How Candace Parker's injury impacts the Aces' title hopes

The Las Vegas Aces have been a nearly unstoppable force during the 2023 WNBA season, but their quest to become the league's first repeat champions in over 20 years hit a bump in the road this week when the team announced Candace Parker is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on a fracture in her left foot.

Parker, Las Vegas' prized free agent signee this past offseason, has played on the fracture all season but still averaged 23.6 minutes per game and did not appear obviously hampered by the injury. Compared to earlier stops in her career, the former two-time MVP hasn't been asked to carry an outsized load on the Aces -- where she's playing alongside three fellow former No. 1 picks and one of the greatest point guards of all time.

But her contributions on both ends of the floor have helped elevate the reigning champs to new heights, teammates say. The Aces' starting lineup with Parker, which has played 239 total minutes together, boasts a plus-23.9 net rating; no other five-player lineup from another team even passes the plus-20.0 threshold.

Parker's absence will also test Las Vegas' depth, one of its few weak points across the past two seasons.

We take a look at what the injury might mean for the Aces' championship aspirations and for the remainder of Parker's career.

How will the Aces look without Parker?

The good news: The Aces haven't had much of a problem in their games without Parker. Their current five-game win streak coincides with Parker's absence, and they've won each of those contests by at least 15 points. Center Kiah Stokes, who's starting in Parker's place, has plenty of experience alongside the Aces starters dating to last year's title run. In fact, that lineup with Stokes instead of Parker has played 128 minutes together this season and sports a plus-30.2 net rating. Australian Cayla Georgie is another frontcourt option who could also see more time after Parker's injury.

Aces coach Becky Hammon also has the ability to go small by moving A'ja Wilson to center and inserting veteran Alysha Clark, or even putting Clark and second-year player Kierstan Bell on the floor together.

Hammon has challenged her players to step up in the wake of Parker's injury, and Wilson in particular has answered the call. During the Aces' win streak, the two-time MVP compiled four double-doubles and four consecutive 20-plus-point performances, including a 35-point, 14-rebound effort on Saturday versus the Minnesota Lynx.

What might the Aces miss most about Parker?

The Aces are stacked with All-Stars and former No. 1 picks -- putting five players, including Parker, in our midseason ranking of the top 25 players in the WNBA -- but no one in Las Vegas is under the impression they're better without Parker, widely considered one of the game's all-time greats. Aces personnel have discussed missing Parker's rebounding and playmaking ability, especially in transition, which has helped them produce a unit on track to become the league's best offense of all time. And that's not to mention her intangibles.

"It's unfortunate and so it's a little bit more pressure on everybody else to step up and fill those shoes," Hammon said last week. "There's no doubt we miss her voice, her presence, because she's certainly got an energy to her, too."

Although Stokes and Clark are considered strong defenders, Parker's versatility and length on the defensive end could be missed, too -- and that side of the ball is where the Aces, who own the top defensive rating in the league this season, have arguably grown the most since they won it all last year.

What could Parker's injury mean for the Aces' championship hopes?

Las Vegas didn't provide a timeline for Parker's return beyond saying she's out indefinitely. There are seven more weeks remaining in the regular season, and then a month-plus of postseason play should the Aces reach the Finals -- and they remain a heavy favorite to do so.

Having a player of Parker's championship pedigree can only help as the Aces try to make history and go back-to-back. But depth is another reason they need her. Las Vegas isn't a particularly deep team, even amid its championship run. Not only do the Aces rely heavily on their starters, but veteran Riquna Williams, who played a critical role last year during the Finals, still has yet to suit up this summer because of a lower back injury, with no clear indication as to when she could make her season debut.

Can the Aces still win if Parker doesn't return this season? Sure. That's what they did last season when Parker wasn't even on the team and Dearica Hamby played a minimal role in the postseason, averaging 8.5 minutes per game. That said, the lack of depth narrows Las Vegas' margin for error and puts even more of a premium on its All-Star core four -- Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum -- to stay healthy from here on out.

What might the injury mean for Parker at this point in her career?

Parker hasn't shied away from discussing how she has more playing days behind her than in front of her. She has previously said she seriously considered stepping away after winning a title with the Chicago Sky in 2021, and then told media after the Sky's exit in the 2022 semifinals that she would reevaluate things in the offseason to ensure she would be "able to continue to play at the level that I hold myself to."

"I think that's the biggest thing, is I don't ever want to cheat the game," Parker said at the time. "I won't cheat the game. So when I'm not able to go out and play and be the Candace that I want to be, I won't play."

Parker went on to sign with the Aces on a one-year deal -- leaving her future beyond 2023 an open question even prior to the injury -- as she aimed to become the first player to win WNBA titles with three different franchises. Now that she's dealing with a foot fracture and surgery, her calculus on returning for Year 17 in 2024 could shift depending on how she's feeling physically and mentally in the aftermath of her recovery.