WNBA preseason predictions: Aces three-peat? Finals matchup?

A'ja Wilson's top plays from last season (2:17)

Relive some of A'ja Wilson's best plays from last season as she announces her first signature shoe with Nike. (2:17)

The Las Vegas Aces look to firm up dynasty talk and the New York Liberty still seek the franchise's first title, while dueling stars A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart each go for their third MVP award. The rookie class, led by No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever, has capitalized on college visibility to bring more eyes to the WNBA than any previous group of draftees.

The move to charter flights and the impending expansion are also making headlines as the WNBA's 28th season opens Tuesday, with a 40-game schedule that takes a monthlong break from mid-July to mid-August for the Paris Olympics.

Wilson and Stewart are staples of Team USA; might Clark nab a spot on the Olympic roster to prepare her for a bigger future role? It will depend in part on how she plays for the Fever, who add Clark to last year's No. 1 pick, Aliyah Boston, in hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Las Vegas seeks its third consecutive title with all its key players back except Candace Parker, who recently retired. Can the Liberty -- or anyone else -- prevent the Aces from being the only team besides the now-defunct Houston Comets to win three titles in a row?

If Las Vegas and New York -- which met in the 2023 WNBA Finals -- are again the favorites, which other teams are in the mix? And which of the biggest offseason moves -- such as Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith to the Seattle Storm, Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud to the Phoenix Mercury and Tina Charles to the Atlanta Dream -- will have the greatest impact on the season?

ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel look at how it all might unfold.

Can anyone stop the Aces from a three-peat?

Pelton: Last year's WNBA Finals left a bad final impression of the Liberty, but we should be careful not to overreact to the most recent thing we saw. New York won three of the four matchups with Las Vegas after Candace Parker's injury across the regular season and Commissioner's Cup, so it wouldn't be shocking if the Liberty prevailed in a rematch this fall.

Voepel: If the Aces' core players stay healthy, it's unlikely any team will beat Las Vegas in a best-of-five series. It didn't happen last year even with Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes out with injuries for Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. Is there more of a chance the Aces could lose in the best-of-three first round? Maybe, because an off game in the series opener suddenly could put them in a must-win situation. But it seems unlikely whichever team the Aces play that early in the postseason will beat them twice. Not to douse the potential drama of the season, but this crystal ball says three-peat.

Philippou: My gut says Aces three-peat, but like Pelton said, it would be foolish to entirely count out the Liberty. New York's core now has a year playing together (including a deep, challenging postseason run) under its belt. Jonquel Jones spent the start of last season finding her footing following an injury; now she's healthy and Sandy Brondello said Jones has elevated her game to another level.

And rather than retooling the starting five, the front office hopes a revamped bench featuring Leonie Fiebich, Ivana Dojkic and Kennedy Burke will make the difference in its quest for the franchise's first WNBA title. It'll also be interesting to see how a champion many times over in Stewart looks and responds following a Finals appearance that wasn't her best performance.

Which teams could emerge as the biggest threat to Las Vegas and New York?

Pelton: Until proved otherwise, I'm going with the Connecticut Sun. Losing Rebecca Allen to the Phoenix Mercury will hurt, but Allen's role was only so large because the Sun lost Brionna Jones to an Achilles rupture early in the regular season. Jones is back to start this season, and as long as Alyssa Thomas is still playing at a superstar level, Connecticut is a contender.

Voepel: While writing the preseason Power Rankings last week, I was stuck for a long time after the top two. So many different scenarios could play out -- depending on how teams jell and, of course, who stays healthiest. As Kevin said, Thomas is key in keeping the Sun as championship contenders. The Dallas Wings will be without Satou Sabally (shoulder) the first half of the season, but could be quite strong when she comes back. And with how bad things went for Phoenix the past couple of years, you wonder if the tide is going to turn big-time for the Mercury this season, which will be Diana Taurasi's 20th.

Philippou: Aside from Connecticut, which has advanced at least to the semifinals each of the past five seasons, my eye is on Seattle and Phoenix. But as Voepel alluded, there's a lot of uncertainty with those teams considering both rosters were transformed in the offseason and must start from scratch in developing chemistry.

Seattle has a big three with Ogwumike, Diggins-Smith and Jewell Loyd -- and a big four if you include Ezi Magbegor. Is it enough to make the Storm a superteam? There's a similar question with Phoenix, but the Mercury will also need better luck with injuries than they experienced the last few years to truly contend, since they're not the deepest of teams.

Who are the leading candidates for MVP other than A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart?

Pelton: At some point, Napheesa Collier is going to make a run at MVP. Collier finished fourth in voting last year and is in her prime at age 27. If the Minnesota Lynx can emerge as the best team outside of Las Vegas and New York after adding Natisha Hiedeman, Alanna Smith and Courtney Williams this offseason, Collier would get the bulk of the credit and become a trendy candidate.

Philippou: It's probably between Collier and Alyssa Thomas. Thomas' MVP candidacy last year (where she earned the most first-place votes but came in second place) was strengthened by the fact she was doing so much to help compensate for the absence of Brionna Jones, who suffered that season-ending Achilles tear in June. With Jones back for 2024, Thomas will have a little less on her shoulders, but given how gritty and competitive she is, I wouldn't rule her out for the award this year.

Collier had a breakout season in 2023, her first full one after missing 2022 upon giving birth to her first child; with a bit more help around her, 2024 could be the year Collier fully inserts herself into the MVP race.

Voepel: I'm also going with Thomas. Last year, the Sun lamented that if that season didn't get her the MVP award, what would? Wilson and Stewart combining to win four of the last six MVP honors -- and being favorites again this season -- is reminiscent of 2000-07 when Sheryl Swoopes (three MVPs), Lisa Leslie (three) and Lauren Jackson (two) dominated the award. (Jackson won her third MVP in 2010.)

Then from 2002-10, the Indiana Fever's Tamika Catchings was in the top five in MVP voting eight times, including three runner-up finishes. It seemed as if she would never win it. But she finally did in 2011, at age 32, followed in 2012 by her first WNBA title. Maybe an MVP and a championship are still to come for Thomas, who turned 32 in April.

Which high-profile players who switched teams in the offseason will have the biggest impact on the season?

Pelton: Either future Hall of Famer whom Seattle added this offseason could qualify, but I'd say Diggins-Smith will have a greater impact because point guard was such a weakness for Seattle after Sue Bird's retirement. Before coach Noelle Quinn moved wing Sami Whitcomb to the point, the Storm used three players -- Ivana Dojkic, Jade Melbourne and Yvonne Turner -- who are no longer on the team's roster. Going from them to Diggins-Smith is the single biggest upgrade made by any team.

Voepel: You could see both Cloud and Copper having an equal impact for Phoenix. The Mercury were last in the standings and also last in scoring in 2023 (76.6 PPG), while Copper (18.7 PPG with the Sky) and Cloud (12.7 with the Mystics) both had career-high scoring averages last season. Phoenix was eighth in assists (19.1); Cloud has been in the top five in the league in assists her last four seasons (she didn't play in the WNBA in 2020).

Philippou: This will be the first year since a tumultuous 2022 that Charles, 35, appears in the WNBA. She joins an Atlanta team that made the playoffs last season but is still young and doesn't appear to be in the contention tier quite yet. Can Charles surprise some people and get the Dream there? How will her role develop playing alongside three All-Stars in Rhyne Howard, Allisha Gray, Cheyenne Parker-Tyus and (when she's back from injury) Jordin Canada?

Ogwumike is coming off a season with the Los Angeles Sparks that in many ways statistically mirrored her 2016 MVP campaign, but she now faces a new challenge with new teammates in a new city. Can she and Diggins-Smith help the Storm return to playoff and/or title contention following a one-year hiatus?

Which rookies landed in the best situation to be successful, and which landed in the toughest?

Pelton: I love the opportunity for Jacy Sheldon in Dallas. The Wings have been searching for the right backcourt-mate for Arike Ogunbowale since trading Marina Mabrey, and Sheldon has the combination of size and shooting ability to work well in that role. On the flip side, I don't think Angel Reese is set up to thrive right away because the Chicago Sky have limited playmaking after losing Courtney Williams. Reese will have to create a lot of her own offense, ideally on second chances.

Voepel: Clark should thrive in Indiana because it seems like the perfect fit. She can grow with young post players Boston and NaLyssa Smith, and she will play a lot. But she also has veterans such as Kelsey Mitchell and Erica Wheeler who want to be mentors because they are focused on Indiana getting back to its past success.

Forward Alissa Pili wasn't a bad draft choice for Minnesota at No. 8, but it's hard to know yet just where she will fit into the lineup and how much court time she will get this season.

Philippou: Here's a perhaps less obvious pick: The Aces' trio of rookies -- all chosen in the second round -- seem to be in a great position: Elizabeth Kitley will continue to rehab a torn ACL suffered in March and get to absorb all she can from the Vegas organization, while Dyaisha Fair and Kate Martin look poised to make the final roster for the back-to-back champs. Those two get to go up against and learn from some of the best guards in the league, and ideally can emerge as pieces who can bolster the Aces' bench, which Becky Hammon historically hasn't relied upon.

It's a real bummer that No. 3 overall pick Kamilla Cardoso will miss four to six weeks as she recovers from a shoulder injury she suffered during the Sky's first preseason game. I'm eager to see how she and Reese grow under the player development-focused staff in Chicago.

Preseason predictions

Which player is your preseason pick for MVP?

Pelton: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Philippou: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

Who is your preseason Rookie of the Year?

Pelton: Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever
Philippou: Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever
Voepel: Caitlin Clark, Indiana Fever

Who is your preseason Defensive Player of the Year?

Pelton: Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm
Philippou: Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty
Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

Who is your preseason Most Improved Player?

Pelton: Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics
Philippou: Alanna Smith, Minnesota Lynx
Voepel: Shakira Austin, Washington Mystics

Which five players will make the All-WNBA first team?

Pelton: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx; Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun; A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces; Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces

Philippou: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx; Skylar Diggins-Smith, Seattle Storm; Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun; A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces

Voepel: A'ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces; Breanna Stewart, New York Liberty; Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun; Jackie Young, Las Vegas Aces; Napheesa Collier, Minnesota Lynx

Which teams will meet in the WNBA Finals?

Pelton: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Philippou: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
Voepel: Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty

Which team will win the 2024 WNBA title?

Pelton: Las Vegas Aces
Philippou: Las Vegas Aces
Voepel: Las Vegas Aces