When I first informed Seattle Storm director of player development and scouting Jenny Boucek about point guard Sue Bird being named to the All-WNBA Second Team, her immediate response was a look of disbelief.
After telling her the list of players who made the First Team, she came up with a simple response.
"It has to be by position?" she asked, to which I responded in the affirmative. "To me there's no point guards on there -- she's the best point guard in the league this year."
To be fair, there is no specific mandate to vote for a "point guard" and the two players who filled the guard spots -- New York Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter and Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi -- finished the regular season as the league's #1 (Taurasi, 22.6 ppg) and #2 (Pondexter, 21.4 ppg) scorers. Their outstanding all-around seasons made them the fourth (Pondexter) and sixth (Taurasi) best players in the league, according to Kevin Pelton's WARP numbers. Pondexter was the top starter in +/- (+16.5) as well.
"I'll take that," said Bird, when told who made the two guard spots on the First Team. "I don't really see myself beating either of them. When you average 20 points and then for both of them they average 20 and do other things. It's tough to compete with two players like that."
Among those "other things" that Pondexter and Taurasi do is running the team's offense. In fact, Seth Pollack of SBN Arizona has made the argument on multiple occasions that the Mercury play better when Taurasi is playing the offense and, to some extent, the same argument could be made about Pondexter with the ball in her hands on last year's WNBA champion Mercury team.
"In terms of point guards' value, there's no doubt in my mind -- well, see, Cappie and Diana can both run point so this is a tough argument -- but there's no doubt in my mind that if you guys were to field a team, your top five would include a point guard," said Bird. "It would have to -- you wouldn't have five guards, you wouldn't five post players. So with that in mind, when you think about fielding a team, I think point guards with regard to these awards are undervalued."
While Pondexter and Taurasi are certainly able to run point at times, they also both play alongside ball handlers whereas Bird is the Storm's full-time point guard and unquestionably more responsible for typical "point guard" duties. To those that watch the game closely, there's no better player in the league at managing the tempo of a game and keeping teammates involved - that explains, at least in part, why her +/- is among the highest in the league.
"With her having players as good as she has around her, her ability to manage a game, her ability to hit game-winning shots, her ability to control a game from her position, to me that's what a point guard is," said Boucek.
And on the day after Bird hit her second-consecutive game-winning playoff shot, it's clear what separates her from most other point guards in the league and makes her argument stronger.
"That's one of the hardest things for a player to do is find that Zen place of, as a point guard, when do you call your own number," said Boucek, who has also coached Ticha Penicheiro -- easily one of the best point guards ever to grace a basketball court -- with the Sacramento Monarchs. "I think she does that as well as any point guard I've ever seen and she has a good feel for how to get everybody else involved but when's her time. And that's a thing that you can't teach."
What Bird - or other great point guards do - is not only special in terms of the unique value of being able to get other players involved but also in terms of alternating between a focus on individual scoring and the collective output in ways that others aren't necessarily responsible for in a basketball game. The problem is that it's a special ability that's exceedingly difficult to measure, especially without advanced statistics (that are not readily available for the WNBA). So in comparison to other players whose overall player ratings (e.g. WARP) look better because they score points and rebound better, Bird is at a disadvantage because the thing she does particularly well isn't necessarily well accounted for.
Given the nature of basketball, moreso than outrage about Bird's "snub", it might help establish the merits of the argument some basketball analysts have made for changing these All-League awards -- defensive and offensive -- to more of a point guard - perimeter - perimeter - interior - interior format that would better reflect how the game is actually played in most scenarios. As Bird said, it's rare that any basketball team is fielded without someone designated as a "point guard" or, if you dislike that label, a "lead ballhandler". At the same time, Lauren Jackson, for example, doesn't neatly fit in the center spot anyway with the way she plays and perhaps the best way to honor the talent in the league would be a change. Taurasi is best defined as a "wing" in that she can play the shooting guard or small forward (in addition to lead ballhandler) proficiently depending on matchups.
If fluid positions and versatility are the very features that makes the WNBA unique, then it would make sense for its highest honors to reflect that.
Ultimately, although it's certainly an interesting point of discussion with regard to how the game is played and the point guard's role within it, it didn't necessarily appear to be that big a deal to Bird. Aside from her respect from Pondexter and Taurasi, as someone in the process of competing for a championship, she might have a more measured perspective on the matter.
"It's a great honor individually to be named top ten in the league," said Bird when first asked. "There's a lot of great players so to be in that mix is definitely something to be excited about. A lot of it is my team, the coaches, I mean a lot of it. I'm an assist person, right? So there's gotta be somebody on the other end.
"But yeah, it's an honor, it's a great thing, but obviously I'm focused on the Finals."
For more on Sue Bird, the point guard position, and game awareness, check out SBN's Swish Appeal.
For the full list of the All-WNBA teams, visit WNBA.com.