Las Vegas Aces: Road to the Title
Few stories have come together full circle as beautifully as that of the Las Vegas Aces. Their journey started back in Salt Lake City Utah as the Utah Starzz, one of the WNBAs original eight teams. They made it to the playoffs twice, losing to Sacramento in the 2001 Conference Semifinals and to Los Angeles in the 2002 Conference Finals. Two of the team's players included Jennifer Azzi, current Aces Chief Business Development Officer, and Natalie Williams, current Aces General Manager.
Prior to the start of the 2003 season the team relocated to San Antonio as the Silver Stars (later just the Stars). Their losing record from the early Utah days continued here, leaving them out of the playoffs for their first four years. In 2007 the team acquired current Aces head coach Becky Hammon, who would be named a three-time All-Star and two-time All-WNBA First Team honoree in her time here, as well as being the franchises only player with a retired jersey. Hammon changed everything for the Stars, helping lead them to the 2007 Conference Finals, 2008 Finals where they were swept by coach Bill Laimbeer's Detroit Shock, and the Conference SemiFinals for five of the next six years.
Hammon retired after the 2014 season, sending the Stars into a losing record once again for their last three years in San Antonio. This did, however, mark the beginning of the current era of Aces basketball, with the Stars acquiring three members of the 2022 championship team. They drafted Dearica Hamby sixth overall in the 2015 draft, signed Sydney Colson the same year, and drafted Kelsey Plum first overall in 2017.
In 2018 the team relocated to Las Vegas as the Aces and drafted their franchise player A’ja Wilson first overall. They were coached by Bill Laimbeer and missed the playoffs in 2018, but have made it every year since, with one of the most memorable moments coming in 2019 against the Chicago Sky. Down by two, Dearica Hamby went for the steal and launched a half court shot with 7.2 seconds left on the clock sending the Aces to the Semifinals.
With both Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum out for the 2020 COVID bubble season, the weight fell on A’ja Wilson, who delivered with her first MVP season and led the team to the finals.
Dearica Hambys postseason injury added one more obstacle that the Aces just weren’t able to overcome, getting swept by the Seattle Storm. Though a devastating loss, no one had predicted the team would ever make it that far to begin with.
The script was flipped in 2021. A’ja Wilson was coming off an MVP season, Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum were returning, All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray had just been signed to the team, and they were at the top of everyone’s list of contenders. Despite another stellar season from A’ja Wilson, a breakout year by Kelsey Plum, and finishing as the top seed, the Aces fell short once again, losing in the Semifinals to the Phoenix Mercury. This loss lit a fire under the Aces and pushed them to get better. Wilson and Plum took this especially hard and used it to motivate them to not only get better physically but also mentally, finding a sense of peace and happiness outside of the game.
In 2022, the Aces got the refresh they needed when Bill Laimbeer stepped aside and Becky Hammon took over as head coach. They got off to a hot start, winning the season opener against the Phoenix Mercury 106-88, and even through the season's adversity, Hammon’s poise and philosophy allowed them to bounce back from it all.
It was a year of complete dominance by the Aces. A’ja Wilson was named the MVP for the second time in her career, along with receiving her first Defensive Player of the Year award, averaging 19.53 points, 9.42 rebounds, and 1.94 blocks. Jackie Young was named the Most Improved Player averaging career highs in points (15.94), rebounds (4.35), steals (1.41), and three-point percentage (43.10). Becky Hammon also earned Coach of the Year after guiding the Aces to the top seed and a Commissioner's Cup Championship victory. Chelsea Gray was named the Commissioner's Cup MVP after dropping 19 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds. After the game, Kelsey Plum expressed her frustration with Gray’s All-Star snub, and excitement to see her finally receiving the credit she deserves.
The excellence didn’t stop there, with Gray putting together one of the best postseason runs in league history. She averaged 21.70 points, 7 assists, shot 54.39% from three and 65.52% from the field. She was practically unguardable, hitting jaw-dropping contested shots and consistently coming through when the team needed it most. “When you have a point guard like Chelsea Gray, I ain’t even worried about a damn thing,” A’ja Wilson said to Holly Rowe in a post game interview.
Despite their dominant season, many were still counting the Aces out with concerns about their lack of depth and the starters heavy minutes. Poetically, it was Riquna Williams coming off the bench who would come up big in game four of the finals, with 3 three pointers in a row in the final two minutes to put the Aces on top.
As the shot clock ran out and the Aces held a 7 point lead, A’ja Wilson grabbed the final rebound of the game before throwing the ball and running towards her teammates who embraced each other with hugs.
Before her name was even announced as Finals MVP, the team corralled around an emotional Chelsea Gray. “I worked so hard for this,” Gray said to Holly Rowe while holding back tears. “They can keep that All-Star and their first team I got the ring.”
Rowe then brought Hammon to the mic, who made history as the first rookie head coach in the WNBA to win a championship and first former WNBA player to win a championship as a head coach. “For me, it’s not really about proving people wrong, it’s about proving myself right,” she said postgame. Hammon also credited former Aces coach Bill Laimbeer who was in attendance for having put the team together, as the players cheered his name in the background.
The 2022 Aces are memorable for far more than their on court talent. From doing the tortilla challenge, to public water balloon pranks, and even Becky Hammon getting in on the TikTok making, their chemistry is incomparable. It’s this close relationship that has allowed them to get serious and hold each other accountable when needed.
Their personality was on full display as they danced their way through the victory parade down The Strip, in which thousands of Vegas residents showed up and out to celebrate the city’s first ever major professional championship.
Owner of the team Mark Davis addressed the crowd saying “To the greatest fans in professional sports, Las Vegas, we are world champions. It wasn’t an overnight journey. The WNBA and this franchise has been around for 26 years, but over the years we’ve had alumni, fans, staff, coaches, that helped build this organization to where it is today, and I want to thank every one of them because you’re a part of this.”
With the core returning next season, this success is only the beginning for the Aces, which they made known at the celebration parade. “This is just the beginning. We just getting started,” said Kelsey Plum.
This sentiment was backed up by Chelsea Gray who said “we not done in this thang, you feel me? We still going. That's one, I’ll see y'all next parade.”