On August 27th against the Fever, Las Vegas Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer made the decision to move guard Kelsey Plum out of the Aces’ starting five, replacing her with veteran Tamera Young.
Plum responded with 17 points in that game. She then had 20 points — including 17 in the fourth quarter to drive an Aces comeback victory — against the Sparks. After a full season as the starter where she’s hit the 17-point mark just three times, Plum did it in each of her first two games as a bench option.
There are two ways of thinking about what this means. On one hand, you could say that Plum’s shown that she should be inserted back into the starting lineup for the Aces. On the other, you could say that this move enables Plum to be one of the league’s most dangerous bench options, giving the Aces the league’s best one-two punch of reserves with Plum and Dearica Hamby.
So, with the playoffs starting and the Aces needing to be perfect when it comes to personnel decisions if they want to advance, what does Plum coming off the bench mean for them?
Let’s start by looking at some different lineup combinations in Vegas to see how the Aces have performed with Kelsey Plum in various situations.
For most of the year, the team played a starting lineup of Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young. Injuries held that lineup to just 22 appearances, but it was still the team’s most used lineup, logging 230 minutes. The lineup had a net rating of 4.7, while the Aces as a whole had a net rating of 4.1, good for second-best in the league. So, essentially, the Aces starting lineup performed at a very high level all season.
Vegas drafting Jackie Young led to some changes with what this team looks like. Before the season, I was expecting both Plum and Tamera Young to start, with the rookie Young coming off the bench. But as I’ve written about before, Jackie’s been pretty much just what this team has needed at point guard this season, which has pushed Plum to more of an off-ball role.
Based on the advanced stats, that move has worked fairly well. Sure, Plum is averaging her fewest assists per game in her three years in the league while also shooting nine percent worse than last year, but the Aces starting five has played well, and they played even better when Dearica Hamby replaced A’ja Wilson in that lineup.
On an individual level, Plum struggled to score this year, with Synergy having her down as being in just the 36th percentile overall in points per possession. But Plum was pretty good with spot-up scoring, ranking in the 66th percentile in that play type, which seems to suggest that moving her to more of an off-ball role was good, since it allowed her to spend time doing the thing she did best.
But even with all that, only 19.8% of Plum’s possessions were spot ups. Instead, she continued to use the majority of her possessions in the pick-and-roll. I watched a lot of those possessions while working on this piece, and one thing that kept popping up was that Plum would use the pick to get a mid-range shot and then would miss the shot. Plays that lead to mid-range pull-up jumpers aren’t usually great plays to watch.
Per Positive Residual, the Aces have a net rating of 6.4 in minutes where Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young shared the floor, while that falls to 4.5 in other minutes. When it’s Plum on and Jackie off, the team’s got a a 4.9 net rating. When it’s the opposite and Jackie’s on and Plum’s off, it’s -7.1.
So, the Aces have statistically played better when Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young — the usual starters for most of the season — played together.
Meanwhile, when Jackie and Tamera Young are both on the floor, the Aces have a -1.2 net rating, though the 158 minutes of that sample isn’t enough to draw a really solid conclusion. Still, it seems to suggest that the team plays better when Plum and Jackie are together than when Jackie and Tamera are together.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Aces can’t win a playoff series with Plum coming off the bench. She can be a solid source of offensive production and ball-handling when Jackie Young isn’t on the floor and the team still has played well in minutes where Plum is on and Jackie is off. It makes sense to have her on the floor in these situations.
But it also makes sense to play your best players as much as possible in the postseason. Plum’s struggled offensively this year, but she’s been better offensively than Tamera Young and their defensive metrics look pretty close, with both players having a slightly positive defensive PIPM. There’s been talk about Young’s defense being a big factor in her playing time, but Plum’s defense isn’t so far off that it justifies sitting a player who can do a lot more on the other end.
Moving forward, if the Aces want to win in the postseason, they need Plum on the court more than Tamera Young is on the court. I like Young. She’s a solid veteran who plays some good defense. But Plum can be used on and off the ball on offense and adds a different dimension on that end. Her and Jackie Young playing together has worked well due to how they complement each other’s game.
There’s a reason that the team’s most used lineup is it’s most used lineup and that that lineup has found success. I also get why Bill Laimbeer made the move he did with the lineup to put Plum on the bench. But you have to trust what got you to the postseason, and that’s at least ending games with the original starting five, even if you don’t start games that way.