Las Vegas Aces free agency preview: Kayla McBride's future takes center stage
Las Vegas has just six players currently locked in
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Enjoy our team-by-team free agency previews!
From what reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces’ supporting cast showed us in the WNBA Bubble last summer, this roster hardly needs much of an upgrade to keep competing for championships for the rest of Wilson’s prime.
Instead, the job ahead for head coach/president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer and general manager Dan Padover will mostly focus on retaining key players and rebuilding the bench.
The Aces enter the free agency period with only six players on the roster and about $660,000 to work with, so it’s not a given everyone will be back, but what does seem likely is that rather than using depth and defense to win in 2021, Las Vegas will be more oriented around its star, presuming it keeps them all.
As of now, the only players who remain on the Aces’ roster are Wilson, Dearica Hamby, Angel McCoughtry, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Ji’Su Park. Notably absent from that list are Liz Cambage and Kayla McBride, who represent the top priorities in free agency.
‘A numbers game’
After last year’s new collective bargaining agreement, top WNBA stars can earn just over $221,000. Should Cambage decide to return to the WNBA after getting a medical exemption from the Bubble season last summer, that’s likely the contract she would demand. All indications are the Aussie is happy in Las Vegas and maintains a strong relationship with the Aces, so if she returns, it’s likely she will do so in the desert.
Should Cambage be locked in for that max number, though, the Aces are down to about $440,000 to spend on the remaining five roster spots, depending on how they use their 2021 first-round pick.
With McBride also facing free agency coming off a strong Bubble season in which she played a key two-way role for a league finalist, McBride’s market will likely be strong. As we saw in 2020, the growing parity between maximum and minimum players allowed suitors to more aggressively pursue other teams’ free agents, such as Kristi Toliver and Shekinna Stricklen, even with sub-max contracts.
A source close to the Aces said a strong push for McBride could force the team into a difficult “numbers game” as they fill out the roster.
Could a team like Dallas, which has room to add one free agent, pay big for a veteran 3-and-D leader like McBride, especially with her connection to new head coach Vickie Johnson, who was an Aces assistant the past several season? McBride would also be an excellent addition in New York, where she could help Walt Hopkins integrate his spaced-out offense and bring similar leadership value.
With McCoughtry and Young in tow, Las Vegas should be able to make up for a potential McBride departure, but the Aces will be hoping they don’t have to.
Two key Aces pieces are recovering from major injuries and it’s not certain they will be ready for camp. Plum, who ruptured her Achilles’ tendon prior early last June, would be facing an 11-month recovery to be ready by Aces training camp in May, while Hamby suffered an MCL injury in September and is expected to be ready.
Recently, Breanna Stewart returned to the floor for the Team USA tour last winter less than nine months after her own Achilles’ tear, so a similar timeline could mean Plum is a full-go for the start of the season. However, neither player should be expected to be themselves right away.
A potentially thinner Aces team and continued rehab from Plum and Hamby, two of the Aces’ six or seven best players, would pose challenges for Las Vegas and perhaps put more pressure on them to try to find cheap depth where possible.
Replacing the stars
If McBride leaves or Cambage once again does not play in the WNBA, the Aces would be looking on the open market for replacements. They also will need to determine whether key 2020 pieces like Lindsay Allen, Danielle Robinson and Sugar Rodgers on this team in 2021, while the retirement (at long last) of Carolyn Swords leaves a hole in the front court.
Any Laimbeer target will be capable defensively, unselfish, and hard-nosed. While admittedly Las Vegas won’t have much to spend, a role player like Atlanta’s Blake Dietrick, Connecticut’s Brionna Jones, the Sparks’ Reshanda Gray, Phoenix’s Kia Vaughn, or Washington’s Tianna Hawkins could fill needs. Don’t rule out a return from fan favorite Sydney Colson, either, as she enters free agency after one year with the cap-restricted Sky.
A logical guess is the Aces could look to the draft for another wing like Texas A&M’s N’Dea Jones or Oregon’s Erin Boley to develop while McCoughtry is still on the roster.
It’s such a massive advantage to have a coach like Laimbeer who adds legitimate value every night with his ability to game plan and maximize the talent on his roster, and with Wilson coming into her own as a shot creator, defender and leader, the Aces don’t need much.
Still, particularly if McBride takes more money elsewhere, this could be a different Aces team than we’ve seen the past couple years.