One thing is clear in this young WNBA season: without Kelsey Plum, the Las Vegas Aces are really leaning into their whole “we don’t shoot threes” identity. Head coach Bill Laimbeer is doing what head coach Bill Laimbeer seems to always do, which is build an offense that’s heavily reliant on post play and players like Angel McCoughtry getting to the hoop.
As of Sunday night, the Aces are 2-2 on the season, dropping close ones to Chicago and Phoenix. In those two losses, the team hit a combined seven threes, with all seven coming against Phoenix.
But can a team win a title with the three-pointer being such a small part of their approach? Let’s look at some historical trends to get an idea of what kind of chance Vegas has of hoisting the championship trophy when all is said and done.
Let’s start talking about the 2020 Aces by not talking about the 2020 Aces at all.
Instead, I’ve decided to go back through league history and look at the three-point attempts and percentage of every champion over the past 10 seasons, comparing how many shots the title teams were taking with how well they converted them. We’re looking for some kind of pattern. Do championship teams take more threes than other teams? Do they shoot better on the shots they attempt? Is it both? Neither?
Anyway, here’s what we find when we look at the past 10 seasons:
|Season / Team||Three-Point Attempts||Attempt Ranking||Three-Point Percentage Ranking|
So, what do we learn from this?
First, there was only one year where the champion ranked higher in three-point attempts than in three-point field goal percentage: last year, which basically shouldn’t count as the Mystics shot just 0.2% worse from three than the best team by 3PT%, the Aces.
We do see that the team that took the most threes has won two titles in a row, but the leading team by three-point attempts didn’t win any of the other eight titles in our sample. I do think we should give more weight to recent years as they better forecast the direction of the league than the 2013 Lynx title does, but I don’t believe we have a large enough sample to say that leading the league in three-point attempts makes you more likely to win the title.
Of course, the team that’s been last in attempts hasn’t won a single one of these 10 titles, but the Lynx ranked 10th, 11th, and 11th in attempts for three of their four titles. They also happened to rank fourth, eighth, and fourth in percentage, so while their overall attempts sagged below other champions, their efficiency made up for it.
Only one team in this frame ranked worse than fourth: the 2013 Lynx, who were eighth in the W in three-point percentage. Minnesota basically had one very good shooter — Maya Moore, who shot 45.3% from three — and Seimone Augustus, who shot 29% but was coming off two consecutive 40% seasons, so defenses still had to account for her.
So, unless your team has Maya Moore, you need to be fairly efficient from three to win a title in the present-day WNBA.
What’s this all mean for Las Vegas?
Okay, let’s turn our attention to the Las Vegas Aces now.
Vegas gets a lot of attention for their lack of three-point shooting under Bill Laimbeer. In 2018, his first season as the team’s head coach, the Aces attempted 361 threes, which was 168 fewer threes than 11th place Minnesota. The team finished eighth in the league in three-point field goal percentage and finished with a 14-20 record, missing the playoffs.
In Laimbeer’s second year, the Aces took more threes. Their 508 attempts still ranked last, but only by 61 over Indiana. The team’s 36.8% mark from three led the WNBA, and the team went 21-13, advancing to the Semifinals.
Yes, the addition of a second dominant big in Liz Cambage helped Vegas improve like they did, but the uptick in shooting efficiency helped too. Remember: it’s been very hard lately to win a title without a top four three-point field goal percentage. The 2019 Aces had the efficiency to win a title, though the volume wasn’t there.
But that was last year.
Vegas entered 2020 without two key players from that team. They lost the big name center when Liz Cambage medically opted out. They lost one of their top shooters, Kelsey Plum, to an Achilles injury. Those are two big blows to their title hopes, especially Plum, whose absence meant that the Aces needed to find a new source of shooting.
And then, the 2020 season started, and the Las Vegas Aces played a game, and they lost to the Chicago Sky without making a single three.
If one were to make some grand, sweeping judgment about the Aces season after that game, it would be that Vegas didn’t bother trying to replace Kelsey Plum’s shooting. The team attempted six threes in that game, the same amount that one player from their opponent, Chicago’s Allie Quigley, attempted in that game. Kayla McBride attempted two. Lindsay Allen attempted two. Dearica Hamby and Sugar Rodgers each attempted one.
0-for-6 from three isn’t going to win you a WNBA title.
But since that game, the Aces have seen an uptick in both their three-point attempts and their three-point percentage.
Against Atlanta, the team was 6-for-9 from deep. And while nine three-point attempts is still not many, the efficiency on those shots helped the team win by 30.
Over the past two games — one a win and one a loss — the Aces have attempted 14 threes per game. Over the course of a full season, 14 attempts per game would likely be last in the league, but it wouldn’t be last by some extreme measure like shooting just six per game would have been.
That brings us to the next point. If the trend over the last two games is to be believed and Vegas is going to be attempting more than just a handful of threes per game, can they buck the recent trend and win a title without being close to the top of the league in attempts? I mean, no one’s ranked outside the top 10 in attempts since the 2015 Lynx.
That’s where the bigger questions come in. Can Vegas be efficient enough to compete for a title? Teams have won championships while ranking near the bottom of the league in attempts, but you don’t win championships if you’re not efficient on the shots you do get.
Our four game sample has Vegas at 38.1%, which ranks third in the league behind Washington and Phoenix. So…maybe?
That 38.1% includes Kayla McBride’s worse shooting season since 2017. It also includes Angel McCoughtry and Lindsay Allen shooting a good bit better than their recent numbers would suggest.
I guess it all comes down to this question: if we think McCoughtry and Allen can provide an approximation of the shooting Plum would have brought for the rest of the season and McBride is able to scale up her volume while inching closer to her efficiency from the past couple of seasons, do we believe the Aces can win a WNBA title?
I land on “maybe.” The lack of volume does likely hurt the spacing, making things more difficult for A’ja Wilson, but also can lead to more open attempts for the non-McBride members of the team, which will help the efficiency. And in a season where a lot of teams are missing key players, a good shooting team with an MVP-caliber big in the middle will always have a chance to win it all.
Shooting matters when it comes to winning. But because the Aces have been fairly efficient so far, their lack of shooting volume isn’t killing them. Maybe it will, as fewer attempts per game is bound to up the game-to-game volatility of the team’s shooting efficiency.
So, can a team a WNBA title without shooting threes? Of course not. But the Aces do shoot threes, even if it’s not a ton of them, and their efficiency on those attempts is at the level it needs to be to be comparable with most of the recent WNBA champions. So yes, keep tweeting about how Bill Laimbeer doesn’t shoot threes, but know that as long as the team keeps making the ones they do, you can’t count them out.
It’s just, you know, a little tougher for them, as they’ll have less room for error on their threes than the other 11 teams have.