It’s a phrase that paints melancholy portraits of those who underachieved, who were greater in theory than in reality. It’s a phrase you’ll hear often in the sports world, implying potential. It beams when an abundance of talent gathers in a single city. It frowns when the talent doesn’t mesh, taking on hushed tones—tones of a failed experiment. Being good “on paper” is fun in the preseason. Being good “on paper” after the playoffs hints at a wrong turn along the way.
The Las Vegas Aces have the best roster in the WNBA…on paper. They just aren’t the best team in the WNBA, and thus can’t be considered title favorites. Those honors belong to the Connecticut Sun: home of MVP shoo-in, Jonquel Jones; two-time WNBA champion, DeWanna Bonner; Most Improved Player frontrunner, Brionna Jones; and many other exceptional basketball players.
The Aces and Sun have met three times in 2021. On each occasion, Connecticut emerged the victor. Sure, two of the three games were played at Mohegan Sun Arena, but Connecticut’s wins have been decisive, both at home and on the road.
The Sun sneer at media hype; they do their talking in the 40 minutes allotted to hoops. Too much has been made of the #disrespeCT narrative, largely because the team itself refused to let it die. Yet time and again we become infatuated with the shiniest constellations while glossing over the Sun. Las Vegas deserves every bit of press it gets, but Connecticut should be on equal footing.
Back in 2020, with both rosters looking drastically different than they do now, the Aces and Sun limped through an eyeball-searing five game semifinal series. Las Vegas prevailed due to the excellence of the MVP, A’ja Wilson, and not much more. Connecticut lost because it hardly should’ve been there in the first place.
Now the Sun are auditioning to play spoiler in a season that cast Las Vegas as the lead. Connecticut has surpassed Las Vegas in the standings and owns the league’s best record. The Sun have also surpassed the Aces on the Net Rating ladder.
Put plainly—the Aces won’t reign supreme unless they’re able to crack Connecticut’s code.
Where have things gone wrong for Las Vegas against the Sun? Is it simply a bad matchup? Are these correctable fixes, or indicative of a deeper problem stemming from imperfect roster construction? What can the Aces do to regain their status as title favorites?
So many questions, so few straightforward answers. Let’s delve into the specific areas Connecticut has given Las Vegas fits and see if we can glean some takeaways.
Rebounding and Transition
The most glaring head-to-head disparity between Connecticut and Las Vegas has come on the glass. The Sun lead the league in rebound percentage by a large margin. Earlier this season, the Aces were among the league’s elite in this sphere, but have since dropped to the middle of the pack. Narrow the lens solely to defensive rebounding, and we’re looking at the only two teams in the WNBA to gobble up at least 75 percent of opponent misses.
Connecticut has outrebounded Las Vegas in all three meetings, holding a 117-to-85 advantage. In their first tussle on May 23, the Sun collected 44 boards to the Aces’ 26. Las Vegas was obliterated on the offensive glass, snaring just one offensive rebound to Connecticut’s 12.
How is this happening to a team known for playing big? It’s a mix of Connecticut’s excellence and the Aces’ sloppiness.
On one hand, there’s no shame in getting outrebounded by the Sun. Jonquel Jones is one of the most prolific rebounders in league history, currently leading the WNBA in total rebound percentage. Brionna Jones ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage; Jonquel Jones is seventh, and Kaila Charles is 15th.
On the other hand, there are defensive rebounds Las Vegas simply looks uninterested in snatching.
This is legitimately embarrassing, an atrocious defensive display that comes almost immediately following tip-off. One should contact their doctor if experiencing symptoms of rebounding apathy. Las Vegas never picked up the phone.
Liz Cambage is by no means a bad rebounder, but she should dominate the glass given her size. She doesn’t. Cambage is averaging the lowest offensive rebounding percentage of her career. Defensively, she occasionally loses rebounds to hungrier, feistier players, like Brionna Jones. Seriously, how is Cambage getting pushed around by Jones like this?
What happens following a defensive rebound? The transition game. Las Vegas is the quickest team in the WNBA, per the league’s PACE metric; Connecticut is the slowest. The Sun goad Vegas into crawling alongside them, into playing their brand of basketball. Moreover, they excel at getting back after misses and slowing the Aces in the full court. While Brionna Jones is crashing the glass, players like Jasmine Thomas, Natisha Hiedeman, Kaila Charles, Briann January, and others are bolting back to defend the hoop.
No team better threads the needle between tenaciously rebounding and responsibly getting back in transition than the Sun.
Connecticut isn’t lacking in disruption tactics. Where the Sun have disrupted Las Vegas in the full-court, they’ve also disrupted Las Vegas in the half-court, using effective pick-and-roll coverages and uncannily sharp recovery rotations to drive Bill Laimbeer batty.
The key? Not allowing Las Vegas to get comfortable. Many of Laimbeer’s sets are fairly basic. That isn’t a knock—the Aces are a top offensive team and have been for a few years. Many of their looks hinge on pick-and-roll actions, especially with passing aficionado Chelsea Gray in the fold. Connecticut head coach Curt Miller has made it his mission to muck up these actions and force the Aces into scramble mode.
Miller understands how valuable the length some of his players possess is. Jonquel Jones and Bonner have wingspans that elicit night terrors in the antsy brains of opponents. They are also highly intelligent defenders. Miller has utilized these positive attributes by asking his bigs to hedge far up and around the floor when the Aces run screen-and-rolls. The idea is to cloud Gray’s stupendous vision for long enough to recover onto Vegas’s skilled bigs.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “hedging” a pick-and-roll is when the defensive big abandons their assignment—the screener—and hops into the ball-handler’s path. It looks like this:
Here, Brionna Jones helps blow up the Kelsey Plum – Cambage connection. The Aces first pick-and-roll attempt is completely foiled as Cambage hardly makes contact with Hiedeman, and Jones forces Plum into backpedal mode. The second attempt gets Plum going left—her favored side—and sees Cambage set an effective screen on Hiedeman. Game on. Once again, Jones hedges, preventing a Plum three-pointer. Bonner slides down onto the rolling Cambage, completely abandoning Jackie Young on the wing (this is a theme that emerges the more you watch these two teams play…or the farther along you get in this article). Plum fires to Dearica Hamby, who is contained by Jonquel Jones. By this point, Brionna Jones has recovered onto Cambage. Finally, the ball lands in Young’s hands, but magically Bonner is there. Young presses and is called for traveling.
It doesn’t matter which Aces are running pick-and-roll. Here, Gray and Wilson try to salvage a possession late in the shot clock:
Jonquel Jones takes one hop toward Gray, completely deterring her from entering the space inside the three-point line. It’s an easy recovery for Jones back onto Wilson as Jasmine Thomas plays airtight defense on Gray. The Point Gawd hoists a shot that she can undoubtedly hit, but that’s even more undoubtedly a low-percentage look. Clank. Another miss, another stop.
It’s a cliché, but Connecticut plays defense on a string.
Per usual, Las Vegas hunts for early offense in the clip above. No dice: the sun always rises. Cool, says Gray, let’s run pick-and-roll. Jonquel Jones leaves Cambage, jumping above the three-point line and tracking Gray along the wing until Jasmine Thomas recovers. Rotations: Brionna Jones slides onto Cambage as Bonner hangs between Wilson and Young. The ball is thrown to Wilson at the top of the key. Bonner shows until Jonquel Jones can recover, making Wilson think twice about an immediate attack. Now Connecticut has recovered fully as a once youthful shot clock wanes. The Aces panic. Cambage hoists some hogwash. Another miss and, eventually, after an uncharacteristic miss from Wilson plus some elite Connecticut verticality, another stop.
I could analyze clips like these all day. There are plenty more to be found from the 2021 Las Vegas vs. Connecticut game film, a bevy of possessions in which Las Vegas bashes the panic button because the Sun are suspiciously synchronized. There’s something quite satisfying about communicative defense, about folks covering for one another until everyone is back on steady feet.
Satisfying, that is, unless you’re an Aces fanatic.
Poor Spacing + Packed Paint = Tough Sledding
What do you do when a team is hesitant to shoot three-pointers but feasts in the interior? You pack the paint with defenders. It’s what Miller did in the 2020 playoffs against Las Vegas, and it’s what he’s done in 2021.
The Aces aren’t fit to teach clinics on spacing. For such an efficient offense, they become rather congested when staring down the barrel of an uncompromising, coherent defense.
Here, Wilson gets the ball at her favorite spot on the court but is forced to give it up by a helping Bonner, who once again completely ignores Young behind the arc.
Here’s a screengrab from later in the same quarter:
This is how NOT to space your offense. Young, a non-factor from behind the arc, stands—you guessed it—behind the arc. Hamby is in the dunker’s spot, and Ji-Su Park stands on the opposite end of the floor in the midrange. This cluttered look allows Connecticut to place four defenders in the paint, with Hiedeman inches outside.
Here’s another example of Connecticut ignoring Young as a spot-up threat, and another example of the Aces imperfect spacing. Cambage’s post-up position on Brionna Jones prevents Wilson from going to her favored side, so the MVP heads right. Waiting for her is Young’s defender, Jasmine Thomas, who effectively contests the jumper.
Surrounding Wilson and Young with three threats from deep would help alleviate these issues.
Las Vegas on Defense
All these words and none about Las Vegas as a defensive unit? The Aces haven’t hit as many snags against Connecticut on the defensive end, but there are still areas to clean up.
The Sun have targeted Cambage in the pick-and-roll. Unlike Connecticut, Las Vegas plays predominantly drop coverage. Still, Cambage and Co. have had trouble staying in front of Connecticut’s bigs.
Here’s where things get interesting: advanced numbers tell a different story than the clips above. Per Basketball Reference, Cambage is eighth in the WNBA in Defensive Win Shares. Per WNBA.com’s on/off numbers, Las Vegas is most stout when Cambage plays. Yet sometimes, it appears as if the game is moving a half-step faster than Cambage can handle. Connecticut has highlighted this contradiction.
It’s not just Cambage. Young, a high-level defender for her size and one who continually improves, is often asked to guard Bonner. That’s a nightmare matchup for the Aces. Wilson, an elite defender, matches up with Jonquel Jones, inducing another set of headaches. Look at where Jones takes the majority of her threes:
Wilson can hang with anyone, but she’s lethal when anchoring the defense down low. Draw her out on the wings, and you’ve made the paint far more inviting for your teammates. Jones hit a number of threes as Wilson scurried out to catch a bus that had already left the station.
Man, this Owen Pence fellow is dour, huh? Las Vegas just roasted Minnesota (without Cambage), Young setting a career high in points, and Gray in assists. The Aces are a virtual lock to secure the number two overall seed and a bye into the semifinals, barring disaster. Why so bleak, sir?
It’s not all drizzle and dilapidation!
Here’s Las Vegas running a seamlessly executed set to spring Wilson for her favorite shot. Intentional possessions like these disarm the Sun—a rarity in the three 2021 meetings.
The Aces have options, such as adjusting their rotations to feature more outside shooting or installing additional misdirection sets like the one above to buy easy buckets.
Something must change. The recent wins are nice. The experimentation with small lineups as Cambage recovers from a positive Covid-19 test are intriguing. But to be the best, you must beat the best, and Las Vegas has yet to beat the Connecticut Sun.
Call me Oscar the Grouch, Ron Swanson, Squidward, you name it. I’m unfazed. Unless the Aces vanquish Connecticut, they’ll forever be underachievers. A team that looked oh-so alluring, oh-so potent … on paper.