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PALMETTO, FL - OCTOBER 6: Kayla McBride #21 of the Las Vegas Aces drives to the basket against the Seattle Storm in Game Three of the WNBA Finals on October 6, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images).
The 2020 season came to a close for the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday as they were swept by the Seattle Storm in Game 3 the 2020 WNBA Finals. While processing the disappointment of that kind of playoff exit, the team is clearly excited about its future and proud of what they did accomplish this summer.
“Give all the credit in the world to Seattle,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said postgame. “They're a very fine basketball team. They played very well in this series. It was very obvious that they have more weapons than we do. It was clear that they were the better team in this series. For the whole season, yeah, I'm so proud of our players. We came in shorthanded, then got more shorthanded. Three of our top six players are out. We accomplished a lot. Not only did we get to the Finals for the first time, we also learned a lot.”
Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby was unavailable for the entire series due to a knee injury but will not need surgery. Add Hamby, starting point guard Kelsey Plum (Achilles) and All-WNBA center Liz Cambage (medical exemption) back into the mix, and the Aces figure to be a strong contender in 2021.
Angel McCoughtry had the most efficient season of her career in her first campaign with Las Vegas, and third-year forward A’ja Wilson took a big step forward to earn league MVP honors as the Aces clinched the No. 1 seed heading into the postseason.
“I think we grew tremendously,” Wilson said. “I think we honestly understand now what it takes to win a championship. I mean, Seattle is a championship team on paper, on court. It's good to have that measure to know this is what we have to do every possession, every minute. I don't think we really understood that till you're in it.”
The Aces struggled mightily with turnovers in Games 2 and 3 after Seattle punished Las Vegas in transition throughout Game 1, thanks in part to a poor shooting performance. The Aces had 15 turnovers in Game 2, and they failed to capitalize in Tuesday’s first half as both Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart each spent seven-plus minute stretches on the bench due to foul trouble.
McCoughtry checked out for the first time with about three minutes remaining in the first quarter with the Aces up by five. They were outscored by seven in those remaining three-plus minutes. At one point, the Aces committed four turnovers in a string of five possessions and went seven straight possessions without a score through the end of the first and into the second.
Shortly after Howard checked back in, Stewart left the game with three fouls as the Storm led by two. Stewart would sit the final seven-plus minutes of the half, but the Storm outscored the Aces by seven in that stretch to take a nine-point lead into the break. Las Vegas had a particularly deflating stretch as Lindsay Allen turned it over on four straight possessions late in the quarter.
“You can't do that in the Finals, especially against a team as good as Seattle, as smart as Seattle,” McCoughtry said of the team’s turnovers. “But this is a great learning experience for these girls. I know they're going to fight to get back there again next year. Now they'll know what it takes. They see what a championship team looks like. They can learn from it. We have film to look back on.”
Laimbeer pulled McCoughtry in the third after picking up a fourth foul as the Aces trailed by 14, and Seattle extended the lead to 24 before she checked back in about five minutes later. And with that, the writing was on the wall. The Storm were well on their way to their fourth WNBA championship. Stewart was named 2020 Finals MVP—an honor she also earned two years ago as the Storm swept the Mystics in the 2018 Finals.
This could go down as the first of many Finals meetings between Wilson, the 2020 MVP and 2018 No. 1 overall pick, and Stewart, the 2018 MVP and 2016 No. 1 overall pick. Both frontcourt stars won their first MVP in their third WNBA seasons.
The Storm will have a big target on their backs after winning two of the last three championships, going two for two when their entire starting five was healthy and available. Washington, the 2019 champs, and Las Vegas, among others, figure to be in that next tier of teams looking to crush Seattle’s attempt at a title defense in 2021. The Aces are trending in the right direction after an appearance in the semifinals in 2019 and a Finals trip in 2020 in just their third season in Las Vegas since the franchise relocated from San Antonio.
“It was a great experience,” McCoughtry said. “It's a great organization. They treated me so well. The way they helped take care of my knee. I was playing through a lot of pain sometimes with my knee. So, I'm thankful to Bill for giving me a chance when I had so many doubters. I just really appreciate this organization. To get back there, it's a blessing. I know I don't have many years left. Of course, I wanted to win one. I've been to the Finals so many times and haven't got one. I'm just proud of what this team has done.”
Wilson, Plum, Hamby, McCoughtry, Jackie Young and JiSu Park are already under contract for next season according to The Next’s salary database. Cambage, Allen, Danielle Robinson, Sugar Rodgers, Cierra Burdick, Emma Cannon, Carolyn Swords, and starting shooting guard Kayla McBride will be free agents. Re-signing Cambage and McBride would lock in a formidable projected starting five also featuring Plum, McCoughtry and Wilson, with Hamby and Young as key reserves.
Anything can happen with any team in free agency, especially after some of the changes introduced by the new collective bargaining agreement. But the Aces appear to be in much more of a position where they’ll be looking to put the finishing touches on a contender for 2021.
“You're always planning,” Laimbeer said. “We're planning for next season this season. We have a pretty talented squad if we're at full strength. Every team makes changes, two or three here or there. We have a very sound nucleus of eight, nine players that are very solid. I think we have a first-round draft pick, No. 12. We'll look around. But making our team is going to be very difficult. Free agency is going to be interesting this year. We are a very good destination not only for basketball but also for the quality of the town, the organization.”
A reuniting of the frontcourt rotation of Cambage, Wilson and Hamby in 2021 wouldn’t leave many minutes to go around for another power forward/center. The Aces would need a backup they trust and could look to carry one veteran and one younger player, possibly Park, behind that trio.
Robinson projected as the backup point guard when she originally signed with the team back in February and filled that role throughout the regular season before supplanting Allen in the starting lineup in the playoffs. Robinson would be a valuable contributor to have in the fold next season in a similar role as Plum works her way back from the Achilles tear.
The Aces have all three of their own 2021 draft picks in hand after dealing their first- and second-rounders to Dallas as part of the deal to acquire Cambage prior to the start of the 2019 season. That 2021 first-rounder may be the piece to watch this offseason, either as a trade chip or as the means for the Aces to add, say, a shooter on the wing that would complement the current makeup of this roster.
Laimbeer wanted to get Las Vegas in position to compete for a title by his third season. This short-handed group got there in 2020 and looks poised for even more success moving forward. He has expressed a great deal of gratitude for the team’s athletic trainers, Laura Ramus and Michelle Anumba, for their round-the-clock efforts along with his assistant coaches. Tanisha Wright, a 14-year WNBA veteran, joined Vickie Johnson on the staff this year.
Wilson and Hamby weren’t the only members of the organization to take home some individual honors this season. General manager Dan Padover was named 2020 Executive of the Year, and Laimbeer, unprompted, made sure to highlight his contributions.
“Don't underestimate Dan Padover,” Laimbeer said. “Got Executive of the Year. Not only what he did for this basketball team, but this league in the bubble. He was the go-to person for representing all the basketball teams, talking to the league, getting stuff done. Our franchise really showed their true mettle and I'm proud of everybody.”
After three long months at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the Aces will now head their separate ways—some to their offseason homes, some back to Las Vegas, and others to play overseas. They’ll each surely enjoy some time to unplug and see their loved ones. The 2020 season wasn’t easy for the WNBA and its players, from the many months of planning just to make this season possible to the continued fight for social justice. The players were united in those efforts, and the league created a safe environment to host the 2020 season at a single site amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“For us, the battles that are being fought outside of this bubble are way bigger than anything we can fight here,” McBride said. “We're using our platform to fight for those that can't fight for themselves, for the Breonna Taylors of the world, for those families going through it each and every day silently and out loud. We're trying to do that through basketball the best we can. Especially being a predominantly black league, I think we feel it even more so.
“I think the battle that we're fighting is minuscule compared to the battle going on outside this bubble. But using our voices, I've been so proud of the 144 women of this league, how we've used our voices individually and collectively to continue to say her name, to remind everybody to vote, remind everyone of the things actually going on outside this bubble while being in the bubble.”