Attempting to draw a tidy conclusion from the Aces’ first five games is like explaining the plot of a Christopher Nolan movie. Even if it makes sense to you, try conveying the gist to others without stumbling over your words. A tricky, unenviable task.
This isn’t Inception, but for Las Vegas to realize its dream of winning a championship (see what I did there?) it must land on a fixed identity and answer a few pressing questions. With a drastically different roster than last year, the Aces are still in workshop mode—seeing what sticks and what stinks.
As of Friday afternoon, Las Vegas ranks second in Net Rating, well behind first-place Connecticut and well ahead of third-place Seattle. The Aces are in the top third of the league offensively and defensively. They split a pair in the house of the defending champions. They trounced the crumbling Sparks. They lost a grinder to the Sun. They won a grinder in Phoenix.
The Aces opened against stiff competition and emerged with a 3-2 record. They now return home for two versus Indiana and should close the weekend at 5-2. But the tone in head coach Bill Laimbeer’s voice following Vegas’s 85-79 victory over a Diana Taurasi-less Mercury bunch indicated much work to be done, a puzzle nowhere near completion.
“Overall, we’re learning,” Laimbeer said. “[It was] a good win all the way around for a team that’s learning about each other.”
Not only is the team learning about each other, but Laimbeer is learning about the team. He’s facing the same conundrum as in 2019, when the Aces traded for Liz Cambage: do the two best players on this roster complement one another? Will other valuable contributors get buried under a clogged rotation?
Let’s delve a little deeper into Laimbeer’s comments after Wednesday night’s win.
“A’ja [Wilson] today—in the second half the ball didn’t come her way,” said Laimbeer. “She didn’t go looking for shots, didn’t force shots because Jackie [Young] was wearing them out. Same with Liz. Liz didn’t turn it into a ‘me versus Brittney Griner’ day, stayed within herself. [Dearica] Hamby in the first half didn’t get very many minutes, scored one point, really wasn’t involved and she stayed in there and made all the big plays down the stretch for us.”
Laimbeer is spot-on with his analysis and should be credited for lauding the unselfishness of his team. Yet those comments don’t inspire confidence; they instill doubt.
Here we have Wilson—the 2020 MVP—who often isn’t receiving the ball within the natural flow of Las Vegas’s offense. Here we have Hamby—one of the best two-way players in the game—who is averaging nearly five fewer minutes than last season and “wasn’t really involved” in the first half of a back-and-forth contest. Here we have a roster that appears dominant on paper, yet often struggles to avoid the inevitable “my turn, your turn” curse of isolation offense.
Because Las Vegas has largely eschewed the three-point craze captivating the rest of the league, its margins are thinner. Per WNBA.com, the Aces are last in three-pointers attempted per game. They are seventh in pace after finishing in the top two every season since Wilson was drafted. They are sixth in rebounding percentage, despite almost always trotting out a bigger lineup than their opposition.
If Laimbeer wants to play bully-ball, Las Vegas must be airtight at the point of attack. Right now, that simply isn’t the case. Oftentimes, the Aces offense begins and ends with a down screen setting up an elbow jumper. Savvy teams like Connecticut realize they won’t be punished by packing the paint. All of a sudden, Wilson has a sea of bodies flying at her when she touches the rock. She shot 4-of-13 against the Sun, and the Aces managed just 65 points. Young—an early contender for Most Improved Player, who scorched the Mercury with a career-high 27 points—shot 2-of-9.
Another worrisome number: Wilson and Cambage’s free-throw attempts (FTA) are down. Though Las Vegas is tied for third in the league with 20 FTA per game, Wilson’s attempts have dropped from 6.9 to 4.6 despite playing more minutes than ever before. Per Basketball Reference, Cambage’s attempts per 36 minutes clock in at the lowest mark of her career. Young, meanwhile, has nearly doubled her FTA from 2.8 to 5.2 and is shooting 92 percent from the line.
None of the aforementioned three are true three-point threats. That drastically limits what Las Vegas can accomplish from a drive-and-kick perspective, making it extremely difficult for all players to thrive at once. In their second matchup against Seattle, the Aces got a little more creative utilizing Wilson as a passer, thus opening up the floor slowly but surely.
Aces did a way better job utilizing A'ja Wilson as a passer last night, running crisp actions and creating more space w/ her and Liz Cambage sharing the floor.
— Owen Pence (@OwenPence) May 19, 2021
Consistent off-ball movement and decisive passing help mask a lack of three-point shooting. That’s a good excuse to bring up Chelsea Gray—a key piece in the hopes and dreams of the 2021 Aces.
The “Point Gawd” is already looking more comfortable as she acclimates to a new environment, one starkly different from Los Angeles, where she spent her past five seasons. Gray is averaging six assists, shooting the highest percentage of her career (small-sample caveat required), and playing gritty, smart defense.
Behind-the-back? Alright @cgray209
📺 @CBSSportsNet pic.twitter.com/mgM5w1Mzt8
— WNBA (@WNBA) May 27, 2021
Here, the Aces run an empty side pick-and-roll, clearing out space for Wilson to operate. More of this, please! Adding Hamby to that lineup and subtracting Cambage increases Las Vegas’ switchability and long-range shooting potency all at once. Less bodies in the lane means Wilson can attack with more vigor, upping her free throws and the overall quality of her looks.
Ultimately, it all revolves around Cambage.
On one hand, Cambage has occasionally looked a step slow in her return to the W. Griner consistently got the best of her in Wednesday night’s second half, to the point where Laimbeer played Hamby and Wilson at the 4 and the 5 late in the fourth quarter. Hamby and Wilson form a laterally quicker interior and are more adept switching onto small players on the perimeter. It’s a pairing more suited for the modern game.
On the other hand, lineup data from the first five games reveal the Aces have been at their best with Cambage and Young on the floor, and not as solid during Wilson’s minutes. Las Vegas rates exceptionally on defense during the minutes Cambage has played. Rookie Destiny Slocum has also provided a much-needed boost.
Lineup numbers, especially this early in the season, are noisy. No one in their right mind thinks the Aces are better with Wilson sitting. Yet it’s abundantly clear that Las Vegas is not maximizing the talents of the league’s Most Valuable Player. That’s a huge problem.
Did this article leave you more or less confused than the plot of Inception? How about Interstellar? Was this the Tenet of basketball columns?
There’s plenty of time for the Aces to develop an identity. But one thing is for sure: right now, they don’t seem to have one.