Folks, we did it. We collectively manifested the series we had been dreaming of all season (well, all of us outside of Uncasville and Arlington, maybe).
Aces versus Liberty; Liberty versus Aces, say it however you want, but we have the two superteams—the two teams that were preseason Goliaths who lived up to the hype—meeting in the WNBA Finals starting on Sunday.
Games 1, 2, and 5 (if necessary) will take place at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, with the middle set (as needed) to take place at Barclays Center. It’s a battle of East versus West; free agency superteam versus drafted superteam; A’ja versus Stewie; and endless other storylines. I’m going to be dropping a player-specific half of this preview later today, but let’s dive into this series from a team versus team perspective first.
Apologies if you have been here every step of the way because there will be a touch of repetition, but I’d imagine we have some fresh faces for the Finals, so I’m going to quickly review how the 2023 seasons went for each of these teams.
The Las Vegas Aces got out to quite literally the best start in WNBA history, with a 16-2 record and a +17.6 net rating through July 7. Now, I chose 16-2 instead of 16-1 (which they were through July 5) because it was on July 7 that things changed a bit. Candace Parker—who had joined the reigning champs in the offseason and cemented her image next to “the rich get richer” in the dictionary—played her last game of the season. And unless there is an absolute bombshell that the Aces have been playing close to their chest, she will not be playing in this Finals matchup either.
After Parker went out, the Aces still looked pretty great (18-4 record with a +13.5 net rating), but not quite as historic. And historic may well be the bar the winning team in this Finals has to clear.
Because, while the Aces slowed down from “literal best team in league history” to just “all-time great” in the second half, that’s when the Liberty really hit their groove. If we use the All-Star Game as a line of demarcation, it was actually the Liberty with the better record (18-4 to 15-4) and net rating (+12.5 to +11.2) of these two teams, and that’s not just some arbitrary date. Even before the season, it was clear that the superteam that had just formed was going to take more time to coalesce than the one that was fresh off a championship of their own.
As such, before considering how these teams matchup, I would have the two as near-equals, with the tiniest of margins to the Liberty (probably around a half-point favorite on a neutral court) but when adding in the home court advantage that the Aces managed to hold on to, I would make the series price around Aces -120/Liberty +100 with no consideration for how they match up. Considering the actual price is currently Aces -210/Liberty +170, that’s leaving a lot on the Aces to match up well with the Liberty, so let’s dig into that deeper.
Season Series (and how they match up)
These two superteams met five times since being formed, four times in this year’s regular season, and once in the Commissioner’s Cup Final in August (which technically didn’t count as a regular season matchup). The Liberty won three of those five games and notably three of the four to take place after the All-Star break (the time period we have been discussing most). They also were the only ones to win on the road in this series.
And while sometimes results can be deceiving, in this case, it does look like the Liberty matchup really well with the Aces.
Primarily, this comes down to size. In the first match-up of the season between these two, the Aces won by 17, and while the Liberty did outrebound the Aces, it was by a relatively thin margin. However, can you guess who their leading rebounder was in that game? Candace Parker led the team in boards despite playing only 24 minutes—a sign that this team was going to be susceptible on the glass against the Liberty in the future.
And boy, oh boy did that come true. In the second matchup between these two—with Parker now out of the lineup—the Liberty literally doubled up the Aces on the glass, 48-24, en route to a 99-61 blowout win.
Just over a week later, the story was much the same in the Commissioner’s Cup Final. The Liberty out-rebounded the Aces, 49-28, and emerged victorious by a healthy margin (82-63).
It’s the fourth game in this series that interests me the most, though (the fifth was once again Liberty +12 on the glass and a victory). Just two days after the Commissioner’s Cup Final, the Aces actually outrebounded the Liberty, 35-28, and perhaps unsurprisingly came away with the 88-75 victory.
Now there could be several factors at play here: The Aces were almost certainly pissed off from their loss two days earlier; and the Liberty may well have been not quite at their peak, having just won (and celebrated, in Las Vegas no less) their Commissioner’s Cup Final. But the fact remains that the Aces were indeed able to win the rebound battle and win the game. To reiterate: In the two games the Aces won, they out-rebounded the Liberty, 72-69. In the three games they lost, they were demolished on the glass to the tune of 140-83. It’s over-simplifying to say this is just going to come down to the Aces at least keeping the Liberty at bay on the boards, but it’s the single biggest factor in the series.
In that fourth game—the Aces victory—they were able to control the glass a couple ways: They were able to get Jonquel Jones in foul trouble, limiting her to just 24 minutes, and Chelsea Gray chipped in 11 rebounds, and two bench players (Alysha Clark and Kierstan Bell) each chipped in four apiece.
That leads to how head coach Becky Hammon is going to approach this series. With Parker out, it has been Kiah Stokes taking the fifth spot in the starting lineup, which makes sense given her greatest strength is rebounding and even with Stokes, their rebound rate went from 51.1 percent in the first 18 games of the season (with Parker) to 49.4 percent without her. (The Liberty rebound rate since July 7 is a whopping 53.4 percent).
However, the Liberty have really enjoyed picking on Stokes when she’s been on the court against them this season. Of the six players likely to be key to the Aces rotation this series, Stokes has the worst on-off numbers of any of them, a -38 in just 82 minutes. A’ja Wilson is just a -11 in 159 minutes, by comparison.
Alysha Clark has been much more respectable by an on-off measure (-14 in 119 minutes), but at just 5-11 (Stokes is 6-3) and having never averaged even as much as five rebounds per game in a single WNBA season in her career, she’s really not going to be the glass eater the Aces need to deal with Jonquel Jones and the Liberty.
That’s the value of Jonquel Jones that has really been on display in this postseason. She truly can do it all as the best rebounder in the league, but also one who can also step out and shoot threes. There’s a reason she won MVP two seasons ago, and she’s likely the biggest factor in this series for the Liberty.
Now, I do think that the August 17 win for the Aces provides a bit of a blueprint for Las Vegas in this series. Look to attack Jonquel Jones (who is notoriously foul-prone) and treat each game with the energy of a “just got beat in our own home” matchup. It’s the Finals, that latter part shouldn’t be hard.
But the overarching point remains, I am here laying out a case for why we shouldn’t write off the Aces—yet they are -210, and the Liberty are +170.
I think this series is incredibly mispriced. I would have the Liberty around +100 before even accounting for the fact that they provide a bit of a matchup nightmare for Vegas. Add that in and I would set this Finals line almost flipped, with Liberty -134.
I’ll be betting the Liberty in several ways throughout the Finals.
That was a nice deep dive for the sickos, but let’s get to the bets for the folks who just want something fun to root for. First off, I am taking the Liberty at +170 on the series line as I just laid out the case for, but I also like Liberty 3-1 series exact because even if this goes to a Game 5, I am likely going to be getting plus money on a team that I think should be closer to a pick em.
I also am going to bet the Liberty to be ahead 2-1 exact after three games, with a similar logic that they aren’t going to sweep this Aces team (of course it is a possibility but an outcome I am fine missing on), but I like them to take one of two in Las Vegas before taking Game 3 in New York.