Las Vegas appears to have enough Aces to win a WNBA title, but the question is will they turn up?
A pair of Western Conference and championship contenders begin a season of lofty expectations Sunday when the Aces host the Los Angeles Sparks.
Las Vegas went 14-20 last season as unanimous Rookie of the Year and 2018 No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson finished in the top six in scoring (20.7), rebounds (8.0), and blocks (1.67). The Aces rode their lottery luck for a third straight year overall in April, winning the No. 1 pick and taking 6-foot guard Jackie Young, who averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in helping Notre Dame reach the Final Four last season and win the 2018 Women’s NCAA Tournament.
But the move that has many considering the Aces to be championship-caliber was the blockbuster deal made earlier this month to acquire center Liz Cambage from the Dallas Wings. The runner-up for the WNBA MVP award last season, the 6-foot-8 Cambage averaged 23.0 points and 11.9 rebounds and set a single-game league record with a 53-point outburst. Her addition creates a core four that includes All-Star Kayla McBride and makes Bill Laimbeer’s team one of the favorites to win the title.
“On a piece of paper, you guys would say, ‘Oh this should be great,'” Laimbeer told the Las Vegas Sun, “and everyone will say ‘high-low game’ and they work together and you’ve got perimeter shooters. But reality says you have to play the game to really figure out what you have. I don’t know what we have yet.”
Los Angeles (19-15) also does not lack for star power, though two-time MVP Candace Parker (17.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg in 2018) will not be available for at least three weeks after suffering a hamstring injury in the preseason opener. The Sparks, though, did acquire Chiney Ogwumike from the Connecticut Sun in the offseason to join her older sister Nneka.
While the younger Ogwumike has dealt with injury issues that caused her to miss the 2015 and 2017 seasons, she averaged 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 60.3 percent for the Sun last year and can form a solid tandem in the low post with Nneka.
In the backcourt, the Sparks will be paced by Alana Beard and Chelsea Gray, with the latter coming off a career season in which she averaged 14.9 points, 5.1 assists and 1.4 steals. Though Los Angeles was a playoff team in 2018 and reached the second round, the 19 wins were a steep fall-off from the back-to-back 26-win seasons in which the Sparks won the 2016 title and reached the finals the following year.
“I think Derek is kind of the missing piece to rebuilding the team after experiencing a lot of changes,” Nneka Ogwumike told the Los Angeles Daily News. “He’s very much a players’ coach and that’s something I haven’t really experienced in my career. He approaches what we learn in practice from more of a human perspective, not just a basketball player’s perspective, and I think that really is what will set us apart, not just from other teams, but this particular L.A. team.”