Can the Aces Play Cambage, Hamby, and Wilson Together?

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I’ve long been a proponent of basketball teams sizing down and playing smaller, of teams putting in a stretch four and using the increased space to open things up for the person playing center. Spacing makes life easier for basketball players. It’s part of why the WNBA team I know best, New York, has seen some offensive improvements lately, as they’ve used increased spacing to create room for Tina Charles to work inside.

So, when I got a thought in my head the other day and decided to look into it, I just assumed I’d immediately be like “nah, there’s no way that would work.” The idea: What if the Aces played three bigs — Liz Cambage, Dearica Hamby, and A’ja Wilson — together more now that Wilson is back? All three players seem best suited to playing the four or the five, but is there enough versatility there to make a lineup with Hamby at the three work?

Well…maybe! I’m about to give you the literally definition of a #SmallSampleSizeAlert here, but per Positive Residual, the three had shared the floor for 23 minutes before Tuesday night, with a 71.7 net rating in those minutes. The lineup got 10 minutes of action on Tuesday against the Mercury, but things didn’t go nearly as well, with a -64.3 net rating in those minutes.

Those are some major extremes on both ends and with such a small sample, it’s hard to get a read from the numbers when it comes to what this team could theoretically do. Without looking at the game tape, I’d guess the biggest issue with this lineup would be spacing. Hamby is fourth on the Aces in three-point attempts, but unless she just exclusively hangs out behind the arc in this lineup, you’re going to have spacing issues. An advantage, though, is that you manage to get three of your best players on the court together, and Hamby’s such a versatile, do-it-all player that you’re just betting on her adapting to whatever role the team will need her to adapt to.

Let’s take a look at some various clips from times this lineup has played together, starting with the offensive side of the ball.

The Cambage/Wilson/Hamby Offense

Let’s start with Tuesday’s game, where the lineup wasn’t working super well.

First off, I think the Aces do a good job here confronting the spacing issue. Cambage is down in the paint, but Wilson’s hanging out on the elbow and Hamby starts out on the wing. Hamby comes in toward the elbow, then cuts out to the three-point line to receive a Kayla McBride pass. Hamby passes to Wilson, who then gives it right back to a rotating Hamby, who misses the long two.

Positives here: As I said, the spacing issues are negated by Wilson and Hamby playing out pretty wide. Aces do a good job running this play sharply and generating a pretty good look for Hamby.

The less positives: I still don’t know how I feel about running perimeter plays with both of your team’s guards completely away from the ball like this, and my personal preference for long twos is to either not take them or not take them unless you have to. Not a huge fan of a long two with 13 seconds on the shot clock.

Here’s a play where things don’t go as smoothly, but where the end result winds up being better:

This starts with a Wilson miss. The Aces have both Cambage and Hamby down in the paint after the miss, and the team is able to use their size to get the offensive rebound. While the Aces have just a 20% offensive rebounding rate when playing the three together, I think that’s very much a result of the sample size we’re working with and not indicative of this actually being a bad offensive rebounding group. In fact, I think offensive rebounding could be a positive for this group and help an Aces team that’s sixth in the league in offensive rebounding rate improve a little.

Anyway, the shot here is pretty basic. Wilson gets the ball off the Hamby rebound and finds Cambage at the basket. That works because…well, because Liz Cambage is incredibly dangerous when she’s able to get to the basket. Of all the players in the league to take at least three shots per game in the restricted area, none are shooting higher on those attempts than Cambage’s 71.2%. It’s easy to make any lineup work when you have a player as automatic in the paint as Cambage is.

Alright, a few more examples of what this lineup should theoretically look like when it’s functioning like it’s designed.

This look is basically your pretty traditional basketball lineup with two bigs inside and three players outside. One of the great things about Dearica Hamby is that you can play her in a variety of ways, and on this play she’s exclusively being used out on the perimeter as a catch-and-shoot option. Per Synergy, Hamby has scored in the 70th percentile in points per possession as a spot up option this year, though she’s used just 14.9% of her possessions in that playtype.

But in this lineup, there’s not really a need for Hamby to post up, which has been her most used type, or for her to get too involved in pick-and-rolls. She’s had enough success spotting up that I think the Aces can get away with using her like they did on this play without really sacrificing too much in terms of shooting, especially with McBride and Kelsey Plum — your two players who’ve taken the most threes — in the game too.

One more offensive play, and then we can take a quick look at how things could work on the defensive side of the ball.

As the tweet says, Hamby is in the 83rd percentile in transition scoring. No one else on the team scores more points per possession in transition, though A’ja Wilson is close.

Wilson and Cambage use significantly fewer of their possessions in transition than Hamby does. Hamby’s at 18.3% of hers. Wilson’s at 7.4% and Cambage is at 6.7%. With Hamby on the floor, the Aces can push the ball ahead more, but they also have the personnel to slow it down and play a half-court game. Having elite players on the interior in the half-court and an elite transition scorer just brings so many dimensions to this team offensively. Add in Hamby’s ability to cut from the perimeter inside, and you can see why the Aces might be the only team in the league that can get away with a three-big lineup.

The Cambage/Wilson/Hamby Defense

I’ll keep this part briefer, in large part because I am far less qualified to talk about defense than I am about offense.

Synergy — which admittedly has its flaws on the defensive end — has Hamby as a 73rd percentile defender and 78th percentile when defending spot ups. What this should mean is that Hamby is able to guard out on the perimeter without being a liability. That’s probably the biggest fear with this lineup on the other end: how do you match up against smaller, quicker threes. Part of why team’s size down by playing wing players at the four is that it gives them a speed advantage, so how do you go the opposite way?

Well, for one, you’re betting on the Cambage/Wilson pairing at the five and four being too overpowering for any team in the postseason to risk sizing down against. Putting a small forward on A’ja Wilson, for instance, just feels like a disaster waiting to happen for the other team. If teams are playing a lineup that’s more traditional in build against the Aces, you don’t end up having to worry as much about how things match up on the defensive end.

Obviously, the biggest question is Hamby on the wing. I looked back at the game against the Mercury to see how Hamby handled things out on the perimeter defensively and…it was a bit of a mixed bag.

On this play, Hamby initially does a good job guarding DeWanna Bonner on the perimeter. Stays in front of her for the first few dribbles, which makes Bonner have to regroup. Of course, DeWanna Bonner is one of the WNBA’s best offensive players, so she eventually gets by Hamby and drives in for the layup, but I’m still fairly encouraged by the effort Hamby shows. She can go out there and guard an athletic forward and it isn’t going to be some huge advantage for the other team. This is fine. This can work.

The Aces are going to be very reliant on their top six players come playoff time, and if Jackie Young struggles to score, I can see Plum moving back to the point and this Cambage/Wilson/Hamby lineup getting used even more than it’ll be used over the remainder of the regular season. And you know what? It’ll be fine. It’ll get some more versatility on the floor. It’ll help Vegas get out running in transition. Bill Laimbeer’s aversion to playing small and shooting threes and all of that stuff might actually be a good thing for maximizing how this current Aces roster can play.

 

 

 

 

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