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Aces face crucial offseason after losing in WNBA semifinals

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said he hopes the 87-84 loss to the Phoenix Mercury in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals is a “good learning experience” for the players.

“Learn about what happened today,” he said after Friday’s loss at Michelob Ultra Arena. “Learn about how hard it is. How mentally strong you have to be. Individually and collectively.”

The Aces summoned their mental toughness at several crucial junctures in the regular season en route to a 24-8 record, the league’s No. 1 offensive rating and No. 2 defensive rating. But they fell short in their finale, beginning perhaps the most crucial offseason since they relocated from San Antonio to Las Vegas.

Only five players are under contract for next season, per Spotrac: Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby, Jackie Young and Destiny Slocum — meaning next year’s team could look drastically different from this year’s.

All-Star center Liz Cambage is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in her career and will likely command a max salary should she continue playing in the WNBA. She was the league’s scoring champion in 2018 and is capable of being a primary scorer on a contender.

Cambage sacrificed shots and scoring opportunities to pursue a championship in Las Vegas, and at 30, she’s in the prime of her career as one of the league’s best centers.

Former WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson is a restricted free agent, meaning she can sign an offer sheet with another team. But the Aces can and will match any offer, and she will return next season as the face of the franchise as she approaches the beginning of her prime.

Angel McCoughtry, Riquna Williams and Kiah Stokes join Cambage as unrestricted free agents. McCoughtry missed the 2021 season with a torn ACL, but was among the league’s best players in 2020. The Aces could use her size, scoring and defense on the wing, though she probably will have other suitors given how she played in 2020.

Williams played every game this year and was the Aces’ top perimeter defender and 3-point shooter. Stokes served as the backup center, filling in admirably as the starter while Cambage was out because of COVID-19.

Fellow backup center JiSu Park is a reserved player, meaning the Aces hold her exclusive negotiating rights.

The WNBA pool of unrestricted free agents includes Tina Charles (Washington), Kahleah Copper (Chicago), Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota), Tiffany Hayes (Atlanta), Jonquel Jones (Connecticut), Jewell Loyd (Seattle), Breanna Stewart (Seattle), Courtney Vandersloot (Chicago) and Courtney Williams (Atlanta).

A core of Wilson, Gray, Plum, Hamby and Young is good enough to contend for a title.

“What happens moving forward is unclear,” Laimbeer said. “We’re still a young team that’s growing up. This was our third year in the conference finals. We’re learning. We’re just not there yet.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.