WNBA

Can anyone beat the Las Vegas Aces?

Can anyone beat the Las Vegas Aces?

Everyone is once again chasing the Las Vegas Aces, and why wouldn’t they when two trophies sit prominently in the glistening state-of-the-art practice facility built solely for them?

They brought home the initial hardware with a first-year head coach passed over for much of her career. The second run was a dominant stampede to coronation over the super-team built to defeat them. A decimated New York roster served as a denouement.

The historic three-peat to cement the franchise’s dynasty appears ready for the taking.

“We’re not tiptoeing around that. The fact that you put on an Aces uniform, we want a championship,” third-year head coach Becky Hammon said on a Zoom call with reporters. “And we have to work every day with that goal in mind.”

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The Aces are focused on themselves rather than any adversaries. And that group has grown. New York brought in three All-Star starters via free agency or trade ahead of 2023 and nearly took Las Vegas to a determining Game 5. They now have the benefit of an additional year playing alongside each other.

Seattle added its own duo of All-Stars to complement the league’s leading scorer in Jewell Loyd. Phoenix brought in two champions — Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud — to join its own multi-championship franchise stars. There are young teams that could pull off some surprises. The star-studded group in Indiana comes to mind.

The target on the Aces’ backs didn’t fade over the last year. Players know it grew larger and more prominent. A championship isn’t won in May, nor is it won on pedigree. They may have reached the ceiling in October, but now they’re back to building the foundation anew.

“We also understand that what got it done last year isn’t going to get it done this year,” point guard and three-time WNBA champion Chelsea Gray said. “No year has ever been the same in winning a championship, so you start creating those habits since Day 1 of training camp. And I think that the rest of it takes care of itself. You kind of just take it one day at a time and don’t look too far ahead.”

There are common elements to their championship runs. The core four of Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and two-time MVP A’ja Wilson return for a fourth season together. Plum, Wilson and Young were all No. 1 picks by the franchise. Gray, a 2016 champion with the Los Angeles Sparks, joined them in free agency in 2021.

(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Reigning Sixth Player of the Year and another three-time champion, Alysha Clark, is back, as is center Kiah Stokes, the team’s defensive backstop who showed she can contribute to the league’s leading offense when needed.

Las Vegas is so deeply talented that losing legend Candace Parker to retirement didn’t change the team’s projections. Parker wasn’t in Vegas for the team’s 2022 title, and in 2023, she played only 18 of 40 regular-season games and none in the postseason. While her contributions from the bench shouldn’t be overlooked, the Aces experienced consistent winning without her.

“I definitely think these girls are masters at managing expectations,” Hammon said. “The beauty in all of this is the expectation that they have of themselves and each other is probably far greater than anything any outside noise could put on them.”

The Aces lost six regular-season games last year (34-6) en route to the No. 1 overall seed. Their only back-to-back losses came in the final weeks of the regular season while on a packed-in East Coast trip with four games in seven days without the benefit of charter flights. The league officially announced charters will be “phased in” this season, making those stretches in the schedule easier.

Connecticut, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington and New York notched wins against Las Vegas while keeping an Aces offense that averaged 92.8 points per game below 79 points. In general, they limited the Aces’ second-chance attempts and hoped for some off shooting nights while they heated up.

The Liberty were the most successful. They split the season series, 2-2, won the Commissioner’s Cup championship held in Las Vegas and lost the finals, 3-1. In each of New York’s wins, the defense limited at least one Vegas starter while Sabrina Ionescu (and Marine Johannes in the Cup title game) poured in 3-pointers.

The Liberty entered training camp healthy, unlike their first season together, and have an extra year of chemistry. That should show most on the defensive side, which was one of New York’s hurdles against Las Vegas.

Connecticut won with a career 41-point outing from wing DeWanna Bonner. Center Brionna Jones is back from an Achilles injury, but its guard play might not be able to keep up with the Aces.

Dallas is without injured forward Satou Sabally, a blow to their hopes of staying among the top four teams. Los Angeles is in a renewed rebuild after losing forward Nneka Ogwumike. Washington, a team built around defense, is in a similar rebuilding situation and might not have the offense to keep up with Las Vegas even if they do keep the Aces below 80.

Seattle brought in the offense to keep up with Las Vegas. Loyd, an All-Star, led the league in scoring at 24.7 points per game and might see the number go down with added help from Ogwumike and point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.

To defeat the Aces, a team needs to match them or at least come close one-on-one. Storm center Ezi Magbegor played one of her best games against Las Vegas last year, but in the other three meetings was largely kept off the boards. A jump for her and second-year wing Jordan Horston could pose a challenge to Las Vegas.

The ceiling is high for Phoenix, but the basement is low if the pieces, which include first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts, don’t fit.

For the first time in her 10-year career, Brittney Griner is heading into the season without having played overseas. (Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia in 2022.) She said she’s focused on returning to Defensive Player of the Year form.

Combined with Cloud, an All-WNBA defender who locked up Ionescu in the first-round playoff series, the Mercury's defense could cause Las Vegas problems. And Diana Taurasi and Copper can score points in bunches.

Indiana is still a young team developing together, but one that could pull a win or two against the league’s top teams. The first sign the Fever and then-rookie Aliyah Boston were on their way to success was a four-point loss to the Aces a couple weeks into the season.

Indiana showed already in the preseason it's a roster that can put points on the board with two of the NCAA’s top five all-time leading scorers in Caitlin Clark and Kelsey Mitchell. Forward NaLyssa Smith looks more comfortable in her third year after a few injuries derailed her, and Clark and Katie Lou Samuelson can heat up from 3.

Those bumps might loom larger than they first appear when it comes time for the playoffs. The impact of seeding is massive. The first round is best of three in a 2-1 format, and the rest is best of five in a 2-2-1. Las Vegas rarely loses at home, giving the Aces a huge advantage in a final series that would start in the desert. By the time it heads to the other team’s house, as happened the last two seasons, Las Vegas only needs to win one.

Each time, they’ve partied on the way back home.

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