Skylar Diggins-Smith’s 2014 surge as a member of the Tulsa Shock for the largest increase ever among Most Improved Player award winners. She also recorded the largest increase in assists (2.3), narrowly beating out Washington’s Coco Miller (2.2) in 2002, and the second-largest increase in usage rate (9.4 percentage points) behind Arcain (13.0 points) in 2001.

Yet Laney did not run away with the award, winning just 25 of a possible 47 votes (53 percent). Washington’s Myisha Hines-Allen, who got 21 votes, was also doing unprecedented things in the WNBA bubble. One season removed from playing fewer than eight minutes per game, Hines-Allen was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and averaged 17.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 29.9 minutes per game.

Had Hines-Allen won the award instead of Laney, she would have had the largest increase in points per game (14.7) of any winner and the second-largest increases in minutes, rebounds, assists and effective field-goal percentage.

How do MIPs fare the following season?

For the most part, players who won the Most Improved Player award performed at the same level the following season. Their average minutes (-0.9), points (-1.1) and rebounds (-0.4) per game all barely decreased, while their assists per game held steady.

However, those averages could obscure dramatic changes in individual performance, if about half of winners continued to improve their performance while the other half returned to their previous level of performance. Instead, most winners saw their performance plateau in the season after winning Most Improved Player. Fifteen of 21 winners1 averaged within five minutes per game of their average the season before, and 17 averaged within 4 points of their average in the previous year. Fourteen increased or decreased their rebounding by less than one per game, and 15 did the same in assists.

Some surges were easier to maintain than others

Change in per-game stats for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player from the year of winning the award to the subsequent season

Season Player Minutes Points Rebs. Assts.
2019 Leilani Mitchell +0.2 -3.3 -0.2 +1.4
2018 Natasha Howard +5.7 +4.9 +1.8 +1.1
2017 Jonquel Jones -8.0 -3.6 -6.4 +0.2
2016 Elizabeth Williams -3.1 -1.5 -0.9 +0.2
2015 Kelsey Bone -13.6 -9.3 -2.6 -1.1
2014 Skylar Diggins-Smith -3.0 -2.3 +0.2 +0.0
2013 Shavonte Zellous -3.9 -3.7 -0.6 +0.4
2012 Kristi Toliver -1.5 -3.4 -0.6 -1.5
2011 Kia Vaughn -5.2 -3.7 -1.7 -0.2
2010 Leilani Mitchell -3.4 -3.7 -0.5 -0.9
2009 Crystal Langhorne +4.3 +4.3 +1.8 +0.2
2008 Ebony Hoffman -1.1 -0.5 -1.9 -0.3
2007 Janel McCarville +5.2 +3.3 +0.6 +1.0
2006 Erin Buescher Perperoglou +8.1 +1.6 +2.2 +1.2
2005 Nicole Powell -2.8 -1.1 +0.3 +0.0
2004 Wendy Palmer +2.1 +0.6 +0.2 +0.1
2004 Kelly Miller -1.2 +0.0 -0.7 -0.7
2003 Michelle Snow -1.4 -0.3 +0.0 -0.2
2002 Coco Miller +4.2 +3.2 +0.2 +0.0
2001 Janeth Arcain -1.1 -7.1 -0.3 -0.2
2000 Tari Phillips +1.2 +1.5 +0.0 +0.2
Average -0.9 -1.1 -0.4 +0.0

Source: Her Hoop Stats

One recent exception to this rule is Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard. Howard won Most Improved Player along with a WNBA title in 2018, averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 22.2, 12th-best in the league. The following season, with Seattle stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird sidelined by injuries, Howard took her game to an MVP level, ranking in the top seven in the WNBA with 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and a 24.0 PER.

Who might win MIP in 2021?

Several players had stat lines in 2020 close to the average for a pre-MIP season and could be poised for a breakout in 2021. Here are a few of those candidates:

Kennedy Burke, Indiana Fever: In her first season playing in new head coach Marianne Stanley’s system, the second-year guard averaged 7.2 points and 1.1 assists in 18.3 minutes per game. Burke had 23 points and 17 points in two games against the WNBA champion Seattle Storm, showing that she can be a scoring threat against even the toughest defenses.

Te’a Cooper, Los Angeles Sparks: The rookie guard averaged 7.0 points and 2.0 assists in 17.2 minutes per game this season and could see much more playing time if the Sparks don’t retain one or more of Chelsea Gray, Seimone Augustus and Riquna Williams, who are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. (Cooper must also re-sign with the Sparks, but the team has exclusive negotiating rights.)

Lauren Cox, Indiana Fever: The No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft had an underwhelming rookie season, playing in only 14 games and averaging 3.6 points and 3.3 rebounds. If she’s fully healthy next year after missing time this season because of COVID-19 and a knee injury, she and young center Teaira McCowan could be the nightmare for opponents that many have been anticipating since Cox was drafted.

Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix Mercury: Like Cooper, Cunningham could be poised to play more minutes next season depending on what Phoenix general manager Jim Pitman decides about free agent guards Diana Taurasi, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Shey Peddy and Yvonne Turner. Cunningham averaged 5.0 points and 0.8 assists this season, but she scored nearly 2,200 points in her college career at Missouri and is a much better 3-point shooter than her 23.5 percent accuracy this season suggests.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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