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WNBA set to tip off with spotlight on rookie class led by Clark, Reese and Aces’ quest for 3-peat

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While conversations about the WNBA’s growth may start with Caitlin Clark, any talk about the 2024 championship begins with the star-studded Las Vegas Aces led by A’ja Wilson and their quest to three-peat.

The Aces have been dominant on the court the past two seasons, becoming the first team to repeat as champion since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02. They are plus-100 favorites to win it again when the league tips off its 28th season on Tuesday, according to BetMGM. New York at plus-230 is the only team close to the champs.

“We’ve come into games and we have a target on our back. We understand that,” Aces guard Chelsea Gray said. “But I think we understand that what got it done last year isn’t going to get it done this year. No year has ever been the same in winning a championship.”

Wilson, last season’s WNBA Finals MVP, and the Aces are looking for a third consecutive WNBA title — a feat only accomplished by the Houston Comets, who won the first four league championships.

But the buzz around the league has been centered on Clark, along with Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, Kamilla Cardoso and the rest of a rookie class that has been the most talked about in the past decade.

The brands the players built in college have led to sold-out jerseys and arenas. Teams have moved games to bigger venues to accommodate the demand for more tickets. It also helped get the league to finally have charter flights for road games.

For all the hype about the rookies, how they perform on the court will be key to sustaining the early focus they generated on the league.

Las Vegas is the solid favorite to win it all again, although the Liberty is expected to have something to say about that. New York returns all five starters from last season’s team that lost to the Aces in the WNBA Finals.

New York’s roster was compiled last season through free agency and trades but now Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Sabrina Ionescu hope to lead the franchise to its first title.

“We know what happened last year and the fact we didn’t achieve our goal will motivate us, but it’s not what we’re thinking about the entire season,” Stewart said. “I’m really excited to get things going with a new and old group and build the chemistry. Now most of us have a year under our belt, what are we going to do bigger on and off the court?”

While Las Vegas and New York didn’t have any headline-making offseason moves, Seattle and Phoenix both created some ripples with moves they hope will make them title contenders.

The Storm, who built a $60 million state-of-the-art practice facility, added Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith. The Mercury signed Natasha Cloud and Kahleah Copper to add to Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi.

Some other storylines to follow this season:

New Coaches

Chicago and Phoenix both have new coaches this season. The Sky will be led by Hall of Famer Teresa Weatherspoon. Longtime NBA assistant Nate Tibbetts will guide the Mercury.

Weatherspoon returns to the WNBA after working with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans since 2019. She first was a player development coach and then an assistant starting in 2020. The team released her in June.

Tibbetts comes to the league after nearly two decades of experience as an NBA assistant coach and in the NBA’s G League, where he was both a head coach and an assistant. He was most recently an assistant with the Orlando Magic.

Olympic Break

The league will take nearly a monthlong break for the Paris Games from July 18-Aug. 14. Dozens of current and former WNBA players will be competing in the Olympics.

The WNBA will have its All-Star Game in Phoenix right before the Olympics start. The midseason showcase will most likely pit the U.S. national team against a group of All-Stars. The All-Stars won the contest in 2021 — the last time the format was implemented.

Charter Flights

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced Thursday the league plans to fund charter flights at a cost of about $50 million over the next two years in a move that addresses years of player safety concerns. Travel has been a huge topic of discussion for years.

End of an Era

Candace Parker retired right before the season started and Taurasi is starting her 20th year in the WNBA. While Taurasi hasn’t officially said it will be her last, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was her final season. She just wants to stay healthy, playing in more than 26 games only once in the past five seasons.

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AP WNBA: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-basketball

By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer

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