The Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces, the two best teams in the 2021 WNBA regular season, failed to reach the Finals. One had the 2020 MVP and a team who was gunning for redemption after falling short of the championship the year before. The other had the 2021 MVP and had all the momentum going into the playoffs but also did not live up to expectations.
As the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury duke it out in the Finals, where do the Aces and Sun go from here?
Las Vegas Aces
Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer had strong words for her team following their Game 5 loss to the Mercury.
"They willed that onto their team. They hung in there, they made the big plays," Laimbeer said about Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. "We need to acquire that trait. Whether it is we grow up or whether we acquire something, but it's something that this team has consistently lacked throughout the course of the year – a leadership of steeliness. Someone that sits there and says, 'No, this is how we do it. This is what's going to happen.' And, they have it. We don't."
Those words cut like a knife considering that the Aces have A'ja Wilson, who won the MVP last year and was also in the MVP conversation this season. They have the newly-minted Sixth Player of the Year in Kelsey Plum, coming back with a vengeance after tearing her Achilles. They have a solid post presence in Liz Cambage and Dearica Hamby.
The offseason acquisitions of Chelsea Gray and Riquna Williams fortified their starting lineup. Not to mention, the team has multiple Olympians across the lineup including Jackie Young and Ji-Su Park. The Aces finished the regular season second in the standings with a 24-8 record.
What was missing? Rather, who was missing?
Down the line, the 2020 Aces team can look back to the loss of Angel McCoughtry to injury as a big what if. What if the veteran didn't tear her ACL and meniscus during the preseason? The year before in the bubble, McCoughtry was instrumental in the Aces' run to the Finals, posting 14.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 steals while being a threat from downtown with her 47.1 clip.
The 35-year-old is probably not the same scorer that she was during her prime with the Atlanta Dream but she can still put the ball in the hoop at a high level. An extra offensive threat, who has a truckload of experience, would have been huge for the Aces especially at the end of playoff games. That said, it's also worth noting that this was the second time in three years that she didn't play because of an injury, missing the 2019 season because of her left knee. Can she still be as effective when she comes back next year?
The championship window for the Aces is far from closed, especially if you have Wilson in your corner. She's only 25 and just completed her fourth season, with her best years ahead of her. But the losses do weigh heavier after every season and Wilson's emotions on the floor after the Game 5 buzzer sounded were indicative that this particular failed championship bid hurt.
The Aces have enough firepower to run it all back and have another terrific season in 2022. Will it be enough to get over the hump? Like coach Laimbeer said, you hope that this team can meet the moment when the next opportunity arises.
The Sun were a regular-season juggernaut, amassing a league-best 26 wins and losing just six times. They were riding a 14-game winning streak heading into the postseason and looked formidable as ever. They had the season MVP, Most Improved Player, and Coach of the Year, and were dead set on winning it all.
But just as the Sun were ravaging opponents left and right in the regular season, they were met with a huge roadblock in the form of the Chicago Sky. In a span of four games, the weaknesses and holes of the Sun were exposed, and inversely, everything came together for the Sky.
The Sun were dominant throughout the year but their greatest challenge came in the playoffs in Candace Parker and the Sky. Perhaps it was a matchup problem. Perhaps it was just the breaks of the game. But as the Sun were scrambling for answers, it was too late for them to gather their bearings against a very determined foe.
Credit also should be given to the Sky for focusing their defense on Jonquel Jones. The MVP never really got it going and never made her imprint in the series. The return of Alyssa Thomas was obviously a welcome sight, but it was a tough ask for someone to be impactful coming off a serious injury. Brionna Jones, the Most Improved Player, was also missing in stretches. The Sun just unfortunately burned out in the worst time and their opponent was able to capitalize with ease.
Moving forward, what you do want from them is for the leaders to assert themselves more. Maybe it's the MVP to hold court or the veterans to keep everyone accountable. The series against the Sky exposed them as a team that was shell-shocked in the bright lights and the pressure.
Like the Aces, the core of the Sun is still elite. An obvious priority for them is to re-sign Jonquel Jones, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and then go from there. An entire year with a healthy Thomas will certainly help in a lot of areas as well.
Despite a very disappointing playoff performance for the Sun, they can take away a few positives, including a strong regular season and several players taking home individual honors. The confidence from a season like this might just catapult them into a better turnaround next year.