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‘Hungry for it again’: Aces out to break WNBA title repeat jinx

Updated May 19, 2023 - 3:41 pm

A’ja Wilson’s trying not to change her approach. She knows any extra pressure she puts on herself won’t help the Aces, who have history in their crosshairs.

The reigning WNBA MVP and defensive player of the year understands the weight of the campaign the Aces are about to embark on.

They have a chance to become the first team in more than 20 seasons to win consecutive WNBA titles.

Sue Bird won four championships with the Seattle Storm, but never repeated. Maya Moore won four championships with the Minnesota Lynx, but never repeated. Diana Taurasi won three championships with the Phoenix Mercury, but never repeated.

“We’re just going after another one,” Wilson said. “I’m approaching it just like I want one. I’m hungry for it again.”

The WNBA hasn’t witnessed a reigning champion successfully defend its crown since 2002, when Lisa Leslie led the Los Angeles Sparks to a second consecutive title.

Aces coach Becky Hammon played against those Sparks teams. She also competed against the Houston Comets, who won the first four titles in league history from 1997 to 2000, led by Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.

Hammon said consistency, health and depth established the Sparks’ and the Comets’ runs of dominance. She sees those same ingredients in her squad.

“It’s great, because I want to challenge this group,” Hammon said. “Because I believe they can be great like that.”


When Hammon thinks about the strengths of those Comets and Sparks teams, she said consistency is the first characteristic that comes to mind.

Consistency comes from continuity. The Aces, like the Sparks and Comets before them, return most of their core from the 2022 championship season, including the entire starting five.

Additionally, the Aces’ star players are all at or near their athletic peaks. Wilson — already a two-time MVP — is only 26.

Kelsey Plum, a 2022 first-team All-WNBA selection, is just 28, while Jackie Young, the league’s most improved player last season, is 25. Point guard Chelsea Gray, who was the 2022 WNBA Finals MVP and is preparing for her ninth season in the league, is the elder stateswoman of the group at 30.

The core four also have a season with Hammon to build off, which makes the incorporation of two-time MVP Candace Parker, the Aces’ prized offseason addition, even easier.

“It’s more than just having talent,” Plum said. “It’s about putting pieces together and of course playing great at the right time.”

Added Young: “(We’re) just sticking to Aces basketball, not looking too far ahead.”

The Aces’ continuity and consistency will be even more important with the rest of the league trying to catch up.

The WNBA’s landscape shifted massively during the offseason. Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones — two of the three most recent league MVPs not named A’ja Wilson — and All-Star Courtney Vandersloot joined the New York Liberty, who already had 2022 All-WNBA selection Sabrina Ionescu.

The Aces beat Stewart and the Storm in the semifinals before defeating Jones and the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA Finals last season.

The Aces know they have a target on their backs.

“I don’t think the league really liked us before,” Wilson said. “They don’t like us now. It’s something we’re used to when it comes to pressure and everything else.”


Every champion enters the season expecting to repeat. Injuries can derail those plans, something new Aces signee Alysha Clark knows firsthand.

Clark, entering her 11th year, won titles with the Storm in 2018 and 2020 before departing in free agency. She remembers the Storm’s attempt to defend their title in 2019, which fell apart before the season even began.

“We lost three of our starting five,” Clark said. “So that was a huge hit.”

Stewart, the WNBA’s MVP in 2018, tore her Achilles tendon while playing in Russia and missed the entire 2019 campaign. Bird then underwent surgery to remove a loose body in her left knee days before the season began and was eventually ruled out for the whole year.

Seattle’s emerging third star, Jewell Loyd, earned her second All-Star appearance, but suffered an ankle injury midway through the season that limited her to 27 appearances and 21 starts.

The Storm limped into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed and were promptly dismissed during the single-game elimination second round, losing to the Sparks 92-69.

“They were huge — obviously — contributors to what we did the year prior,” Clark said. “Honestly, that was the biggest part.”


Clark isn’t the only member of the Aces with experience trying to repeat.

Gray and Parker won a championship with the Sparks in 2016. The following year, they returned to the WNBA Finals, losing in five games to the Minnesota Lynx.

Those Sparks are the most recent reigning champions to make it back to the WNBA Finals the year after winning the title. They were even ahead 2-1 before losing the final two games.

Parker said she still leans on that experience. Gray agreed, and said attempting to repeat shows the moments of good fortune that helped a team win the championship the year before.

“No team is going to be the same,” Gray said. “You’re going to have different pieces — whether it be circumstances, schedule — so no season is the same.”

Gray is proof of the importance of depth. The point guard was crucial off the bench for the Sparks in 2016. She moved into the starting lineup for the 2017 season, but the Sparks’ reserves weren’t as impactful without Gray.

Hammon, similarly, remembers the Comets’ depth as particularly effective. She recalled how players like Brazilian guard Janeth Arcain made games against Houston feel like there were “waves” of talent on the Comets’ roster.

The Aces may be set up in a similar position. Veteran guard Riquna Williams, who was on the 2017 Sparks, is back after her clutch performances in the playoffs. Kiah Stokes won three consecutive NCAA championships with Connecticut. She emerged as a starter late in the season for the Aces and returns for this season.

The additions of Parker and Clark also create an influx of players with a wide range of championship experience. And if the Aces want to make history, Hammon is relying on all of it to come together.

The Aces will need everything they have to snap the WNBA’s repeat drought.

“It’s a thin line,” Hammon said, “between winning and losing.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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