Sometimes, you have to go through something to get to something.
There are few teams that exemplify that maxim more than the Las Vegas Aces.
In 2020 in the bubble, the Aces advanced to the WNBA Finals following an MVP season by A’ja Wilson only to see Las Vegas’ championship hopes dashed by Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and the Seattle Storm in a sweep.
The following season, the Aces made a return trip to the playoffs as one of the WNBA’s teams to beat, but lost a semifinal series to the Phoenix Mercury.
All of that was a precursor to what Las Vegas was building in preparation for a 2022 where they would once again be among the W’s elites.
Bill Laimbeer stepped down from his post as coach in favor of former San Antonio Spurs assistant (and New York Liberty/San Antonio (Silver) Stars great) Becky Hammon, who was also on the Liberty’s radar throughout its offseason coaching find. Aces owner Mark Davis hired Hammon to the richest contract for a coach in WNBA history and also hired Nikki Fargas as the team’s president.
Hammon was a finalist for many an NBA coaching job, but several teams inexplicably passed on her – including the Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks.
So – she went back to where she was celebrated – and to a Las Vegas team hungry to climb the ladder one more time in search of WNBA gold.
It was a season filled with ups and downs – as is any WNBA season, but the Aces finished the 2022 regular season as the league’s top seed. Las Vegas ensured that the path to a WNBA championship would go through Sin City.
That path began in the first round as the Aces, instead of an automatic berth to the semifinals per the WNBA’s old playoff format, would host the Phoenix Mercury in a best-of-three first round series.
Aces in 2.
It was expected that Las Vegas would make short work of Phoenix. The Aces’ semifinal contest with the Seattle Storm was a different story. After all, this was a Seattle team that was looking to run it back one more time to create a storybook ending to the career of one Sue Bird not to mention speculation that this could be Breanna Stewart’s final season in Emerald City.
Thanks in large part to Chelsea Gray, Aces in 4 – and they ended the career of one of the W’s GOATs on her home court.
Then came the Finals – another opportunity for the Aces to exercise its playoff demons from the last two seasons. Las Vegas’ opponent? The Connecticut Sun – another team that has climbed the playoff ladder on numerous occasions throughout the Curt Miller era but could not quite reach that last rung – and the briefcase.
The Aces assumed a 2-0 lead before the scene shifted to Connecticut – and the Sun proved in Game 3 why they were undefeated in elimination games in the 2022 playoffs …
Until Game 4. Aces in 4 and the late-game heroics of another former Los Angeles Spark in Riquna Williams sealed the deal for the Aces.
The Aces organization is more than deserving of its flowers. Starting at the top with Mark Davis. He along with Joe and Clara Wu Tsai at the Liberty have shown that WNBA teams are worth investing top dollars into and is proving that the era of WNBA teams being happy with crumbs (when they should be receiving the whole meal) is coming to an end.
Becky Hammon is deserving of her flowers. She was passed over by NBA front office after NBA front office only to add another championship to her coaching resume – in the same WNBA where she became one of the league’s all-time greats.
A’ja Wilson is deserving of her flowers. She has proven herself to be a champion at every level of basketball. In Game 4 against the Sun, she scored 11 points (all in the first half) and hauled in 14 rebounds. She won a SCISA state championship with Heathwood Hall in Columbia, South Carolina. Under the tutelage of coach Dawn Staley, she led the Gamecocks to its first national championship. Last year at the Tokyo Olympics, she had a gold medal draped around her neck with Team USA (also with Staley as coach). Now, the “Mayor of South Carolina” is a WNBA champion.
Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams are deserving of their flowers. Two former Sparks that found greener pastures in Sin City when the Sparks were undergoing a period of upheaval. Williams was the closer for the Aces in Game 4 and Gray has been almost unstoppable throughout these playoffs. Can someone say Finals MVP Chelsea Gray?
Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum are deserving of their flowers. Both are former No. 1 overall draft picks who encountered early growing pains, but stuck it out and have seen meteoric rises in their development under Hammon’s tutelage. Oh, yeah – this was the same Plum who dropped 30 points in this year’s All-Star Game at Wintrust Arena in Chicago to claim its MVP award (microscopic trophy and all).
The entire Aces roster and organization is worthy of their flowers – including Sydney Colson, who we know will have some one liners to drop at Tuesday’s championship parade.
Las Vegas as a sports town is worthy of its flowers. Sin City is just now getting its feet wet as a professional sports city. The Vegas Golden Knights have competed in a Stanley Cup Finals, but could not get the job done. The Raiders are still at best an average NFL franchise that is only a few years into its stay in Sin City.
The Aces were the team that got it done for Las Vegas and all of Nevada. And what is even scarier for the rest of the WNBA is this is a team that will likely have a similar look in 2023. Las Vegas will be a favorite to run it back next season and the rest of the WNBA now knows the path to a championship goes through Michelob Ultra Arena.
Every WNBA front office will make draft and free agent decisions with one thing in mind – will this move help us beat the Aces. And Hammon, Fargas and Davis will know the rest of the league will be coming for them too.
But for now, a journey that included stops in Utah and San Antonio has arrived in Las Vegas and at a WNBA championship trophy.