Contrary to popular belief, there are no superteams in the WNBA. At least, that's what players and coaches of the league's top two teams -- the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty -- think.
"I don't feel that we're a superteam,"told CBS Sports on Aug. 6 ahead of a game against the New York Liberty. "I don't feel that we've won enough to claim that."
Could Wilson be mistaken? After all, the Aces are 27-3 and the first team to clinch a playoff berth in 2023. A team with a 90% winning percentage -- without the services of injured two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker mind you -- seems pretty super.
And what about New York? Thursday night, the Liberty became the second team to claim one of the league's eight playoff spots. They are riding a six-game winning streak, including an impressive 99-61 win over the Aces earlier this month.
Could they be a WNBA superteam? Not if you ask them, especially not early in the season.
"Everybody knows with the roster we have, we automatically have a target on our back, even though we haven't done anything,"said before New York's first game against Washington. "We won't be perfect, especially now. Especially as we work through the kinks."
Flash forward to mid-August, and the teams are a combined 51-9. Each has one dominant win over the other in hand and will represent their respective conference in theon Tuesday night. Whether you'd say they are a superteam or not, they are definitely talented.
Multiple first-overall draft picks? Check.
Multiple WNBA MVPs? Check.
A strong coaching staff? Check.
Each team has the speed and stamina to score in transition, play suffocating defense, and outwork other teams on the boards most nights. So, what are the things separating the Aces and the Liberty?
Well, for one -- and it's a big one -- the Las Vegas Aces have a WNBA title, and the New York Liberty does not. Without question, superteams win. But how much winning makes you great beyond reproach?
Defining a superteam
We should define a superteam. According to Wilson, it is defined by a lot of winning." When Wilson says winning, she means championships.
"When we win nine, then label me as a superteam. Put it there, yes. I'm a superteam if we win nine -- in a row."
If you adopt Wilson's definition and count the rings, there are no superteams in the WNBA. Not yet, at least. Should the Aces, or anyone else for that matter, win nine WNBA championships in a row, they would not only be a superteam but claim the record for most consecutive wins in professional basketball.
The Houston Comets won four consecutive WNBA championships from 1997 to 2000. The Boston Celtics won eight NBA titles in a row from 1959 to 1966. At the collegiate level, the University of North Carolina Women's Soccer team won nine consecutive NCAA championships from 1986 to 1994, meeting Wilson's definition of a superteam dead on.
Building through the WNBA Draft
Although the two franchises are inextricably linked this season -- and perhaps for several years to come -- these superteams in the making were built differently.
It may be easy to see the Aces' success and think it happened overnight. That is far from the case. The Aces built their team slowly over time and put their players through their paces.
Before they were the Aces, the 2022 WNBA champions were a struggling team in San Antonio, Texas. Originally the Utah Starzz, the original WNBA franchise moved to Texas in 2002. The San Antonio Silver Stars reached the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons from 2007-2012.
However, the success wouldn't last, and the franchise went 23-79 in its final three years in San Antonio before moving to Las Vegas and rebranding as the Aces.
They say nobody wants to be the first-ever general manager of a franchise. Bill Laimbeer might be the exception. In the WNBA, the team with the lowest cumulative two-year record has the best odds in the lottery. Due to the struggles of the Stars, along with a 14-20 record for the Aces in their inaugural season, Laimbeer picked first overall in three consecutive WNBA Drafts.
With his riches, Laimbeer secured Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. And just like that, the Aces' core was born.
Last year, under the guidance of head coach Becky Hammon, Las Vegas claimed their first WNBA championship and the first in Las Vegas sports history. This season, the trio of No. 1 picks is averaging 19.5 points and shooting 52.4% from the floor.
"Chemistry matters," Plum told CBS Sports earlier this month at Barclays Center. If you look around the league, the teams that are continually successful year in and year out and make deep runs and playoffs are with players that have played together for a while," she said while naming teams like Minnesota, Los Angeles, and the Seattle Storm.
|Player||WNBA Draft Year||Pick in WNBA Draft||WNBA Team|
|Jewell Loyd||2015||1||Seattle Storm|
|Breanna Stewart||2016||1||Seattle Storm|
|San Antonio Stars|
|Las Vegas Aces|
|Jackie Young||2019||1||Las Vegas Aces|
|Sabrina Ionescu||2020||1||New York Liberty|
All of those teams also built their super-adjacent team through the draft. The Lynx had Maya Moore. The Sparks drafted Parker and Nneka Oguwumike. Seattle is the only other franchise, besides the Aces, to make consecutive first-overall picks. Seattle drafted Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird in 2001 and 2002. In 2015 and 2016, they selected Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart. So, it's no surprise Seattle is one of three franchises (Houston Comets and Minnesota Lynx) with four league championships.
Meanwhile, the New York Liberty picked first overall once in franchise history; that was in 2020 when they picked Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu. If New York wins a WNBA title anytime soon, it will be because they established a core group of players through trades and free agency.
Mining the free agent market
The Liberty were a perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse through their first two decades. With 17 total playoff appearances, that left few opportunities to select within the first five picks of the league draft. In 27 seasons, the Liberty have missed the playoffs only six times -- including their longest-ever streak from 2018 to 2020 -- and have picked fifth or better only eight times.
The Liberty's return to the playoffs has come through free agency and trades, though none as grand as this year. With, Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb manufactured one of the busiest offseasons in franchise history, and it might prove the most important.
Kolb acquired 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones and seven-year veteran Kayla Thorton in a three-team trade. The Liberty also signed WNBA champions Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot from the Seattle Storm and the Chicago Sky, respectively. This powerhouse cast, alongside Ionescu and forward Benijah Laney, is meant to be the core that will make New York a title contender.
Two different teams, two different approaches to gaining elite-level talent. While the Aces core has been together since 2019, the 2023 Liberty is -- in a word -- new.
Building culture and chemistry
The most glaring difference between the Aces and the Liberty in 2023 is time together. The trio of first overall picks in Las Vegas has experienced the dog days of the franchise. From sub-.500 seasons, to Plum and Wilson battling significant injuries, and heartbreaking playoff defeats in 2910 and 2022, this team has been forged by fire. Therefore when Hammon -- the newly enshrined member of the Basketball Hall of Fame -- was hired as head coach last season, the goal was to refine the team.
On the contrary, last year Sandy Brondello inherited a Liberty team that was far from their glory days. Her task was to build the foundation for the new New York Liberty by leaning on her 19 years of WNBA coaching experience. The Liberty's 2023 campaign began with a surprising loss to the Washington Mystics and proved what Brondello and her team discussed. Although the pieces are there for New York, they must work to build up their chemistry and identity.
After dropping their first game, fans and media members alike debated whether the team was overrated. Of course, it didn't help that the Aces started the 2023 campaign 9-1. Brondello herself debunked the "superteam" tag after the Liberty fumbled a 19-point lead against Chicago on June 4.
"You guys say it's the great team and the superteam. We ain't so super," Brondello said while pointing out to a room of media members. "There's nothing great about our team right now; we're going through the mud. But sometimes these things need to happen."
Down the stretch
So, where are they three-quarters of the way through the season?
The Aces are 27-3 and matched the best record through 30 games in WNBA history (27-3) reached by the Houston Comets (1998) and the Los Angeles Sparks (2000, 2001). Vegas posts a league-leading 94 points per game while holding opponents to under 80 points.
"I wouldn't lean into it," Plum said regarding the superteam tag, "But I would just say there's an accountability [throughout the roster]. And I think that there's no exceptions. you know, I think that we all come out and are consistent in the way we compete offensively and defensively. I think that's, if you want to look at a superpower, I think we have a really good culture."
New York is on a season-long six-game winning streak and holds the league's best record since July 1 (14-2). After a slow start,has had six straight games of 10 rebounds or more and eight double-doubles since the All-Star Break, and she spoke about what the team is doing well right now.
"I think continuing to just stay locked in with our focus and understanding that everything that we do now is going to be building for the playoffs and for what we essentially all came here to do, which is chasing a championship and ultimately winning championships," Jones said after the 89-73 victory over the Chicago Sky on Aug. 11.
More Aces vs. Liberty
Tuesday's showdown in Las Vegas will be the second of four matchups between these two squads in August alone. Although the game will not count toward their regular season records, it will stoke the fire on the budding rivalry.
"[It's] really important to build rivalries because then you have games of consequence, you have games people want to watch," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said ahead of the Aces-Liberty game in New York that drew a sold-out crowd of 11,418 fans.
Rivalries, Engelbert believes, will make more WNBA players household names and certain games appointment viewing.
So, are the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty superteams? Again, if you ask the players, they'll say no, and I would agree. However, I do think these two teams are at the heart of a shift coming for women's basketball. The early returns on their investment have been higher expectations, better basketball, and ultimately more interest in the WNBA. And Tuesday's game is just the first of three meetings before the playoffs even get here.
- Tuesday, August 15 - Commissioner's Cup Championship at 9:00 pm ET on Prime Video
- Thursday, August 17 - Liberty at Aces at 10:00 pm ET on Amazon
- Monday, August 28 - Aces at Liberty at 7:00 pm ET on ESPN2