Las Vegas caps off a triumphant season with their first WNBA championship.
By Laura Fay
Twelve months ago, the Aces suffered a devastating Game 5 defeat at the hands of an underdog Phoenix Mercury that ended their season one game short of a trip to finals. Back then, it was uncertain if Las Vegas could ever get over that final hurdle. Longtime coach Bill Laimbeer retired. Liz Cambage left in free agency. The future seemed uncertain for Las Vegas.
But as the championship trophy was presented on Sunday night, last year’s defeat—and those of yesteryears—had never felt further away.
There have been a lot of yesteryears for the Aces. Up to this year, they had made three different finals series under three different names—and lost them all. Their first run to the finals, in 2002 as the Utah Starzz, saw them get swept. Looking to avenge that loss in 2008, a comeback fell short. In the 2020 Wubble year, they were swept by Seattle.
It was a legacy that stung Vegas players and left them with gaps in their otherwise glittering resumes. Becky Hammon, a veteran of that 2008 campaign, ended her playing career untitled. Going into Sunday’s game, Chelsea Gray (2016, with Los Angeles) was the only Aces player with a ring.
On Sunday, years of pent-up anger were released on Connecticut in a clinically devastating fashion. The Aces jumped out to a first-quarter lead and weathered Sun comebacks throughout the game. Chelsea Gray had another 20-piece, capping off one of the most brilliant individual postseasons in history. A’ja Wilson nearly had a double-double by halftime. After a poor shooting performance all night, Kelsey Plum banked in a gorgeous pull up jumper that proved to be the dagger. It was a close game, but looking back, the Aces felt inevitable.
After a dominating regular season, anything short of a ring would have been a massive disappointment for Vegas. The Aces jumped out to the best record in the WNBA early, including the best start ever by a first-year coach, and held off a persistent challenge from Chicago to enter the postseason #1.
They swept the regular season awards with ease. They won the Commissioners Cup. A’ja Wilson captained the winning All-Star team, on which Kelsey Plum was the MVP. Jackie Young won most improved. Becky Hammon was the coach of the year in just her first year in charge. Wilson rounded out the awards with both Defensive Player of the Year and MVP. Without a championship though, those awards would have rung hollow—just ask Wilson, whose Aces fell short in 2020, a year she also won MVP.
“I don’t need that energy,” she said earlier this season about the bubble year.
It’s safe to say Wilson will be savoring the energy of 2022 for a long time coming. The Aces’ cornerstone, Wilson’s impact on court is unquantifiable. Her performance was similarly spectacular this postseason—she had double-doubles in all but two games, including an 11pt/14reb showing in the championship-clincher. In any other world that would give Wilson a Finals MVP trophy, but this is a world with Chelsea Gray in it.
We’ve truly run out of adjectives to describe Gray’s postseason. Averaging 21.7ppg and 7ast, Gray ran the table in almost every statistical category. 72.7% true-shooting on 14.4 FGA (league average is 54.1%), 54.5% from deep and over 62% on twos from any distance. Just 12.3% of those twos were assisted, as Gray called her own number over and over again. A Finals MVP trophy almost seems like a trite award to sum up the magnitude of this performance.
Las Vegas is still a relatively young team. No member of their starting five is only thirty, and all are contracted through next season. With the core back together heading into 2023, the Aces have a real chance at a dynasty—if they can break the curse of no WNBA champion going back-to-back since 2001-02.
“It’s a commitment to wanting to keep a group together,” Gray said to ESPN. “For the organization to understand what it takes to not just do it one year, but try to do it multiple years, that’s when you’re talking about a more legendary franchise. Hopefully, that’s what we can be.”