Las Vegas Aces general manager Natalie Williams stands on the brink of history in the WNBA Finals
If Aces defeat the Liberty, Williams would be the first Black general manager in 20 years to win back-to-back championships
LAS VEGAS – As the general manager of the Las Vegas Aces, Natalie Williams’ duties on any given day range from constructing the team’s roster to negotiating contracts of players and coaches. But as the Aces wrapped up practice at Michelob ULTRA Arena on Tuesday, the day before Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, Williams could be found adding a new duty to her general manager responsibilities: rally towel distribution.
Moving through sections 109 and 110 of the arena, Williams, outfitted with a pair of airpods and an Aces T-shirt, carried a towering stack of white “Raise the Stakes” towels as she went seat by seat placing the Game 2 souvenirs. The sold-out Aces crowd rallied the home team to a commanding 2-0 series Wednesday night.
“As you can see, our motto is ‘All-In,’ ” said Williams, who performed the same duties with the help of her daughters before Game 1. “Everybody works together to get what needs to be done.”
As Las Vegas sits one win away from making history and becoming the first team to win back-to-back championships in 20 years, Williams also stands to make history as the team’s general manager. Should the Aces defeat the New York Liberty, Williams would join a small group of general managers in WNBA history to win back-to-back titles, and would be the first Black general manager in 20 years to accomplish the feat. She will have done it in her first two years as a WNBA general manager.
“I’m just super grateful to be back here,” Williams said. “It’s really special to be a part of it.”
For Williams, the nervousness hits a bit different as a general manager.
Back when she was an All-Star level player in the WNBA – the bulk of her career she played for the Utah Starzz, which eventually became the Aces – Williams had the ability to control some aspect of the game taking place. Any anxiousness or nervous excitement could be overcome by a dominant performance.
As a general manager, that control is relinquished to the players and personnel Williams and her front-office team helped assemble. While she has faith in every person wearing Aces colors, she can’t just put up a double-double to shake the nerves ahead of each Finals home game.
In part, it’s because, as the Aces’ rally towels read, Las Vegas raised the stakes for the 2023 season. Williams described last year’s run to the Finals and championship as “magical.” It was Las Vegas’ first title in franchise history and a defining moment for an organization that just a few years earlier had finished last in the league.
The 2023 season, however, began not with hopes or dreams, but expectation.
“Our goal every season is to win a championship. That’s the Aces standard,” Aces All-Star guard Jackie Young said Wednesday.
The person in charge of ensuring that the Las Vegas coaching staff has what it needs to uphold that standard is Williams. Her first year as a general manager was a bit of trial by fire as she learned the job while trying to fortify the top team in the league. Another season at the helm has brought a more grounded experience in Year 2.
“This year, it’s been understanding a lot more how everything is run and how everything goes on,” Williams said. “I think the biggest thing was really understanding the whole workings of the business side of being a GM.”
This past offseason was one of the most electric free agency periods in WNBA history, and Williams had the Aces at the center of the cycle, even after winning a title. With a core already locked-in, Williams sought to further strengthen the roster to build on the previous year’s success. She worked closely with Aces coach Becky Hammon to better understand what she needed in her second season.
The first of the Aces’ offseason moves surprised many when it was announced the team had traded forward Dearica Hamby, whom they had just signed to a contract extension in 2022, to the Los Angeles Sparks in January [Note: Hamby filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Aces in September, alleging that the team retaliated against her because of her pregnancy which she formally announced at the end of the 2022 season. Hammon was suspended two games by the WNBA in May after a league investigation determined that alleged comments made by the Las Vegas head coach in connection to Hamby’s pregnancy violated a workplace violation. The Aces were also stripped of their 2025 first-round draft pick for “violating league rules regarding impermissible player benefits” during contract extension negotiations with Hamby.] Williams then shook the WNBA table a week later by signing two-time champion Candace Parker. Days afterward, the team signed coveted veteran free agent Alysha Clark and Cayla George.
“We were really happy to get Candace Parker and Alysha Clark and Cayla George. Could not be prouder of what we did with free agency in the offseason,” Williams said.
The team re-signed starting center Kiah Stokes in February. Aces centerpiece forward A’ja Wilson signed a two-year extension with the team in July. The Aces’ core of Wilson, Young, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum – all re-signed under Williams’ tenure – are under contract through 2024, with Wilson under contract through 2025. Williams has the team well positioned to continue its dominance in the coming seasons. The Aces will enter this offseason with six players under contract: Clark and guard Kierstan Bell plus the core four. The team will have enough cap space to pursue a big-name free agent should it choose.
Stokes, in her third full season with the Aces, likened Williams to Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb, whom Stokes played for in New York. Kolb was named the WNBA Executive of the Year in September.
“I see similarities where if they say something, they make it happen,” Stokes said of Williams and Kolb. “I think she just has an eye for things in seeing what can work together, especially as a former player. To get back to the same position we were in last year, I think it’s a credit to our whole front-office staff to put the pieces together.”
In some ways, the offseason moves yielded results as anticipated. At the end of the regular season, Clark won Sixth Player of the Year. In late July, it was announced that Parker had fractured her foot and would be out indefinitely. Parker, who hasn’t played since July 7, appeared in 18 games for the Aces this season.
The Aces’ roster was reduced again after guard Riquna Williams, who signed a two-year contract before the 2022 season, was arrested on felony domestic violence charges in late July and was barred from the team.
“We’re really happy with what we have,” Williams said of the Aces’ current roster. “ Obviously we had some hiccups with Candace going down and not being able to have Riquna. It wasn’t exactly how we planned it but, hey, we’re right back in the Finals and couldn’t be happier.”
Williams is one of two Black general managers in the WNBA and the only Black woman. A championship victory would make Williams the first Black general manager since Penny Toler to win back-to-back league titles. Only two general managers have won back-to-back WNBA championships – Toler, and the Houston Comets’ Van Chancellor. Williams would also become the seventh general manager in league history to win multiple championships.
“Seeing women of color in positions like that and wanting the best for a group of women, it’s huge,” Gray said. “Especially with her being a former player who understands what our position looks like and what it does for the league and how we can grow this game.”
Added Young: “A Black woman doing this, I think it would say a lot, and that women belong in these spaces and are able to achieve big things – championships.”
As Williams took in Game 1 of the Finals from a suite at Michelob ULTRA Arena, she did so next to her 14-year-old daughter, Nation Williams, who aspires to one day go pro herself. Nation couldn’t sit still as she screamed, jumped and yelled to the rhythm of play.
Williams watched as the sea of rally towels blanketed the lower bowl and her Aces team protected its home court as her family joined in the jubilation of victory. It was a fulfilling moment for the second-year general manager on the brink of making WNBA history.
Said Williams: “This is exactly where we want to be.”