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They’re the Worthy Ones

There is a week left in the regular season. For a change, the playoff races are tight in both conferences. And when there are close races, that often means there are a lot of players contributing to the success of their teams.

That is making this one of the more difficult seasons to pick the regular-season most valuable player. Voters tend to like a definitive candidate from a team with one of the top records. But this season the best teams, Connecticut and Sacramento, are just that -- teams. Their excellence can be traced to the sum of their parts instead of one mighty cog.

Here is one observer’s take on the MVP and other potential award winners.

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MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Candidates: Sheryl Swoopes, Houston; Lauren Jackson, Seattle; Nykesha Sales, Connecticut.

Sales edges out teammate Taj McWilliams-Franklin as the Sun’s top player because she has been the more consistent. McWilliams-Franklin got off to a great start, then cooled. Sales is matching her career high in scoring (16.1 points) and she is more apt to take the big shots at the end of a game. But although Sales is fourth in the league in scoring and sixth in steals (1.8), she is not a strong rebounder (3.8) or an accomplished passer (2.2 assists).

Jackson won the award in 2003, and that year the Storm didn’t make the playoffs. She is putting up solid numbers again -- second in the WNBA in scoring (18.3) and rebounding (9.2), fourth in blocked shots (1.89) and minutes played (35.2). And she has the defending champions in position to defend their title, currently second in the West.

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The nod should go to Swoopes, who stands to become the league’s first three-time MVP winner. (Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie are also two-time selections.) Swoopes leads the WNBA in scoring (18.7), is second in steals (2.0) and 10th in assists (4.2). More remarkable, no one has played more total minutes this season than 34-year-old Swoopes (1,147), who was the All-Star game MVP. In addition, she has kept Houston in playoff contention, despite the Comets’ missing All-Star forward Tina Thompson much of the year.

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COACH OF THE YEAR

Candidates: Mike Thibault, Connecticut; John Whisenant, Sacramento; Brian Winters, Indiana.

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There were preseason predictions that had Winters being the first coach fired this season. Instead, he has done wonders with a Fever team many thought was a middle-of-the-pack squad. Indiana is second in the East and has set a franchise record with 18 victories, despite an offense that ranks 11th among 13 teams (64.13 points).

When Whisenant took over for Maura McHugh in the middle of the 2003 season, he wasn’t sure he wanted to coach because of his responsibilities as general manager. But the Monarchs have had a 52-28 regular-season record on his watch, including 22-8 this season and have clinched first in the Western Conference for the first time.

Still, the award should go to Thibault. He finished second in the voting last year while guiding the Sun to first in the Eastern Conference during the regular season and playoffs. The most impressive thing about Connecticut is not the record (24-6) but that the team did not take a step backward after a surprising playoff run. What also should intrigue the voters is the Sun’s style of play. Although the team can slow it down when necessary, it has been the best running team in the WNBA this season.

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ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Candidates -- Temeka Johnson, Washington; Katie Feenstra, San Antonio; Tan White, Indiana.

White, who scored 23 points a game her senior year at Mississippi State, is not a surprise because the Fever desperately needed another scorer to complement Tamika Catchings. White has averaged 7.7 points, third among rookies, and scored in double figures six times, including a career-high 26 against Seattle on June 4.

But she hasn’t been in double figures since June 18 and her 34.3% shooting suggests that White doesn’t have the best shot selection.

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Feenstra has been a surprise. She is second among rookies in points (8.6) and leads rookies in rebounding (5.0) and blocked shots (1.32). Her biggest problem has been playing for lowly San Antonio. If Feenstra gets leaner and stronger, she will be a handful to guard.

Johnson should win it. She is not only the smallest player in the league but was asked as a rookie to be the Mystics’ floor leader. She has been a terrific passer -- her 5.4 assists a game rank second in the league to Seattle’s Sue Bird -- and a better scorer than advertised. She leads rookies at 9.4 points a game.

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MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

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Candidates: Nicole Powell, Sacramento; Ann Wauters, New York.

This category usually has a cluster of names. But these two players made the biggest jumps in 2005.

Wauters rarely gets mentioned in conversations about the WNBA’s top centers. But the Belgian, who has been sidelined since breaking a bone in her right hand Aug. 12, had been averaging career highs in points (13.7) and rebounds (6.6) and had given the Liberty an inside presence people thought it had lost when Tari Phillips left for Houston as a free agent.

But Wauters is edged by Powell, whose play and presence have been critical in Sacramento’s ascent to the top of the West.

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After spending her rookie season chained to the bench in Charlotte, Powell was liberated by a trade to Sacramento. She is averaging 11.0 points, up from 4.3 points last year. Her three-point proficiency -- tied for first in three-pointers made (59), 10th in shooting (42.1%) -- has stretched out defenses, making the inside work of Yolanda Griffith, DeMya Walker and Rebekkah Brunson more potent.


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