The long, national nightmare is over, and Liz Cambage has finally gotten her wish, getting traded to the Las Vegas Aces for Moriah Jefferson, Isabelle Harrison, and two 2020 draft picks. It’s been months since Cambage asked out of Dallas and at times it looked like a trade wasn’t going to materialize. It has, though, and while there’s bound to be debate about the haul that the Wings got back, today I want to look specifically at what this trade means on the basketball court for the Aces. Does Cambage make them a title contender?
Some Background: The 2018 Aces
First, before we can talk about whether or not this Aces team is a title contender, we need to know more about this Aces team. Let’s start with last season.
Last year, the Aces, in their first season in Las Vegas, missed the playoffs, finishing 14-20, good for ninth in the league’s standings. They were a game back of the final playoff team, the Dallas Wings, and a big part of Vegas failing to make the playoffs down the stretch was a 3-7 record over their final 10 games. This was a team that felt like it was on the precipice of becoming a playoff team, especially when their arguably best player was rookie A’ja Wilson, who still has a lot of room to continue growing as a player.
Vegas started Wilson at the four last year and used the combination of Carolyn Swords and JiSu Park and Kelsey Bone as the starting centers. None of those players were bad — Swords in particular was among the league’s best rebounders by rebounding percentage — but the lack of consistency at the position didn’t help things. None of the three brought consistent scoring to the floor, which upped the pressure on Vegas’ young star.
Statistically, last year’s Aces team finished seventh in the league in scoring and fourth in the league in rebounding. They also finished last in the WNBA in both three-point attempts and three-point makes, a concerning issue for a team trying to win in a sport that’s become more and more defined by the outside game. In fact, here’s what the Aces field goal distribution looked like last season. (Note: All charts courtesy of Positive Residual.)
Very concentrated down low, plus a lot of midrange usage and not a ton from three-point land. Just 13.2% of their shot attempts came as above the break threes, a number that was far lower than the league average of 21.3% coming from there. Only 2% of their attempts were corner threes, while league average was 6.3%.
So, two of the big issues last year were consistency from the center position and needing more players who were comfortable taking threes. Does Cambage fix any of that?
Enter: Liz Cambage
Yes, Cambage definitely solves the issue of the Aces needing a consistent option at the five, and yes, Cambage should help them with their shot distribution issues.
Let’s start with the shooting question, even though there are a lot of reasons to think based on past offensive patterns that the Aces won’t really do much to address the lack of three-point shooting from their bigs.
Last year, the three aforementioned centers for Vegas combined to take two threes, both misses by JiSu Park. A’ja Wilson didn’t attempt a three either. If both of your frontcourt players aren’t threats from outside, spacing gets a lot worse, and that lack of spacing, which led to more defenders able to pack the paint, is a good explanation for why the Aces finished below league-average in field goal percentage in the restricted area.
How Cambage fixes some of that is this way: Yes, Cambage is a lethal player inside and should send plenty of her minutes in the post, but she also shot 37 threes last year, connecting on 32.4% of them. While that percentage isn’t great, the very fact that you can run plays that puts Cambage on the perimeter does two things. First, it gives you another dimension to your offense by giving you another threat to hit from outside, even if she’s only taking one or two threes per night. Second, by sometimes moving Cambage out further from the basket, you allow more space for A’ja Wilson inside. Wilson shot well from the midrange last season, but she shot below league average in the paint:
So, one thing we could see is Wilson getting more open space down in the paint, which would increase her efficiency.
Of course, the Aces are extremely averse to shooting threes, so it’s highly possible that Cambage actually takes fewer threes this year. In fact, everything I wrote above should be considered extremely hypothetical because #BillLaimbeerDoesNotLoveThrees. But this next part is a lot more realistic in terms of what we can expect from this Aces offense:
Wilson was an efficient midrange shooter last year, and while there’s a zero percent chance that Bill Laimbeer decides to move Wilson much further from the basket, having her as a threat to shoot from the midblock or the key area while using Cambage down low can help the Aces be a ton more efficient in their restricted area scoring. Here’s Cambage’s shot chart from last year:
Cambage is an efficient scorer in precisely the areas where the Aces struggle, which is that restricted area and top of the key area. Cambage can seriously up the team’s paint efficiency.
The Cambage Tape
Because I like to turn to the film sometimes, I thought I’d break down some of the things I saw from watching one of Cambage’s game. Did I pick the 53 point game? Yes. This was Cambage’s best game, so things look better here than they will most nights, but…well, mostly I just wanted an excuse to revisit this game.
Cambage’s combination of size and strength allow her to get inside position on most defenders. In this clip, the Wings have cleared out the paint, allowing Cambage to get a one-on-one look against the Liberty. Now, we probably don’t see this exact play set-up in Vegas this year, since there’s not really going to be many times where the Aces put out a lineup where Cambage can operate with this kind of space since they won’t be putting four players on the perimeter, but it’s still noteworthy to watch how she’s able to get that inside positioning and how her height gives her a larger catch radius for grabbing entry passes.
Cambage ranked in the 95th percentile in points per possession in post ups last year. Only three players were ahead of her — Seattle’s Alysha Clark and Courtney Paris, and Washington’s LaToya Sanders, and none of them used more than 50 spot up possessions. Cambage used 257. The best Aces player last year in this playtype was Tamera Young, who finished 29th in points per possession. Post ups should be a fairly efficient play, but it wasn’t for the Aces last year.
Another way Cambage can generate offense is via the pick and roll. Last year, the Aces had just 170 possessions that Synergy logged as “pick and roll man.” They scored 0.918 points per possession using this play type, the league’s eighth-best mark. This accounted for 5.5% of their total plays.
For Dallas, Cambage used 9.8% of her possessions in this way, scoring 0.984 points per possession. That was good for just the 62nd percentile, but it was slightly more efficient than A’ja Wilson did. Maybe what’s more important, though, is that the Aces now have two dangerous bigs who can finish at an above average rate as rollers. Cambage can also, if needed, pick and pop, which might be the best way to get her the occasional look from deep.
Are The Aces The Favorites Now?
A lot of people seem to think that the Aces are now the favorites to win the title:
2019 WNBA Championship winner updated
Aces regular season win total goes from 20.5 to 22.5 with Liz Cambage acquisition @BySamGordon
— Jeff Sherman (@golfodds) May 16, 2019
This feels a lot like a hype-assisted boost to the Aces’ odds rather than a real look at who the favorites are.
A Cambage/Wilson/McBridge/Young/Plum starting five is good, though Jackie Young, this year’s first overall pick, is likely to come off the bench and be replaced by Tamera Young in that starting five. Sugar Rodgers is a great depth pick-up for the team. There’s a lot to like here.
But I saw someone on Twitter compare this team to this year’s Philadelphia 76ers — a great starting five, but not enough depth to credibly declare them as the team to beat. That comparison speaks to me a lot. This Aces team came together late in the process, has a very exciting core, and also just doesn’t feel like they should be favored over the Sparks, who have a lot of depth up front, the Mystics, who made last year’s Finals, or a healthy Mercury team, who were the title favorites before it was announced Diana Taurasi would miss time.
This Vegas team has a bright, bright future, but they still need more shooting, they still need to figure out how Cambage and Wilson will play together, and right now I’d put them fourth or fifth in my own title odds, if I had those. That’s not to say this isn’t going to be a team worth watching, or that they won’t be a team that could gel faster than I expect, get some unexpected contributions from somewhere, and wind up holding the trophy after the season. But I’d still give my championship prediction to a few other teams first.