Becky Hammon, one of the best WNBA players never to win a title, is returning to the WNBA to take over the team that, in recent seasons, also has been unable to capture the championship.
Last week, Hammon was hired as head coach and general manager of the Las Vegas Aces. And while her inaugural season as a head coach is not quite title or bust, her arrival further elevates the already high championship expectations for A’ja Wilson and company.
While the New York Liberty were rumored to be in contention for Hammon’s services, Vegas swooped in to sign Hammon, who split her 16-year WNBA career between New York and San Antonio (the previous home of the Aces organization), to the richest head coaching deal in the WNBA.
On Hammon’s hiring, Aces president Nikki Fargas asserted:
We’re very excited to have Becky return to the Aces’ franchise as our head coach. Her success in the sport of basketball as both a player and a coach is unparalleled, and fueled by a tenacious desire to be the best she can possibly be. We have one of the most talented rosters in the WNBA, and Becky is the absolute best person to lead this team.
The six-time All-Star, who recently was named one of the 25 greatest players in WNBA history and a 2022 candidate to the Basketball Hall of Fame, replaces Bill Laimbeer on the sidelines. Laimbeer, who served as head coach of the Aces since their relocation to Las Vegas in 2018, is expected to remain with the organization in a still-unannounced role.
Although Hammon worked her way up the assistant coaching ranks with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs since 2014, her opportunity with the Aces will be her first as a head coach (with exception to her one-summer stint as head coach of the Spurs’ Summer League squad, which she led to the Summer League championship in 2015).
So, what can we expect from Hammon? What strategic changes will she make to an already successful Aces squad, especially on the offensive end, in order to deliver a championship to Sin City?
Where the Aces have been
As noted, the Aces have been one of the best teams in the W over the past few seasons. Yet, hoped-for postseason success has eluded them. Critics might suggest that Bill Laimbeer’s adherence to more antiquated offensive strategies are most responsible for Vegas’ playoff shortcomings.
Even as the 3-pointer has become an increasing part of WNBA offenses, Laimbeer eschewed the potential power of the long ball. In 2021, for the fifth-consecutive season, Vegas finished last in 3-point attempts in the WNBA. The past three seasons, the Aces have finished in the top-five in 3-point percentage, suggesting it would not have been unwise for the team to more freely fire away from deep. Additionally, that the Aces previously employed a surefire sniper in Kayla McBride and continued to claim the efforts of the quick-trigger Kelsey Plum made Laimbeer’s resistance to modernizing his offense attack more frustrating.
Of course, it is not like the Aces’ offense was ineffective. Quite the contrary. In 2021, Vegas had the best offensive rating in the WNBA; in 2020, they ranked second. By racking up points in the paint and free throws, Laimbeer’s Aces still turned out hyper-efficient offense performances.
However, it is also possible that, by embracing and implementing modern offensive principles, the Aces’ attack could be even better. And, more importantly, better equipped for the postseason.
Where Hammon might take the Aces
That is the hope for the Hammon-helmed Aces.
While there is some uncertainty about who will be suiting up for Vegas in 2022, as Liz Cambage, Angel McCoughtry, Riquna Williams and Kiah Stokes will be unrestricted free agents, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young will continue to ply their trade in Sin City. It also is all but guaranteed that A’ja Wilson, a restricted free agent, will be back with the Aces.
This cast of returning players is equipped to play a five-out, space-and-pace offense. Although Wilson is one of the best post players in the WNBA, she also has flashed a burgeoning 3-point stroke. Having Wilson bang shots from deep, as well as bang in the paint, can cause further trouble for already-overmatched defenders.
Ideally, Hammon also would reignite the offensive aggression of Chelsea Gray. In 2021, for the third-straight season, Gray’s points, shot attempts, 3-point attempts and free-throw attempts dropped. Because Gray converts her threes and free throws at above-average percentages, she should almost always be in attack mode.
In contrast, is likely that Kelsey Plum will have no problem adapting to a more shot-happy offensive attack.
That Hammon played under Dan Hughes, one of the WNBA’s earlier adopters of the 3-pointer, suggests she could implement this stylistic shift. Hughes’ San Antonio (Silver) Star teams were not as eager from 3 as his Seattle Storm squads; however, the Hughes-Hammon (Silver) Stars were top-five in the league in 3-point attempts in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. At the same time, the 2014 Stars were tops in the league in 3-pointers taken with 18.5 per game; in 2021, 10 of 12 WNBA teams, all expect the Aces and Indiana Fever, shot more 3s than the 2014 Stars.
When speaking to reporters on Monday, Hammon offered words that will be encouraging to those hoping to see a 3-powered Aces’ offense, saying, “We’ll probably shoot a few more threes.”
But, because there is no book on how a Hammon-led offense will look, it is possible she still sticks with a more traditional offensive attack. It is worth noting that Gregg Popovich, Hammon’s boss with the San Antonio Spurs, has increasingly bemoaned basketball’s 3-point revolution. While the “beautiful game” Spurs of the early-to-mid 2010s embraced the 3-ball, San Antonio’s more recent squads consistently have ranked at the bottom of the NBA in 3-pointers attempted, despite shooting above-average percentages.
Not unlike Laimbeer’s Aces.
Hammon and the Aces have options
It would be shortsighted to automatically assume that Hammon’s arrival promises souped-up Aces offense. Most importantly, she will have versatile, talented personnel that should allow her to establish the kind of system she deems most effective.
It also will be interesting to she how she shifts roles and rotations. Laimbeer was a stickler for specific roles and rotations, believing in the importance of a set and strong second unit. In recent seasons, the Aces reserves have been fantastic. Yet, one could also argue that Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Plum, and/or Jackie Young, all of whom came off the bench in 2021, could super charge the starting unit.
It does seem likely that Hammon, who had to have large doses of grit and spunk in order to become one of the best players in WNBA history after going undrafted out of Colorado State in 1999, will bring the kind of intensity and exacting attention to detail with which Aces players should be familiar.