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The Aces Don’t Need Threes To Win

The past decade of professional basketball featured an overwhelming buffet of stylistic changes built on one simple premise: Three is greater than two. At all levels, coaches and players discovered the ramifications of a mathematical truth we all learn as toddlers. By taking a step back on long jumpers, they can score more points and leverage the threat of those jumpers to create space to drive for layups.

As defenses adjusted, offenses kept pushing their players further from the hoop in a never-ending game of “top this!” Three-point shooting evolved from a nifty bonus feature to the most important quality of great offense. Now it seems impossible to win at the highest levels without it.

But as the 2020 season comes to a close, one team has emerged to challenge that truism. When the Las Vegas Aces begin their WNBA postseason run on Sunday against the Connecticut Sun, they won’t just be fighting for their city’s first professional title. They’ll also be competing to answer a fundamental question about the sport that seemed settled: Is it really possible to win a championship without shooting and making lots of 3-pointers?

Maybe the answer is yes after all. The Aces went 18-4 during the regular season, earning the league’s No. 1 overall seed despite the absences of All-Star center Liz Cambage and point guard Kelsey Plum, who broke out in the 2019 playoffs. Along the way, they scored 109.6 points per 100 possessions, which gave them the ninth-most efficient regular season offense in WNBA history.

They’re the co-favorites for the 2020 WNBA crown despite (or because of?) their historic unwillingness to take long-distance shots. They attempted just 11.5 3-pointers per game, which was nearly five and a half fewer than the next-lowest ranked team in the league, the Atlanta Dream. The Aces also scored just 14.3 percent of their points on makes from beyond the arc, a share that six teams — half the league — doubled this season. If we look at the difference between Vegas’s total 3-point attempts and the WNBA average, the Aces’ reluctance to fire away from downtown compared to their competition was historic:

Vegas was historically reluctant to shoot from deep

Largest negative percent difference between a team’s 3-point attempts and the WNBA average in a season, 1997-2020

3-point Attempts
Season Team By Team Lg. Average % vs. Average
2004 Detroit Shock 209 415.4 -49.7
2005 Houston Comets 205 403.5 -49.2
1997 Cleveland Rockers 177 336.8 -47.4
2011 Atlanta Dream 284 537.9 -47.2
2020 Las Vegas Aces 253 465.4 -45.6
2018 Las Vegas Aces 361 660.2 -45.3
2002 Utah Starzz 247 419.7 -41.1
2005 Detroit Shock 238 403.5 -41.0
2014 Los Angeles Sparks 282 477.9 -41.0
2001 Utah Starzz 244 413.4 -41.0

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

That kind of shot profile is usually reserved for teams that can’t put the ball in the basket, not ones that have one of the most potent offenses ever. Yet the Aces have somehow solved what seemed to be an impossible equation: how to score efficiently while largely eschewing the shots worth the most points.

The simple answer is that they maximize the strengths of their star instead of a theoretical one (who might be a better deep shooter). A’ja Wilson, 2018’s No. 1 overall draft pick — and 2020 WNBA MVP — has blossomed in Cambage’s absence, allowing the Aces to mash teams inside with deep post-ups and endless drives to the basket. They scored an average of 42.7 points per game in the paint this season, the most in WNBA history. They also generated more free throws than any other team by far, grabbed a ton of offensive rebounds and posted the league’s lowest turnover rate. Those strengths made up for the points the Aces gave away at the 3-point line.

The more complicated answer offers important lessons for would-be duplicators across all levels of the sport. It centers on one word: pace.

We often use the shorthand “pace and space” to describe modern offenses, implicitly grouping two separate concepts together (playing fast and shooting lots of threes) into one larger philosophy. But the key to the Aces’ success is that they push the ball in transition and run their offense with relentless speed and precision. They mask their limited “space” by turbo-charging their “pace.”

Pace, in this case, manifests in multiple ways. The Aces average the most possessions per game in the league, the most commonly cited measure of how fast a team plays. Specifically, they push the pace in transition off their defense. Nobody uses less of the shot clock on average after steals, and only Phoenix uses less after the other team misses.

An opponent has hardly any time to blink before an Aces ball-handler is rushing right at them. Like many NBA teams, the Aces eschew outlet passes to allow their top wing players to dribble the ball up themselves. Angel McCoughtry, a 34-year-old five-time All-Star who signed with the Aces in free agency after missing the 2018 playoffs and entire 2019 season with a knee injury, has revived her career as a devastating grab-and-go slasher in transition.

McCoughtry isn’t the only Aces player with the green light to push the ball. Second-year guard Jackie Young and forward DeArica Hamby, the back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year, have free rein to attack whenever they grab a rebound.

Instead of sitting back waiting for an outlet pass, the other guards run the wings and give Las Vegas a numbers advantage. Every Aces defensive stop immediately becomes a high-leverage scoring opportunity.

But the Aces’ pace is most notable in half-court situations, when the defense (theoretically) is set. They waste little time getting the ball into the frontcourt and begin their sets sooner than most WNBA teams. The Aces pass quickly, cut decisively and time their movement precisely to confuse the back-line defenders.

There’s no wasted time and little of the stagnation that usually happens when one player surveys the floor. The Aces pass, catch and immediately attack with startling speed, given their allergy to 3-point shooting.

Even though the Aces led the league in possessions per game, their success also underscores the limits of older statistics like possessions per game and fast break points per game. The Aces did not lead the league in the latter category — they were tied for fourth — but that kind of stat fails to convey just how the Aces keep up that relentless pace even after the initial scoring opportunity evaporates. By continuing to move quickly in their half-court sets, the Aces rarely are forced to scramble to find a shot. According to Synergy Sports, only 7.2 percent of the Aces’ possessions ended with fewer than five seconds on the shot clock, the lowest mark in the league:

Vegas plays fast in transition — and in the half-court

Leaguewide rankings in the share of plays made in transition and with fewer than five seconds left on the shot clock, 2020 WNBA season

Largest Share of Plays in Transition Largest share of plays w/ short clock*
Rk Team Share Rk Team Share
1 LAS 16.4% 1 IND 11.0%
2 NYL 16.0 2 DAL 10.2
3 LVA 15.8 3 NYL 10.1
4 DAL 15.6 4 WAS 10.1
5 SEA 15.5 5 MIN 9.8
6 ATL 13.9 6 LAS 8.9
7 CON 13.1 7 ATL 8.8
8 PHX 12.7 8 CHI 8.8
9 WAS 12.7 9 CON 8.5
10 CHI 12.0 10 SEA 8.4
11 MIN 11.5 11 PHX 7.7
12 IND 9.7 12 LVA 7.2

*Short-clock situations are possessions that end with fewer than five seconds left on the shot clock.

Source: Synergy Sports Technology

The Aces have to play fast in every situation because they can’t rely on their shooting to space the floor. Their most common alignment begins with the ball-handlers and two other players forming a triangle on one side of the court, while the two other players running some sort of play on the opposite side.

By timing their possessions so the on- and off-ball movements happen simultaneously, the Aces are often able to clear one side of the floor for one of their stars to go to work, whether it’s Wilson inside, McCoughtry slashing to the cup, Kayla McBride curling off a screen, or any other combination.

Even if defenses wanted to ignore perimeter players and load up in the paint, the Aces don’t give them any time to send that help. There’s a reason Wilson faces fewer double teams than she should based on her performance, and it’s not just because she makes her own move quickly. The Aces don’t ward off potential double-teams with shooting. They ward off potential double-teams by moving.

In a perfect world, the Aces could take a few more 3-pointers and thus not have to move so often to generate proper floor spacing. All things being equal, it’s better to shoot (and make) lots of threes than not. Cutting and shooting don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s also possible the Aces’ style will be less effective in a playoff series, when their opponent is able to spend more time game planning against their idiosyncratic tendencies.

But all things are never equal in basketball. This unique style suits coach Bill Laimbeer — whose teams have often ranked near the bottom of the league in 3-point shooting — and a roster missing Plum’s pick-and-roll wizardry and Cambage’s dominant interior scoring. As a result, the Aces have found a way to be better than the sum of their parts. And that’s all any fan can really ask of their favorite team.

Mike Prada is an NBA writer and editor who watches way more basketball than is healthy. His work has appeared at SB Nation since 2006, and he writes the Prada’s Pictures newsletter.

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