There’s monotony in dominance. Games lack the thrill of last-second heroics. Press conferences become a repetitive slog wherein players insist improvements can be made as reporters look around quizzically, wondering how such a thing could be true. The regular season turns into a predictable march of business-like blowouts.
The 2023 Las Vegas Aces, however, are here to destroy that stereotype. To tell you that greatness doesn’t have to come at the expense of smiles, jokes, and basketball-less banter. They’re also here to tell you that one begets the other—that years of hard work and trust built piece by piece allow for such a loose, joyous atmosphere.
“We have conversations on the court that [have]nothing to do with basketball, just because we’re having fun with it, and we have to stay in the moment,” said Chelsea Gray, the Aces superstar point guard and two-time WNBA champion.
I will now commit a cardinal sin of writing: telling, not showing. See, this piece isn’t about the basketball itself, but what goes into making the basketball so fun. It’s about an intertwinement of mesmerizing, gripping hoops, and the relationships that produce such a product.
My sincerest apologies, Professor!
The Aces ooze liveliness, and it seeps into their play. How many times this season has a Las Vegas player scored then smiled or snarled as they ran back on defense, dazzled and amused by their own theatrics? It’s neither smug nor cocky—just genuine enjoyment of the game.
The highlights are borne out of a shared trust. Gray’s daring nature—a basketball magician with the audacity to fire passes through slivers of space no one else sees—stems from an assurance that everyone on the court is also on the same page.
“I think we’re really comfortable with each other, in being vulnerable,” said Gray. “Sometimes that ends up being in the locker room, having fun and making fun of another person, but it’s all jokes and knowing that person has your back.
“It starts with having conversations with people. There’s a comfortability and a safe space that we feel in our locker room. It’s kind of like a vault in that thing. Going out on the court is reflective of that, the trust factor that we have from the coaching staff to the training staff. Everything. It really shows on the court.”
It sure does!
Consider the historical framework for a moment. We won’t spend long bathing in numbers, but a few are necessary to hammer home how unique this basketball bliss-ride really is. As of the All-Star break, Las Vegas is 19-2. But that’s not all…
- The Aces have the highest Net Rating in WNBA history. They are outscoring teams by 19.1 points per 100 possessions, per WNBA.com. The 2000 Houston Comets hold the season-long Net Rating record: +18.4 points per 100 possessions.
- The Aces sport the second-highest average margin of victory in WNBA history, per Across the TImeline. Las Vegas has outscored opponents by 18.05 points per game (PPG) in its 19 wins. The 2019 Washington Mystics hold the record, having outscored opponents by 19.46 PPG over their 26 wins.
- The Aces are averaging 94 PPG, per Across the Timeline, the highest mark in WNBA history. The 2010 Phoenix Mercury are second, having averaged 93.9 PPG. The 2022 Aces are fourth.
- The Aces boast a .905 win percentage. Per Across the Timeline, the 1998 Houston Comets hold the regular season record, having notched a .900 win percentage by going 27-3. The Aces would tie the record by going 36-4, and would snatch the record outright if they manage to lose only one more game over their final 19.
- The 2019 Washington Mystics are the only team in WNBA history to crack a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (2.016), per Across the Timeline. The 2023 Aces are currently second at 1.93. The 2022 Aces are third (1.87), and the 2021 Aces are fourth (1.805).
It all started with Kelsey Plum. The NCAA’s Division I all-time leading point scorer, Plum was drafted first overall by the San Antonio Stars in 2017. Following a league-worst 8-26 campaign in Plum’s rookie season, the Stars moved to Las Vegas and were dealt a deck full of Aces. More importantly, the franchise selected first in a draft that featured A’ja Wilson.
Wilson is the type of once-in-a-lifetime player that single handedly alters the trajectory and fortunes of an organization. A superstar with the magnetism to match, Wilson’s selection allowed Vegas to feasibly dream of winning a title. It allowed Aces management to build the team, piece by piece, patiently allowing for growth and the missteps that come with it.
Luck helps, too. Then head coach Bill Laimbeer and then general manager Dan Padover prayed to the lottery gods, pleading night after night at the Altar of Ping Pong Balls for a third straight No. 1 pick. Wishes were granted, and Jackie Young began apartment hunting in Las Vegas.
Look at them now. Plum was one of five players voted to the 2022 All-WNBA First Team. Wilson is a two-time league MVP who was named Defensive Player of the Year last season. Young won the 2022 Most Improved Player Award and is on track to make an All-WNBA team this year.
Oh, and Las Vegas claimed the city’s first professional sports championship, losing only two playoff games en route to the 2022 WNBA title.
There were struggles. Plum and Young got labeled busts, folks lamenting their inability to live up to No. 1 status. Plum missed the 2020 season after tearing her Achilles tendon. Young grew each year but was exposed in the playoffs for her hesitance to shoot from long range. Through all of this, Wilson put up sterling campaign after sterling campaign, but no matter her excellence, Las Vegas continued smashing into a postseason brick wall.
Signing Gray ahead of the 2021 season changed everything. The homegrown core brought Las Vegas to the Finals, but point guard remained a glaring weakness. Plum and Young are capable of playing the 1 but excel when freed to seek their own shot. Gray excels as the captain of the cockpit.
Remember when I threw all those historical metrics at you? Let’s revisit the last one. From 2021 to 2023—Gray’s three seasons as an Ace—Las Vegas has recorded three of the top four assist-to-turnover ratios ever. The team understands its prodigious talent and protects the ball as such. To revel in making passes no one else has the courage to attempt while cradling the rock like it’s your child? That’s transcendence.
The Aces bask in a sweet spot of bravado and care. To attain this status, everyone must sacrifice.
“It’s something that we talk about every day, where playing selflessly is becoming a habit,” said head coach Becky Hammon, who joined the team in 2022 and was another significant ceiling-raiser. “It’s becoming part of our identity.
“They’re smart. You look to your left; you look to your right; you have people that can score, so there’s no sense in forcing stuff. You just play the right way and have faith and trust that your teammates are going to knock down shots. Clearly, when you get more open shots, those are the higher percentage shots, so that’s what we’re trying to do every night—just share it, and whoever is open gets the ball.”
Relationships, trust, and overall vibes can take you a long way, but grinding on a day-to-day basis is the string that ties everything together.
“Our core group has been together for a long time,” said Plum. “We’re having a lot of fun, but there’s been a lot of work in the background to get to this point. This is not just ‘we showed up this year and we’re having fun.’
“I think everyone made a conscious effort. When I say everyone, I’m talking about the franchise, the support staff, the coaching staff—everyone went out in the offseason and worked on themselves and got better to bring something to the team. That is what you see. People show up every day contributing.”
No one embodies this ethos like Young. Her rise has been steady as an A’ja Wilson elbow jumper, and it’s an appropriate simile given how instrumental Wilson is in growing Young’s confidence. Last year, Young made the leap, becoming an All-Star with stellar play on both ends of the floor. This year, she’s made an even tougher leap: from All-Star to one of the five or ten best players in the game.
Young is strong. Her training results in and-one finishes through brash contact. Her efficiency borders on ludicrous. Her vision is as underappreciated as it is exceptional.
“[Jackie] is secure with the ball,” said Hammon. “She’s like Allstate—the ball is in good hands. She makes a lot of the simple plays, the reads. We talk every day about reads. What’s the defense doing? What’s in front of you? What’s your teammate’s defense doing? And then we try to put people in situations where we can create advantages for ourselves and take advantage of it.
“She’s very much a student of the game. She sees the game. She doesn’t talk a lot, but let me tell you: she doesn’t miss a thing. She sees it all. We’re still prodding her, here and there, to talk more, but it’s coming out slowly.”
It helps to be playing among some of the best leaders in basketball history. Of course, there’s Wilson. There’s also Candace Parker, who Las Vegas added this offseason.
Communication between Hall of Famers doesn’t get better than that, the understanding that learning one another’s game takes time and inquisitiveness. It’s why Plum, Wilson, and Young appear to have played together all their lives. They also appear to have known one another all their lives.
As we near the end of this appreciation-fest, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sydney Colson. One of the warmest and most engaging people in the WNBA, Colson has played three separate stints with the Stars/Aces. She is the hub of fun at Las Vegas’ facilities. Whether it’s TikTok dances, pranks, or dancing on the bench, Colson is squarely involved in every Aces meme-worthy moment. Every player on the team is quick to add that Colson isn’t just a hilarious presence who helps everyone relax; she’s also an invaluable voice in the Aces locker room when it’s time to get serious.
Another Aces sweet spot: laughter, business, and the convergence of the two.
“It’s really cool to see,” reflected Plum, “watching my teammates, how much better they continue to get every single day, every single month, year. It’s like an infectious, contagious energy that people have. I think that’s why it plays out on the court.”