How the Aces achieved WNBA glory

Published September 22, 2022, 9:00 AMYoyo Sarmenta

There were a lot of factors that went into the Las Vegas Aces’ championship run.

The Las Vegas Aces are the new WNBA champions, and while the recently crowned queens celebrate their victory, the future already beckons. 

The inevitable question of whether or not they can repeat next year has already been thrown around. Call it a price to pay for winning, but the clock is already running for the champions. When you’re on top, everyone wants to see how long you stay there. This is especially true in the W; The last time there were repeat champs was in 2001 and 2002 with the Los Angeles Sparks. 

“This has been the goal since training camp and luckily, I got a group of really resilient players,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said postgame after capturing the franchise’s first-ever title. “Probably the biggest thing I’m proud of is how they’ve come together in the course of five, six months to really become a team. And you see different people step up in different moments… and that’s what makes us difficult to beat.”

For their part, the Aces look prime and ready to be the new dominant force in the league. Las Vegas’ core of A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby, Jackie Young, and Chelsea Gray are all young and on the precipice of their prime. Even the veteran Gray only turns 30 this October. Plus, they are all under contract for next season.  

More than the talent on paper, the Aces’ winning hand probably lies in the culture they built under Hammon, who became the first coach to win a title in her debut season. 

“The first thing you have to do in building a championship culture is to set a tone of accountability first and foremost,” Hammon said. “Bring in people together for a common goal that’s bigger than themselves and then you gotta get in the buy-in factor. My buy-in factor for each of these women has been high and I think they respond to me well.”

With Hammon calling the shots this season, the Aces modified their offense. Shooting from deep became a premium. From knocking down 5.1 triples on 13.5 attempts in 2021, they cranked it up to 9.5 makes while doubling their attempts to 26.4 in 2022. 

It was also a career year for several members of their team. From Wilson earning her second league MVP while getting Defensive Player of the Year honors, to Plum making the All-Star team plus All-WNBA First Team, and Young being named Most Improved Player, the Aces catapulted themselves to the top seed. As for Gray, after being snubbed as an All-Star, she went on to have a historic shooting performance in the playoffs, capped off by a Finals MVP trophy. 

“I try to be very clear with [what] their job is – what the expectation is, and then everybody is held to the same line in the sense of nobody is shooting over two, three people,” Hammon said. “Play the right way and everybody wins and [when] we win, everything else takes care of itself.”

The Aces certainly struck gold in Hammon, who won Coach of the Year, but the players also had to trust their coach. Accountability and trust go both ways and the players know they can count on their coach to put in the same kind of effort. 

That level of belief was in full display during the closing moments of Game 4 when the Aces’ small ball went head-to-head with the Connecticut Sun’s giant lineup. It was a matter of who was going to blink first and adjust between Hammon and Sun head coach Curt Miller. In the end, the Aces going to their gut proved critical as reserve Riquna Williams shot the lights out to put away the game. 

“She’s been believing us since the beginning just to play our style from both ends of the floor,” Gray said. “We were small as heck. And we just had to believe we’re scrappers so that’s what she instilled in us from the beginning.”

“When you take the word encourage, which actually means to give courage to another person, that’s what I’ve tried to speak to them every day is how much I believed in them,” echoed Hammon. “And that we could be special if we all did it together. Like I said, they’re really good basketball players but they’re also really fun people.”

Though the question of whether or not the Aces can repeat will hover like a cloud, this season was proof that their culture has a winning formula. 

“Winning a championship is something no one can ever take from you,” Wilson said. “When you’re talking about a legacy, you have to win. And I don’t win without my teammates. “

Wilson’s place in the pantheon of WNBA greats certainly went up a notch after winning her first title. A two-time MVP at just 26 years old, there’s no telling what her career will look like once she hangs up her sneakers. 

“This is not just going to be the first. I’m not trying to be like ‘Bron and start naming numbers and stuff but this won’t be the [last],” Wilson claimed, alluding to LeBron James’ bold statement when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010.

Wilson wasn’t trying to sound like James but does this also mean that the Aces will win not one, not two, not three championships? 

“It’s too far ahead. We’re just gonna enjoy this moment, stay in the moment,” Gray said. “We’re not even talking about next year yet but to do it with this group, knowing we have the commitment for next season is special. We’re doing it for each other and it’s created a bond, but right now we’re just gonna enjoy this moment.”