What’s wrong with the Las Vegas Aces?

The Las Vegas Aces are not themselves. That much is clear.

“We see a lot of glimpses of the Aces, and we see a lot of glimpses of, I don’t know what Aces spelled backward is, but it’s that,” two-time MVP A’ja Wilson said.

The contemplative look on the face of head coach Becky Hammon, sitting next to Wilson after Saturday’s loss to New York in the WNBA Finals rematch, was familiar to anyone who has watched the two-time defending champions tumble down the standings.

Las Vegas (6-6) has already lost as many games as it did all of last season. Four of them came at home, where the Aces were nearly perfect last year with the same starting five for the majority of the season. Through Tuesday’s games, they’re barely in the playoff picture as the No. 6 seed above Atlanta (6-6) and Indiana (5-10). For the first time since 2019, they’ve lost three games in a row.

What’s wrong with the Aces? The surface-level answer is the superteam is missing its point gawd leader, Chelsea Gray. The veteran remains out with a foot injury she sustained in Game 3 of the Finals. She was upgraded for the first time to questionable ahead of the Liberty game, and Hammon said the star is expected to make her debut Wednesday against the Seattle Storm (9-5).

Dig a little deeper, and it’s clear Gray won’t solve all of their current problems. The defensive cohesion that fueled their dominant 2023 success is missing. The lineup change shifted what’s expected and required from individuals. They’ve been unorganized, undisciplined and uncaring, Hammon said after the New York loss. She’s seen eight different Aces teams within a single 40-minute game and zero consistency, she said.

“We don’t have an edge and we have not had it since Day 1 in training camp,” Hammon said. “I felt it. And I tried to address it. But we just … we’re not that hungry.”

Everyone else in the league is looking ravenously at their two trophies and ready to take advantage.

The Aces gather before the start of their WNBA game versus the New York Liberty at Michelob Ultra Arena on Saturday, June 15, 2024, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Image
The Las Vegas Aces are sticking together despite a tough start to the season. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Image (Las Vegas Review-Journal via Getty Images)

Teams around the league are taking it to the Aces harder than ever before. Front offices continue to build rosters specifically to knock off the Aces, and so far it’s working.

“For the past couple years, the Aces have been good enough to where slow starts and maybe not coming in as fired up is OK, because [the Aces] were just so much better, and we were so much better in that way,” reigning Sixth Player of the Year Alysha Clark, in her second season with Las Vegas, told Yahoo Sports. “But teams are better this year. Last year, yeah, they came in wanting our number because they were the defending champs. But after being the two-time champ, it’s amped up even more.”

The Liberty’s superteam came closer than most remember to forcing a deciding Game 5 last fall. After the loss, Aces guard Kelsey Plum stoked the flames when she said the Liberty were “really good individual players, but they don’t care about each other.” New York at the time didn’t have the chemistry of the Aces, who built their team with three No. 1 picks from 2017-19. Now the runner-up returns a starting five with more chemistry and trust that sits second in the standings at 12-2 behind Connecticut (12-1).

Phoenix (7-7), which came close to the 2021 title, brought in head coach Nate Tibbetts from the NBA in a move similar to the Aces landing Hammon ahead of the 2022 season. The Mercury added 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper and 2019 Mystics championship point guard Natasha Cloud to make a run at a title with veterans Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner.

Seattle (9-5) opened cap room for a splash of talent in former MVP and Sparks champion Nneka Ogwumike and All-WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. They pair with Jewell Loyd, the 2023 scoring leader.

Phoenix, Seattle, Minnesota (11-3) and New York have all defeated the Aces, as did lottery dwellers Atlanta and Los Angeles. Clark, who moved into the starting lineup in Gray’s absence, echoed what Gray said in the preseason. The Aces can’t stay stagnant while everyone around them improves.

“The approach that we’ve been able to have, it can’t just be the same,” Clark said.

Plum cited an analogy made by Hammon last week in what the loss of Gray means, even on a stacked team of champions.

“When you bake a cake, or you make anything really, and you take a main ingredient like Chelsea Gray out of the equation, the food tastes different," Plum said. "There are some just like schematic things that are different. I think people are guarding us differently because she's not out there."

Gray, who won the 2016 championship with the Sparks, is one of the best point guards in the world and is referred to as an extension of Hammon. Her 7.3 assists per game ranked third in the WNBA last year and she hasn’t dropped below sixth since 2016. She’s exquisite at knowing when and how to stop the bleeding, Hammon said, and that’s been sorely missed when things begin to snowball. It was Gray’s historic postseason scoring run that lifted Vegas to the trophy.

Much has been made of Hammon’s reliance on her starters. Wilson (22.8 ppg), Plum (18.7), Jackie Young (17.6) and Gray (15.3) finished the 2023 season as the first four teammates to average 15 points or more per game in the same season. They were all named this month to Team USA for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The starters, which include center Kiah Stokes, averaged 79.4 ppg (85% of the offense) last season, up from their record 77.5 ppg mark the year prior.

It’s not merely Gray’s loss in production; it’s that spending games on the bench shifts what everyone else has to do on the court. The personnel is not the same. The roles are different.

“We have these high expectations of ourselves already and what we're supposed to do,” said Clark, a three-time WNBA champion who won two titles in Seattle. “And then we get thrown into these new positions and we still expect ourselves to be that same caliber, right? But the reality is we're in completely different positions.”

Plum and Jackie Young are running the offense, making reads they are not used to and prompting a shift in mindset. Because Clark moved up to the starting lineup, Hammon has to turn to someone else to provide a spark as the first off the bench. Kate Martin, the rookie from Iowa, is taking that task.

“When you take an ingredient out, it trickles down through the whole group,” Hammon said.

The Aces’ offense is down slightly from its historic mark, but not too far off. Their 86.8 ppg rank first this season and a 103.3 offensive rating is third. Wilson is building another MVP-worthy season, averaging 28 ppg (first), 11.5 rpg (first), 2.5 bpg (second) and 1.7 spg (seventh). A 19.4 rebounding percentage is the best of her career.

“There are going to be nights where we might not shoot great. There’s going to be nights where we shoot incredible,” Wilson said. “The defensive side is what we can always control. Always control.”

And that’s been the most glaring deficiency.

The Aces trounced opponents to the tune of a 15.3 net rating last year because of their league-best 97.7 defensive rating. In a mere six of their 40 games, they allowed more than 90 points. Two were to New York and one to Connecticut.

The Aces plummeted from their perch to 10th in defensive rating (104.2), better than the lottery dwelling Wings and Fever. The Sun lead the league at 90.7. Through 12 games, Las Vegas has given up 90 or more five times.

Their steal rate dropped from top-three to bottom-three, while their opponents are hitting more 3s at a higher rate.

“Defensively we aren't very good right now and that's just the truth,” Clark said. “We can honestly take from a hatful of which areas we want to get better at right now.”

Memory can be fickle. Championships, awards and titles can alter the reality of everything that came before the anointing. The Aces were not one of the best defensive teams when they won Las Vegas its first professional championship in 2022. Their stats actually dropped from the year prior and they won it all in a manner closer than most might remember. They clinched the No. 1 seed on the final day of the regular season in a standings tie with reigning champion Chicago (26-10) and barely ahead of Connecticut (25-11). Their 6.9 net rating was the franchise’s lowest since 2019.

The semifinal series against a Seattle Storm squad led by Loyd, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart hinged on overtime in Game 3 of a tied series. The Aces won, took Game 4 and moved into the Finals, where they won by a possession in Game 1 against the Sun. Connecticut, which upset the Sky in five games, went back East down 2-0, crushed the Aces by 29 in Game 3 and nearly forced Game 5.

In 2023, Las Vegas locked down defensively to tear up the league and lock in the top seed in a battle that came down to the final days with New York. After winning the WNBA Finals openers at home, they needed only one in New York and mucked up Game 4 enough despite losing Gray and Stokes to win it all. It was close to heading back to Las Vegas for a deciding Game 5 that could have altered WNBA history.

It’s a long season, Gray is on her way back, and this group knows how to recover in close moments. Clark believes these early struggles and adjustments will only make the Aces better, an ominous claim for the rest of the league.

“We might be a little battered and bruised and all those things right now, but when things start clicking, it's going to start clicking,” Clark said. “And you know, we're going to be like, ‘This is what we were talking about.’ We're not panicking because we know at some point it's going to turn around.”