Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said before the WNBA season that he expected his team to finish in the middle of the standings.
Laimbeer had his reasons. The Aces would be without starters Liz Cambage (medical exemption) and Kelsey Plum (Achilles) for the season. They were so banged up in training camp in the bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, that they couldn’t scrimmage five-on-five. Among the wounded was star forward A’ja Wilson, whose ankle injury kept her from practicing for about a week.
So much for Laimbeer’s thinking. After a 1-2 start, the Aces won seven straight and finished the regular season with an 18-4 record and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
They then rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to defeat the Connecticut Sun in the best-of-five semifinals and reach the WNBA Finals. But the Aces lost forward Dearica Hamby, the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year for the second straight season, to a season-ending knee injury in the series. She missed the final five games.
But the ending to the season didn’t dampen Laimbeer’s enthusiasm for what his team accomplished.
“I’m so proud of our players. We came in short-handed, then got more short-handed,” he said. “Three of our top six players were out (in the finals). We accomplished a lot. Not only did we get to the finals for the first time, we also learned a lot.”
That starts with Wilson, an All-Star in her first two seasons, who took her game to another level this season.
Wilson knew it was her team, and she wasn’t shy about taking big shots in close games. She was the only player in the league to finish in the top six in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, and was rewarded with the league’s MVP award.
“A’ja grew up,” Laimbeer said. “She understands what this league is about and her responsibility. And we got to know Angel McCoughtry. She’s going to work on her body and come back stronger next year.”
The Aces signed McCoughtry in free agency, but she had suffered a torn ACL in 2018 and they weren’t quite sure what they were getting. But they managed her minutes, and she turned in the most efficient offensive season of her 11-year career.
She and another free-agent addition, guard Danielle Robinson, provided the Aces with a veteran presence the young team desperately needed.
“It was a great experience,” McCoughtry said. “It’s a great organization. They treated me so well, the way they helped me take care of my knee. I was playing through a lot of pain sometimes with my knee. I’m thankful to Bill for giving me a chance when I had so many doubters.”
Starting guard Kayla McBride was also a scoring threat, whether as a cutter off screens or from the outside. But the Aces’ biggest advantage was their bench.
Hamby teamed with Robinson and Jackie Young to form the “Bench Mob,” which averaged a WNBA-record 35.0 points per game.
Laimbeer said the Aces probably will sign a role player or two in free agency, and they have the No. 12 pick in the first round of the draft. But their top priority is getting Cambage re-signed and Plum and Hamby healthy.
“I was convinced we were going to win the championship if we were a full squad,” Laimbeer said. “It didn’t work out for us this year because of the virus and a little injury there at the end. We have a solid future.”
McCoughtry was more direct.
“It’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s coming.”