The Hunter Becomes The Hunted
Las Vegas prepares for championship defense after franchise’s first title
The championship victory lap for the Las Vegas Aces is over and now, the hunter has officially become the hunted.
Last September, the Aces captured the first WNBA title in franchise history while also delivering Las Vegas its first professional title in city history.
“It felt good,” guard Jackie Young said about spending the offseason as a WNBA Champion. “But at the same time, we still have to put in work. I spent a lot of time here in the offseason just working out with the coaches.”
To cap the historic moment, half of the Las Vegas Strip was shut down midday to celebrate the accomplishment as part of the championship parade.
“It exceeded [the dream],” forward A’ja Wilson said. “I knew Vegas was going to show out but shutting down half The Strip? It was pretty cool just to look out and see all the people – I don’t even know where we were on The Strip exactly – but it was just super dope to see all of that fall into place.”
Las Vegas clinched the crown with a seven-point win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. Prior to that, the Aces swept the Phoenix Mercury in the first round followed by ousting the Seattle Storm in four games in the semifinals.
Along the way, first-year head coach Becky Hammon was adamant to keep the long-term goal in mind.
“Well, I’m even more careful and more adamant about those sentiments this year,” Hammon said. “You can’t get ahead of yourself in sports. You can’t think you’re just going to show up and people are going to hand you the trophy. You have to go out there and work in such a way that you feel you deserve it at the end of the day.”
Under Hammon, Las Vegas dominated the vast majority of the regular season before finishing the year tied with the Chicago Sky for the best record in the league at 26-10. During the midseason Commissioners Cup Final, the Aces beat the Sky by 10 headlined by an MVP performance from guard Chelsea Gray.
At the conclusion of the season, Las Vegas turned in four players who averaged 13.7 points per game or more led by guard Kelsey Plum’s 20.2 points per game. Three of those four players made the all-star team including Young, Plum, Wilson and forward Dearica Hamby.
Plum, Young and Wilson were starters while the latter played the role of captain.
From the all-star break on, Wilson was very vocal about a closed doors meeting amongst the team that changed the course of the season for good.
“I think that’s what we needed,” Young said. “We started off strong and then went through a rough patch – it happens. [A’ja’s] our captain, everybody trusts her and believes in her. At some point, you go through stuff like that during the season. I think it just helped us along the way and prepared us for some of the battles we were going to face throughout the season.”
Gray was the only other player who averaged double-digit points for the Aces who did not make the all-star team. She’d later be named Finals MVP while adding a second ring to her resume. She led the team in scoring during the postseason with just under 22 points per game.
There were a slew of awards slung in the direction of Las Vegas including Hammon picking up Coach of the Year in her first season at the helm of her former franchise where she spent her entire eight-year playing career.
“It was probably more relief than anything,” Hammon said. “You work so hard for something and quite honestly, I haven’t seen the rings, I haven’t seen the banners so in ways it's a little surreal. Now I saw all those people at the parade and that was crazy. I think that was the first time that it set in and I was like, ‘Wow, we really did this.’
“That was really special, that’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Hammon was aided by the Most Improved Player of the Year in Young and Defensive Player of the Year in Wilson along with a host of other contributors. Wilson also picked up her second Most Valuable Player award in her fifth season.
“I think we all trusted her from the beginning,” Young said. “We all believed in her and were just locked in. We were super excited to have her here and I think that’s why we started off so well. We built that culture and chemistry during training camp and we’re just super excited to have her here and have her staff here.”
Before the year began and during key points throughout the season, Hammon would shine light on former Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer for the job he had done while leading a group similar to this one.
“He laid a great foundation,” Hammon said. “He had kind of constructed the roster at that point so I’m always very grateful for his eye for talent, the people that he got here, the type of people that he got here. For me, I felt like I could come in and do some things differently but it’s because I had great pieces already in place.
“It wasn’t like he was handing me a pile of lemons. I knew I had some real ballers and I knew ultimately for me, it was about turning them into a team.”
Hammon and company returns most of the team’s championship roster from last year with a few key departures and additions. The team is now without Dearica Hamby, Theresa Plaisance, Iliana Rupert and Aisha Sheppard.
Hamby spent her entire eight-year career with the Aces franchise dating back to her time in San Antonio under the Stars label.
“Of course, it’s different,” Plum said. “We were together in San Antonio. Me, her and Sydney Colson we call ourselves ‘The Original Three.’ It is definitely different. Sports are a business, you can’t take things personally and you’ve got to just be able to adjust.”
Hamby was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in February along with a first round pick in exchange for center Amanda Zahui B. and a second round pick. Almost immediately after, Hamby blew the whistle on her former franchise citing “bullying” as she was pregnant.
During the team’s championship parade, Hamby announced she was pregnant to the crowd at the conclusion of the speech.
“We all loved Dearica,” General Manager Natalie Williams said. “But you’ve got to look to see what you can do to better your roster from where it was last year. Unfortunately, that was the piece that we felt we could move and that other people would want because she is such a great player.
“And it allowed us to bring in [newcomers] Candace Parker, Alysha Clark and Cayla George. At the end of the day, this is a business and everyone is tradable. It’s just unfortunate when things don’t turn out for someone else the way they would want.”
While losing a few foundational blocks the team has brought back three new pieces in the hopes of being the league’s first back-to-back champions since the Sparks did it back in 2001-02.
Las Vegas acquired center Candace Parker, forwards Alysha Clark and Cayla George during the off-season to add to an already stacked roster including Wilson, Plum, Gray and guard Riquna Williams.
“They’re hoopers,” Hammon said. “Not that we won’t have rough patches as a group but I see them fitting in fine because they’re hoopers. Once they can get a feel for how we play, what I want from them [and] how we do things, I think it’ll be a pretty smooth transition I would say.”
In response to the Aces’ moves, the league has attempted to retool their rosters in hopes of dethroning the champs. The New York Liberty has responded with a “Super Team” of their own with adding former MVPs Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones to team staples Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney. New York also made a splash by bringing in championship point guard Courtney Vandersloot.
“That’s what I’m trying to do right now is prepare them,” Hammon said. “I really can’t answer how prepared we are right now because I don’t feel like we’re prepared at all right now.
“We’ve had a taste of success but you can’t have that natural complacency sneak in or creep in at any point. Whatever we’ve done in our basketball lives, this year will be harder because we have to go out and prove it all over [again] but the target is much bigger.”