The WNBA's superteam era is dead, but Finals rematch is alive with intrigue (2024)

  • Multiple Contributors

Jun 14, 2024, 08:00 AM ET

Superteams were the dominant storyline of the 2023 WNBA season. And as most predicted, the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty met in the WNBA Finals.

But a month into the 2024 season, are the superteams still super?

The 11-2 Liberty look like it; the 6-5 Aces don't. When they meet Saturday at Las Vegas' Michelob Ultra Arena (3 p.m. ET, ABC), the two-time defending champion Aces will be underdogs.

Injury (Chelsea Gray) and illness (Jackie Young) have been part of the problem with the Aces, who won 103-99 on Thursday against the Phoenix Mercury to snap a three-game losing streak. It helped that Young seemed to be back to her usual self, scoring a career-high 34 points, with 8 rebounds and 4 assists.

Coach Becky Hammon said that as well as this team knows itself, there have been cracks in the foundation of what it has done so well the past two seasons, particularly on defense. Hammon said these aren't fatal flaws, but fixable ones.

"There's a hundred reasons why things start to fall apart, but at the end of the day there's structure that has to be followed," Hammon said. "We're not doing anything particularly brand-new. We're just not being solid in our base. We can't take one step forward and two steps back."

The Liberty hit a brief bump in late May, losing back-to-back games that included their lowest point total of the season (67 vs. the Minnesota Lynx on May 25). But New York has won seven in a row since and clinched home-court advantage for the Commissioner's Cup final, in which the Liberty beat the Aces last season.

The first Aces-Liberty showdown of 2024 was circled as soon as this season's WNBA schedule was released. And even though both teams aren't at the top of the standings, it's still an intriguing matchup that includes six members of the recently named U.S. Olympic 5-on-5 team.

ESPN's Alexa Philippou, Kevin Pelton and Michael Voepel look at what we expect to see from the Aces-Liberty matchup -- and how much things have changed from last season.

Are we still in the superteam era? Why will Saturday's meeting look different than last year's WNBA Finals?

Pelton: Even though Las Vegas and New York still might end up meeting in the Finals and one of this year's new contenders is itself a superteam -- the Seattle Storm, having added All-Stars Skylar Diggins-Smith and Nneka Ogwumike in free agency -- I would say we're already out of it. The Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx look like perhaps the WNBA's two strongest teams right now, and they're built more around depth and defense than multiple stars.

Philippou: Pelton is spot on about the Sun and the Lynx, and I'm also keeping an eye on the Phoenix Mercury now at full strength with Brittney Griner and Rebecca Allen back on the court. This season has more intrigue and unpredictability instead of awaiting an inevitable Liberty-Aces Finals clash.

The trajectories of New York and Las Vegas couldn't be more different heading into Saturday. The Liberty are the hottest team in the league, and most impressively, they handed the Sun their first loss of the season last Saturday.

The Aces have struggled without Gray, while Young dealt with a recent illness that sidelined her for a game and kept her from being 100% even when on court at times. Their three-game losing streak prior to Thursday's win was the first in the Hammon era, while their 5-5 record marked their worst 10-game start since 2018. It would be foolish to count out the Aces long term, and Thursday was a step in the right direction, especially with Young finding her stride.

Voepel: As with other pro sports, when a team wins multiple titles, other teams focus on building to beat it. That's what the Aces face. Their past five seasons: semifinals, finals, semifinals, championship, championship. That's a lot of success, and opponents are trying to structure their personnel to counter it.

New York beat Las Vegas four times last year counting the regular season, Commissioner's Cup final and playoffs. Although the Aces won the 2023 title, the Liberty have cracked the code to an extent. This season, they will try to turn that into a title -- but as we've seen, it's not just the Aces that New York must be concerned with.

Last year, Breanna Stewart (446 points) edged Alyssa Thomas (439) and A'ja Wilson (433) for MVP. Who is the front-runner now?

Pelton: Despite the Aces' slow start, Wilson is still the front-runner. Coming off a season in which she firmly established herself as the WNBA's top player by leading Las Vegas to a second straight championship, Wilson is playing better than ever. She has pushed her usage rate to a career-high 34% of the Aces' plays without a substantial drop in efficiency, and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is putting up career highs in rebound, steal and block rate. Look elsewhere to understand Las Vegas' issues.

Philippou: It's Wilson, for the same reasons Pelton explained. She's first in points (28.6 per game) and rebounding (11.7), third in blocks (2.6) and has been a constant force even amid the Aces' struggles. With 32 points and 15 rebounds Thursday, Wilson has scored at least 20 points in a WNBA-record 16 consecutive games. She now boasts the most consecutive 25-point games in WNBA history (8) and tallied her 11th career 30-point, 10-rebound game, tied for the fourth most all-time in the league.

It's scary to think where Vegas would be if she wasn't nearly as dominant.

Voepel: Several players are having terrific seasons so far, including Stewart and Thomas, Minnesota's Napheesa Collier, the Los Angeles Sparks' Dearica Hamby and Phoenix's Kahleah Copper. But Wilson is playing at her own level right now and leads the race as she pursues her third MVP.

How has Gray's absence affected the Aces so far, and how will it impact this matchup?

Pelton: One of the reasons I mistakenly picked against Las Vegas in last year's Finals was the team's less dominant performance when any one of the Aces' four All-Stars (Gray, Wilson, Young and Kelsey Plum) was off the court after Candace Parker was lost to injury midseason. Las Vegas managed to overcome it in the Finals, but without Gray, a lack of depth is being exposed.

Although Young has stepped up as a playmaker, Plum doesn't seem to be getting the same kind of easy looks she got last year. Just 11% of Plum's shot attempts have come in the restricted area, according to WNBA Advanced Stats, down by more than half from last season's 23%.

Philippou: Plum repeated a great analogy for Gray's absence that Hammon had previously told the team: When you bake a cake and take out a main ingredient, the food inevitably tastes different. For the Aces, that means things change schematically and their opponents are guarding them differently, Plum said. If anything, this shaky start for the Aces poses the question of whether Gray was the flour that bound everything together.

That said, Plum also acknowledged some of their problems have less to do with Gray and are more self-inflicted wounds, like lack of accountability. Following Las Vegas' loss to Minnesota, Hammon talked about needing to build trust again.

For the first time this season, Gray was listed as questionable ahead of Thursday's game. Whether or not Gray plays or is limited on Saturday, the Aces must play more stout defense -- their defensive rating is tied for eighth in the league (103.6 points per 100 possessions) -- to come away with a victory. Long term, that might be the key to harnessing the identity that made them back-to-back champions. But giving up 99 points like they did against the Mercury probably won't cut it.

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Voepel: It would be no surprise to see Gray as a head coach one day because, as Plum said, "She has one of the most gifted basketball minds I've ever seen. And overall, we miss her joy on the court. She makes it fun." Gray's absence hurts Las Vegas offensively and defensively. When you add in Young not being up to full speed for a few games, you can see why the Aces haven't been playing like the Aces.

The WNBA's superteam era is dead, but Finals rematch is alive with intrigue (1)play

Jonquel Jones scores season-high 29 points for Liberty in win

Jonquel Jones drops 29 points for the Liberty in New York's 93-88 win vs. the Mystics.

Do the Liberty look poised to come away with the 2024 title?

Pelton: The reason to answer yes is that Jonquel Jones is again performing at an All-WNBA level, as we saw in the second half of last season and in the playoffs after a slow start to Jones' New York career coming back from injury. Jones and Breanna Stewart give New York the league's best frontcourt duo.

The reason to answer no is that so many other teams are playing at a high level. Connecticut would have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs if the season ended today, and any possible semifinal matchup will be difficult.

The field is the favorite right now.

Philippou: I'd currently be inclined to take the field as well, more so because no one team has staked a true claim as favorite. Still, the Liberty could make a run back to the Finals. There are moments when their developed chemistry from the past year-plus shines, and when their offseason additions of Leonie Fiebich, Ivana Dojkic and Kennedy Burke pay dividends, particularly in providing defensive length. Nyara Sabally was also impactful when healthy. Stewart, the reigning MVP, isn't even playing her best basketball (her 18.2% accuracy from the 3-point arc is by far the worst of her career), and New York is 11-2. As Pelton said, the Liberty are at their best when Jones is playing like her former MVP self.

With six of the Liberty's first 13 games against Indiana or Washington, this upcoming stretch -- with road tilts at Las Vegas and then at Phoenix on Tuesday -- should be a great challenge for a team that won't be satisfied with anything short of a championship.

Voepel: Connecticut, New York and Minnesota have played the best so far and are the current title favorites. That would be a breakthrough for the Sun and Liberty, neither of whom have won a championship, and a return to the top for the Lynx, who have four titles.

But no one is discounting the Aces. Once healthy, they are still likely to be as big a threat to win as everyone else.

Which team will win Saturday?

Philippou: I'm sticking with the current trends we're witnessing: The Liberty win this one with Jones continuing her recent tear. Things could be different in their final two regular-season matchups on Aug. 17 and Sept. 8, though, if the Aces have rediscovered their stride and a healthy Gray is back in the mix.

Pelton: Gray's return isn't going to immediately solve all of Las Vegas' issues, particularly if Gray's minutes are limited, but the Aces are better than they've looked thus far. One reason Las Vegas has gotten off to a slow start: Opponents are hitting a league-high 40% of their 3s against the Aces. Research continually suggests opponent 3-point percentage over the first 10 games is not predictive of the rest of the season.

Still, I like New York to win this matchup. The Liberty have their rotation down pat, while Hammon is still working to integrate Tiffany Hayes and perhaps Gray.

Voepel: Everything points to a Liberty victory Saturday, including the fact they have had more time to prepare for the matchup as it is New York's only game this week. That said, the Aces already have lost three games at home and are desperate to reestablish their dominance on their own turf. If the Aces can get back to the defense they are capable of, they can win this game.

The WNBA's superteam era is dead, but Finals rematch is alive with intrigue (2024)

FAQs

Where can I watch New York Liberty vs Las Vegas Aces? ›

The Las Vegas Aces play against the New York Liberty on Saturday afternoon. This game will be broadcasted at 2 p.m. CT on ABC. Fans can watch this WNBA game online for free by using the free trials offered by DirecTV Stream and Fubo TV.

Did the Las Vegas Aces sell out? ›

The Las Vegas Aces announced Friday they've sold out 15 of the team's 20 home games for 2024, a WNBA record. It's the latest record the Aces have broken.

Who is streaming the series Las Vegas? ›

Right now you can watch on Amazon Prime Video or Peaco*ck.

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