The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 12, 2021
Tamika Catchings in context — Hear more from Tamika — Must-click women's basketball links
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The thing about Tamika Catchings’ career is that it exists as one of the few legitimately great legacies that should extend beyond the box score, past the stats alone.
You hear that about plenty of great players — it doesn’t show up in the box score — but usually? It does. There’s a stat for everything, and so the contributions from a great player are usually pretty measurable.
I am here to tell you that beyond the numbers, I saw it first-hand, again and again: Catchings’ teammates played above their otherwise-established abilities, they played at a level as if infused with the game Catchings herself had. I watched her will her teams to wins they had no business winning.
I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there may someday be another player with a claim on greatest WNBA player, but as of now it belongs to Tamika Catchings. And so it is entirely appropriate that she is getting inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend as the league celebrates the dawn of its 25th season.
But it wouldn’t be necessary to find those beyond-the-box-score things with Catchings. Based on win shares, Catchings isn’t just the most accomplished player in the history of the WNBA. She’s 28.2 percent ahead of Lauren Jackson, who is second on the list. I just have to emphasize this: her career was 28.2 percent more valuable than anyone else who ever played in the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Win Shares is a cumulative stat, reflecting an absurd collection of different skills. Catchings is tenth in effective field goal percentage, 37th in assist percentage, 12th all-time in blocked shots — the latter two normally the province of guards and bigs, despite Catchings being a 6’1 wing — but her favorite stat is mine as well.
“You know, I would say steals,” Catchings said. “I would say the defensive aspect.”
She has 1,064 career steals. No one else in WNBA history has 800.
I talked in this space recently about Elena Delle Donne’s career, and how the idea that injuries could rob her of her rightful 30s is a terrible loss for basketball. Well, Catchings had that 30s that a great player dreams of — 38.9 win shares after age 30 — and even in her final season, she was a four-win player, the best on a playoff team. Retirement was not as a result of a decline in skills, and nerds like me are sad we didn’t see her stick around and reach 100 win shares. She could have reached it simply if she hadn’t gotten hurt in her senior season at Tennessee and played a normal rookie year — she’s at 93.66, and she was worth 9.2 win shares in her rookie season, so the math adds up.
(Incidentally, it was the greatest rookie season ever, too, unless you count Cynthia Cooper’s age-34 campaign in 1997 as a rookie campaign, which it was only because there wasn’t a WNBA before 1997.)
I asked her whether she missed it sometimes, not doing the squeeze-the-orange-dry like Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird have. Catchings responded by telling me a story.
“Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a basketball and go shooting, but I so I retired in 2016,” Catchings said. “My plan was that I would still be around and practice with the team on occasion. So I started off training camp actually in 2017. Nobody noticed I actually started in training camp, and then Tiffany Mitchell came back from overseas, and the first practice she was back, we collided. And I remember I was laying on the floor and I was looking up at the ceiling of the gym. And in my mind all of a sudden I was like: ‘What am I doing?’ And I hobbled off the court, went into the locker room, changed clothes, came out, I had to wear heels that day. I thought I had torn my ACL. And I was like, okay, and that is the last day that I practiced. That’s the last day I played competitively.”
So blame Tiffany Mitchell, I suppose. Or that Catchings has no shortage of other interests and pursuits. But as a veteran sportswriter, let me tell you, the stories are always different, but they start to rhyme. You can see how one or another might turn out, you’ve seen something similar before.
I never saw anything like Tamika Catchings. And I doubt very much I ever will again. It’s always a good time to celebrate her greatness.
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I am told by Risa there’s a full paper to come on this. You can be sure we’ll have it for you in a future edition of The IX.