The 2019 season began with a handful of players sidelined for various reasons. But it turned out that the league didn't lack star power.
Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne was the unanimous choice as espnW's top player for 2019. As for our awards for coach and rookie of the year, one was decided by a decisive vote, and one was a tough call that could have gone another way.
Before the playoffs open Wednesday, it's time to present espnW's picks for the 2019 WNBA regular-season award winners, including our all-league first team. ESPN's Rebecca Lobo, LaChina Robinson, Ryan Ruocco and Pam Ward, The Undefeated's Sean Hurd, ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton and espnW's Katie Barnes and Mechelle Voepel voted on our panel.
espnW Most Valuable Player: Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
It was one moment in one recent game, but it symbolized so well what a potent weapon Elena Delle Donne is for No. 1 seed Washington.
The Mystics worked the ball inside, and a shot was open. But there was an even better opportunity from beyond the 3-point line. That's where Elena Delle Donne was, having briefly slipped the defense that was designed to stop her from doing just that.
Swish. From anywhere on court, Delle Donne is money. She has played at an MVP level since she entered the WNBA as the No. 2 overall pick by the Chicago Sky in 2013 and was rookie of the year. She won the MVP in 2015 and is our espnW pick for the honor again this year. The vote was unanimous.
Delle Donne was the best player on the best team, and her stats speak for themselves. She averaged 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the regular season.
This season, she reached the coveted 50/40/90 milestone, the first WNBA player to do so: She shot 51.5% from the field overall, 43% from 3-point range and 97.4% from the foul line. Her overall and free throw percentages were the best of her career. The only time she has shot better from outside the arc was her rookie season in 2013, with 43.8%.
It was evident even then that Delle Donne would be the pro superstar everyone was expecting she'd be. But we've seen the development of a true leader in her three seasons in Washington. And when it comes to making plays in the clutch, Delle Donne is outstanding.
"She took a team in Chicago to the finals that probably wasn't quite there yet. But they rode that talent," coach Mike Thibault said of Delle Donne's helping the Sky reach the WNBA Finals in 2014. "The other part of 'clutch' is being able to play through tough situations. If there was ever any doubt about that, when she was hurt last year in the Atlanta series and found a way to get herself healthy enough to play ... that, to me, was the ultimate in being 'clutch.'"
Delle Donne suffered a bone bruise in her left knee in the second game of the 2018 semifinals against the Dream and missed the third game. She then did nonstop rehab and was able to play in the final two games of that series and all three contests of the WNBA Finals against champion Seattle. Even far from 100 percent, Delle Donne was a crucial player for the Mystics.
This year, she has dealt with some lingering knee pain and suffered a broken nose during a game on July 7. She has played with a mask since, but it hasn't slowed her down. Nothing has.
Delle Donne improved her defensive play just as the Mystics did as a team. Offensively, they were one of the best teams in any regular season in history. The Mystics led the league in points per game at 89.3 and offensive rating at 112.8. They made 316 3-pointers, 62 more than the next-best team from long range. At least six Mystics players made 30 or more 3s, including Delle Donne's team-high 52.
espnW Rookie of the Year: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx
Many observers got very invested in -- and even rather testy about -- who would win this award. The fact that it was between UConn grad Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx and Notre Dame grad Arike Ogunbowale of the Dallas Wings might have had something to do with that. But it was also the fact that No. 6 draft pick Collier and No. 5 Ogunbowale -- both of whom made position changes at the pro level -- presented compelling cases from an intriguing rookie class that as a group should have long-term impact and could have some MVP candidates at some point.
No matter which one wins the official award, it will be just the fifth time in the past 15 years that the rookie of the year is not a No. 1 draft pick. This year, that was Notre Dame junior Jackie Young, who has had a very good first season for the Las Vegas Aces. Look for her, No. 2 pick Asia Durr of the New York Liberty, No. 3 Teaira McCowan of the Indiana Fever and No. 4 Katie Lou Samuelson of Chicago as players to watch in the future.
But the rookie race came down to two players. Ogunbowale's scoring numbers were bigger: She averaged 19.1 points, third-best in the league, and had five games scoring 30 or more. She transitioned to point guard and was the focal point of Dallas' attack -- her usage rate was 28.8, and she shot 38.8% from the field -- in what was a rebuilding year for the Wings.
But Collier was our nearly unanimous choice for her all-around impact on the playoff-bound Lynx.
Collier went from the power forward position in college to small forward for the Lynx. She never tried to "replace" Maya Moore, who is taking a basketball sabbatical, but instead focused on being the best version of herself.
"Her steady way -- you know exactly what you're getting," Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said of Collier. "It's hard to do as a young player but also for any player. Especially with the expectations for this team and basically playing Maya's position. But she was unfazed by it."
Collier got off to a big start, with 27 points and six rebounds in her first regular-season game, and she stayed productive all season. She averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 steals. She shot 49.0% from the field and 36.1 from 3-point range while making some adjustments to her shot.
As Lynx center Sylvia Fowles attested, Collier adapted well to a position that is demanding defensively as well as offensively.
"She caught on very fast," Fowles said. "It was like, 'I know we've taken you from more a post-player perspective and put you out there on the wing, and you have to chase these guards around and perform at a high level from the 3 spot.'
"But she took it in stride. She came in very professional. We never really looked at her as a rookie."
espnW Coach of the Year: James Wade, Chicago Sky
This award could have gone several directions. Mike Thibault orchestrated the league's best offense even during stretches in which he didn't have Emma Meesseman (early in the season) and Kristi Toliver (late). The Mystics carried the mantle as the league's best team for most of the season.
The Connecticut Sun's Curt Miller adjusted to the trade of Chiney Ogwumike and led the Sun to one of the playoff double-byes. Minnesota's Cheryl Reeve is without most of the Lynx core that won four titles, but she got the team into the postseason. All three would make good choices for coach of the year.
But by a narrow margin, Wade edged Thibault in our vote. Wade, who was an assistant with Minnesota and San Antonio, was hired in November to take over the Sky. His stated goals then were simple but profoundly important to getting the franchise back in the postseason: "I really want the players to feel comfortable and have a good chemistry."
To get there, the Sky needed their spirits lifted, and Wade did that. He is Chicago's sixth coach since the team began in 2006. The most success came during Pokey Chatman's six seasons, including a trip to the 2014 WNBA Finals, but she was let go in 2016.
Then the Sky went 25-43 in two seasons under Amber Stocks, missing the playoffs both times. Chicago seemed close to being a good team but just not close enough. The defensive woes that plagued the franchise lingered. Wade needed to help the Sky improve on that side of the ball, plus gain confidence and consistency.
Those things happened. Admittedly, the Sky still aren't as good defensively as Wade knows they can be. But they moved up to ninth in defensive rating (100.1), a jump from last place (109.9) in 2018. Their net rating of 1.4 put them right in the middle of the pack at sixth, compared to last season's minus-8.1.
That's because the offense, led by the back court of Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, was so good -- even without much contribution from No. 4 draft pick Katie Lou Samuelson because of injury. The Sky finished with the league's second-best offensive rating (101.6) behind the Mystics. Diamond DeShields (16.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG) became an All-Star in her second season.
As a 5-foot-10 guard, Wade played a dozen seasons overseas. He has also been a coach overseas for several years. He knows how to grind and how to stay committed to the mission while having fun. The Sky reflected all of that this season, finishing 20-14 and getting the No. 5 seed.
WNBA all-league first team
There might be a lack of perimeter presence on our espnW 2019 all-WNBA first team. This isn't because guard play wasn't good this season. It was more that the post players were so strong.
Our top five features one "true" guard, along with a post player who has crazy-good guard skills. These five could rack up the points, but they play good defense too. All will be leading their teams into the playoffs.
Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics, F/G
2019 stats: 19.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.2 APG
Delle Donne's dominance is reflected not just in her own statistics but also in how much she impacts the opportunities teammates get. The Mystics have one of the best offenses in WNBA history, and that revolves around Delle Donne, who led the league in player impact estimate (PIE) at 21.1. Her sharp-shooting from everywhere at 6-foot-5 always has made her one of the toughest players in the league to guard. At the line, she's as automatic as it gets (97.4%).
Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago Sky, G
2019 stats: 11.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 9.1 APG
You thought we'd seen the best of Vandersloot the passer? Nope, she had another gear, which she has found this season in helping the Sky reach the playoffs after a two-year absence. Vandersloot led the WNBA in assists (300) by a wide margin, with 98 more than second-place Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks, and was tops in assists percentage (43.4). Vandersloot shot 45.2% from the field, so her playmaking isn't the only threat.
Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury, C
2019 stats: 20.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.0 BPG
In a frustrating season, the Phoenix Mercury still got a playoff spot. Griner led the league in scoring average, was second in shooting percentage (56.4) among players who took at least 75 shots and was second in blocked shots (62). She put on a dunking show at the All-Star Game and threw down a couple during the regular season as well. A skirmish with Dallas rookie Kristine Anigwe cost Griner a three-game suspension, but when she was on the floor, she anchored Phoenix.
Jonquel Jones, Connecticut Sun, F/C
2019 stats: 14.6 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.0 BPG
Connecticut is a team built more on sum-of-all-parts chemistry than individual stardom. But when the Sun need someone to be a go-to player, Jones is one of the best options. She had a breakout season her second year in the league, and now in her fourth, she has become an even better defensive player. Her steals (43) and blocked shots (68) totals are the best of her career, and she led the league in blocks.
Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles Sparks, F
2019 stats: 16.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.9 SPG
The 2016 MVP continues to expand her game. This season she had a career-high 23 3-pointers. Her rebound (282) and steals (60) totals were second-best of her career. With a new coach in Derek Fisher and players out due to injuries/suspension, Los Angeles needed Ogwumike to be the steadying influence that she has been throughout her career. The Sparks had their ups and downs this season, but Ogwumike led the way in getting them the No. 3 seed.
Also receiving votes: Diamond DeShields, Chicago; Chelsea Gray, Los Angeles; Natasha Howard, Seattle; Leilani Mitchell, Phoenix