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The Las Vegas Aces Are Quietly Carving Out An Identity

From the moment they dealt for elite scorer Liz Cambage, the Las Vegas Aces became perhaps the WNBA’s most compelling team — not necessarily the best team, but certainly one with enough upside to make that claim by year’s end.1

Headlined by three All-Stars — Cambage, A’ja Wilson and Kayla McBride — the Aces’ top-five offense understandably gets a ton of attention. Yet because of that firepower, the Las Vegas defense, one of the WNBA’s worst a year ago, has been overlooked. But the Aces’ defense has made an about-face, becoming one of the more rugged units en route to putting up league-best numbers this season.

Vegas is almost 1.5 points per 100 possessions better on D than the next closest team, and have managed to be stingy on that end despite playing at the second-fastest pace in the league. Opposing teams take, on average, almost 16 seconds per possession to get off shot against the Aces, the longest average in the WNBA. And once the shots actually go up, the most likely outcome is a miss (Vegas has the best effective field goal percentage defense) and an Aces’ rebound (they also have the best defensive-rebounding percentage).

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer told me before a recent game that he challenged a pair of returning wing players, McBride and former No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum, to push up farther on ball-handlers this season. Aside from forcing the action, doing so would tempt teams to either drive or throw the ball into the paint, where both Wilson and the 6-foot-8 Cambage combine for three blocks per contest. Indeed, teams have had limited success inside against the Aces this season, scoring a league-low .971 points per possession around the basket, according to Synergy Sports.

On some level, Vegas’s almost-overnight shift into a top-tier defensive unit was by design. If the defense can keep opponents off the board for stretches, Laimbeer’s thinking went, it would allow more time for the Aces’ offensive pieces to jell, and for the team’s talent advantage to take over. “Defense is much easier than offense — it’s just hard work and structure,” Laimbeer said. “You simply put the structure in, and demand that the players work hard.”

McBride said the team has bought into adopting a grittier, more prideful identity since last season. One example: If Las Vegas goes a couple possessions in a row without scoring — which often discourages players who thrive on their offense — coaches often shout from the sidelines, “If we don’t score, they don’t score,” to remind the Aces not to let off the pedal on the defensive end.

“I think a lot of it comes from [Laimbeer],” McBride said of developing a far greater intensity on defense. “We embrace it, and I think we kind of like the idea of becoming the villains of the league.”

While the Aces have been solid defensively all year,2 untangling the offense has been more of a challenge. The Aces recently clinched their first playoff berth since 2014,3 but getting there has required pretty considerable sacrifices on offense from just about everyone on the roster. Earlier this month, we wrote that virtually every veteran on the team has gotten fewer shot attempts than she did last season, the price of playing on the lone WNBA team with three All-Stars. A decent comparison for this club is the first season of the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat run. The offense — with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade taking turns holding the reins — wasn’t ideal at first. But the Heat’s defense was far better than expected, and helped lift the team to a Finals appearance during the trio’s first season together.

In an effort to avoid those getting-to-know-you pitfalls,4 Las Vegas has been trying to push the ball when it can. Aside from the addition of Cambage, the quick-strike mentality also stems from trying to simplify things for rookie and No. 1 overall pick Jackie Young, who’s adjusting to playing the lead guard position full-time as Plum, the NCAA women’s all-time leading scorer, adjusts to playing off-ball more. (There’s a steep dropoff in true-shooting percentage from Cambage, Wilson and McBride to Young and Plum, highlighting how top-heavy the frontcourt is.)

“When you have nights where the whole starting five is in double figures, you don’t have to worry about the offense,” Cambage said. “Clearly we’re doing something right. For us, it’s more about defense.”

This isn’t to suggest that the Vegas defense doesn’t have some shortcomings. Some were on display in Minnesota on Sunday, when the Aces surrendered 98 points in a loss to the Lynx. Napheesa Collier slipped undetected behind the Aces’ D multiple times in the third quarter (Las Vegas ranks dead last out of 12 teams in defending cuts to the basket, per Synergy). And Minnesota took advantage of Vegas not getting back in transition, where the Aces rank just ninth. Put another way: The Aces get caught sleeping from time to time.

But what makes the Aces intriguing is that, less than two weeks out from the playoffs, they’re still getting on the same page. Cambage joined the team eight days before the season started, giving her almost no opportunity to get acclimated, while Wilson recently missed a month with an injury. Young and Plum have had months to work off each other at this point, and even if the youth in the backcourt is a concern, it’s a safe bet that far more of the offense — particularly with 1-on-1 play, where the Aces rank best in the league, per Synergy — will go through Cambage and Wilson.

Also important to remember: This is just Year One for this relatively young team. Cambage, who turned 28 last week, is the oldest core player on the team. McBride is 27. Plum is 25, as is Sixth Woman of the Year candidate Dearica Hamby. Wilson is 23. Young is still just 21.

It could all come together quickly for this youthful club. But even if it takes beyond this season, the logic in tightening up the defense to buy more time for the already-solid offense was sound. Finishing at or near the top of the league on D in the first year together sets a new standard, and shows there’s no reason the Aces can’t be elite on both ends as long as this core stays together.

Footnotes

  1. Particularly with a handful of clubs missing their stars as the league prepares for its homestretch.

  2. That said, the team as a whole is in the midst of a two-game skid, and just fell to second place in the Western Conference with Sunday’s loss.

  3. The last time the franchise made the playoffs, it was as the San Antonio Stars. The team was sold in 2017 and moved to Las Vegas prior to the 2018 season.

  4. Like figuring out who will handle the ball and when, where players’ sweet spots are on the court and how to avoid bumping into each other if there is considerable overlap with those two things.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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