As winners of both the WNBA Draft Lottery (a third consecutive No. 1 overall pick) and a metaphorical offseason lottery (trading for all-world center Liz Cambage), the Las Vegas Aces were trendy picks heading into the 2019 season. The league’s annual GM survey tabbed the Aces as eventual champions, and a relentless marketing campaign fueled by MGM ownership drummed up excitement even further.
It’s not like the commotion was totally unfounded, either.
The Aces missed the playoffs during their inaugural season in Las Vegas, but the future appeared bright: A’ja Wilson romped her way to a unanimous Rookie of the Year honor, former Washington Huskies great Kelsey Plum showed considerable improvement and three-time WNBA champion coach Bill Laimbeer had the team playing an uptempo, physical brand of basketball.
For the most part, the 2019 Aces met their lofty preseason expectations. Cambage, Wilson and reserve forward Dearica Hamby quickly established themselves as a collectively dominant force in the paint. Kayla McBride had a career year shooting the basketball (51.1 percent effective field goal percentage). The Aces led the league in both percentage of field goals assisted and free throw rate, and ranked second in pace and percentage of points scored in the paint.
If that sounds like a winning formula to you, you’d be right.
But the Aces struggled to get consistent guard play from Plum and rookie Jackie Young. To offset this, the Aces relied on the size and talent of their frontcourt, which often proved more than enough. The duo of Cambage and Wilson was often too big and too strong for opponents to contain. And with eventual Sixth Woman of the Year Hamby giving Laimbeer a starting-caliber post player to sub in, the Aces’ strengths were more than enough to offset their lone positional weakness.
Las Vegas won 21 games, earning the No. 4 overall playoff seed and a first-round bye.
And if you need a reminder as to what happened after that ...
CAN YOU BELIEVE IT @dearicamarie comes up with the steal and heaves it from just inside halfcourt to win it for the @LVAces! #WNBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/s8sLdylQyJ— WNBA (@WNBA) September 15, 2019
The Aces’ shortcomings, though, were exposed in the semifinals. Cambage was terrific and Plum turned in the best four-game stretch of her career, but Vegas ultimately lacked the scoring balance — from three-point range, specifically — to keep up with the Washington Mystics.
The series defeat raised questions regarding the makeup of the Aces’ roster. For one, do they have enough shooting? Vegas was not blown out in any of its losses in the series, yet was outscored 96-54 from three-point range across those three games. Granted, the 2019 Mystics were historically good in that department, but the point remains: If you’re going to roll out a frontcourt that demands so much attention from defenses, you probably want to surround it with as much shooting as you can.
And speaking of that frontcourt, what is Cambage’s status as an Ace? Her commitment to the WNBA since being drafted in 2011 has been enigmatic at best, and with 2020 being an Olympic year, how much time will she want to spend training in her home country of Australia?
At the end of the day, though, there are far worse problems to have. The Aces have the main pieces necessary to win a title. They’re a point guard away from being primary favorites, perhaps, but the entirety of their core is still very much on the right side of 30 — theoretically giving Laimbeer plenty of time to fix the holes in his roster and making the Aces’ championship window a wide one.
Make no mistake about it: Las Vegas is a franchise on the upswing. Expect big things from the Aces in 2020.