A WNBA Finals matchup between the league’s two super-teams was anticipated ever since the offseason rumblings that the New York Liberty were building a true one through free agency. The reality hits Sunday when the Liberty and Las Vegas Aces tip off Game 1 of the best-of-five series at Michelob Ultra Arena on the Vegas strip (3 p.m. ET on ABC).
But are the Aces still a super-team? And were they ever one to begin with? Does it even really matter?
Few on either side like the super-team moniker bestowed upon them in the offseason. But few can argue with the results that each team is filled with some of the league’s best talent that aligned for a Finals for the ages.
“That’s the narrative everyone wanted at the start,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said after her team clinched its first Finals berth since 2002. “I never particularly liked the super-team thing.”
The series is expected to be one of the best and most-viewed the league has ever seen. Casual fans will be tuning in for a clash of the super-teams simply because of what the name represents: the best of the best players going head-to-head.
A super-team is typically considered to be a title-contending roster formed when two or more established All-Stars join a team that already has an established All-Star. Some consider one All-Star signing to a team of All-Stars to be a super-team, too.
The Liberty traded for 2021 MVP and four-time All-Star Jonquel Jones in January to pair with Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney, who have both been All-Stars in recent seasons. That’s one. When free agency opened, the Liberty signed Breanna Stewart, the most sought-after free agent who had one MVP at the time, two championships and two Finals MVPs. That’s two. And to shake the sprinkles on top, All-Star point guard and WNBA champion Courtney Vandersloot joined them.
It countered the embarrassment of riches already in Las Vegas. The Aces began the 2022 campaign with three All-Star starters in A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray and Dearica Hamby. By season’s end, they won the city its first professional championship with a starting five of All-Stars. Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young made their first All-Star appearances that summer.
Las Vegas was a homegrown team of stars that included Plum, Wilson and Young as three consecutive No. 1 picks. Ahead of 2021, they added free agent Gray to lead the offense. It wasn’t viewed as anything other than a super move in a changing landscape where players were empowered under the new collective bargaining agreement to make their own decisions with a wider salary range available.
The Aces earned the super-team claim when Candace Parker, a legendary star all over the record books, announced a year later she was signing with the Aces. The team traded Hamby the week prior. Las Vegas signed Alysha Clark, a veteran forward who has never made an All-Star team, but is a two-time WNBA champion and All-Defensive Team selection.
There’s little to counter the argument the Liberty are a super-team. The franchise added three All-Stars, and two MVPs at that, in one offseason. In a league where top players often didn’t change franchises under the previous CBAs, it is revolutionary to see a team go from sliding into the playoffs to title contender so quickly.
The Aces might have more of a case against the moniker. Wilson, a two-time MVP, took issue with it ahead of the team’s second meeting of the season in Brooklyn.
“We’re the same core that we were last year and no one was talking about or saying we were a super-team last year,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’ve won enough for people to even claim that.”
Adding Parker to a core that won the title with the league’s best offense made them a super-team in some people’s eyes. And as the two-time champion settled in, the Aces looked indestructible. They had the league’s best defense helmed by Parker’s non-statistical impact.
It was a side of the ball the Aces ranked seventh in last season and head coach Becky Hammon said needed to be improved since opponents would catch up to them on offense. The Liberty boast the league’s second-best offense and best 3-point team, displaying how prescient that doubled-down focus could be for Vegas’ repeat chances.
But Parker played only 18 games and is out indefinitely after undergoing foot surgery in July. The team gave no timetable for her return. She was back on the Aces’ bench during the postseason, but there have been no signs she is getting ready for game play.
Now that she is almost surely not playing at all in the Finals, are the Aces still a super-team? To Wilson’s point, they’ve won only one title, though they have been to three of the last four Finals. So did the Liberty in the league’s inaugural years, and they never won it. Nor were they claimed as a super-team a decade before the 2010 Miami Heat made it popular.
The starting lineup the Aces have now is actually the one that started all 10 games of the 2022 postseason run. Kiah Stokes stepped in after Hamby sustained a bone bruise in her right knee. Hamby was also pregnant at the time, which she announced at the championship parade. She has filed a discrimination complaint against the team and league.
Las Vegas won Game 3 of the 2022 semifinals in overtime against the Seattle Storm to take momentum and win Game 4 to advance. They won Games 1, 2 and 4 against the Connecticut Sun by three, 14 and seven points, respectively. Their Game 3 loss was by 29.
Their 111.5 offensive rating, 95.8 defensive rating and 15.7 net rating lead the league and are top-five in league history. They have the league’s best offense for the fourth consecutive season. Gray, Plum, Wilson and Young finished with career-highs in various categories, including shooting averages of more than 50% for guards Plum and Young.
Collectively, the Aces hit nearly 50% of their shots and limit turnovers to a league-best 11.8 per game. They broke numerous league records, including wins by at least 20 points (14) and the most 100-point games (11).
It’s a good debate if Las Vegas is a super-team or not, and really, that’s the point. It’s a marketing tactic, a topic starter, a method of fan engagement from the diehards to casuals. If someone says “super-team” to a non-WNBA fan, they know exactly what that means and why it matters. Because of it, the league is gearing up for what is expected to be huge viewership numbers and a series likely to go a full five games. The Liberty’s Game 4 win against the Sun peaked at nearly 1 million on a Sunday afternoon in football season.
The “super-team” is merely the opener, while the rest of the storylines are where casual fans are drawn into the diehards the league seeks. One of its largest markets, New York, is back in title contention seeking its first title. It is the only inaugural franchise not to win one. Meanwhile, Vegas aims to become only the third team in league history to win back-to-back championships and will look to do it with almost the exact team that won it last year, super-team leotards or not.