LAS VEGAS — It was billed as the “Battle of the Super Teams,” the showdown from the off-season arms race for supremacy in the WNBA.
The New York Liberty brought in Brianna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones to join Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney. The Las Vegas Aces, who were already loaded, brought seven-time all-star Candace Parker on board.
Fans had circled the date of June 29 the moment the league released its 2023 schedule back in late November. More than a quarter-way into the season, the date arrived Thursday and the anticipation was building, much the way the hype for a championship fight might.
It was close for a while. But a dominant third quarter sparked by an early 11-0 run settled things as the Aces kept Stewart in check and Parker decided to have her best game of the season with 15 points to help Las Vegas improve to 14-1 with a savage 98-81 beatdown that was worse than the final score indicated. Las Vegas shot 58 percent from the floor, had five players score in double figures, led by as many as 27 in the fourth quarter and made a very good Liberty team look very average.
The Aces, who have been averaging 8,708 fans at Mandalay Bay’s Michelob Ultra Arena this season, an increase of 3,195 per game from last year, had one of their biggest crowds of the season — 9,587 — Thursday night. It was the kind of atmosphere that justified the team’s move from San Antonio six years ago and getting Raiders owner Mark Davis to purchase the team in 2021 from MGM Resorts.
How much fun are Aces games? Future pro football Hall of Famer Tom Brady bought a partial stake in the team in late March. The energy level is high from start to finish and everyone seems to enjoy themselves. And when Jones missed a pair of free throws late in the third quarter, the place went bonkers because it meant free slices of pizza for everyone as part of the team’s clever “Miss Twice, Get A Slice” promotion.
The Aces, the defending champions, are trying to create their own legacy. But in this league, one title doesn’t buy you a whole lot of tradition. This team has a long ways to go to consider itself special.
Consider the gold standard was the Houston Comets, who won four, that’s right, four straight WNBA titles when the league first launched in 1997. That team, led by Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson, were dominant in becoming dynastic.
The Comets eventually flamed out in 2008. But their legacy has remained. If the Aces want to consider themselves one of the great WNBA franchises, try and match what Houston did.
But Houston wasn’t the only franchise to achieve greatness on a multiple basis.
The Minnesota Lynx has also claimed four titles as have the Seattle Storm. The Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks have each won the title three times along with the Detroit Shock, which was coached by former Aces coach Bill Laimbeeer.
So before we anoint the Aces as elite, let’s see them win two championships. The good news for their loyal fan base is they’re positioning themselves to do just that. They put an all-star lineup on the floor every night. They have a million-dollar coach in Becky Hammon, who one day will likely make history as the first woman to be an NBA head coach. They have been beating their opponents by a whopping 15.4 points game while averaging over 91 points per contest.
The Liberty, which has recovered from a slow start to climb into third place at 10-4, may have the league’s best player in Breanna Stewart, who averages 22.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4 assists. I’m guessing A’ja Wilson, the Aces’ superstar, might have something to say about that. Wilson’s averaging just under 20 points and 10 rebounds this year and when you watch her, you can’t help but wonder how she ever misses a shot. She’s that dominant.
Fortunately for her, she doesn’t need to carry the load by herself. Having Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and Parker on the floor with Wilson makes her that much more effective.
“We know it’s never going to be easy in this league,” Wilson said earlier in the week. “We have to be ready to play every night.”
Hammon said the challenge has to come from within in the quest for greatness.
“It’s a hard ask,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it goes back to being who we are. The Aces are the Aces.”
Gray said that high level of accountability the players hold themselves to is motivation enough.
“I think we want to write our own story,” Gray said. “We want to do things that haven’t been done before.”
Plum, who took Vandersloot to school early and often, finishing with a game-high 18 points, said of the pregame hype, “We’re trying to play the same way, no matter who the opponent is. There’s a lot of good teams in this league, right down the line.”
Thursday, in the head-to-head battle vs. Stewart, Wilson staked her claim to No. 1. She didn’t get a ton of touches, but she still got her points, 16 to be exact, along with three rebounds and three assists. Stewart also scored 16, but she took 15 shots to do it.
At 14-1, Las Vegas is certainly moving in the right direction in terms of building a championship legacy. But more than half the ’23 season remains to be played, starting with Saturday’s game at MUA against Connecticut, the lone team to defeat the Aces so far. There’s also three more games against the Liberty, including Aug. 6 and Aug. 28 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the Libs are averaging 7,543. So there will be challenges to come for Wilson and Co.
But for now, Las Vegas is holding all the cards in the WNBA and the city is enjoying its championship basketball team. Who knows? Maybe another parade will be held this fall with this one lasting further than the trek from Caesars Palace to the Bellagio last year.