How The A’ja Wilson/Liz Cambage Pairing Is Working

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The biggest non-injury news of the WNBA offseason was the question of where Liz Cambage would play this season. Last year, Cambage set the league’s single-game scoring record and finished second in MVP voting despite Dallas just barely sneaking into the playoffs. When news of the Australian’s trade request broke, the possibilities of where Cambage would land and what it would mean sent waves throughout the league.

That saga drug on longer than people expected. But, Cambage was eventually dealt right before the season started to the Las Vegas Aces. Vegas already had last year’s first overall pick, A’ja Wilson, and two other top overall picks in Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young. So, Cambage was expected to be the missing piece that got the team from a fringe playoff contender to the upper echelons of the league.

Well…

It’s early, but trying to pair Wilson and Cambage in the front court has not gone smoothly. I’ve taken a look back at the minutes they’ve played together plus the lineup data from those games. Let’s talk about how the duo is doing so far.

My Original Concerns

Before diving into the numbers and the tape, a little about what I was expecting from this pairing.

We all know that Bill Laimbeer isn’t the most modern coach when it comes to spacing and three-point shooting. I (and pretty much everybody else) didn’t think that would change much. I wrote about some of my concerns before the season, but that piece mostly focused on the many positive ways Cambage could contribute to this team: how she happened to be efficient in just the areas where the Aces needed efficiency and how her ability to go out to the three-point line could introduce a new element into the team’s offense.

But I was also worried about the flip side of that. What if Laimbeer didn’t use Cambage in ways that maximized the entire court? What if Wilson and Cambage were just stuck down in the mid-range or the paint? Wouldn’t that have the makings of a complete spacing nightmare? Can you win with your two best players being centers, since I’m a believer that center is ultimately A’ja Wilson’s best position?

How They’ve Looked So Far

Well, Cambage has played in four games and the Aces are just 1-3 in those games. She played 25 minutes in Vegas’s loss to the previously winless New York Liberty. And of all the two-player pairings that feature Cambage, the lineup where she shares the floor with Wilson has the third-worst net rating, ahead of just her lineups that have Carolyn Swords and JiSu Park.

The Good

The numbers aren’t all bad, though. The team’s current starting lineup has been fine, playing 29 minutes and sporting a net rating of 24.1 in those minutes. But the best Cambage lineups in the (very) early days of the season have her paired with Dearica Hamby.

It’s been other Cambage/Wilson lineups that have faltered more, and what’s most important for this team is probably having their most used lineup be successful.

Let’s start by looking at a good run for these two in the first quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Liberty. Vegas got off to a 17-13 lead before Cambage went to the bench.

In this first clip, we see one example of what this offense can do with their two bigs. You’ve got three players out on the perimeter here as Wilson and Cambage both operate out of the block. If the goal is to use both players as interior options, this is probably the ideal version of that. The rest of the team is spaced out around the arc and neither Cambage nor Wilson are in the paint itself at the time of the entry pass.

With the ball on Cambage’s side, the offense has a couple of options. One is exactly what’s done here. McBride delivers a well-timed entry pass to Cambage, who’s able to post-up Amanda Zahui B and get the bucket. Because Cambage is solid when stepping out, this look gives the Aces the option of having her come out to the ball-handler. From there, she can set a screen and either roll off a screen or pop out for jumper. The other Centers on this team don’t really give you these options. Because Cambage does, there’s a different kind of gravity about her.

But there are other ways this pairing works as well.

On this play, we see the value of Cambage hanging out beyond the arc and what that does for the team’s spacing. Cambage comes in as the trailer on this play. This allows the Aces to have four players on the perimeter and only Wilson in the paint. The Liberty have all Zahui B on Wilson here. The defense has their other four defenders stationed close to the paint. But they aren’t really able to double Wilson because that would put them out of position to defend against a three if Wilson kicks it back out.

Cambage lets you run a play like this. As an aside, having Cambage shoot threes on plays like this where she’s the last one up the floor with a lot of space to work with would be another good addition to this offense.

If you run this exact set with Carolyn Swords instead of Cambage, Tina Charles would have been able to instantly jump down and double Wilson. Wilson would then have to move to the basket with two players on her or pass it out to one of the three shooters, all of whom would still have a defender on them to prevent an open shot. The other option is to pass out to the non-shooting big at the top of the arc. They would be open, but would obviously not be shooting from deep. That leaves the Aces having to figure out something else to do on the play.

The Bad

Now, for some of the bad.

I don’t have a video clip of it, but there’s a play with a little under five minutes left in the first quarter of Sunday’s game. Wilson and Cambage are both down in the paint against three Liberty defenders. Math and logic will tell you that three defenders on two offensive players is not an advantage for the offense.

However, Wilson puts up a pretty off-balance shot and misses. While Cambage is in position for the offensive board, Wilson has Zahui B and Charles preventing her from being able to get off a clean-enough look. The Aces can’t afford to crowd the paint too much. The deeper their bigs are, the harder it is to pass the ball back out or reset the play. In turn, the crowding leaves them taking heavily contested shots at the basket. Yes, shots in the paint are more efficient than mid-range shots. But you’d still rather not end up with an incredibly contested look.

For me, the bigger issues come when Wilson and Cambage don’t have their other three best players on the court with them. The current starting lineup has fared well because it contains enough shooting to make these plays work with the pair on the block or with Cambage out deep.

Per Positive Residual, here are some on/off numbers involving the Wilson/Cambage pairing:

ON OFF Net Rating
Cambage/Wilson/McBride N/A 15.1
Cambage/Wilson McBride -55
Cambage/Wilson/Plum N/A 25.6
Cambage/Wilson Plum -31.9
Cambage/Wilson/ J. Young N/A 18.8
Cambage/Wilson J. Young -31.3

 

These are fairly small samples for the ones with other starters off the floor. But those minutes haven’t gone very poorly. For instance, the grouping of Cambage, Wilson, and Tamera Young has a net rating of -12.4 in 15 minutes of action.

Going Forward

If you’re looking for a reason not to worry about this, it’s that Cambage is new to this team and Bill Laimbeer is still figuring out how to handle the rotations beyond the starting unit. That’ll change as the season goes along. Hopefully, the bench players will figure out a little more about how to play with the Cambage/Wilson duo.

A 2-3 start for the Aces is concerning, as are the struggles of the Wilson/Cambage plus bench lineups. But the success of the starting lineup have me optimistic about the Aces turning things around soon. Another shooter or two could help the team’s spacing even more. But with the emergence of Dearica Hamby as the team’s third big and Cambage staying on the floor longer and longer each game, that 2-3 start will seem like a bad mirage soon.

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