It’s been five months since training camps opened and the 2023 WNBA season began. One of the key questions being asked then, is still being asked: Will the Las Vegas Aces repeat as champions, or will the revamped New York Liberty capture their first title in franchise history?
Of course, a lot has happened since then. The Connecticut Sun emerged as legitimate challengers, with star forward Alyssa Thomas putting together a historic season. The Washington Mystics, hampered by injuries, slipped down the standings only to push the top team in the Eastern Conference at the start of the postseason. The Aces jumped out to a 16-1 start in the regular season and ended up winning a league-record 34 games, despite star offseason acquisition Candace Parker playing in just 18 contests. The team that beat Las Vegas in early July to hand the Aces a second defeat — the Dallas Wings — ended up being the reigning champions toughest playoff test. Still, the Aces swept Dallas to return to the finals for the third time in four years.
Welcome back to Getting Technical, where The Athletic’s women’s basketball experts Ben Pickman and Sabreena Merchant take you into our conversations about the WNBA Finals. We’ll discuss each team’s respective journey to the finals, what we expect from league MVPs Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson, and make a prediction. But first some key context on their respect seasons:
No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces
• 34-6 record (most in WNBA history)
• 5-0 in postseason (2-0 sweep of the Chicago Sky, 3-0 sweep of the Wings)
• No. 1 in offensive rating
• No. 1 in defensive rating
• No. 1 in NET rating
• Franchise championships: 1 (in 2022)
No. 2 seed New York Liberty
• 32-8 (most in franchise history)
• 5-1 in postseason (2-0 sweep of the Mystics, 3-1 series win over the Sun)
• No. 2 in offensive rating
• No. 3 in defensive rating
• No. 2 in NET rating
• Franchise championships: 0
𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗦𝗧𝗔𝗚𝗘 𝗜𝗦 𝗦𝗘𝗧
The Las Vegas Aces vs the New York Liberty in the 2023 @WNBA Finals. Meet us at The House!
Game 1 | October 8
Game 2 | October 11
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) October 1, 2023
Pickman: Let’s start here: Has anything surprised you about each team’s journey to this point?
Merchant: I hesitate to say surprise, since both you and I — along with many other people — picked these two teams to be in the finals, but I am intrigued at how top-heavy both squads ended up being. Starting in Las Vegas, the whole point of the offseason was to turn one rotation player into two, to expand the rotation from seven to eight. And yet, because of injuries and other absences, coach Becky Hammon is basically riding with six, with all due respect to Kierstan Bell and Cayla George.
Pickman: Right, and she shouldn’t be forgotten considering she will one day be a first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer, but the Aces are doing all this without Candace Parker, who hasn’t played since July 7 with a left foot injury. Then again, the Aces were never going to be super deep.
I can’t say that entering the season, or even during the season, I would have described the Liberty as top-heavy — the franchise’s front office, coaching staff and players all touted its depth throughout the year — but as the WNBA Finals are ready to begin, I’m not sure what role New York’s reserves will play in the series.
In New York’s critical Game 2 win over the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals, coach Sandy Brondello played her bench for a combined 12 minutes. In the Liberty’s closeout win over the Sun in Game 4, they played just seven total minutes (Kayla Thornton played four minutes and Stefanie Dolson three), and no reserve played in the second half. There’s plenty of time for each team’s stars to rest up, considering Game 1 of this series isn’t until Sunday, but as the finals progress, and the schedule becomes more condensed, how each team uses its bench is something to watch.
Merchant: One of the reasons I thought the Liberty would be well-equipped to beat the Aces in a series, and part of why they were successful against Las Vegas during the regular season and the Commissioner’s Cup Final, was their depth. Marine Johannès hit five 3-pointers in the cup final to change the game in the first half, and Thornton was a key defensive reserve to help defend Chelsea Gray in those matchups. But they were both basically phased out in that semifinals series, and I don’t think New York can beat the Aces without bigger contributions from the two of them, and potentially Dolson as well. Las Vegas can handle playing its core-six huge minutes — the advantage is supposed to be that the other team is fresher because it can get its stars some rest.
Speaking of those stars, though, one thing that was kind of noteworthy during the first two rounds was the play of Stewart. She entered the 2023 postseason as the league’s per-game leading scorer in the playoffs, and she hasn’t consistently been that offensive force. Can the Liberty survive with this version of Stewart, or do they need more from her?
Pickman: New York can definitely still win a game in the series, maybe two, if Stewart scores less than her season average of 23 points per game. But I do think — and this isn’t exactly a surprising take — that the Liberty’s chances of winning the championship (and that is the goal for them after all) go way up if she can score at an MVP-level. The Liberty lost both regular-season games against the Aces when she scored fewer than 20 points. And although New York beat Las Vegas in the Commissioner’s Cup Final, when Stewart scored just 13, the Liberty saw Johannès score 17 points in that game, which, as we both said, is probably not something you can bet on.
Question for you: After these teams’ final regular-season meeting, on Aug. 28, which the Liberty won convincingly, I wrote that the Liberty appeared to be the more complete team. Hammon talked about some “borderline (negligence)” on defense from her squad after that game. But heading into the series, who do you think is playing better?
Merchant: The problem with that question is the Aces have been on cruise control for much of the past month. They ended the season with three games against the Seattle Storm and the Phoenix Mercury and have since played five games in 29 days during the playoffs. We’ve barely had a chance to really watch Las Vegas compete, which is why Hammon seemed so happy that the Aces had to go on the road for Game 3 and play in a sold-out, raucous environment in Dallas to test themselves. Meanwhile, the Liberty had a tough first-round series against Washington and an even tougher semifinal series against a very experienced Connecticut squad. Las Vegas has looked better overall, but the quality of the opposition hasn’t been the same.
The one thing the Aces have going in their favor is Wilson has looked like the best player in the world since the start of September, and that is what their hopes of a repeat title rest on. I’m most interested in whether Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young can do enough to support Wilson in this series.
‘I want it all’: How A’ja Wilson is building her legacy and Aces’ dynasty
Pickman: I’m going to key in on Gray, last year’s finals MVP. New York’s do-everything wing Betnijah Laney, who has had a stellar postseason, will probably be tasked with guarding her to open the series. But Gray proved last year, and has time and time again throughout her career, she is one of the best shotmakers in the WNBA, so I would still expect a productive series from her. I’m curious who Brondello chooses to have Sabrina Ionescu guard of the three Aces players you mentioned above. Or does New York resort to playing a two-three zone, in much the same way it did to advance past Connecticut. The Liberty might not have a great option to stop the Aces’ three-headed backcourt. But I guess it’s fair to wonder if, reciprocally, Jonquel Jones has a matchup advantage on the inside.
Merchant: I’m glad we landed on Jones, because I think she is the most critical player in this series for New York. Jones has been the Liberty’s best player throughout the playoffs, a walking double-double in every game (literally, she has six in six games), and her size and effort on the glass have been too much for every opponent thus far. The Aces have Stokes and Wilson inside, which is better than what the Mystics and Sun were working with, but Las Vegas hasn’t been a great defensive rebounding team all year, and Jones will make them pay.
Perhaps the most important marker of success for the Aces guards won’t be their scoring, but how well they can rebound collectively to limit New York’s possessions to one shot. It was one thing to allow multiple attempts against Dallas, a team that doesn’t score incredibly efficiently, but the Liberty have too many good 3-point shooters to allow second chances on offense.
Pickman: You mentioned it, the Liberty were second, only to the Wings, in terms of second-chance points during the second half of the season, and they did so despite taking almost six fewer shots from within five feet than the Wings and while shooting a better percentage in said range than Dallas. The Aces were also below league average in terms of second-chance points allowed. Still, Las Vegas was the league’s best defense overall and was especially good at not allowing points off turnovers (it gave up just 12.8 per game, a league-best mark). New York wants to turn its stops into transition opportunities and easy scores, and if the Aces can defend well in transition, that could lead to the second-chance battle being less important.
Alright, so I know we’ll have plenty of stories both previewing and documenting the series — we’ll both be in Las Vegas starting Friday — but it’s time for a prediction. Who do you think wins this year’s title, and who is your finals MVP?
Merchant: You and I both took the Liberty to win at the start of the year, and I feel compelled to stay with that choice. New York showed the ability to legitimately contain Las Vegas’ offense in those August matchups, and I think that will hold in this series, especially with Laney and Jones playing as well as they have been. I’ll take the Liberty, with Jones winning Finals MVP, exacting a little revenge from last year’s finals against this same opponent.
Pickman: As you mentioned, I also picked the Liberty at the start of the season to defeat the Aces in this year’s finals. Although Las Vegas has looked like the better team entering the playoffs, I think New York’s experience grinding out series over the Mystics and Sun will pay dividends. Plus, the Liberty defeated the Aces three times in August, not just because of how their high-powered offense performed, but because of their ability to get stops when needed. Laney, perhaps the Liberty’s most versatile defender, is playing the best she’s played all year entering this series. She not only plays a key role on defense to limit Gray, Plum and Young, but on offense too. She wins finals MVP.
(Photo of Betnijah Laney, left, and Chelsea Gray: Evan Yu / NBAE via Getty Images)