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:
- Led the league in scoring (22.7 PPG).
- Led the league in PER (31.1).
- Led the league in win shares (10.0).
- Led the league in WS per 40 (.382).
- Led the league in composite rating (+10.7).
- Won league MVP.
- Led Houston to the league’s best record (27-3).
- Won WNBA Finals MVP.
- Led Houston to its second straight title.
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
|Elena Delle Donne||2019||29||WAS||31.8||.343||+9.9|
|Elena Delle Donne||2015||25||CHI||32.8||.346||+9.4|
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
|Elena Delle Donne||190||5,900||28.7||.289||+7.3|
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.