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Las Vegas Lays the Foundation of a New WNBA Dynasty
The Aces’ record-setting 2023 season was among the most dominant in league history.
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For the first time in over twenty years, the Las Vegas Aces have done what seemed impossible: go back-to-back as WNBA champions.
The significance of that achievement can’t be diminished. Since the Los Angeles Sparks repeated in 2001 and 2002, reigning champions were 0-6 in the Finals before this season— and that’s if they made it that far. Even the Minnesota Lynx, who ruled over the league for the best part of the 2010s, could never string together back-to-back titles. All that’s to say, it’s really hard to repeat.
If anyone could do it though, it was Las Vegas. The Aces didn’t just roll out the same game plan as last year: they improved in nearly every facet of the game. The offseason acquisitions of Alysha Clark and Candace Parker (pre-injury) bolstered the defense, while Jackie Young continued her meteoric rise to become one of the most efficient guards in the league. A’ja Wilson was statistically superior to last year’s MVP season and thoroughly outplayed this year’s recipient in the playoffs to take home her first Finals MVP trophy. As if to put an exclamation point on the year, they closed out New York on the road while down two starters.
With all members of the “Core Four” under contract for next year and none over the age of 31, the Aces don’t look to be slowing down any time soon. While their championship tally hasn’t quite reached the levels of the Comets and Lynx dynasties, the 2023 Aces just put up one of the best seasons in league history. To quantify just how good, we need to take a look back.
On record alone, the 2023 Aces are among the best to ever do it. Their 34-win season is the most ever, though, of course, that’s primarily due to the expanded 40-game season. Translated to win percentage, they sit fourth at 85%.
Las Vegas is also in the top echelon of net rating (margin per 100 possessions). Their net rating of 15.4 is the highest since the Houston Comets in 1998 and 2000, when they twice exceeded 17.
Those Comets margins were largely powered by their incredible, sub-90 defensive ratings, with their 85.2 defensive rating in 1998 easily a record among WNBA champions. For context, Houston only allowed their opponents 63.5 and 64.6 points per game in 1998 and 2000, respectively. As teams have steadily begun to play faster and take more threes since the league’s inception, those defensive numbers have become virtually impossible to replicate. Over the last decade, just one team (the 2015 New York Liberty, at 89.6) has recorded a sub-90 defensive rating.
Still, that’s not to say the Aces were a poor defensive team. Their defensive rating of 95.8 was the best in the league this season and a marked improvement from the 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions last season. With Parker sidelined during the second half of the season, Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson stepped up to post new career highs in total rebounds and defensive win shares. It was also Clark’s brilliant defense on Breanna Stewart that forced New York into a hail mary shot at the end of Game 4, effectively sealing the championship for the Aces.
But where Las Vegas shone brightest was on the offensive end of the floor. Led by Chelsea Gray, one of the most precise and creative point guards in the league, the Aces ran the table in offensive efficiency categories. They rank top-five all time in field-goal percentage (third), effective field-goal percentage (first), points per scoring attempt (first), points per possession (first) and turnover rate (fifth). The Aces also broke the 2019 Washington Mystics’ offensive rating record, posting a new league-high mark of 111.5.
Once again, given the differences in league play style since the Comets ruled in the ‘90s, it can be difficult to compare the Aces’ offense to past champions. To better contextualize Las Vegas’s offense against teams from past eras, we can look at each team’s points per game compared to that season’s average. Given that the Aces look poised to forge another WNBA dynasty, I chose to compare their offense to that of the Comets and Lynx championship teams.
While each champion outperformed the league’s scoring average, this year’s Aces did so by over 10 points, easily a new record.
With the Liberty nipping at their heels all season, Las Vegas needed to improve on both ends of the floor to be holding the championship trophy at the end of the day. A record-breaking offense and much-improved defense is as good a response as any.
There will be time to time to debate exactly where this 2023 Aces team falls in the WNBA history books. Unlike the ‘90s Comets and 2010s Lynx, Las Vegas’ story is still being written. Nothing is guaranteed in sports: this could be the second championship in a Las Vegas dynasty, or it could be the last one they win. But no matter what, this season’s Aces have set the benchmark for every other team immeasurably higher. When we look back at this chapter of WNBA history, Las Vegas will surely jump off the page.