Before her injury in July, Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson was going through a down season compared to her WNBA Rookie of the Year campaign of 2018. She was scoring less, grabbing fewer rebounds and blocking fewer shots. But she was still selected as one of two captains for the 2019 All-Star Game.
Her team might have a lot to do with that. At the All-Star break in 2018, the Aces were in ninth place with a 12-13 record. But this year, in what coach Bill Laimbeer has called “year two” of a three-year rebuild, the Aces entered the break 13-6 and tied with Connecticut for first place.
Wilson didn’t play in the 2019 All-Star Game, but two of her teammates did: Liz Cambage and Kayla McBride. All three were selected as starters, the first time since 2009 that one team had three of the game’s 10 top vote-getters. But that’s not all of the talent the Aces have: The other two regular members of their starting five are both former No. 1 overall draft picks (Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum), and the bench includes a forward who has been called the WNBA’s “biggest disruptor” (Dearica Hamby), a veteran with 204 career starts (Tamera Young) and a 2017 All-Star (Sugar Rodgers).
The Aces assembled this talented roster by collecting the past three No. 1 draft picks and trading for Cambage and Rodgers during the offseason. But the most talented rosters don’t always win — just look at last year’s Minnesota Lynx, which finished 18-16 and lost in the first round of the playoffs despite having four 2016 Olympians in the starting lineup. Team chemistry and buy-in to shared goals are paramount, and even star players usually have to take fewer shots than they would on a less balanced team.
Wilson is the perfect example. She averaged 20.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in her stellar rookie year but is at 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds this year — not a bad season by any means, but a dropoff nonetheless.
The Aces’ record alone suggests that the buy-in is there, but let’s see whether the statistics support the idea that players are sacrificing individual numbers for team success.
The Aces have shared the load offensively
Cambage, Rodgers and most of the Aces’ returners from 2018 have taken fewer shots, scored fewer points and played fewer minutes in 2019. McBride is taking 3.4 fewer shots in almost three fewer minutes on the court. Tamera Young was a starter a year ago, averaging nearly 10 points in 27 minutes per game, but she has accepted a bench role in 2019 and averages just 5.4 points. Forwards Carolyn Swords and JiSu Park have likewise seen their minutes decrease to accommodate Cambage. And after requesting a trade out of Dallas, where she was her team’s No. 1 option, Cambage approved the move to Las Vegas knowing that she would likely get fewer touches.
The Aces are doing less as the team improves
Year-over-year performance for members of the 2019 Las Vegas Aces roster who played in at least five WNBA games in 2018
|Player||Minutes||FG Attempts||Points||Usage Rate|
The only players who have seen their roles increase are Hamby and Plum. Hamby’s role has expanded in part because of Wilson’s injury and in part because she is playing like the front-runner for Sixth Woman of the Year (or Most Improved — take your pick). Plum, a third-year guard and the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, has received praise from Laimbeer for her improvements defensively, and her shooting is the perfect complement to Cambage’s interior presence.
Looking at players’ usage rate1 tells a similar story. Wilson and McBride, the Aces’ leaders in usage rate a season ago, have the ball in their hands less this year, and Cambage and Rodgers do as well. Plum ranked only eighth on the team in usage rate a season ago,2 and Park and Swords were behind her, so every player who touched the ball frequently last season is getting fewer touches this year.
They’ve struggled some on offense
Of course, the fact that nearly every Aces player is scoring fewer points per game could suggest that the team is simply struggling offensively, not sacrificing individual numbers for team performance. Comparing the Aces’ offensive statistics over the past two seasons supports the idea that the offense isn’t yet clicking: The team is scoring fewer points per game and shooting worse from the field (while playing at a nearly identical pace). Its offensive rating has decreased by 4.4, which means that this season’s Aces score 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions.
Vegas has taken a step back on offense, but it isn’t all bad
Year-to-year offensive stats for the Aces, 2018-19
|3-pointers attempted per game||10.9||15.3||+4.4|
|3-point shooting percentage||34.6||37.4||+2.8|
|3-pointers made per game||3.8||5.7||+1.9|
|Assists per game||20.2||20.9||+0.7|
|Points per game||84.4||80.8||-3.6|
However, it’s not all bad on offense for the Aces. They are taking and making significantly more 3-pointers this season than in 2018, and they’re registering slightly more assists. The problem appears to be turnovers: The Aces are giving the ball away on more than 18 percent of their possessions this season, 3 percentage points more than a season ago.
Individually, nearly every Aces player has a lower offensive rating than a season ago, in part because of worse shooting and in part because of turnovers. Yet many players have increased their 3-point rate and increased or maintained their 3-point shooting percentage. This includes McBride and Rodgers, despite the fact that they are two of the better 3-point shooters in the league and therefore are improving on an already high bar.
They’ve excelled on defense
Another way to gauge the buy-in of a team is to look at how it’s performing on defense, where commitment and communication are perhaps even more important. Both as a team and individually, the Aces have excelled on defense in 2019. Las Vegas ranked first in the WNBA through Aug. 12 in defensive rating, allowing just 91.9 points per 100 possessions and allowing opponents to shoot only 39 percent from the field.
Vegas has made a leap on defense
Year-to-year defensive stats for the Aces, 2018-19
|Steals per game||6.3||7.8||+1.5|
|Defensive rebound percentage||71.8||72.5||+0.7|
|Blocks per game||3.9||4.4||+0.5|
|Opponent field-goal percentage||44.9||38.8||-6.1|
|Opponent points per game||87.0||76.0||-11.0|
With the addition of Cambage, it’s no surprise that the Aces are getting a higher percentage of defensive rebounds than in 2018 and blocking more shots. However, Cambage is not known as a lockdown one-on-one defender, and allowing 11 fewer points per game than a season ago3 requires more than adding a talented player. It requires buy-in from every player. And that’s exactly what Las Vegas has gotten: Every single returning player has improved her defensive rating from a season ago.
All the Aces have improved defensively
Year-over-year defensive ratings for members of the 2019 Las Vegas Aces roster who played in at least five WNBA games in 2018
In addition, every player except Wilson has improved either her steal rate or her block rate — or both. And all but Wilson and Park have already equaled or exceeded their defensive win shares from last season — an impressive feat given that win shares accumulate throughout the season. Finally, despite the team’s offensive struggles, four of the nine players are averaging more win shares per 40 minutes than they did a season ago.
What this all adds up to is a team that seems to have committed to Laimbeer’s vision but is still adjusting to a new offense. That offense asks players to take many more 3-pointers while also giving Wilson and Cambage regular touches in the post, which is a difficult balance to strike. The Aces can also take solace in the fact that, despite being in position to secure a top-four seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs, they are nowhere near their ceiling offensively. Their improved defense has carried them this far, and if and when their offense catches up, look out. That’s a scary prospect for the rest of the WNBA.