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It’s Time To Give Basketball’s Other GOAT Her Due

ESPN recently finished airing a 10-part documentary, “The Last Dance,” that gave Michael Jordan the last word on his career narrative, solidifying his place atop the NBA’s GOAT hierarchy. And by the numbers, that’s exactly where MJ belongs. But now it’s time to give some love to another hoops GOAT, this one on the women’s side: former Houston Comets guard Cynthia Cooper-Dyke. (She went by Cynthia Cooper during her playing career, but she uses her married name now.) At the same time that Jordan’s last dance was playing out, Cooper-Dyke was dominating the WNBA just like Mike was the NBA — establishing a statistical record that still hasn’t been surpassed.

Cooper-Dyke, who’s now the coach of the Texas Southern women’s basketball team, had been a good player in college at Southern California in the mid-1980s, averaging 17.2 points a contest in her senior season. But she was often overshadowed by teammates Cheryl Miller and Pam and Paula McGee, all of whom were named All-Americans (an honor Cooper-Dyke never received) as part of a dominating Trojans team that went 114-15, won two championships and visited another NCAA final during Cooper-Dyke’s career.

Miller was often regarded as the Michael Jordan of women’s basketball by the time she finished her storied career, and Cooper-Dyke sometimes chafed in her shadow. “There was always this friction/competition between Cheryl and I,” Cooper-Dyke said in “Women of Troy,” an HBO documentary about USC’s ’80s dynasty. “I think she had something to prove, and I definitely had a chip on my shoulder having to prove to her and everyone watching that, ‘Hey, I’m kind of talented too.’”

But Cooper-Dyke’s skills were evident even then, particularly when she was named to the NCAA’s All-Tournament team in 1986 after averaging 19.0 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting during USC’s journey to the championship game.

Because of the lack of professional opportunities for women’s players at the time — the WNBA wouldn’t exist for another 11 years after Cooper-Dyke left college — Cooper-Dyke had to play in Europe, bouncing between teams in Spain and Italy for a decade while producing some incredible stats along the way. In her lone season with Samoa Betera, for instance, Cooper-Dyke led the Spanish league in scoring with 45 points per game, according to her autobiography. She had unlocked a part of her game that had been lurking under the surface at USC.

“I was pumped,” Cooper-Dyke wrote. “Not only was it my first professional experience, but it was the first time I had been a go-to player. I finally had my first real opportunity to showcase my talent. I was ready to shout — ‘Hey! Look at me. I’m on the scene.’”

Cooper-Dyke would go on to lead her league in scoring eight times during her 10 years overseas, never finishing any lower than second. She also won a variety of gold medals for Team USA, including at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. By the beginning of 1997, when the was WNBA preparing a list of players for its inaugural allocation draft, Cooper-Dyke’s exploits in Europe were enough put her in the initial group of 16 franchise players used to seed the league’s eight teams — along with superstars such as Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Teresa Weatherspoon and Rebecca Lobo.


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Still, Cooper-Dyke was somewhat unknown to American fans on the eve of the WNBA’s debut. “Nobody was following what was going on overseas, but she was dominating the Italian league, [she was] the leading scorer, won championships,” Hall of Famer Ticha Penicheiro said in a WNBA feature on Cooper-Dyke. “People just didn’t know about her.”

That changed in a hurry during the WNBA’s initial season. Cooper-Dyke was instantly and obviously the new league’s best player: She won MVP honors while leading the Comets to the league’s best record and the first-ever WNBA championship. She also swept the league’s advanced-stats leaderboard, finishing No. 1 in player efficiency rating, win shares and win shares per 40 minutes. According to a composite mix of PER and WS/40 designed to mimic our RAPTOR NBA ratings,1 Cooper-Dyke added 10.6 points per 100 possessions more than average to Houston’s league-leading +8.7 net rating, carrying the Comets while Swoopes missed the majority of the season after giving birth to her son.

Cooper-Dyke did it all at 34, too — well past the prime age for basketball players. It makes you wonder what feats she might have accomplished if the WNBA had existed just a decade earlier. And as great as Cooper-Dyke was in the WNBA’s first season, she was even better in Year 2. In 1998, she once again:

With apologies to recent accomplishments of Elena Delle Donne and Nneka Ogwumike, Cooper-Dyke’s 1998 may have been the best single-season performance in WNBA history. In terms of composite rating, it trails only Lauren Jackson’s 2006 among seasons of at least 375 minutes:

Cooper-Dyke’s early WNBA seasons are among the best ever

Best single-season composite ratings — based on a mix of player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares per 40 minutes — for WNBA players who played at least 375 minutes that season, 1997-2019

Player Season Age Team PER WS/40 Composite Rating
Lauren Jackson 2006 25 SEA 34.7 .416 +11.5
Cynthia Cooper 1998 35 HOU 31.1 .382 +10.7
Cynthia Cooper 1997 34 HOU 32.2 .385 +10.6
Sheryl Swoopes 2000 29 HOU 32.0 .361 +10.5
Lauren Jackson 2007 26 SEA 35.0 .373 +10.4
Nneka Ogwumike 2016 25 LAS 31.3 .370 +10.3
Sylvia Fowles 2017 31 MIN 30.8 .350 +10.0
Elena Delle Donne 2019 29 WAS 31.8 .343 +9.9
Elena Delle Donne 2015 25 CHI 32.8 .346 +9.4
Lauren Jackson 2003 22 SEA 32.1 .333 +9.2
Cynthia Cooper 1999 36 HOU 29.5 .335 +9.2
Yolanda Griffith 1999 29 SAC 31.9 .330 +9.1
Lauren Jackson 2010 29 SEA 27.9 .333 +8.8
Tamika Catchings 2007 27 IND 29.4 .325 +8.6
Nneka Ogwumike 2017 26 LAS 28.1 .321 +8.5

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Jackson didn’t play as much as Cooper-Dyke did, and Jackson’s team didn’t have nearly as much success in 2006 as Houston did in 1998. Cooper-Dyke’s performance came while logging 35 minutes per game for a team that still holds the record for highest single-season winning percentage (.900) in league history. That season, Cooper-Dyke had as thorough a stranglehold on the WNBA as MJ ever had on the NBA in any of his seasons. (And again, she did it at the ripe old age of 35!)

In 1999, Cooper-Dyke was still dominant, leading the league in win shares (overall and per 40)2 and composite rating — although Sacramento’s Yolanda Griffith wrested away the PER crown and MVP honors. The Comets won their third consecutive WNBA title, however, with Cooper-Dyke once again earning Finals MVP honors. It continued a Jordanesque stretch that helped solidify Cooper-Dyke’s place in history as the WNBA’s GOAT.

And then, in 2000, the Comets had the most impressive run in the history of women’s pro basketball.

At age 37, Cooper-Dyke’s individual stats were beginning to decline. She ranked third on the team in composite rating (+6.3) behind Swoopes (+10.5) — who had fully come into her own as a dominating superstar, winning MVP honors — and Tina Thompson (+6.5). But the 2000 Comets were the best version of their dynasty teams. After a 27-5 regular season, Houston blazed through the playoffs without losing a single game, as Cooper-Dyke won Finals MVP for a fourth consecutive season with 22.5 points and 6 assists per game against the New York Liberty.

We can measure Houston’s rise from a new team to a legendary four-time WNBA champion using Elo ratings, a FiveThirtyEight staple. Before each game, Elo assigns each team a rating that essentially represents their current strength; those ratings (after incorporating home-court advantage and other factors) can be turned into win probabilities for both teams. After the game, the ratings are then adjusted based on the result, with the winner gaining Elo points in proportion to how unexpected the victory was. This spring, my colleague Jay Boice created Elo ratings for the WNBA, which follow the same general framework as our other Elo ratings from the NBA and other sports.3

According to Elo, the 2000 Houston Comets peaked with a rating of 1743 after completing their sweep of the Liberty, which, even two decades later, is still the highest rating ever achieved by a WNBA team.

Sadly, the Comets no longer exist, having folded in 2008. But their legacy as the GOAT lives on. The closest any recent WNBA teams have come to matching the Comets’ peak Elo were the 2014 Phoenix Mercury, who topped out at 1736 after sweeping the Sky for the championship, and the 2017 Los Angeles Sparks, who reached a 1729 Elo when they took a 2-1 lead over the Minnesota Lynx in the Finals. (L.A. would go on to lose its next two games — and the series.) Delle Donne’s 2019 Washington Mystics were the best offensive team in WNBA history, but in terms of Elo, their peak was just 1717, nowhere near the Comets’ best mark.

In retrospect, Houston was lucky to have randomly drawn both Cooper-Dyke and Swoopes in the WNBA’s initial allocation draft, and then to have taken Thompson No. 1 overall in the regular 1997 draft — it instantly gave the Comets a trio of all-time legends from the very start. With all three playing to their full potential, surrounded by solid role players like Janeth Arcain, Kim Perrot and Monica Lamb, it’s no wonder that Houston blossomed into a historic dynasty.

But at the center of it all was Cooper-Dyke, who retired after that 2000 season at the top of the basketball world (before making a brief, four-game comeback in 2003). To this day, she remains the WNBA’s all-time leader in PER (28.7), win shares per 40 (.335) and composite rating (+9.0), with Jackson and Delle Donne distantly tied behind her at +7.3.4 Statistically, Cooper-Dyke is the best ever on a per-possession basis, and it isn’t particularly close:

Cooper-Dyke dominated each and every possession

Best composite ratings — based on a mix of player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares per 40 minutes — for WNBA players with at least 2,250 career minutes played, 1997-2019

Player Games Minutes PER WS/40 Composite Rating
Cynthia Cooper 124 4,363 28.7 .335 +9.0
Elena Delle Donne 190 5,900 28.7 .289 +7.3
Lauren Jackson 317 10,130 28.0 .288 +7.3
Nneka Ogwumike 250 7,309 25.8 .267 +6.4
Yolanda Griffith 311 8,956 25.4 .265 +6.3
Tamika Catchings 457 14,387 26.1 .260 +6.1
Jonquel Jones 136 3,126 25.0 .254 +6.0
Maya Moore 271 8,466 24.6 .253 +6.0
Sylvia Fowles 340 10,387 25.2 .240 +5.6
Breanna Stewart 101 3,339 25.3 .225 +5.2
Candace Parker 315 9,836 25.3 .216 +4.9
Liz Cambage 117 2,910 26.5 .207 +4.7
Brittney Griner 212 6,481 24.8 .213 +4.7
Lisa Leslie 363 11,634 24.3 .206 +4.6
Sheryl Swoopes 324 10,591 23.3 .212 +4.5

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Cooper-Dyke is the only four-time (or even three-time) Finals MVP in league history, and she is still the only back-to-back league MVP winner. She led the greatest dynasty in WNBA history, rising from a relative unknown plying her trade in Europe to become the top player in women’s hoops.

It’s a great story. In fact, now that Jordan’s film is in the books, and once they finish telling Tom Brady’s tale, maybe Cooper-Dyke should be the subject of ESPN’s next documentary about GOAT athletes.

Footnotes

  1. The base formula for a player’s composite rating is =-5.237248 + 0.1741241*PER + 26.0059929*(WS per 40). Then the rating is adjusted to add up to the team’s net rating by adding the residual back into the player’s rating.

  2. Season leaders exclude players with less than 375 minutes that season.

  3. Here are some specifics for our WNBA model:

    • Home-court advantage is worth 80 points of Elo. (In the NBA, it’s worth 100.)
    • The K-factor used for updating ratings is 32 (versus 20 for the NBA).
    • Teams are reverted to a mean of 1500 by one-half between seasons. (In the NBA, they are reverted by a quarter toward a mean of 1505.)
    • In the WNBA playoffs, Elo differences between teams are multiplied by 1.25 before calculating win probabilities, since stronger teams tend to win more often in the postseason.
    • Margin of victory — relative to expectation — matters, just like in our NBA model.
    • Expansion teams start with a rating of 1300.
    • Teams that moved cities carried over the franchise’s previous rating (just like in other sports).
    • Career leaders exclude players with less than 2,250 minutes.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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