It’s time to admit that I was wrong: I did not think the 2020 Las Vegas Aces were going to enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.
Why not? A combination of things. First, the fact that they entered the season without two starters from last year, Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum, hurt them. Plum was one of their only three-point shooting threats. Cambage was a dominant center. Beyond that, the lack of three-point shooting in a league that’s progressing more and more towards being a shooting league seemed like it could doom this team.
What I wasn’t accounting for was two things: A’ja Wilson, who I expected to have a really good year, actually had a really, really good year, winning the MVP award. (Maybe the increased spacing by playing more with Dearica Hamby instead of with Cambage helped Wilson get the spacing she needed to unlock her full potential?) And Angel McCoughtry had possibly her best season on a per minute basis after coming over from Atlanta.
Add those things together, and the Aces finished tied for the best record in the W and got the one-seed thanks to owning the tiebreaker over Seattle, who they defeated in the final game of the 2020 season.
So now that the Aces are in the postseason, what can happen?
Well, they can win a WNBA title, you silly, hypothetical question asker.
While the debate about who is the better player between Wilson and MVP runner-up Breanna Stewart is a contentious debate, there should be no debate that the Aces will have the best player on the floor in their WNBA Semifinals series against the Connecticut Sun. DeWanna Bonner is great. Alyssa Thomas is great. But both players have limitations that Wilson doesn’t have, with Bonner’s being her occasional struggles with efficiency and Thomas’s being that she’s still playing basketball with two torn shoulder labrums.
Wilson will be the best player on the floor in this five-game series, and that’s a huge advantage for Vegas.
But there’s still one huge question mark facing this team, which is how head coach Bill Laimbeer deals with his lineups.
Carolyn Swords and Lindsay Allen have been starters all season (minus a one-game absence for Allen after a false-positive COVID-19 test), but it’d be hard to argue that either are among the best players on this Aces team. Laimbeer will need to figure out how to create a five-player combination of the following six players on the court: Wilson, Hamby, McCoughtry, plus guards Kayla McBride, Jackie Young, and Danielle Robinson. These are the players who’ll lead the Aces to their first WNBA title.
Two lineups prove that point: Wilson/Hamby/McBride/Young/Robinson was the sixth-best lineup in the WNBA (minimum 100 minutes) by net rating at +10.8, just beating out the +10.1 from the team’s starting unit. But that grouping with the three bench players was significantly better on the defensive end, posting an 89.6 defensive rating while the other lineup was at 103.5. The offense took a dive, but in a playoff series against a Connecticut team that has some players who can get hot offensively, the Aces should tend towards playing their best defensive five as much as they can.
The other lineup is Wilson/Hamby/McCoughtry/McBride/Young. This group only played 60 minutes together so take these numbers with a grain of salt, but in those 60 minutes, they had a net rating of +36.3, making them the second-best lineup of those that played at least 60 minutes. That group was exceptional on both ends of the floor.
The issue with that five is that Angel McCoughtry is averaging 20 minutes of playing time per game this year. She passed the 25-minute threshold just four times. If Laimbeer was keeping her fresh for the playoffs and can unleash McCoughtry for 25-30 minutes per night, the Aces are going to be nearly impossible to beat. They’ll get to run that lineup out there for a long stretch and have the defensive versatility to stop Bonner and Thomas. They will also have a good mix of shooting and interior offense on the other end.
If McCoughtry is still going to have her minutes capped, the Aces will need some other player to step up. Maybe it’s Allen. Maybe it’s Sugar Rodgers, who has provided some additional shooting at times all year.
But if the Aces are able to play their best players, I don’t see how Connecticut wins this series. This should set up a Finals between Vegas and Seattle, where A’ja Wilson can put the finishing touches on her first MVP season with her first WNBA title.