Watch basketball for long enough and you begin to notice patterns. Some pertain to X’s and O’s; perhaps a certain type of pick-and-roll coverage levied at shooting guards, or a specific cut intended to dislodge a 2-3 zone. Others are baked into the rhythms of the game itself. We come to expect three-point shooting teams to play an uptempo brand of ball—the run-and-gun offense. Paint-bound teams are considered plodding, even if effective. Playing big equals playing slow in the minds of most fans.
The Las Vegas Aces aren’t interested in your preconceived notions of how teams are “supposed” to operate. They’re here to challenge norms, to place your observed patterns in a blender and churn out a contradictory smoothie.
No team shoots fewer threes than the Aces, and it’s not particularly close. Las Vegas averages 13.8 triples a game. Indiana averages 16.1. The remaining ten teams all loft at least 20 three-pointers every time they play. (Washington leads the league with 29.)
This isn’t new either. In 2020, Las Vegas averaged 11.5 three-pointers, over five fewer than 11th place Atlanta (16.9). Get this: the last time the Aces didn’t finish in the cellar in three-pointers attempted, they played in Texas under a different name. Back in 2016, the San Antonio Stars were eighth in the league in triples per game. Now, for the fifth straight season spanning two different cities, Las Vegas is playing caboose with the most popular shot in basketball.
Are you familiar with Bill Laimbeer? He of multiple championship rings and minimal expressions (unless a referee draws his ire)? He who yearns for the days when a shot worth three points was scorned and not celebrated? He who beams at the thought of playing three centers at once?
Laimbeer began coaching Las Vegas in 2018, the team’s first season in its new Nevada home. Since then, the Aces have established themselves as a group of bullies—not in the confrontational, trash-talking sense, but in their bruising, low-post identity. Las Vegas makes you feel its presence. It hammers you with layups, mid-rangers, and shots off the glass. It makes you reminisce about the days when taking it to the hoop was more attractive than hoisting from deep.
Here’s where the contradictory smoothie takes shape: the Aces play at a blinding speed. Las Vegas led the WNBA in Pace in 2018 and 2020. It finished second to Chicago in 2019. It again leads the league in 2021, over halfway through the season. The most paint-laden team in the W is also its fastest. How’s that for subverting norms?
To make such a style work in the modern WNBA, you must be airtight in a number of areas. The Aces are.
It all starts on the glass. Las Vegas is second in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, per WNBA.com. Only Connecticut gobbles up more opponent misses. This tracks. The Aces almost always have two traditional bigs on the floor—some combination of A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, Dearica Hamby, JiSu Park, and now Kiah Stokes. Even their smaller players chip in. Jackie Young has long been one of the most tenacious rebounding guards in basketball, dating back to her time at Notre Dame. If one Las Vegas player is boxed out, chances are another will come darting in to snare the basketball.
Next comes floor vision. Once Las Vegas gains possession, the team bolts up the floor, everyone occupying different lanes on the court. For instance: Wilson and Hamby are elite rim-runners. They slide north-to-south with no wasted motion. Young seeks her favorite areas in the mid-range. Kelsey Plum and Riquna Williams flare out behind the three-point line. Whoever snatched the board immediately pivots, looking for an outlet pass to Chelsea Gray, or perhaps to Plum. From there, the Aces are off.
Per WNBA.com, Las Vegas boasts the lowest turnover percentage in the WNBA. The Aces and Storm are tied for first in assist-to-turnover percentage. The Aces may seek more twos than threes, but they cherish every possession like your grandparents’ fine china.
To play this seemingly incongruent brand of basketball and succeed, you must be disciplined in all facets of the game. Las Vegas is. The Aces rank first in free throw rate and opponent free throw rate. They live at the line and accept no visitors. They score more points in the paint than any other team.
None of this is particularly surprising. As we embark on a month-long Olympic break, the Aces lead the WNBA in Net Rating. On a points per possession basis, they have the most efficient offense and the most efficient defense in the league. The team is incredibly comfortable executing Laimbeer’s vision, and it’s resulting in wins…mostly.
Do you feel like you’re in math class right now, drowning in numbers? Would you like actual examples of this play big, play fast experiment? Are you tired of the word statistic?
Gray is taking Las Vegas to new heights. Her comfort scanning the floor as she takes the ball up is second-to-none. Gray wants to find you in your favorite spot. She thrives off passes like the one above.
Gray and Young have developed a sneakily potent chemistry. Young’s favorite shot is the mid-range jumper. She often takes them in transition, stopping on a dime and pulling up into her shooting motion. Modern defenses are conditioned to look for three-point shooters and rim-runners in transition. Oftentimes, the middle of the floor is left wide open. Young occupies these otherwise vacant pockets and Gray rewards her.
Here’s a fun game: during any Aces broadcast, track how often the cameraperson or director is a step slow. Here, locked in on Amanda Zahui B. backpedaling as the Gray-to-Young express is already in motion.
Here, locked in on a pointing Monique Billings as Young is perched under the hoop, awaiting a dime from…well, it’s hard to tell!
Here, locked in on an about-to-be-turned-around Betnijah Laney as Destiny Slocum finds Hamby for the and-one. Right when the camera cuts back to the normal overhead view, Laney hastily spins and sprints to stop Hamby, but it’s too late. Frustration is painted across Laney’s face after the whistle. Miscommunications such as these aren’t supposed to happen after made baskets. They happen often against Las Vegas.
Per Inpredictable, the Aces average 13.3 seconds per possession. They are the quickest team in the league off of made shots, missed shots, and turnovers. They are the only team in the league to average over a point per possession off both makes and misses. That’s huge. Teams are used to hitting a shot, then strutting back casually on defense. Las Vegas makes you pay for even a split-second of relaxation.
By speeding down the floor, the Aces create mismatches they can expose and attack.
Here, Hamby seals the smaller Marina Mabrey on the low block. Gray advances the rock to Plum at her usual spot behind the arc, on the wing. Plum enters it to Hamby just four seconds into Vegas’ possession. Hamby calmly shakes Mabrey and converts the layup.
Gray rightfully receives a bunch of the credit, but Plum is also a dynamic transition player. Because she’s a threat to pull up from deep, teams must respect her shooting ability by pressing up on her as she runs down the floor.
Here, Plum ups the tempo, forcing Los Angeles to get its act together with celerity. The Sparks fail. Brittney Sykes—LA’s best healthy defender—notices Hamby and Williams both with their hands raised, spaced perfectly with Sykes caught in the middle. Sykes motions for Zahui B. to rotate onto Hamby. By the time that happens, the ball is in Williams’ hands, then sliding through the net for three.
Just because Las Vegas averages the fewest threes in the league doesn’t mean it abandons the shot completely. Much of Vegas’ interior success is made possible by the Aces shooters smartly flaring out behind the arc, spacing the floor to force the defense into a compromising position. It empties the lane for Wilson, Hamby, or Cambage to accelerate beyond the last line of defense, as the MVP does here, or to pin a helpless defender deep in the paint.
Laimbeer receives a lot of criticism for seemingly being stuck in the 90s, and some of that is warranted. However, the Aces year-to-year offensive improvement must be noted. Playing uptempo basketball with multiple bigs on the floor isn’t entirely natural. It takes time to get comfortable within the parameters of your on-court reality.
Here are the Aces offensive ratings under Laimbeer:
2018: 6th (102.0)
2019: 5th (99.1)
2020: 2nd (107.3)
2021: 1st (107.0)
There’s always an asterisk, always the question of whether or not the Aces can sustain this level of efficiency against the best teams, when it matters most. The answer, to date, has been a firm no. Pace naturally slows in the playoffs.
Do you remember Game Five between the Sun and Aces in the so-called “Wubble?” I do, despite attempting to scrub it from my memory. It was a slog. Defense dominated the proceedings. The Aces emerged not because they were efficient, but because Wilson hit her free throws when it mattered most. “Make your free throws and cross your fingers” isn’t a reliable recipe for future playoff success. Las Vegas hopes that having Cambage, Plum, Williams, Gray, and a healthy Hamby in place of Kayla McBride and Danielle Robinson will open things up for the whole bunch, even when things get tough. It’s not a bad bet.
There’s one final X factor to be mentioned here: the recently-signed Stokes. Laimbeer coached Stokes when she played in New York, and now she’s once again under his tutelage. Stokes immediately cracked the Aces rotation, then the starting lineup when Cambage was unavailable.
If you look at Stokes’s on/off numbers, you’ll notice that Las Vegas has been playing at a significantly slower pace the last five games. Surely part of this has to do with fatigue—folks limping toward the break after a grueling first two-thirds of the season. Still, it’s something to monitor. The Aces lost back-to-back games against Phoenix and Minnesota before ending the “first half” with a win over Dallas on Sunday. Statistically, the team appears dominant. Yet, they don’t always come off that way on a night-to-night basis.
Questions will linger until the trophy resides in Las Vegas. Until then, the Aces continue to make middle school coaches proud by putting the ball in the hoop without putting it on the floor.
Look Ma, no dribbles!!