On December 11, 2017, a press conference was held at the Mandalay Bay Resort to formally present the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA. In addition to revealing the team name, logo and colors, there were two words on the background: “All in”.
From a marketing point of view, the logo was perfect. It was a great wordplay, with the team’s playing card title being tied to the act of pushing all of your chips into a final bet on a big hand.
But the phrase also embodied the idea of being “All In” when bringing this franchise from San Antonio to Las Vegas, creating a new market for the WNBA, building a winning culture, and putting a great product on the field in the entertainment capital of the world.
Entering the 2022 WNBA Playoffs, Aces revealed a new post-season slogan: “Raise The Stakes.” Sure, getting the best record during the regular season was pretty cool. That was winning the second annual Commissioner’s Cup (and earning those rewards!). But the stakes are at their highest in the post-season, and the team will have to reach new heights to finally break through and win that elusive first championship.
After four grueling matches with the Connecticut Sun, the Aces can add another casino-related slogan to their repertoire: “Jackpot!” Because they just took home the WNBA’s most valuable prize – the Championship Trophy.
– WNBA (WNBA) September 18 2022
Behind a top-20 Finals MVP Chelsea Gray, another double from A’ja Wilson, and a clutch shot to Riquna Williams with 17 points off the bench, the Aces took a 78-71 road win over Sun to win a best-of-five three-for-one streak.
The tournament was the first for one of the original eight WNBA franchises — the team started as the Utah Starzz from 1997-2002, then moved to San Antonio as the Silver Stars (and later only All-Stars) from 2003-2017, before moving to Las Vegas prior to the 2018 season.
The Aces also became the first major professional sports team to win a championship in Las Vegas – a town that now boasts the NFL’s Raiders and NHL’s Golden Knights along with the Aces. Mark Davis is the owner of both the Aces and Raiders and made sure he was on hand in Uncasville, Connecticut, to receive the Championship trophy from WNBA Commissioner Kathy Engelbert before handing it over to the players to begin the celebration.
– WNBA (WNBA) September 18 2022
“I’ve always felt that Vegas was the standard, probably because that’s the only time I’ve had it,” Wilson said. “When you have an owner like Mark, contacted and trustworthy of you and knowing what we can do better, how we can do more or drive people who want to come to Vegas or just want to play better, the sky is the limit for our privilege.
“So I am honored to be drafted by them, for them to trust me, for us to get Chelsea Grey, to be called, for so many of our five beginnings to go back, that’s how you create a legacy and how you create a standard. I think we found ourselves in this league Where everyone has their own winning criteria, and we make it happen.Our journey has just begun, and it has been fantastic so far.
“When you have a coach like Becky Hammon who gets to know who we are and where we want to be, the sky is the limit for us. We just have to trust each other and talk and communicate with each other about what we want and what our roles are in this franchise.”
Hammon spent the back half of her career playing for the franchise during her time in San Antonio. Hammon earned three All-Star Picks in those eight seasons from 2007 to 2014 and three All-WNBA Awards. She missed almost the entire 2013 season after she ruptured her ACL. During her year-long rehab, she regularly attended San Antonio Spurs practices, coaches’ meetings, and games where the seeds for a future coaching career were planted.
After retiring from the WNBA in 2014, Hammon was hired as an assistant coach with Tottenham under head coach Greg Popovich. She remained on the bench with Tottenham for eight seasons before being offered and accepting a head coaching position with the Aces in December last year.
She became the first person in league history to reach the Finals as player (2008 with San Antonio) and coach (2022 with Las Vegas) – and she did so with the same distinction. Just nine months after her appointment as head coach, Hammon won her first championship, becoming the first coach to win the title in her first debut season, save for the league’s inaugural season in 1997 when each coach was a first-time NBA coach.
When discussing Hammon’s influence on this team, we return to the phrase we started with: “All in.” Hammon immediately set the tone with her team when Vegas opened a training camp in mid-April.
“Really, the first thing you have to do in building a tournament culture is setting the tone for accountability first and foremost,” Hammon said. “Bring people together for a common goal that’s bigger than themselves, and then you have to get the sharing factor out. My buying factor on each of these women has been high, and I think they respond to me really well. And you know, I try to be very clear on what It’s about their job, and what the expectation is. After that, everyone is kept on the same line meaning no one shoots two or three. Play the right way, everyone wins, and when we win, everything else takes care of itself.”
“At boot camp, you start forming those habits and you start forming that relationship,” Gray added. “When the season starts, and you’re in the heat of things, you have things to come back to – what kind of people, what kind of competitors they are. So, I started from the beginning, making sure it wasn’t going to be easy for us, just making sure we were ready when the time came.” .
“I’m really happy for the girls in general. They stayed focused. That has been the goal since training camp,” Hamon said. “Fortunately, I have a really flexible group of guys, and you know, I said it there, but maybe the biggest thing I’m most proud of is how they came together. Together over the past five or six months it has really become a team. And I’ve seen different people come up at different moments tonight, and that’s what makes it so hard to beat us.”
Nothing sums up those sentiments more than Rickona Williams’ performance in Game 4. Over the first three games of the series, Williams scored 11 points in 4-17 (23.5%) shots from the field and 3-14 (21.4%) from a 3. point range. But along the stretch, Hammon took on the big Connecticut lineup by switching to a small range and looking for an open appearance against Sun’s defense.
After the Connecticut team ran 8-0 to turn Las Vegas’ 67-61 lead into a 69-67 Connecticut lead. With less than two and a half minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Williams took charge. I dropped three shots in a row: pulling a 3 pointer off the left wing to get Vegas back on top; triple pointer open to catch and shoot from the top of the key away from a pass from Kelsey Plum after Connecticut State doubled it on guard screen to guard; Then a tricky backwards jump from just inside the arc to push the lead to four with less than a minute to play.
Williams’ last jumper, as well as a draw in paint from Plum 25 seconds from the left and a free throw from Young 16 seconds before the end, were part of Round 8-0 by Las Vegas to close out the match and start the celebration.
With the team taking home the Championship trophy, it was time to honor the MVP of the Finals, and the Aces had a pair of strong candidates at Wilson and Gray. Wilson averaged nearly 20-10 in the finals as she finished with 20.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 55% of the field. Gray finished the series at 18.3 points and 6.0 assists per game, firing 58.5% from the field and 45.0% from 3-point range against one of the best defensive teams in the WNBA.
The honor went to Gray, who not only did great in these finals, but was absolutely stunning throughout the entire post-season. In Las Vegas’ ten run to the title, Gray averaged 21.7 points and 7.0 assists per game while firing 61.1% from the field and 54.4% from a 3-point range.
– WNBA (WNBA) September 18 2022
No player in WNBA history has ever posted an effective field goal percentage in a playoff game. Gray has competed with 71.9% of this year’s playoffs. Here’s a look at the only players to post an effective field goal percentage of over 60% while attempting at least 100 shots in the post-season, as Gray joins Diana Torassi as the only keepers on the list.
While this filming ratio is impressive, it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Gray has been chased by Sun Defense throughout the series; She tried (and made) contested shot after contested shot as Connecticut threw every defender they could to try to stop it.
The only time they ever slowed Gray was in Game 3 when Sun coach Kurt Miller moved to put 6-foot-4 Dewan Bonner and her 7-foot-wide winger on Gray from end to end. The sun also sent out strong fences and traps on any Vegas screens to force Gray to back off and get off the ball. Gray still shot big percentages in Game 3 (57% from the field, 75% from three) but he only attempted seven shots in the entire game. Vegas ended up losing the only series in the series as the Aces were modified in Game 4, and Gray was able to post her third 20-plus game of the series.
For Gray and Aces, that victory in 2022 was fueled in part by a disappointing end to the playoffs last year, when Las Vegas were eliminated in the semi-finals by Phoenix in five games, with the decisive fifth game played at home in Las Vegas.
“It was so painful because it was the little things that made us lose,” Gray said. “It wasn’t like the big picture. We had a team. We were ready for this moment. It’s just the little things that hurt us – defensive possessions, transitions. I brought back the change I had in the fourth quarter that changed the course of play. I could have had a shot.”
“It recurs in my head when I come back in those moments, and now I will have a different replay in my head. It was a tough moment, but it built the character, and it built for next year. Something was set up for the next year.”
Trying to avoid the hurt and disappointment from last season has helped lead the Aces to success in the championship this year, but how will they react next year as the titleholders? During the post-match press conference, Gray was quick to refuse to talk about the future because she wanted to stay in the present and enjoy this year’s accomplishments.
The Aces went “All In”, “Raised The Stakes”, and now they’ve finally reached “Jackpot” with their first WNBA Championship in franchise history. With the core of this team under contract and set to return in 2023, let’s move on to next year’s tagline. Sticking with the card theme, I think “double or nothing” has a pretty ring.
Longtime WNBA correspondent Brian Martin writes articles on WNBA.com throughout the season. The opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.