Though the players aren’t fans of the super-team label, it’s hard to argue they haven’t lived up to it. The WNBA Finals will feature a battle of heavyweights in the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces (34-6) and No. 2 seed New York Liberty (32-7). The best-of-five series tips off on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on ABC).
The Aces were favored to return to the Finals with five starters returning from their 2022 championship. Then in free agency, they traded Dearica Hamby to the Aces and opened up cap room to sign two-time champion and former MVP Candace Parker. Parker played 18 games before undergoing foot surgery and is officially listed as out indefinitely; nothing has pointed to a return.
It’s their third Finals appearance in four years. They would become the first back-to-back champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002. The only other team to do it is the Houston Comets, who won the first four championships in league history.
The Liberty snuck into the playoffs last year as a No. 8 seed and nearly pulled off the upset. They became immediate title favorites when they traded for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones, then added two-time champion and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart and champion Courtney Vandersloot in free agency.
New York is making its first Finals appearance since 2002. It is the only original franchise to not have won a championship.
Here’s everything you need to know:
WNBA Finals Schedule
Game 1: Sunday in Las Vegas, 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 2: Oct. 11 in Las Vegas, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 3: Oct. 15 in New York, 3 p.m. ET on ABC
Game 4*: Oct. 18 in New York, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 5*: Oct. 20 in Las Vegas, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
* — if necessary
Season series: 2-2
The sides first met on June 29 in Las Vegas and the Aces crushed the Liberty, still developing their chemistry at the time, by 17 points in a wire-to-wire win. They met four times in August, including the Commissioner’s Cup (which did not count in the regular-season standings). New York won in a 38-point beatdown in Brooklyn on Aug. 6 and again to win the Cup, 82-63, on Aug. 15 in Vegas.
A few (possibly overused) fun facts: Between them, the Aces and Liberty have:
Three league MVPs in A’ja Wilson (2020, 2022), Breanna Stewart (2018, 2023) and Jonquel Jones (2021). They combined to win the last four awards.
Two Finals MVPs (Stewart twice, Chelsea Gray).
The last two Commissioner’s Cup MVPs (Jones, Gray).
Thirty-two All-Star selections, led by Wilson, Gray, Stewart and Vandersloot at five each.
Note: These omit Parker (No. 1 overall pick, league MVP and Finals MVP) since she is unlikely to play.
Championship history: Las Vegas won the franchise, and the city, its first championship last year in four games against the Connecticut Sun. The franchise started as the Utah Starzz in 1997 and is making its fourth Finals appearance (2008 as San Antonio Silver Stars; 2020, ’22, ’23 as Aces).
New York is the only original franchise not to win a title. It’s the Liberty’s first Finals berth since 2002 and their fifth overall. They played in three of the first four WNBA Finals (‘97, ’98, ’00) and lost all to the Houston Comets.
How the Aces got here: Las Vegas hasn’t dropped a game in the playoffs, first winning two against No. 8 Chicago and then three against No. 4 Dallas. Since their Aug. 28 loss to the Liberty at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Aces have only left their home city twice. First was a Sept. 8 game in Phoenix and the semifinals Game 3 win in Dallas.
How the Liberty got here: New York needed overtime to avoid a winner-take-all Game 3 against a healthy Washington Mystics roster in the first round. The Liberty dropped the first game of the semifinals, 78-63, to the Connecticut Sun at home and bounced back to win three straight. The Liberty won by margins of seven, 11 and three in a tight series.
Aces postseason leaders: Wilson, the 2023 Defensive Player of the Year, is on an absolute tear in the postseason. She scored at least 30 points in three straight games and averaged 25.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in the five contests. She joined Lisa Leslie as the only players in WNBA history to average at least 25/10/3 in those categories in a five-game playoff stretch.
Gray is averaging 16 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.6 rpg, 1.6 spg and 1.2 spg in the postseason. Plum (16 ppg) and Young (15.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.0 apg) are also averaging double digits.
Liberty postseason leaders: Stewart led the team in points in four of the six games, and Ionescu took the lead in the other two. Stewart averaged 19.89 ppg, but on 35% shooting, with 9.0 rpg and 2.8 bpg. Ionescu averaged 16.3 ppg and 3.2 3s per game.
But it’s been a varied effort depending on the need. Betnijah Laney averaged 17 ppg and Jones averaged 16.5 ppg. Jones is the leading rebounder (12.8) and Vandersloot the leader in assists (6.8) and steals (1.7).
Three keys to the WNBA Finals
Which MVP will lead their team to wins?
It’s fitting the two faces of the league will feature in a long-awaited Finals packed with talent. Stewart and Wilson are year-in, year-out MVP candidates, and this season was no different. Stewart won the 2023 trophy in a tight race, with 13 points separating her and Wilson in third place.
In their five meetings against each other, Stewart averaged 17 points and 7.4 rebounds, while Wilson averaged 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
They played against each other in the 2020 Finals, which Stewart’s Seattle Storm won in the bubble held in Bradenton, Florida, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was named Finals MVP, scoring 37 in Game 1 and averaging 28 points in the three-game sweep.
Wilson didn’t have the help around her at the time that she does now. The Aces added Gray at point guard, Young improved her shot and Plum returned from an Achilles tear that kept her out that season.
Who will be the X-factor?
The production of star players is often equalized by the other, necessitating an X-factor to step up when attention is paid to the star. But on a super-team, is there such a thing as an X-factor?
Laney has been called that for New York, and she’s scored at least 19 points for the Liberty in all but one postseason game. It was their Game 1 loss when she had three points.
Jones has also taken on that moniker, and the Liberty have lost only one game in which she’s had a double-double. Her presence in the paint since the All-Star break was season-changing for New York.
Aces center Kiah Stokes will need to be an X-factor for the Aces. She is their defensive stopper, but is hesitant to shoot and defenses will often slack off of her. Her season-high is seven points three times, including the June win against the Liberty. In the other three regular-season games, she scored zero.
Who will have the hot hand?
Expect a forecast of 3-pointers. The Liberty (11.1) and Aces (9.3) lead the league in 3-pointers made per game and are similarly the best at hitting them, averaging 37%. New York averaged 12.5 makes and the Aces had 8.3 in their four meetings.
Ionescu led the league in made 3s (3.6) and set a WNBA and NBA record in the All-Star 3-Point Contest held at the Aces’ Michelob Ultra Arena in July. She missed only two shots. Fans roar for her deep 3-point daggers that shift momentum in the Liberty’s favor.
In the regular season, she made 44.8% of her attempts (7.9 per game). Of players who attempted at least two per game, it trailed only Tyasha Harris (46.2%, 2.1 3PA) and Young (44.9%, 5.0 3PA).
Young can similarly hit mood-defeating 3s on opponents. The 2022 Most Improved Player was a few makes away from joining the exclusive 50/40/90 club with a shooting line of 42.3/44.9/86.9. Plum led the way for Vegas with 2.4 per game.
The super-team meeting will also match up super point guards in the Aces’ Gray and Liberty’s Vandersloot. They finished third and first, respectively, in assists per game in the regular season.