This collision course was no accident: How the Aces and Liberty were built
Whispers of the return of WNBA superteams started in late January as the 2023 free agency period opened.
On Jan. 28, the first domino fell. Unrestricted free agent Candace Parker announced she was headed to the Las Vegas Aces. The defending champion already was returning all of its starters from the 2022 title team — including A’ja Wilson — and now was adding a two-time MVP.
On Feb. 1, when players could officially sign contracts and offer sheets, the New York Liberty locked in Breanna Stewart in the biggest move in WNBA free agent history. Just 24 hours later, the Liberty added point guard Courtney Vandersloot. Those moves, after trading for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones two weeks earlier, sparked immediate superteam talk.
With months to go before the season opened, many experts penciled in the Aces and Liberty for a WNBA Finals matchup.
But there were questions: How quickly would the Liberty get all the pieces put together? Could the Aces book a return trip to the championship series? The answers have been answered emphatically. After months of talk of superteams and destiny, the 2023 WNBA Finals matchup many envisioned tips off Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).
The series has the potential to be epic. The Finals will feature a trio of former MVPs, five former No. 1 draft picks and two of the best point guards in the world.
And now, after the longest season in league history (the WNBA expanded its regular season to 40 games this summer), the question is whether the Aces will become the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02, or whether the Liberty — the last remaining original franchise yet to win a title — will finally get their first?
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) October 5, 2023
How the Aces were built
A’ja Wilson, F/C: The Aces’ centerpiece since arriving in Las Vegas with the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018, she’s already a two-time MVP (and almost won her third this season) and the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year for two years running. Indisputably one of the best players in the world, she has been unstoppable in the postseason, last month becoming the first player to score at least 30 points in three consecutive playoff games. She’s averaging 25.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks and shooting 59.5% in the playoffs.
Chelsea Gray, PG: Don’t be fooled by Gray’s draft slot; she has two titles on her resume and is known as the Point Gawd. After a knee injury cut short her senior season at Duke, she was picked 11th overall in the 2014 draft. She sat out 2014 and played just 16 MPG in 2015 for Connecticut. Gray was then traded and was a reserve on the Sparks’ 2016 title team (she had a huge performance in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals). A regular starter since 2017 (when she helped lead L.A. back to the Finals), Gray signed with the Aces as a free agent in 2021. She was WNBA Finals MVP last season, when she averaged 21.7 points and 7.0 assists in the postseason.
Kelsey Plum, G: The San Antonio Stars selected Plum, the all-time NCAA Division I scoring leader, with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft. She has been with the team ever since, most recently signing a two-year extension in 2022. After suffering a torn Achilles and missing the 2020 season, Plum has been better than ever, with her scoring jumping more than six points per game in 2021 over her 2019 averages. She was Sixth Player of the Year in 2021 and averaged a career-best 20.2 points during the Aces’ title run last season.
Jackie Young, G: ESPN’s Michael Voepel wrote last month that the Aces have one of the best guard trios in WNBA history, and Young completes the puzzle. The No. 1 overall pick in 2019, Young was moved to point guard early in her WNBA career, but has flourished as a 2/wing alongside Gray. After hitting 22 total 3-pointers over her first three seasons, Young made 50 in the 2022 regular season — when she was named the league’s Most Improved Player — and 89 in 2023. A 25% 3-point shooter in 2021, she hit 44.9% of her treys in 2023.
Kiah Stokes, C/F: Drafted by New York late in the first round of the 2015 draft, Stokes played for the Liberty for six seasons. When they waived her in July 2021, the Aces signed Stokes and she played in all 10 of their 2022 playoff games. She’s averaging just 2.8 points in the postseason, but she is a perfect complement to Wilson and smartly picks her spots. And Stokes’ numbers are up across the board in the playoffs, where she’s averaging 27.9 minutes (vs. 19.8 in the regular season), 8.6 rebounds (vs. 5.9), 1.4 steals (vs. 0.7) and shooting 54.5% from the field (vs. 43.4%).
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE BENCH
Bad news: There isn’t much of one beyond Alysha Clark. Good news: Clark was the No. 1 option off the bench this season. The 2023 Sixth Player of the Year is a relentless defender and two-time champion (she started every game of the Seattle Storm’s 2018 and 2020 title runs). Over five playoff games, Clark is averaging 8.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 20.9 minutes.
Parker (9.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.7 APG, 23.6 MPG) has been out since before the All-Star Game, after surgery for a left-foot fracture, and isn’t expected to play. Riquna Williams, a key part of the Aces’ 2022 championship, hasn’t played for the team this season. Sidelined early with a back injury, Williams was then barred from the team following a July arrest on domestic violence charges. The charges were later dropped.
And then there were two teams left standing 🏆
Tune in on ABC pic.twitter.com/7v8HIoa1iv
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 5, 2023
How the Liberty were built
Breanna Stewart, F: She simply wins wherever she goes. Four NCAA titles at UConn. Two championships in her first five WNBA seasons. So, can Stewart — who won this season’s MVP (23.0 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.5 SPG, 46.5% shooting in the regular season) in the closest three-player race ever — lead the Liberty to new heights after making the biggest move in free agency history? The No. 1 draft pick in 2016, Stewart personifies today’s positionless basketball. Like Parker before her, Stewart can do it all, whether it’s bring the ball downcourt, defend with a ridiculous wing span, hit the 3 or drive inside. Keep an eye on her shooting; she struggled in the first round and semifinals.
Jonquel Jones, F/C: The Liberty’s superteam status wouldn’t be complete without Jones’ request for a trade from the Connecticut Sun. She was hampered by injury early in the season, but that has all changed since the All-Star break. She has had a double-double in every postseason game and is averaging 16.5 points and a league-leading 12.8 rebounds in the playoffs. As ESPN’s Alexa Philippou wrote last month, Jones might be the X factor in New York winning its first title.
Sabrina Ionescu, G: This is the player the Liberty envisioned when they drafted the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles No. 1 overall in 2020. Last summer, Ionescu became the first player in WNBA history to tally 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists in a single season, and she’s even more consistent in 2023. New York’s leading scorer in three of its five matchups with Las Vegas this season, Ionescu can change the game with her 3-point shooting and ability to hit clutch shots in big moments. After COVID canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament — where Oregon would have been a No. 1 seed and among the favorites — is this the year Ionescu wins the ‘ship?
Courtney Vandersloot, PG: One of the game’s premier passers, Vandersloot has plenty of options around her in New York and led the league in assists for the seventh time in her career with 8.1 per game in the regular season. Vandersloot, who like Stewart in February signed for well below the maximum salary available so the Liberty could have room for others on the roster, knows how to navigate a team to a championship; in 2021, she and Parker teamed to bring the Chicago Sky their first. Jones, Stewart and Vandersloot — among other WNBA stars — combined to help Russian club team UMMC Ekaterinburg win a crown a couple of years ago. Now can they do it in the WNBA?
Betnijah Laney, G/F: Cut by the Indiana Fever after she’d already packed for the bubble season in 2020, Laney persevered, ultimately playing for Atlanta that season and tripling her scoring average to earn Most Improved Player honors. In the 2020 offseason, the free agent and former second-round draft pick then signed a reported three-year contract with the Liberty. As pointed out by Philippou, Laney has scored at least 19 points in all five of New York’s postseason wins after averaging 12.8 points in the regular season. She’s also hitting 43.8% of her 3-pointers after shooting 39.2% beyond in the arc in the regular season.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE BENCH
Every bench gets shorter in the postseason, but one of the biggest surprises with the Liberty is how much they’ve relied on their starters, all of whom played at least 37 minutes in the decisive Game 4 of the semifinals.
Throughout the playoffs, the Liberty also have gotten 93.7% of their points from starters, per ESPN Stats & Information, which is on pace to be the fourth-highest rate in a postseason in WNBA history (minimum two games). That said, guard Marine Johannes (7.1 PPG in the regular season), forward Kayla Thornton and center Stefanie Dolson — who was also on Chicago’s 2021 title team — have all made contributions throughout the season and made sure depth was among New York’s strengths.
They defeated the Aces, 82-63 to take the crown for the first time in franchise history ‼️ pic.twitter.com/c6V8UXeBev
— WNBA (@WNBA) August 16, 2023
2023 regular season
The Aces and Liberty met five times before the WNBA Finals:
June 29: at Aces 98, Liberty 81 — The game marked the seventh consecutive win for the Aces. All five of the Las Vegas starters scored in double figures, with A’ja Wilson putting in 16 while Jackie Young and Candace Parker each added 15. Chelsea Gray had 14 points and six assists, including a few highlight-reel ones. “They were a well-oiled machine today,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “We got to be more disruptive. There are areas we can look at where we can get better.” Breanna Stewart scored 16 points and Jonquel Jones added 13 for the Liberty.
Aug. 6: at Liberty 91, Aces 61 — Sabrina Ionescu scored 31 points, hitting six of New York’s 17 3-pointers, and the Liberty held the Aces to nine points in the third quarter. “I think the statement we made was we’re a team that plays hard and when we lock in and are all on the same page defensively and offensively it’s hard to stop,” said Stewart, who added 18 of her 23 points in the second half.
Aug. 15: Liberty 82, at Aces 63 (Commissioner’s Cup final) — The Liberty are one of the WNBA’s original franchises and have played for the league title four times. But they had never won hardware — until now. “That’s why you play. You play to win,” Stewart said. “To be able to take advantage of these opportunities. … You have this one game for the trophy and the money. The ability for us to lock in and see what we had right now in August is something I’m really proud of.” Marine Johannes scored 17 points and Jones had 16 points and 15 rebounds for the Liberty.
Aug. 17: at Aces 88, Liberty 75 — Gray had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for her second career triple-double and the Aces got their 21st straight home victory. Wilson added 21 points, Kelsey Plum had 18 points and Young finished with 16 for Las Vegas. Ionescu hit six 3-pointers and scored 22 points for New York and Stewart finished with an uncharacteristic 13 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
Aug. 28: at Liberty 94, Aces 85 — Ionescu scored 25 points and Stewart added 20 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists to help the Liberty beat the Aces in the final regular-season meeting between the teams. ″[We’re] making sure that we’re all aware that every moment matters,” Stewart said. “We have to make sure we don’t miss opportunities … it’s the experience, it’s having been in these big moments in playoff-type situations, and continuing to build off that.”
Becky Hammon and Sandy Brondello have their teams atop the league this season 👏
Who do you have winning the WNBA Finals? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/n4gF17brLS
— ESPN (@espn) October 5, 2023
For the first time, former WNBA players will meet in the Finals as coaches. Las Vegas’ Becky Hammon made history a year ago when she became the first to win a title in her debut season as a head coach.
For New York, coach Sandy Brondello also has one title; her Phoenix Mercury won in 2014, and she led the team to the 2021 Finals — only to be let go months later in early December. But within weeks, the Liberty had hired her, and less than two years later, her team is in the Finals.
Brondello and Hammon have often been on opposite sides, but once upon a time Hammon played for Brondello in San Antonio — which is where the Aces’ franchise gets its roots.
The Aces are actually one of the league’s original eight franchises. They started as the Utah Starzz in 1997, then relocated to San Antonio in 2002, where the team played until it relocated to Las Vegas before the 2018 season.
And lastly, Hammon’s playing career started in New York, and she was on the last Liberty team to reach the Finals, in 2002.
Aja Wilson is headed back to the WNBA finals and these are the vibes🤌🏼🥰
— Grace (@gracesporttakes) September 30, 2023
The smart money
These two teams have been on a collision course since the Liberty made a few huge moves in the offseason to create a superteam stacked enough to compete with the reigning champion Aces. Odds to win WNBA title: Aces -210, Liberty +165
Don’t expect a sweep. All the reporters on our panel predicted the series to go at least four games, but they were split on which team would raise the trophy later this month.