On Tuesday, the Las Vegas Aces officially introduced their newest player, welcoming former Los Angeles Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray into the fold. She joins a team that just made the WNBA Finals and was really, really in need of a playmaker at point guard.
While the Aces lost Kayla McBride in free agency, the addition of Gray coupled with the expected returns of two key players who missed the 2020 season, Kelsey Plum and Liz Cambage, means that the Aces are poised for another deep playoff run.
But just how important is Chelsea Gray to this team? Probably more important than you can imagine. Let’s investigate this.
What Chelsea Gray Brings To The Table
Before we place this signing in a team context, let’s just kind of talk about Chelsea Gray and what she specifically brings to the point guard position in Vegas. If you remember 2020, you’ll remember that the point was the least-settled position for the Aces, as they ran the trio of Lindsay Allen, Danielle Robinson, and Jackie Young out at the position for various stretches.
First, let’s just get this out into the atmosphere: Chelsea Gray is the second-best point guard in the WNBA, and she’s closer to the best one (Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot) than she is to the third one (yeah, I’m not getting into the discussion of who that player is right now). The Sparks losing Gray is terrible for Los Angeles, even with the team bringing Erica Wheeler in as her replacement. It’s very, very good for Vegas.
But what makes Gray such a good point guard?
Everything, really. Her passing. Her shooting. Her defense. Gray brings a bunch of things to the table, and all of those things are pretty good. If all the point guards in the WNBA brought dishes to a potluck that corresponded to their skills, the best dish might be Vandersloot’s passing ability, but you’d end up eating more of the things that Gray brought.
As a passer, Gray has ranked in the top six in the league in assists per game for the past four seasons. She’s a skilled passer whose assist-to-turnover ratio has ranked in the 80th percentile or better in each of the past five seasons. Her 1.96 career assist/turnover ratio ranks in the 93rd percentile in league history.
As you can see in the play above, Gray is just such a threat with the ball in her hands. The ball gets flung her away out on the left wing here, and while you could argue that Gray should have just taken the three, she sees Nneka Ogwumike down in the paint. So, Gray drives, forcing the defense to account for that drive, and then she lifts up for what looks like it’ll be a mid-range jumper.
But nope! It’s a pass! While the defense is worrying about Gray taking this shot, she spots Nneka right there under the basket and tosses this little jump pass right to her. While the Sky defense then ends up doubling Nneka under the basket, Gray’s done a good job here of setting her up in a position where even with the defense charging in, she’s in a good spot to make the bucket.
But even more so than her passing, it’s the shooting that matters here for Vegas.
Gray struggled from three last year, taking 2.7 attempts per game and shooting 30.5%. But considering she had shot 38% or better for three consecutive years before 2020, I’m willing to write that off as some Wubble-inspired struggles.
The Aces under Bill Laimbeer are notorious for not taking threes, but having a primary ball-handler who is an actual threat from deep is huge. Danielle Robinson had her most efficient season ever from three in 2020, but took just 0.6 per game. That worked out to her going 5-for-13 from deep, which is a super small sample.
Gray back in 2019 ranked in the 80th percentile in points per possession as a spot-up shooter. She can play off the ball, which will fit nicely next to Kelsey Plum, who can do some secondary ball-handling. That year, Gray scored 1.236 PPP on catch-and-shoot looks, good for the 90th percentile. Her dribble jumper wasn’t quite as effective, but still ranked in the 57th percentile.
The point is, Gray’s track record suggests that she can shoot. That’s very important.
She’s also going to bring some nice perimeter defense to the table. She’s ranked well in defensive impact metrics like defensive win shares over the past few years, and the Sparks had a 99.7 defensive rating with her on the floor this past season. She’s consistently been part of some good defensive lineups during her time in L.A., and her ability to pick up and guard opposing ball-handlers is a big part of that. Defense at the point wasn’t the biggest need for this team, but this move means that they aren’t going to be losing anything on that end and if we assume they pair Gray with Plum in the backcourt, Gray can take on the harder defensive assignments.
Gray, Plum, Cambage, and The Quest For A WNBA Title
So, how far does this go in terms of putting the Aces over the top, especially when factoring in Plum returning from an Achilles injury and assuming Liz Cambage — who the team has cored — returns as well?
A long way, I think.
One of the biggest issues with this team last year was that they just don’t have the shooting needed to get them back into games. No team took fewer threes in the fourth quarter of losses than Vegas, and while they shot a respectable 33.3% on those attempts, the simple fact is that they didn’t have enough shooters, especially when you factor in that only two teams attempted more shots overall in the fourth quarter of losses. That’s the time when you need to get your guards involved on the perimeter to try to cut deficits. Vegas wasn’t doing that.
A big part of why was that they didn’t really have a comparable replacement for Plum after she went down. Plum has shot 36% or better from deep in each of her WNBA seasons, averaging at least 3.9 attempts per game. Vegas needed her beside Kayla McBride in the backcourt.
Now, McBride is gone, but the Gray/Plum backcourt brings the shooting ability of the Plum/McBride backcourt but with the added bonus of having a top-end point guard in it.
Cambage brings another star big to the team to pair with 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson. The Aces were forced to start Carolyn Swords at center last year, who came out of retirement to play for what was likely her final season. There were issues with the Cambage/Wilson pairing in 2019 as the spacing issues presented by the duo crowded things up, but the Aces will be betting on talent. And with Cambage, Plum, and Chelsea Gray all joining a team that just made the Finals, that bet has a good chance of paying off.