Aces

Is It Time to Deal Your Aces Stock?

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“I think sometimes we settle,” MVP candidate A’ja Wilson said following Las Vegas’ loss to New York on Aug. 28. “We’re too good to settle.”

Too good.

Defending champions level good. The first team in WNBA history to reach 30 regular-season wins level good. The best record in the league level good.

That’s how good.

Yet, if I took an excursion to Sin City and placed a bet on the 2023 WNBA Championship, I don’t think my money would be on the home team. Not right now, anyway. 

The Aces have been the best team in the league nearly all season. They have broken countless records and shattered even the loftiest of expectations. They have exemplified “excellence in every way,” just as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said during the Aces visit to the White House on Aug. 25. There is no changing any of that. 

https://twitter.com/NBATV/status/1695142308637970486

They have proven themselves time and time again, each and every night. And yet — they still have to prove they can be the first team to go back-to-back since the Sparks did it at the turn of the century. And yet — they still have to prove they haven’t lost their way.

“We let a lot of teams off the hook,” Wilson said. “And no team in our league is going to let us off the hook.”

Reasons for doubt

In Las Vegas’ first 29 games, they failed to reach 90-plus points in just six games; three of those were losses. 

Since Aug. 11 — including the Commissioner’s Cup title versus New York on Aug. 15 — they have failed to reach 90-plus points in seven games. The problem is, that’s only over the course of ten games. Four of those seven instances were losses.

In fact, since Aug. 6, the Aces have failed to score 75 points four times, something that never happened in their first 26 games. 

Las Vegas has the top-rated offense in the league, and typically that is fueled by their top-rated defense. But lately, the Aces’ typical calling card — their defense — has come into question. 

“Our bad offense is making us bad defensively,” head coach Becky Hammon said in the post-game press conference for their recent loss to New York.

Hammon was critical of her team’s sometimes head scratching shot selection. When the Aces can’t make shots, they are put on their heels, forcing their defense to make plays. It’s even more frustrating when the offensive errors are preventable.

 “It can’t be bad shot, bad defense, bad shot,” Hammon explained.

That’s often the case, though. Bad shot selection, or inability to hit shots gives the other team opportunities and forces the defense into tough situations. 

For example, the Aces’ defense allowed 100 points for the first time all season in their win over Atlanta on Aug. 22. Thankfully, Wilson overshadowed the defensive mishap with an offensive masterclass. She tied the WNBA record for points in a single game with 53. 

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And yet — Vegas allowed 100 points.

Before July 25, only one team had broken 90 points against the Aces. Since then, it’s happened five times. 

Maybe the Aces are truly struggling. Maybe it’s because of the gigantic “super team” sized target on their back. Maybe it’s because of injuries, like with Candace Parker, who has missed a large chunk of the season after having surgery. Maybe other teams are starting to figure out Las Vegas.

It’s hard to say for sure. What is certain, however, is that Las Vegas is still the team to beat in the WNBA. They just have to prove why.

Dropping a contest in D.C.

“So today we celebrate a group of leaders that define excellence in every way,” Vice President Harris said during the Las Vegas Aces’ trip to the White House.“The winners of the 2022 WNBA Championship: the Las Vegas Aces.”

The Aces came into Washington champions. Boasting smiles and “rocking like a church choir” during a trip to the nation’s capital. 

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However, they left with a little less enthusiasm. 

The Mystics dominated the interior on Saturday, outsourcing Vegas 30 to 14 in the paint. They even held the Aces to just 62 points, the second-lowest scoring performance all season for Vegas (second only to the 61-point performance in the 38-point blowout they suffered to New York on Aug. 6). 

Andy Yamashita of the Las Vegas Review-Journal pointed out on Twitter/X, that the game in Washington was Las Vegas’ 10th since Aug. 6 — including the Commissioner’s Cup Championship — that’s two more than any other team during that same span.

“Ever since the Commissioner’s Cup, I feel like it’s just been go, go, go, go,” Wilson said postgame on Monday. “But that’s the beauty of our league.”

Beautiful for the fans — sure. Beautiful for the sake of competition — of course. Beautiful for the Aces’ energy level — not so much.

“We weren’t winning that game,” Hammon said. “Honestly, this was a game I considered resting people because we’re just tired.”

That’s why she pulled her starters down 12 with three minutes to play. But it was only three minutes over the span of 10 games. The damage had already been done.

Liberty get the last laugh of the regular season

Just two days after dropping to Washington, on Aug. 28, Vegas was in New York battling the Liberty in yet another potential finals preview — the fourth matchup between the two teams in August alone. Due to the possibility of New York stealing the top seed from Vegas, resting in New York wasn’t much of an option either. 

Outside of the second quarter, in which New York outscored Vegas 25-16, the game was closely contested. It was the first time in five meetings that a game between the two teams was decided by single digits. Still, it resulted in Vegas’ second consecutive loss. 

Controlling games defensively is something Vegas has struggled with recently. Lacking defensive consistency is not necessarily new to Vegas, but it has certainly come into a heightened focus lately. 

One good example of this was when Vegas trailed 50-37 at the half against the Sky on Aug. 24. The Aces won the game 94-87 after outscoring Chicago by 20 in the second half. But the defensive intensity was lacking in the first half. 

The bout with New York was a similar story — minus the comeback. 

“Defense is a huge difference when it comes to us,” Wilson said. “Defensively, we kind of have some lulls. And [the Liberty] beat us in a quarter, and those quarters are so key. It seems like in every loss, it’s always one quarter that just bites us, and it’s on the defensive end. Overall, I think we are pretty confident in how we ended the game. It wasn’t a lull, it was more so, us. And that’s what I want to focus on more.” 

By “us”, Wilson meant “getting settled and playing in space,” as she later explained. The two-time MVP believes that part of the solution to the defensive inconsistency is playing more into their own strengths. 

The other part of the solution is a change of atmosphere. A chance to up the stakes, if you will. 

“I think later on when we get out of the regular season, and it’s [the] Playoff[s], and it’s do or die, that’s when the switch is going to go,” Wilson said. “We were just in the locker room saying, ‘Why does it take the second half for us to really be like, ‘Alright let’s go do this.’’”

Is it time to sell your Aces stock?

It’s the pressure of 11 games in 23 days. It’s the bad shot selection. It’s the defensive inconsistency. It’s the injuries. And, one thing I’ve yet to mention, is the lack of depth. It’s the monumental weight of going back-to-back placed almost exclusively on the shoulders of four women — offensively speaking at least. 

Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young account for 73.8 points per game. It’s not an easy task to combat the expectation of a defending champion and have to shoulder that much scoring. 

One Aces fan put it perfectly when they posted this on Twitter/X:

Without Riquna Williams and Candace Parker, someone else is going to have to step up. Whether it’s Kiah Stokes or Alysha Clark, the Aces’ core four needs help on offense. 

That is one problem that needs solving before the Playoffs. And it’s not the only problem, that much has been made clear.

Still — I wouldn’t sell your stock. This is still the team that broke the win record. Still the defending champions. Still a team with four high level All-Stars. 

Still the team to beat.

Don’t take it from me though, take it from the Aces.

“This is not —” Plum began to say in the post-game presser after the loss in Washington.

“The end of the world,” Wilson interjected laughing. 

“— The end of our season,” Plum finished. “It’s always national news when we lose a game, and that’s just what comes with it. But, guys, let’s take a deep breath.”

So, that’s what we will do. Breathe in. And breathe out. It’s almost playoff time, so don’t lose faith in the defending champions just yet.

Chelsea Gray Championship Bobblehead!

Chelsea Gray bobblehead

WNBA champ and WNBA Finals MVP? Now THAT’S something worth celebrating. And there’s no better way to celebrate than with this Chelsea Gray Las Vegas Aces 2022 WNBA Champions Bobblehead.

About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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