Aces Free Agency: Boom or Bust?

The Las Vegas Aces’ offseason is a free agency Rorschach test.

Here’s a quick summary: They re-signed forward A’ja Wilson; let head coach Bill Laimbeer, assistant coach Tanisha Wright, and general manager Dan Padover go—the last two to Atlanta; hired new head coach Becky Hammon and new general manager Natalie Williams; lost Elizabeth Cambage and Angel McCoughtry in free agency; and signed Sydney Colson, Theresa Plaisance, and Kalani Brown to training contracts. Brown has been waived.

At first glance, re-signing former MVP Wilson and hiring the highly respected Hammon are moves that set the team up for success in the coming season. Looking closer, you notice the departures of Cambage and Padover are big holes that cap the team’s ceiling. Peering even closer, you might be encouraged by the potential benefits of Wilson playing in a bigger role without Cambage, starring in a 4-out offense. If  you stare long enough, the memories of last year’s playoffs, during which Las Vegas had no answer for Brittney Griner, might start to create doubt about whether the team can ascend to the summit.

Which outlook you come away with will depend on your evaluation of Hammon’s coaching ability, optimism about Wilson’s upside in a system built completely around her, expectations for Las Vegas this coming season, and assessment of where the rest of the league stands in relation to the Aces.

So what have I been seeing in my version of this test? Mostly uncertainty. Here’s why:

 

Becky Hammon Is an Unknown Quantity as a Head Coach

Let’s be clear: Hammon’s résumé earned her this job and deservedly so. She had a 15-year career as a WNBA player and is one of the best floor generals in the history of the league. She’s worked the past eight years under the legendary Gregg Popovich and has grown in her role as an assistant, highlighted by an NBA Summer League win in 2015.

But for all the great things about Becky, this is still her first head coaching job, and her position with the Aces will be her first time coaching in women’s basketball at all! It isn’t clear how she’ll handle the expectations and stakes of a title contender, the X’s and O’s, the player management, the shift from the NBA to the WNBA, and the increased pressure as head honcho.  Given how her peers and her former boss speak of her, there’s reason for optimism. However, in this game, there are no sure things.

 

A’ja Wilson Still Has a Lot of Room To Grow

It is basketball’s blessing and curse: potential.  The bane of busts and the blessing of breakthroughs. It creates the weight of expectations but also the high spirits of surprise. It is the promissory note that teams give fans at the start of the season in exchange for their support and players give teams in exchange for long-term contracts. It is also what Las Vegas is banking on to elevate it past the playoff failures of seasons past. After declining to re-sign Cambage, it’s obvious the Aces believe that Wilson can get to another level when she is unencumbered from sharing the paint with another star.

Wilson, to her credit, has shown that she’s constantly improving and can find a new level in a bigger role, like she did in Bradenton, Fla. during the 2020 season. Additionally, with only Kiah Stokes as an experienced back-to-basket big on this squad, Wilson should get extended minutes in a 4-out offense. The lane was often crowded in Laimbeer’s tenure, and Hammon should be looking for ways to simplify the floor for her superstar. There’s also the tantalizing prospect of Wilson expanding her game to include three-pointers as Hammon tries to modernize the team’s offense and include more threes.

However, unlocking Wilson’s potential might come at a cost. The biggest reason for the Aces’ success over the past three seasons—top two in cumulative win percentage and net rating—has been their staunch interior defense, helmed by Wilson and Cambage, which often led to easy transition opportunities and high marks in offensive rating. Without Cambage, Wilson will have to do more on defense. She will especially have to take on the difficult task of stopping bigger centers, like Sylvia Fowles and Jonquel Jones, who were Cambage’s responsibility.

Considering that this team was already a historically good offensive team, a boost in offense from restructuring is not guaranteed. However, the defensive slippage is likely as they didn’t get any elite point-of-attack defenders and got worse on the interior, and so we’ll have to wait and see how Hammon and Wilson try and maintain the team’s level.

 

Winning a Title Is the Ultimate Goal for the Las Vegas Aces

Hammon will likely not be judged solely on whether she wins a title, and it’s probable that she’ll be given a sufficient amount of time to develop a culture and structure at Las Vegas. Still, a championship is the only milestone the Aces have yet to reach. The Aces have achieved consistent regular season success the past three years and even reached the Finals in 2020, so the franchise going a step further to win it all has to be the only goal that matters for the foreseeable future.

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Within that context, Las Vegas has potentially gotten worse. In last year’s playoffs, Las Vegas’ net rating was 18.2 points lower with Cambage off the court, which was the second biggest swing on the team. Additionally, when Cambage wasn’t in the lineup, the Aces’ defensive rating was 10.2 worse, the biggest drop on the team (among those who played at least 15 total minutes).

These aren’t individual stats, but they hint at the fact that when facing a dominant big like Brittney Griner, Las Vegas fared better with Cambage than without. Margins are razor thin in the playoffs, and it is an invaluable asset to have someone who can slow down the best post players when competing in a league filled with a myriad of them.

Las Vegas will still have to put together a good regular season to earn the right to compete for the title, but in those high-stakes moments, there’s no clear picture of how Hammon plans to one-up Laimbeer’s results with an ostensibly weaker squad. Maybe A’ja turns in the best basketball she’s ever played. Maybe Hammon unlocks Popovich-like powers. Maybe it all falls flat again. There are just no answers yet.

 

The Contenders Are Looking As Scary As They’ve Ever Been

It seems appropriate to follow up the uncertainty regarding how the Aces will handle themselves against the league’s elite with a reminder of where those elite teams stand:

  • The Connecticut Sun will have a squad studded with All-Stars, featuring MVP Jonquel Jones, MIP Brionna Jones, DeWanna Bonner, Courtney Williams, and Alyssa Thomas.
  • The Seattle Storm return their “big three” of Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Breanna Stewart.
  • The Chicago Sky upgraded their title-winning quartet of Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Kahleah Copper, and Candace Parker by adding 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman.
  • The Phoenix Mercury added Diamond DeShields and Tina Charles to most of the team that made the Finals last year.
  • The Washington Mystics could potentially have Alysha Clark and Elena Delle Donne back.

The Minnesota Lynx end up just outside the league’s elite with Napheesa Collier missing time as she completes her pregnancy and maternity leave, but they could be in the mix at the top of the league after signing Angel McCoughtry.

Basically, everyone is at the same or better level than last year, and that’s a scary proposition for the Aces, who will be figuring out a lot of new things this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the trio of Connecticut, Seattle, and Chicago end up at the top of the league where Las Vegas has resided for the past two seasons.

 

The Takeaway…

The Aces felt like they hit a wall last season and needed a change. They wanted to modernize their basketball while creating an optimal situation for their superstar to thrive. There are still questions about the new leadership in the front office, and losing Cambage made them worse on paper. But the choice to retool the organization  is a brave, forward-looking decision that has as much potential to pay off as it does to sting if their current core never comes close to winning it all.

That core of Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby, and Jackie Young is still young and should be able to compete for a long time, so the Aces’ championship window is technically still open. However, I think that window blew slightly shut this offseason.

Las Vegas is betting on its new head coach, max-contract superstar, and some internal development to prove more fruitful than replaying what it has built the past three seasons. Until tip-off on May 6, there’s no telling whether the Las Vegas Aces just unraveled their best chance at a title or will be celebrating with confetti in the near future.

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