Source: WNBA investigating salary-cap claims against Aces

The WNBA is investigating allegations that the defending champion Las Vegas Aces circumvented the league's salary cap by making under-the-table payments to players, a league source confirmed to ESPN on Wednesday.

The news was first reported by The Next.

According to The Next, the Aces have been accused of arranging calls with potential signees, either free agents or current players negotiating extensions, in which they would be offered "a specific amount of money from a particular, preselected company. The work involved would be negligible."

Such a practice would appear to be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement by getting around the league's hard salary cap. If proven, the allegations could lead to the most significant discipline in the league since the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for the unsanctioned chartering of flights to away games in the 2021 season.

In addition, the Aces have been under fire in recent weeks after Dearica Hamby, in a social media post following her trade to the Los Angeles Sparks, accused Las Vegas of "unprofessional and unethical" treatment surrounding her pregnancy "that ... has been traumatizing."

A WNBA spokesperson said Wednesday that the league is investigating Hamby's allegations against the Aces, which she made Jan. 21 in an Instagram post, writing that she had been "lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against" by the organization because of her pregnancy.

Hamby had signed a two-year contract extension with the Aces in June and said that while she has been training with the intention of playing in the 2023 season after giving birth, team personnel told her they "[didn't] see that" she'd be ready to return, among other allegations.

At the time of Hamby's post, the Women's National Basketball Players Association called for an inquiry into the team, saying in a statement that did not specify Hamby by name that "we will seek a comprehensive investigation to ensure that her rights under the collectively bargained provisions of the 2020 CBA, as well as her rights and protections under state and federal law, have not been violated."

In a statement Wednesday, the Aces acknowledged the probe into Hamby's allegations and said they are cooperating with investigators.

"As an organization whose mission is to support and celebrate the tremendously talented women in our league, we take seriously our responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest professional standards," the team said in a statement.

Aces guard Kelsey Plum, who was elected to serve as first vice president of the WNBPA's executive committee in December, was also asked Wednesday about the allegations that face the Aces.

"It's tough. ... I wear a lot of different hats. I'm best friends with Dearica. I am vice president of the players' association and I'm a very proud member of the Las Vegas Aces," Plum said on a video call from USA Basketball training camp in Minneapolis. "Because the investigation is going on, I can't comment at this time.

"But in the meantime, I know that I can continue to support my friend and continue to be a proud member of the Aces, and continue to do my job as a VP. We don't get it right every day, but I am proud of what I feel like I've been able to do in this moment and what I'll continue to do."

Under first-year coach Becky Hammon and with apparent momentum following the acquisition of the team by new owner Mark Davis, Las Vegas earned the franchise's first WNBA title last summer by defeating the Connecticut Sun in the Finals. The Aces looked primed to repeat as champions by signing two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker and standout defender Alysha Clark this offseason to play alongside two-time MVP A'ja Wilson, Finals MVP Chelsea Gray and all-WNBA selection Plum.

Parker, who said she signed with the Aces to be closer to her family in Los Angeles, and Clark both took pay cuts from their salaries with other franchises last year to join the team. Last year, Las Vegas' core players spoke to all taking less money than they could demand elsewhere so that they could work toward winning multiple titles together. No one player this season or last came within $20,000 of the supermax salary.

ESPN's M.A. Voepel contributed to this report.