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Why the Liberty are pulling ahead in WNBA championship odds

Courtney Vandersloot, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones have continued to step up for the Liberty in the second half of the season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The New York Liberty have flipped the script.

When the teams met in June for the first time this season, a lopsided Aces win gave Las Vegas a leg up in the 2023 WNBA championship conversation. Then, it was New York’s turn to deliver a blow, winning their second matchup on Aug. 6 by a wide margin.

And on Tuesday night, the Liberty took a 2-1 lead in the season series with an 82-63 victory in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. They hoisted the trophy, pocketed bonuses, secured money for Callen-Lorde (the charity of the team’s choosing) and brought a new school of thought to the table. While the Commissioner’s Cup championship doesn’t count toward the regular season standings, it matters in the grand scheme of how these teams match up.

And in that bigger picture, the pieces of the superteam are finally meshing, and cracks are beginning to appear within the Aces. In the ongoing battle of the WNBA superteams, New York is ahead.

The Liberty are now the favorites to win the WNBA championship.

Both teams have stars. Both teams have former WNBA players and title winners at the helm. And after some workshopping from New York to start the season, both teams have offenses that flow.

But both teams don’t have a bench, and that’s where the issues are arising for Las Vegas.

There were similar concerns about Las Vegas last season, but they didn’t end up materializing as the Aces went on to win their first WNBA championship. Head coach Becky Hammon knew the bench could be an issue going forward, so she signed veteran forward Alysha Clark to add depth alongside Kiah Stokes and Riquna Williams in a three-person bench unit.

Those numbers quickly dwindled as an injury to free-agent acquisition Candace Parker moved Stokes into the starting lineup. Williams missed the beginning of the season with a back injury and will likely not return to the Aces after being arrested for domestic violence last month. That leaves Clark as the sole rotation player coming off the bench.

While she has been consistent as a sixth player for Las Vegas, averaging 6.8 points per game and shooting 43% from beyond the arc, having just one player established on the bench is a concern going forward. Clark also missed a game with a sore back last week, which brings up a worrisome question for the Aces: What happens if someone else gets hurt?

Las Vegas would have to turn to Cayla George or Kierstan Bell, who have played limited minutes and mostly in garbage time. Against New York on Tuesday, Hammon chose not to play George until the final two minutes, and Bell struggled in her 11 minutes of action.

Nearly every issue the Aces had in that game stemmed from the short bench, while New York’s non-starters provided a major lift.

Las Vegas was clearly tired during the game, as evidenced by a 33% shooting performance that included just 19% shooting from beyond the arc. The Aces also grabbed just four rebounds in the second half and were outperformed 49-28 on the glass.

With Parker in the starting lineup, Stokes is able to provide a rebounding lift off the bench, but without Parker, she’s tasked with a much bigger load. Stokes grabbed 10 boards on Tuesday for more than a third of the Aces’ total production.

Parker’s absence also affects A’ja Wilson. Last season’s MVP is averaging 21.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest, but in her last two games against New York, those numbers decreased to 9.0 and 6.0. Stokes is not a scoring threat, averaging 2.5 points per game this season. That means New York — or other teams for that matter — can send multiple defenders at Wilson without worrying about leaving Stokes.

The guards are suffering from the short bench, too. Gray played 37 minutes against New York, Jackie Young played 35, and Kelsey Plum was in for 33 minutes. Not only does the small rotation make for tired legs, it also limits options. When New York found mismatches, like Betnijah Laney in the post, Las Vegas had to weather the storm with their smaller guards since there were no options for help off the bench.

Meanwhile, New York has perhaps the strongest bench in the WNBA, and it showed on Tuesday. In just 14 minutes of action, Marine Johannès erupted for 17 points, a game-high for both teams, and helped stretch the floor by knocking down five 3-pointers.

Kayla Thornton was also key in the win. The forward played 16 minutes, finishing with eight points, four rebounds and two assists.

The Liberty didn’t need anyone else to secure the win, but coach Sandy Brondello has even more options. Center Stefanie Dolson is still getting acclimated after an injury, but the nine-year WNBA player brings veteran experience to the Liberty bench after having a starting role in her previous nine seasons with the Mystics, Sky and Liberty. They also have Nyara Sabally, an athletic forward in her first season out of Oregon, guard Jocelyn Willoughby, and 6-foot-10 Han Xu back in the fold after playing in China.

In the battle of the superteams, only one has a super bench. That puts New York ahead as the season winds down and head toward the playoffs.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.