Liz Cambage trade helps turn Las Vegas Aces into WNBA contender

Two years ago, the franchise was hanging by a thread. Now, especially with Liz Cambage on board, the Las Vegas Aces could contend for the 2019 WNBA title. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

As the 2017 WNBA season came to an end, the San Antonio Stars franchise was hanging by a thread, not wanted anymore by its owners. Australian center Liz Cambage had been away from the WNBA for four years, and no one knew if she'd ever come back.

Then in 2018, the former Stars -- having moved to Las Vegas -- played their first season as the Aces. Meanwhile, Cambage returned to the WNBA and had an MVP-caliber season for the Dallas Wings while averaging a league-best 23.0 points.

Look where we are today. Like a duet that now seems like it was always supposed to happen, Cambage is an Ace. And Las Vegas -- host of the All-Star Game this season -- has become perhaps the most intriguing team in the WNBA.

Cambage was traded Thursday from Dallas for guard Moriah Jefferson, forward Isabelle Harrison and 2020 first- and second-round draft picks. The Wings are putting the pieces together under new coach Brian Agler, who has led the Seattle Storm and Los Angeles Sparks to championships. This process with the Wings is interesting, too, especially because of Agler's track record for success.

But the Aces go from missing the playoffs last season to being in contention to hoist the trophy this season, and the 6-foot-8 Cambage has a chance to be a major piece of the puzzle.

The first question, of course, is how Cambage fits with 6-foot-4 post player A'ja Wilson, last year's No. 1 draft pick and WNBA rookie of the year. On paper, it looks fantastic. Wilson tied for third in the league in scoring last season at 20.7 PPG. The lefty from South Carolina adjusted quickly to the pro game, averaging 8.0 rebounds to go with her offensive production.

Pairing Wilson with another post player who has the size and skill set of Cambage creates a dual nightmare for defenses. Will the Aces need to work out how best to utilize each one and get her the shots she needs? Sure, but that's kind of like saying, "So which incredibly great present do you want to open first on your birthday?"

They are in their prime: Cambage will turn 28 in August and Wilson 23 (their birthdays are just 10 days apart). And ideally, they'll both relish this opportunity as being mutually beneficial. Coach Bill Laimbeer, who won three titles while coaching in Detroit, knows how to get the best from his post players, and he understands egos, too.

Egos are part of this -- and there's nothing wrong with that. This was Wilson's team last season, even if she was a rookie. Cambage comes to town with her own loyal fan base and a propensity for saying exactly what she thinks all the time. Wilson and Cambage are both big personalities, but where better for such a combo than Vegas?

Could it blow up? Sure, anything can, but it seems more likely they will bond with a goal of winning a championship, knowing they'll have a better chance together than separately. And they might even become pals. Both have been outspoken about things they don't like about the WNBA, including some of the draining travel. The Aces forfeited a game last season after lengthy travel delays left them too exhausted to play. That was a controversial decision, but one Cambage probably would have fully supported had she been on the team.

As much as the Cambage-Wilson combo will grab everyone's attention, there's still a lot more to this team. Guard Kayla McBride was the Aces' second-leading scorer last season (18.2 PPG). Rookie guard Jackie Young was the No. 1 pick in April's WNBA draft. And the backcourt also includes the No. 1 pick from 2017, guard Kelsey Plum. That's a lot of top-level talent, all well under 30. McBride is 27 in June, Plum 25 in August, and Young 22 in September.

Could their youth and playoff inexperience -- McBride has appeared in two WNBA postseason games, Cambage one, the other three none -- be an issue? It's something Laimbeer has talked about. But depending on the Aces' final roster, it's likely they will still have players such as forward Tamera Young (11 seasons in the WNBA) and center Carolyn Swords (seven seasons) around as respected veteran presences. Tamera Young was the Aces' third-leading scorer last season (9.9 PPG).

Plus, as has been frequently noted, some of the league's top players -- including Minnesota's Maya Moore, Seattle's Breanna Stewart, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry -- are out for all or a large part of the season. Los Angeles' Candace Parker also will start the season on the sideline after a hamstring injury, and it's not certain when she'll return.

Los Angeles was always considered Cambage's destination of choice, going all the way back to when she was drafted -- mostly to her horror, although she occasionally tried to hide that -- by Tulsa in 2011. Cambage played 33 games her WNBA rookie season, didn't play in 2012, then appeared in 20 games in 2013. The franchise moved to Dallas before the 2016 season, and Cambage finally came back for last season, singing a multiyear contract with Dallas in February 2018.

She said during last season she enjoyed playing for the Wings. But she wasn't happy that coach Fred Williams departed before the season ended, after a confrontation with Wings president Greb Bibb. Williams is now an assistant in Los Angeles, which was likely one more reason Cambage would have liked going there.

It became clear by the start of 2019 that she had no intention of playing for Dallas again, and then it was a matter of whether a deal could be worked out. We'll probably never know the entire story of the monthslong trade saga involving Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and whomever else.

But it's all over now. Cambage will be in Las Vegas instead of Los Angeles. And her agent, Allison Galer, stressed that Vegas is in no way a consolation prize for Cambage, who she said is excited about the move and will be joining the Aces soon.

In a season that will be lacking some stars, Cambage's presence is all the bigger. Things were already going to be interesting for the Aces, but Thursday they upped the ante even more.