If basketball had a Mount Rushmore, John Wooden and Bill Russell — the latter of whom passed away Sunday at the age of 88 — would be among the top contenders to have their busts chiseled in South Dakota granite.
The leaders of the sport’s greatest dynasties, both men appreciated basketball at its purest and, in turn, were outspoken fans of the women’s game, with Russell attending WNBA games in Las Vegas late in his life.
In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal shortly after Russell’s death, Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon called him “the ultimate winner, on and off the court,” adding, “He’s somebody whose impact on the game is hard to quantify.”
Same goes for Aces forward A’ja Wilson. Her counting stats (19.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg), like Russell’s once were, are impressive, if not quite tops in the league. But the breadth of her impact — like Russell perpetually did, the 6-foot-4 Wilson leads the WNBA in blocks with two per game — is what makes her the MVP favorite at all major mobile sportsbooks that offer the market, including FanDuel (-130), BetRivers (-134), and Barstool (also -134, as both books are powered by Kambi).
Two-woman race for MVP
Wilson’s teammate, 5-foot-8 dynamo Kelsey Plum, is second in the league in scoring with a 20.2 ppg average, and is in a tier by herself behind Wilson and Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart (21.1 ppg, +110 MVP odds at FanDuel) with +550 odds to be named the league’s top performer after claiming Sixth Woman of the Year honors last season.
But make no mistake about it: This is a two-woman race.
In the opinion of WynnBET Senior Trader Motoi Pearson, Wilson “would need to get hurt” for Plum to have a shot at pulling off an upset with five regular-season games remaining.
“Plum is a legitimate scorer and is starting to come into her own, but what Wilson’s worth to the [power] rating, on defense, offense, rebounding, she’s worth more to the team, in my opinion,” Pearson added.
WynnBET’s WNBA futures market is currently closed, but when it opened, he set New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s MVP odds at 50/1. Those odds got as low as 16/1 in late June, but have since risen to the 30/1 ballpark despite the fact that Ionescu, in just her third year (one of which was all but negated due to injury), is averaging over 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, and has already tied Candace Parker for the most career WNBA triple-doubles with three — a number that will likely get multiplied by at least five before the Oregon grad’s playing days are over.
Problem is, New York — or at least its record (12-18) — isn’t very good.
“It was just a poor start [for the Liberty],” said Pearson. “The last MVP winners were with the 1, 2, or 3 seed.”
Lynx could be a tough out
Amazingly, the Liberty held the eighth and final playoff seed heading into Wednesday night’s action, as six sub-.500 teams — all within 2.5 games of each other — are battling for the league’s final three postseason slots.
Of these teams, the Minnesota Lynx have been the most impressive of late, winning six of their last 11.
“I’ve been pretty heavy on the Lynx since they started getting it together,” said Pearson. “If the Lynx get in there, look for them to be a tough out even if they play the Aces or the Sky.”
While the Storm, Washington Mystics, and Connecticut Sun each technically have a chance to catch either the Aces or Sky, oddsmakers put the frontrunners in a tier by themselves to win the WNBA title, with each team priced 2/1 or shorter. Despite trailing the defending champion Sky in the overall league standings, it’s Vegas that’s a narrow favorite to take the cake, having defeated Chicago by a score of 93-83 in the recent Commissioner’s Cup finale.
“Winning a championship is based on a lot of our power rankings, and the Ace and Sky are a couple of tenths off of each other,” explained Pearson. “This far into the season, it was hard to even figure out who had the upper hand in the Commissioner’s Cup. That one game didn’t really do much as far as where they’re at to win the title, but it was definitely important to the power rankings.”
Photo: Matt Marton/USA TODAY