There’s nothing worse than an ending that doesn’t offer a definite ending. Think The Sopranos cutting to black in the diner or Emmy-winning GLOW being canceled on a cliffhanger during the pandemic as the ‘94 MLB strike-shortened season of series finales. Last month, Winning Time ended with the Boston Celtics celebrating the ‘84 title. The outline of the 2023 WNBA season’s final act was far more straightforward.
The two centerpieces of the WNBA’s superteams have their own Magic-Bird war brewing, and the season culminating in a battle between them is the only way this storyline could have concluded. Vegas vs. New York in the WNBA Finals is advertised as a showdown of superteams. But at a microscopic level, this is the climax of the Stewart-Wilson conflict. This is Mahomes-Brady if both were in their 20s. The peak years of Kobe-LeBron never ended in a Finals showdown. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid may never settle their three-year MVP award debate in a best-of-seven series.
Stewart and Wilson, however, are in a position to lay all their cards on the table in one climactic set. One is a generational bucket-getting genie who can summon points at a prolific rate from anywhere on the floor. The other is a two-way obelisk who alters the game on both sides. It’s the matchup Jokic and Embiid couldn’t live up to. Their last postseason meeting ended with Stewart earning Finals MVP, but Wilson was still soft-launching her career then.
This time, both franchise cornerstones are squarely in their primes. Winning Time is collecting worms, but this show is the Magic-Bird rivalry of our time. Putting the racial dynamics aside, here’s a cold, hard look at their nightly contributions.
- Player A: 23 ppg, .465 FG%, .850 FT%, 9.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.5 steals, 28.5 PER
- Player B: 22.8 ppg, .557 FG%,.815 FT%, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists 1.4 steals, 2.2 blocks, 32.5 PER
Take your pick.
Player A is Stewart. Player B is Wilson.
The genesis of Wilson’s Aces happened organically. Between 2017 and 2019, the Aces tanked, forfeited a game, and leveraged a lottery system that took their cumulative two-year record into account to draft Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, and Wilson first overall in three consecutive seasons. It was quite the spree, and Wilson’s emergence in particular blasted this franchise into a higher gear.
Stewart left behind Jewell Lloyd in the Great Northwest and traveled the circuitous route from Seattle to partner with 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu in Stew York City. A star-studded lineup was 3D printed around its two pillars. There’s even a third MVP in the mix. During the offseason, 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones extricated herself from the Connecticut Suns’ perennial-bridesmaid purgatory and pursued her revenge on Las Vegas for their Finals defeat by latching onto the Liberty. The Aces kept pace in the arms race by adding two-time MVP Candace Parker. Well past her prime, Parker eased into her role as a multidimensional defensive hound on the wing.
Stewart’s scoring pace has the heir apparent to Diana Taurasi’s career scoring crown. Wilson is on the Lisa Leslie trajectory as the game’s most dominant big by winning Finals MVP, tying the single game-scoring record in August, then clinching consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards after leading the league in defensive efficiency rating, holding opponents to 91.5 points per 100 possessions and blocked more shots than any defender for the third time in four years.
Stew York City is flying high, but Wilson being snubbed for her third MVP still riles up her base, and serves as a proxy for their battle over the deed to the league’s throne. Wilson has a point. She finished the 2023 season with the third-highest Player Efficiency Rating in WNBA history and was the most impactful defensive force in basketball. Stewart has expanded her range to the outside, and is the first player to record three 40-point games in a single season.
After a year of basketball that forced us to endure Embiid and Jokic camps duking it out over the air before Embiid wilting in the playoffs, Stewart and Wilson both lived up to their press in the postseason. Wilson’s Aces are the reigning WNBA champions, but Stewart was a recipient of the most valuable accolade handed out in 2023 and won the Commissioner’s Cup by blasting the Aces in the tournament finale.
A league still developing its hind legs needs Stewart and Wilson as much as the pre-David Stern NBA. Contrast is the basis of conflicts, and Wilson is the most marketable personality of the two. However, Stewart is a white star in the world’s biggest media market. Bird and Magic had the ‘79 title game as their foundation. Wilson and Stewart are metonyms for women’s college basketball’s contemporary powerhouse programs.
The Aces were on a runaway train, but since Parker’s foot injury, their defense has been more gelatinous. The Liberty’s pieces have gelled under the lights. Las Vegas is the NBA’s and MLB’s next stop, but it’s the WNBA’s domain for now and the Aces are a burgeoning dynasty casting a wide shadow. Whatever happens will reflect on Wilson’s Aces legacy or Stew York City. Most importantly, the league will get closure at least until next summer.
Original source here
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