In 2022, there was no true challenger for the Las Vegas Aces, who bulldozed their way to their first WNBA championship. As the Aces ascended to the mountaintop, a looming question rose with them: Who will step up to challenge Las Vegas?
The power tug-of-war that could potentially shape the 2023 season began as soon as free agency opened in February.
The first domino to fall was the 2021 WNBA MVP, Jonquel Jones. She was traded down I-95 to the New York Liberty. Soon enough, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot joined her.
Not to be outdone, the Aces began to bolster their already star-studded roster. Their addition? Candace Parker, who helped the Chicago Sky win the title in 2021.
The league has seen blockbuster moves like this before. In 2020, Skylar Diggins-Smith shocked the world by leaving Dallas for the Phoenix Mercury. Parker, before joining—and now leaving—Chicago, left the City of Angels after 12 seasons.
However, the league hasn’t seen multiple teams make blockbuster moves at the same time. In the span of a few months, two teams emerged as the top dogs in the WNBA. As the power struggle lies in between two teams, the league enters an era of superteams, an era that could produce a league-defining rivalry.
How Did This Happen?
Intense rivalries define the overarching history of women’s basketball. At the collegiate level, it’s the UConn-Tennessee rivalry. In the pro ranks, the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks spent much of the 2010s in tough WNBA Finals series. Contrary to popular belief, the history of the WNBA is littered with intense matchups.
But there was a time when there weren’t free agents. Teams built their rosters through the draft. The Seattle Storm won two championships with three former number one picks—Sue Bird, Stewart, and Jewell Loyd—as their core. Somewhat similarly, the Sparks used the inaugural player allocation to build their dynasty. Players didn’t move, and some—like Bird—spent their entire careers with one team. The league didn’t entice nor empower its players to explore new opportunities.
Well, that was the case until the collective bargaining agreement in 2020. The agreement created tiered salary levels and doubled the current salary level. Suddenly, there’s now an incentive to move. A league that spent much of its early stages restricting player movement now has put the ball in the player’s court.
The result of the 2020 agreement? Two teams now share 60.0 percent of the players on the 2022 All-WNBA Team.
While the creation of free agency would not be possible without the collective bargaining agreement, the juggernaut that is free agency has also made it hard to build competitive teams under the cap. Both the Aces and the Liberty had to wiggle around the cap space to fit in every piece of the puzzle.
Now with two teams set for a collision course come this May, how can this dawn of a new era benefit the story of the WNBA?
The Heavyweight Bout
As the WNBA looks to the next 25 years, it needs storylines to draw in fans. The interest in women’s basketball has always been there and is continuing to grow. The league must now lead the charge, and the 2023 free agency period gave it a rivalry to market.
Back at NBA All-Star Weekend, A’ja Wilson sat down with UPROXX and said that she’s willing to take on any and all challengers. Her main goal is helping the Aces retain their title, and if she has to go through superteams to do that, she’s prepared.
This is the energy the league needs to draw in more fans in 2023.
The days of the Lynx and the Sparks trading punches in the 2010s are gone, but the waves those matchups sent defined much of the first 25 years of the WNBA. Close games, star-studded rosters, and intense matchups kept fans engaged.
Those two teams were not kind to each other, and rivals shouldn’t have to be. If the goal is to reach an audience the league hasn’t connected with yet, then there must be angst among the teams.
The two main actors in this tug-of-war won’t meet until June 29 in Las Vegas, but fans will be locked in on the Liberty’s and the Aces’ every move, win, and loss up until that point. It’s clear that fans and players want another rivalry reminiscent of the one shared by the Lynx and the Sparks.
Now a new question emerges: Who will draw first blood?