Why Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles should win WNBA MVP

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Twenty years ago this week -- Aug. 30, 1997 -- the WNBA crowned its first champion, Houston, and celebrated Comets star Cynthia Cooper. She was the MVP that inaugural WNBA season, and also the next year, too.

But that's the only time that anyone has won back-to-back MVP honors in the WNBA. That will remain true if our espnW projected pick this season actually wins the award.

Every season, some awards are tougher to decide than others, and there are always late pushes for honors. In all cases, there's more than one person deserving of the award, and plenty of debate goes into all of them. So here goes:

MVP: Sylvia Fowles, Minnesota, 6-6, C

Fowles is having the best season of her career, becoming as potent an offensive force as she has long been on defense. She is averaging 19.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals for the Lynx, who've secured a bye into the semifinals.

She is shooting a career-high 65.3 percent from the field and is at 78.3 percent from the line, which ties her career best. Her 31.3 player efficiency rating (PER) is the highest she has had, and would be 10th-best all time for a WNBA season. She also leads the league this year in win shares at 8.4.

"It always was at the back of my mind," Fowles said of the MVP award as a goal. "It comes with time. I started off as more a defensive player. I don't focus on individual stuff, but I've worked hard for it. It would mean a lot to be able to get that award."

Her coach, Cheryl Reeve said, "She's just been physically dominant. And she's been mentally engaged game in and game out. And the thing I love about Syl is she's learned from every one of her challenges, and added that to her information bank."

Who else should be considered?: Los Angeles' Candace Parker, the 2008 and '13 MVP, is likely the biggest challenger. She has been tremendous, as has last year's MVP, teammate Nneka Ogwumike. New York's Tina Charles, the 2012 MVP and runner-up last year, might also nab some votes.

Rookie of the Year: Allisha Gray, Dallas, 6-0, G

What a year it has been for Gray. She helped South Carolina win its first NCAA women's basketball title in April, was drafted No. 4 overall by Dallas and now is helping the Wings as they try to make the playoffs.

Gray has averaged 13.2 points, third-best for the Wings, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals. She started every game, and has shown leadership even as a rookie on a young team. Her defense also has translated well at the pro level.

Who else should be considered?: Atlanta's Brittney Sykes, who was the No. 7 selection out of Syracuse, is averaging 13.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists for the Dream. She has started 21 games this season.

San Antonio's Kelsey Plum was the No. 1 pick, and that slot in the draft has won this award in 10 of the last 13 years. But a sprained ankle delayed the start of Plum's season, and her minutes were sporadic until the end of June.

Gray would be the lowest draft pick to earn Rookie of the Year since LSU's Temeka Johnson, who was No. 6 by the Mystics in 2005. Sykes would tie for lowest ever, matching North Carolina's Tracy Reid, picked seventh by Charlotte in 1998.

Defensive Player of the Year: Alana Beard, Los Angeles, 5-11, G/F

We made a case for Beard last week, and then she had a strong showcase game defensively on ESPN2 on Sunday, when the Sparks beat the Lynx. Beard was primarily responsible for guarding Minnesota's Maya Moore, and helped limit the Lynx star to 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting.

Beard, who is in her 12th WNBA season, has long been known for her ability as a defensive stopper.

"Alana is just so versatile; she can get out and create steals and blow plays up," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "When you're fatigued, your mind is the first thing to go, before the body. But she never loses her focus on what needs to get done."

Who else should be considered?: Fowles is another strong candidate, and has won it three times previously.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Jonquel Jones, Connecticut, 6-6, F/C

This award often goes to a second-year player who blossoms after a solid rookie year. And that's the case with Jones, although she has been so impressive that she will get MVP consideration.

Jones' 14-point, 22-rebound, six-assist effort against Washington on Tuesday was a perfect example of her enormous impact. With that victory, the Sun secured a bye into the second round of the playoffs in a season many expected to see the team closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

Jones is averaging 15.8 points and a league-leading 12.0 rebounds, and had an impressive All-Star Game, too, in which she dunked.

Who else should be considered?: Jones was the No. 6 pick of the 2016 draft by Los Angeles and was traded to the Sun for guard Chelsea Gray, who is also a candidate for most improved player this year.

Gray became an impact player late last season for the Sparks, then played an important role coming off the bench in helping them win the WNBA championship. This season, she's started every game for the Sparks and is averaging 15.1 points and 4.4 assists.

Sixth Woman Player of the Year: Renee Montgomery, Minnesota, 5-7, G

This was the hardest of all the awards to pick, and you're likely to be torn no matter whom you choose. Ultimately, Montgomery got the nod here for a body of work all season long that has included starting since point guard Lindsay Whalen was hurt Aug. 3.

Montgomery won this award in 2012 when she played for Connecticut. That came the season after she had started every game, but she has adapted to the mindset of being an effective sixth player.

"I'm one of those people that if it works for the team, it works for me," said Montgomery, who averages 7.5 points and 3.5 assists for the Lynx. "Once people saw I had a spark off the bench, it became my niche. It's made me valuable to a team."

Who else should be considered?: New York guard Sugar Rodgers also has a lot of momentum for this award. She has started 15 games this season, but in July started coming off the bench. The Liberty's current eight-game winning streak might work a lot in Rodgers' favor for Sixth Woman, as will her averages of 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists.

Phoenix's Leilani Mitchell, Dallas' Kayla Thornton and Connecticut's Alex Bentley are also in the conversation.

Coach of the Year: Curt Miller, Connecticut

This was the easiest choice of the awards, although the late winning streak by New York brought Bill Laimbeer into the conversation. But Miller, in his second season with the Sun, is the clear pick.

Despite not having 2014 No. 1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike (Achilles' tendon) this season, the Sun are not just in the playoffs, but have a first-round bye. There were those who lauded the Sun even before the season started (we remember you called this, Rebecca Lobo), but in general, not that much was expected of Connecticut.

Things began grimly, with the Sun losing five of their first six games in May to open the season. Then things started to click, and that's pretty much what has been happening ever since.

The Sun's chemistry has been very strong, and players such as guard Jasmine Thomas and forward Alyssa Thomas have really come into their own. Along with the aforementioned development of Jones into a franchise-type player.

Miller was a longtime college coach who became a WNBA assistant in 2015 and then was hired as coach and general manager for Connecticut before the 2016 season. He has constructed a team that can think about competing for a championship sooner rather than later.