WNBA midseason check-in: Can anyone stop the Las Vegas Aces?

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror, the WNBA enters the second half of the 2023 season with the preseason favorite Las Vegas Aces in the driver's seat for the championship.

Still, there's a lot to be decided with two months to go before the playoffs. Team Breanna Stewart beat Team A'ja Wilson at the All-Star Game, but which of the two front-runners will win MVP? Can any rookie catch All-Star Aliyah Boston in the Rookie of the Year race? As predictable as the defending champion Aces' success has been, are there any surprises so far?

ESPN's Alexa Philippou, Kevin Pelton and M.A. Voepel evaluate what we've seen so far and what might be in store.

How close is the MVP race, and what will be the determining factors?

Pelton: Breanna Stewart has been the clear leader in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric all season, but A'ja Wilson has narrowed the gap at the All-Star break -- with a caveat. The Aces have played 21 games to 18 for the New York Liberty, so Stewart is still well ahead on a per-game basis. Add in Wilson potentially splitting the MVP vote with Jackie Youngand that makes Stewart the favorite. I said before the season I wasn't sure a player from either stacked roster could win MVP but have changed my thinking on New York because Stewart has so clearly been the go-to star all year.

Philippou: Stewart, for now, for the same reason Pelton chose her, especially considering the Liberty haven't exactly been a superteam to this point. But we'd be remiss if we didn't include Alyssa Thomas in the MVP conversation. No player in league history has averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists per game; Thomas hit those marks through the first half of the season, taking on a larger role with the offseason departures of Jasmine Thomas and Jonquel Jones and the season-ending injury to Brionna Jones. The Sun have surpassed some expectations this summer, going 5-2 since the June 20 loss of Brionna Jones, with Thomas' impact on both ends as the main reason.

Voepel: If the Sun manage to finish in the top two, Thomas could nab the MVP award away from Stewart and Wilson. Right now, I'll go with the best player on the best team and give a slight edge to Wilson, who remains the Aces' centerpiece no matter how much talent they have.

The storylines coming into the season revolved around superteams in Las Vegas and New York as the clear favorites. How has that narrative held up?

Pelton: On the one hand, the Aces and the Liberty are the top two teams in the standings and set to meet in the Commissioner's Cup final, a possible preview of the WNBA Finals. On the other, it has been Las Vegas and then everybody else more than the Aces and New York standing apart from the pack. The superteam narrative would really be wobbling if Brionna Jones had stayed healthy, giving the Sun -- who handed Las Vegas its first loss of the season -- a legitimate chance to disrupt an Aces-Liberty showdown. Instead, Connecticut seems to exemplify the separation: The Sun are 1-4 against Las Vegas and New York and 14-1 against everybody else.

The big question going forward is whether the Liberty can close the gap on the Aces. That seems to revolve around Jonquel Jones. You can talk about Jones not being featured in the New York offense the same way she was with the Sun, but she also hasn't looked the same physically after dealing with a stress injury in her left foot suffered in the 2022 Finals.

Philippou: The Liberty haven't totally asserted themselves as a superteam yet with -- gasp! -- four losses at the All-Star break, but it's not entirely shocking that's the case because the team had so many new players to incorporate and could barely do so in training camp. As we saw with the 2021 Phoenix Mercury and the 2022 Liberty, Sandy Brondello's teams tend to peak later in the season, so if her 2023 squad follows the same trajectory, New York will be fine.

As Pelton said, Jonquel Jones' emergence is necessary for the Liberty to become the superteam they were tabbed to be. So, too, is growth on the defensive end (particularly on the perimeter), something that hasn't been a strong suit of theirs much of this season. Even still, they don't have years of chemistry on their side like the Aces do.

Voepel: The rest of the teams don't like the superteam narrative, and as mentioned, Connecticut seemed best positioned to crash the Aces-Liberty party prior to Brionna Jones' Achilles injury.

But a rising tide lifts all boats, even if not everyone in the boats agrees. In short: Rivalries between top teams get attention in all sports. The back-to-back WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks in 2016 and 2017 moved the WNBA forward. If the Aces and Liberty meet in the Finals this year, it will bring more spotlight to the league.

That said, there are other interesting storylines to follow, including how good both the Dallas Wings and Atlanta Dream can be. Plus, who is going to end up in the draft lottery.

Put the Aces' dominance over the first half of the season into perspective. Could they be the greatest WNBA team of all time?

Pelton: They've done everything possible so far to put themselves in the conversation. Not only would Las Vegas' plus-15.5 point differential be far and away the best in WNBA history (the defunct Houston Comets currently hold the record at plus-12.8 points per games), if we compare the Aces to where the other five teams that finished the season outscoring opponents by double-digits -- all of which won championships -- were at the same point, Las Vegas comes out ahead.

Philippou: The Aces' offense -- fueled by four former No. 1 picks and one of the greatest point guards of all time -- might prove to be the best in WNBA history. Right now their offensive rating of 114.7 points per 100 possessions would surpass the current league record of 112.9 by the 2019 Washington Mystics.

But arguably the biggest difference between last year's Aces and this year's squad is how they've fared on defense. After coming in middle of the pack in defensive rating last year, coach Becky Hammon challenged her team to finish as a top-three defensive team this summer. So far the advanced stats indicate they're on track to do so, as their defensive rating of 95.6 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks as the best among all teams (with Washington coming in second at 97.4).

Seven teams in league history paced the league in both offensive and defensive rating in a single season: the 1998, 1999 and 2000 Houston Comets; the 2014 Mercury; the 2016 and 2017 Minnesota Lynx; and the 2020 Seattle Storm. All those teams aside from the 2016 Lynx went on to win the WNBA title that year, which bodes well for Hammon's squad.

Voepel: There's one person who has first-hand knowledge of all of this: Hammon, whose playing career spanned 1999 to 2014. She played against two of the Comets' four-peat dynasty teams, the Sparks' back-to-back champions of 2001-2002, all three title teams from the Mercury and the Detroit Shock, and two of the title teams from the Storm and the Lynx. Now she's coaching an Aces team trying to be the first to repeat since Los Angeles did it 21 years ago.

Hammon isn't going to think much about the Aces from a historical perspective right now because she is fully focused on the day-to-day of trying to win another championship. But if the Aces repeat, she could start to make those comparisons.

There are always some difficulties in evaluating teams from different eras in any sport. Kevin and I last ranked the league's champions prior to the 2021 Finals, using a statistical model Kevin developed, plus subjective analysis from WNBA coaches and players. At that time, our top 10 were, in order: 2000 Comets, 2020 Storm, 2013 Lynx, 1998 Comets, 2014 Mercury, 2017 Lynx, 2019 Mystics, 1999 Comets, 2001 Sparks, 2011 Lynx.

With three teams from both the Comets and Lynx on the list, the Aces have a pretty good idea of what they are shooting for in terms of historical greatness. The 1998 Comets (27-3) were the WNBA champion with the fewest regular-season losses. The Aces are 19-2 entering the second half of their 40-game schedule.

We've already had more 40-point games this season (seven) than in the past eight seasons combined (six). What's behind all the big scoring nights?

Pelton: What's interesting is the usual reason for scoring surges -- more points being scored overall -- isn't a factor. This season's 82.8 PPG ranks third most in WNBA history but behind two recent seasonswith just two total 40-point games (2018 and the shortened 2020 "Wubble" campaign). Scoring is also up only marginally from last year, when there were no 40-point games. When it comes to 30-point games (26), the pace is up from last year's 31 but isn't historic. Players scored at least 30 points more often in 2018 (46 times in the shorter 34-game schedule).

Digging through the seven games, there's no obvious common denominator. Players aren't making way more 3s or playing more minutes in these high-scoring outings. In fact, the four lowest minutes totals in WNBA 40-point games have all come this season. So I've got no easy answer here.

Voepel: For their part, the players say it reflects the increased skill level in the WNBA.

"People are also doing it pretty efficiently," said the Liberty's Stewart, who has two 40-plus-point games this season, shooting a combined 28-of-41 (68.3%) from the field and 23-of-25 (92%) from the line in them. "It's not like they are just taking tons of shots. To me, it's not surprising because it's another way we see the game is getting better."

Kelsey Plum, who holds the NCAA Division I women's basketball career scoring record with 3,527 points while with the Washington Huskies, had an Aces-record 40 points on July 9 vs. Minnesota.

"You have to be well-versed," Plum said of the skill level needed to score from all over the court. "And the reason I was able to score 40 is because [opponents] don't double me. They have to worry about Chelsea [Gray], Jackie [Young], A'ja [Wilson]. You see the scoring depth on teams growing."

Philippou: One interesting note to add, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, is that the NBA also saw increased individual scoring in 2022-23 with a record number of 30-point and 40-point player performances, as well as a record-tying number of players averaging 30 points per game on the season. Perhaps individual performance as a focal point is simply a reflection of the direction the game is headed across the board.

Which team or player has been the biggest surprise (good or bad) this season, and what's one bold prediction for the second half of the season?

Philippou: Brittney Griner returning from her 10-month detainment in Russia and playing at an All-Star-level is nothing short of astounding considering what she went through last year. She's averaging 19.5 points per game on 60.6% shooting (the latter would be a career high if it holds) and has been a bright spot on an otherwise struggling Mercury squad. There are some elements to her game that are still coming back, but the fact she's this dominant at all wasn't foreseen upon her return to the United States in December.

My bold prediction is the Dallas Wings will finish as a top-four team. They're already No. 4 in net rating (plus-3.6 points per possession) and one of two teams to beat the Aces this season. Despite dealing with a lot of injuries/absences, they're still two games above .500 and enter the second half of the season on a three-game win streak. Their big three of Arike Ogunbowale, Natasha Howard and Satou Sabally is one of the best units in the league, and the players around them have fit into their roles nicely.

Pelton: She's not my pick for Most Improved, but Alanna Smith should get some kind of mention. Smith had started one game in four WNBA seasons before emerging as a key player for the Chicago Sky this season, averaging 9.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 1.6 BPG. I'll stick with the Sky for my bold prediction: After James Wade's midseason departure, Chicago falls out of the playoffs and sends Dallas a lottery pick via the Marina Mabrey trade.

Voepel: Looking back on the preseason power rankings and preseason top-25 players vote, I overestimated Phoenix as a team (picked sixth) and underestimated Sabally as a player (wasn't on my initial list).

The Mercury managed to make the playoffs last season without Griner, which shows among other things the impact of Skylar Diggins-Smith, even though she didn't play the last week of the 2022 regular season and the postseason.

I did think Griner was going to have a very good season despite her detainment in Russia, but I expected other players would contribute more than they have. And while the in-season coaching change was necessary, it's just another thing for the Mercury to navigate.

Sabally has blossomed into the player we assumed she could become when she was picked No. 2 in the 2020 draft. Being healthy and in a system under coach Latricia Trammell that works for her has brought out the best in Sabally.

A truly bold prediction would be picking a WNBA Finals matchup that didn't include the Aces or the Liberty, but none of us are that bold now. Let's go with the Mystics getting healthy at the right time and making a strong push for the Finals, but falling short. Because superteams.

Expert midseason picks

Which player is your midseason pick for MVP?

Pelton: Breanna Stewart, Liberty

Philippou: Breanna Stewart, Liberty

Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Aces

Who is your midseason Rookie of the Year?

Pelton: Aliyah Boston, Indiana Fever

Philippou: Aliyah Boston, Fever

Voepel: Aliyah Boston, Fever

Who is your midseason Coach of the Year?

Pelton: Becky Hammon, Aces

Philippou: Stephanie White, Connecticut Sun

Voepel: Stephanie White, Sun

Who is your midseason Defensive Player of the Year?

Pelton: A'ja Wilson, Aces

Philippou: Alyssa Thomas, Sun

Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Aces

Who is your midseason Most Improved Player?

Pelton: Jackie Young, Aces

Philippou: Satou Sabally, Wings

Voepel: Satou Sabally, Wings

Which five players, regardless of position, make your midseason All-WNBA first team?

Pelton: Napheesa Collier, Lynx; Breanna Stewart, Liberty; Alyssa Thomas, Sun; A'ja Wilson, Aces; Jackie Young, Aces

Philippou: Chelsea Gray, Aces; Breanna Stewart, Liberty; Alyssa Thomas, Sun; A'ja Wilson, Aces; Jackie Young, Aces

Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Aces; Breanna Stewart, Liberty; Alyssa Thomas, Sun; Jackie Young, Aces; Jewell Loyd, Storm

Which teams are your midseason picks to meet in the WNBA Finals?

Pelton:Liberty vs. Aces

Philippou:Liberty vs. Aces

Voepel:Liberty vs. Aces

Which team will win the 2023 title?




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