Aces

2024 WNBA Season Preview Part 4: Sun, Liberty, Aces

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The 2024 WNBA season tips off on May 14. Some teams have revamped their rosters from last season, while others have made few changes. Teams will be previewed from worst (Phoenix) to first (Las Vegas) based on the 2023 regular-season standings. Each team had defining statistics — one on offense and one on defense — that affected their level of success last season. How has each team addressed weaknesses or continued to build on strengths?

3. Connecticut Sun (2023 Record: 27-13)

Defining Stats from 2023: 3PA (9th), OPP A:TO (1st)

History has proven that innovation tends to occur after a terrible event when change is required.

Last year, Alyssa Thomas had one of the greatest statistical seasons in WNBA history, averaging 15.5 points per game, 7.9 assists per game, and a league-leading 9.9 rebounds per game.

Thomas, a non-shooter, was able to initiate the offense from the top of the key while being surrounded by shooting. This opened up lanes to drive and cut, ultimately allowing Thomas to unleash her full arsenal.

This was not the initial plan.

The innovation within the Sun’s offense was necessary after their two-time All-Star center Brionna Jones tore her Achilles on June 20th. First-year head coach Stephanie White decided to replace Jones in the starting lineup with 6-foot-2 shooting guard Rebecca Allen, a prototypical “Three & D” player, instead of backup center Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

In 13 games with Jones in the lineup, Connecticut had an offensive rating of 103.8. In the 34 games after her injury, Connecticut’s offensive rating was 107.1.

This offseason, the Sun elected to re-sign Jones instead of letting her walk in free agency. Not only do they have Thomas and Nelson-Ododa coming back, but the Sun also recently traded for Queen Egbo, a 6-foot-4 post who has not attempted a three in her two seasons in the WNBA.

The Sun will be playing the majority of their minutes with two non-shooters on the floor. Connecticut was the only team last season with three players (Jones, Thomas, Nelson-Ododa) who played more than 400 minutes each and shot less than 10% of their shots from three.

Even more concerning is the fact that they lost three of their top four three-point shooters in Natisha Hiedeman (59-161 3pt), Tiffany Hayes (48-131 3pt) and Allen (40-115 3pt). Connecticut has four noteworthy new acquisitions. Of those, only Moriah Jefferson and Rachel Banham can stretch the floor. Jocelyn Willoughby and Tiffany Mitchell will not help solve the Sun’s spacing issue.

After finishing last season ninth in three-point attempts, reigning WNBA Coach of the Year White will have to figure out how to manufacture points with limited spacing on the floor.

Defensively, Connecticut was elite. Only Las Vegas finished ahead of Connecticut in defensive rating. Their opponents’ assist-to-turnover ratio was first in the league at 1.28 – league average was 1.50. Thomas, Allen and DeWanna Bonner all finished in the top 15 in the league in individual defensive rating. Allen’s spectacular play on the defensive end will be missed even more than her shooting on offense.

This is the most fascinating team in the league this season. Their unconventional and aging roster will force them to play a different game than the rest of the league. Their draft picks this season won’t make a big difference, and their roster additions have not been as impactful in their careers as the players Connecticut lost.

Can their defense lead them into championship contention? Will Bonner and Rachel Banham provide enough outside shooting, or will their big(s) problem be too much to overcome?

2. New York Liberty (2023 Record: 32-8)

Defining Stats from 2023: AST (1st), OPP eFG% (1st)

New York assembled a “super team” in 2023 and enjoyed the best season in franchise history. Their .800 regular-season winning percentage eclipsed that of the 2015 Bill Laimbeer-led team, the previous record holder at 0.676.

And it wasn’t enough.

The Las Vegas Aces proved to be too much, even when they were shorthanded, defeating the Liberty in the 2023 WNBA Finals 3-1. It was the fifth time New York made it to the Finals, but only the first since 2002. It was also the fifth time losing in the Finals.

For a franchise that has been in the WNBA since the beginning, not being able to capitalize on winning a championship was devastating. But the Liberty have their core returning, and with a season together under their belts, they are on a crash course with Las Vegas for another epic championship showdown.

It starts with reigning MVP Breanna Stewart. Despite not playing her best basketball in the postseason, Stewart filled up the box score on both ends throughout the season. She was second in scoring (23.0 PPG), third in rebounding (9.3 RPG), eight in steals (1.4 SPG), fourth in blocks (1.6 BPG), and second in win shares (10.3). Stewart is the ultimate match-up nightmare and has the rare ability to guard inside and outside. She earned first team honors for the All-Defensive Team.

Guards Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu helped New York lead the league in assists. Ionescu was named Second Team All-WNBA for the second-straight season. She led the league in three-point field goals with 128 and was third in three-point percentage at 44.8%. Playing primarily off the ball for the first time in her career, she was still seventh in assists per game (5.4).

Marine Johannès provided a spark off the bench with her incredible long-distance accuracy. Unfortunately, she is not likely to join the Liberty this season due to her commitments overseas.

It took time for Jonquel Jones to acclimate to her teammates and understand her role within the offense, but she was able to figure it out and was a force in the postseason.

Betnijah Laney made her biggest impact defensively for New York. She was named second team All-Defense. Offensively, she was able to space the floor and reached career highs in three-point makes (1.5 3PM/gm) and attempts (3.8 3PA/gm), averaging 12.8 PPG.

Defensively, the Liberty finished third with a 101.0 defensive rating. A major factor of success was their ability to affect shots. Teams shot a league-low 47.6% eFG% against New York. The length and athleticism of Stewart, Jones and Laney allowed New York to contest shots, stay out of foul trouble (second in WNBA in opponent’s free-throw factor), and rebound (first in DREB%).

One area of weakness was their inability to force turnovers. New York finished last in opponents’ TO% (11.8) as guards Ionescu, Vandersloot and Johannès did not generate a lot of steals. Because of this, teams averaged 70.9 FGA per game, 11th most in the league. None of the offseason acquisitions or draft picks addressed this issue.

With all five starters returning and a full season last year together to get acclimated to one another, New York is one of the clear favorites to make it to the Finals. Will this be the year they can finally win a championship?

1. Las Vegas Aces (2023 Record: 34-6)

Defining Stats from 2023: ORTG (1st), DRTG (1st)

The 2023 Las Vegas Aces had one of the most dominant seasons in WNBA history. After going 34-6 during the regular season, the Aces blitzed through the playoffs by winning eight of their nine games to capture their second-straight championship. They finished the season ranked first in offensive and defensive rating.

https://twitter.com/LVAces/status/1714829217626550779

Unfortunately for the rest of the WNBA, their roster may be even better this season.

Although the retirement of the legendary Candace Parker is a big loss, she only played in 18 games last season due to injury. The Aces went 26-6 without her in the lineup. In her place steps Megan Gustafson, who had a breakout year last season with the Mercury. A former Naismith Player of the Year in 2019 at Iowa, Gustafson has bounced around the league since being drafted by Dallas in the second round.

A 6-foot-3 center who can stretch the floor, Gustafson shot 52.6% from the field last year and hit 15 threes. She had a seven-game stretch where she averaged 14.0 points per game. She was able to facilitate the offense from the top of the key last season and will compliment A’ja Wilson’s skill set and the shooting that head coach Becky Hammon puts around her.

The rest of the star-studded roster returns.

Wilson has dominated the WNBA since her rookie season in 2018. She has received votes for MVP in each of her six seasons, winning it in 2020 and 2022. As good as she is offensively (22.8 PPG on 55.7% FG% last season), she’s even better defensively. The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year can do it all. She’s athletic enough to guard on the perimeter and big enough to protect the rim. At 27 years old, she will continue to dominate for years to come.

Like Wilson in 2018, Jackie Young was a No. 1 overall selection for the Aces in the WNBA Draft in 2019. Young was named to the All-WNBA Team in 2023 for the first time in her career. She finished third in the league with 89 three-pointers made and first in effective field-goal percentage, an incredible 61.7%.

Before Wilson and Young, Plum was selected first overall by the San Antonio Stars (who relocated to Las Vegas the following year) in 2017. After amassing a record 3,527 points in her collegiate career at Washington (broken this year by Caitlin Clark), Plum struggled with success in the WNBA earlier in her career. In 2021, she came off the bench and won the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year.

She had a breakout year in 2022 by helping the Aces win the WNBA championship and being named First Team All-WNBA after finishing second in the WNBA in scoring (20.2 PPG) and hitting a league-high 113 threes. She backed it up last season with another strong performance (eighth in scoring, fifth in effective field goal percentage) and another championship.

Chelsea Gray returns for her 10th season in the WNBA and the fourth season for the Aces. A three-time All-WNBA performer, Gray’s nicknamed “the Point Gawd” for a reason. The three-time WNBA champion finished third in the WNBA last season with 7.3 assists per game. She is currently in the top 10 all-time in WNBA history in total assists. She also gets it done on the defensive end. Gray has placed in the top 10 in steals per game three times in her career including ninth last season.

If that’s not enough, the Aces return Kiah Stokes, Alysha Clark, Sydney Colson, Kierstan Bell. The four of them combined to play over 2,000 minutes for the Aces last season.

And if that’s not enough, they drafted Syracuse’s Dyaisha Fair and Iowa’s Kate Martin. Fair and Plum are currently second and third, respectively, in NCAA Division I women’s basketball career scoring. Martin teamed up with the all-time scoring leader, Caitlin Clark, at Iowa helping lead the team to unprecedented levels.

The Aces are in the driver’s seat for another championship. They would become the first team to win three in a row since the Houston Comets won the first four WNBA championships form 1997-2000.

They are clearly the top team heading into the 2024 season, and they don’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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