Most sports fans are familiar with the “disease of more,” a concept coined by Pat Riley, head coach of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers and current executive with the Miami Heat, that captures the idea that, once a team has won a championship, players become more focused on individual successes, whether money, notoriety or opportunity. The accumulation of such attitudes then contributes to an atrophying of team chemistry and success.
The 2023 Las Vegas Aces, in contrast, appeared not only to have ingested an antidote to the “disease of more,” but also discovered an alternative elixir. From the season’s opening tip, the Aces exhibited an unwavering commitment to shared purpose—a second-straight championship.
After a dominant regular season, their ambition suddenly was in doubt, with Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes suffering foot injuries in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Yet, they triumphed in dramatic fashion, with Finals MVP A’ja Wilson carrying her thinned out team across the finish line—and into WNBA history.
While much has been said, and deserves to be said, about the Aces’ excellence, here are a few more takeaways about Vegas’ 2023 season:
After winning it all in 2022, the Aces were even better in 2023
In 2022, the Aces went a league-best 26-10 in the regular season and 8-2 in the playoffs, winning the franchise’s first title. They owned the best offense in the W, with a 109.6 offensive rating for the regular season. In 2023, they took things to another level as they defended their crown, securing a WNBA-record 34 regular-season wins before going 8-1 in the playoffs. Eric Nemchock recently highlighted more of the numbers behind the Aces’ statistically-dominant title run, including their league-lapping offensive (113.0) and defensive (97.7) ratings.
The team took their cue from the leader—two-time MVP A’ja Wilson, who turned in the best season of her career in 2023. She scored a career-high 22.8 points per game on a career-best field goal percentage of 55.7. The highlight of her season was a 53-point explosion, tying the WNBA’s single-game scoring mark. However, a 40-point effort, earned without a 3-pointer, might have been even more impressive. Despite her offensive productivity, her defensive effort did not diminish—it also was enhanced. She earned a second-straight Defensive Player of the Year award behind a career-high 9.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.4 steals per game.
The Aces dominated, despite adversity
When the Aces signed free agents Candace Parker and Alysha Clark during the offseason, it was easy to imagine that they would be dominant. While the addition of Clark, named Sixth Player of the Year, was a success, Parker was unable to make the impact envisioned. After dealing with a nagging foot injury that prevented her from looking like her CP3 self, Parker was sidelined for the season on July 25 after playing only 18 games. In addition to the injury to Parker, the Aces were without Riquna Williams all season, absent first due to a back injury and then because of her domestic violence arrest.
Already a top-heavy roster, the Aces had to survive the WNBA’s first 40-game season without expected depth. This problem, of course, was exacerbated in the playoffs with the Game 3 injuries to Gray and Stokes. Yet, as the numbers and records cited above indicate, the Aces performed like a super team, even if they often were not at their super-est.
Vegas is fearlessly fun
Scroll through social media during the WNBA season and you’re likely see the Aces’ latest shenanigans. The team culture—the perfect mix of silliness and sincere appreciation for each other—jumps off the screen, making you wish you could join in on the hijinks.
The off-court exuberance also helps explain the Aces’ on-court excellence, with Game 4 of the Finals serving as the perfect example. Elevated into the regular rotation due to the absences of Gray and Stokes, Cayla George and Sydney Colson played without fear, a rare feat as out-of-the-rotation players often play as if they are afraid to make mistakes when they find themselves on the court. Despite some pretty brutal bricks from 3, George kept shooting, bolstered by her coaches’ and teammates’ belief in her. Colson whipped out a bold behind-the-back pass in the tension-filled title clincher, a similar sign of the sense of empowerment instilled in her by her team. While Wilson authored the game’s (and series’) signature performance, the efforts of George and Colson, just as much as that of Wilson, illustrate the power of the Aces’ culture.
Although Kelsey Plum insists her now-infamous quotation was taken out context, the Aces’ attitudes and action, both on and off the court, corroborate the point she sought to make: This is a team that has developed a deep connection through seasons of hard-fought trials and hard-won triumphs (and plenty of hearty laughs).
And getting through it doesn’t happen over night. Never been the type to throw shade, quite the opposite actually. I see how it came off, never was my intention and I apologize. Our game grew immensely from this series, don’t let this bull shit detract from the biggest win here. https://t.co/pWENnKC68l— Kelsey Plum (@Kelseyplum10) October 20, 2023
The Aces’ core four of Wilson, Gray, Plum and Jackie Young is signed to contracts through 2024, with Wilson’s extending through 2025. Clark also will be back in Vegas next season.
Otherwise, the Aces’ roster is unsettled, giving president Nikki Fargas and general manager Natalie Williams optionality as they aim for a third-straight title. With an estimated $512,585 in salary cap space, Vegas has the funds needed to retain unrestricted free agents Stokes, Colson and George. Parker also is an unrestricted free agent. Considering her extended injury, it will be interesting what decision she makes for 2024.
Even if Vegas retains all their free agents, the franchise still would have enough financial flexibility to further establish themselves as the envy of the league by bringing in another big-name player. Over at The Athletic, former Swish Appealer Sabreena Merchant proposes several eye-brow raising names, including one that would add extra spice to the Aces-Liberty rivalry: Jonquel Jones.
Based on how the organization has operated under owner Mark Davis, expect the Aces to exhaust all possible resources to prepare the team to take title No. 3 in 2024.