Becky Hammon led the Las Vegas Aces to a WNBA championship with largely the same roster as the year before. What can NBA teams learn from their evolution?
On Sunday, the Las Vegas Aces won their first championship in franchise history, defeating the Connecticut Sun in four games. It was a fitting coronation for the most dominant team of the WNBA season nearly from start to finish.
But they entered the season with plenty of questions. After having been eliminated in the semifinals two of the previous three seasons, and a loss to the Seattle Storm in the 2020 Finals the Aces made some changes. The first was cutting ties with Liz Cambage and the second was hiring Becky Hammon to take over as head coach. Those two moves dramatically altered the team’s identity even if the rest of the roster largely remained the same.
Hammon really instituted two big changes to the Aces system this season, and they were extremely related. The most obvious was a huge increase in their 3-point attempts, from 13.5 per game in 2021 (dead last in the league by an enormous margin) to 26.4 per game this year (third in the league). The other big change was moving away from lineups featuring two traditional bigs.
In 2021, the Aces played 54 percent of their minutes with at least two of Cambage, Kiah Stokes and A’ja Wilson on the floor together. Those lineups dominated during the regular season, particularly defensively, but suffered in the postseason. The Aces used two-big lineups for 68 percent of their postseason minutes and were outscored by an average of 6.3 points per 100 possessions.
Moving on from Cambage cleared the way for a very different structure. The Aces used two-big lineups featuring Stokes and Wilson for just about 13 percent of their regular-season minutes and better spacing was instrumental to the breakout season of Jackie Young and the huge leap forward from Kelsey Plum. As you can see below, her numbers this season weren’t that different from her production when playing with a single big in 2021.
The Aces did use Stokes and Wilson together a lot during the postseason but still a smaller percentage of their minutes than they played two-bigs during the previous season.
In terms of specific actionable insights for NBA teams, shooting more 3-pointers and downsizing frontcourt rotations to add spacing aren’t exactly revolutionary ideas. However, there are several teams who could benefit from some Aces-inspiration in a less specific way — simply being willing to try using similar personnel in different ways, consciously side-stepping the insanity of repeating a strategy and expecting different results.
Will the Sacramento Kings be comfortable with three-guard lineups? The Kings aren’t exactly in the same boat as the Aces in terms of roster continuity. Domantas Sabonis played just 15 games in Sacramento after getting traded from Indiana at the deadline and both Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk were acquired this summer and figure to play heavy backcourt minutes. But that group creates the possibility for the Kings to create advantages by going ultra-small in the backcourt.
The Kings played small a fair bit last year, using stretchy hybrid forwards like Harrison Barnes and Trey Lyles at the 4. Rookie Keegan Murray should take plenty of those minutes this season in a similar role but finding minutes for Huerter and Monk along with incumbent guards Davion Mitchell and De’Aaron Fox means we could see the Kings lean heavily into three-guard lineups. It would require Huerter and potentially Fox to spend some time guarding 3s but getting three of those players on the floor together maximizes the Kings’ speed, shooting, on-ball creation and defensive disruptiveness. Sabonis is an excellent facilitator from the elbows and putting that group in constant motion, leveraging dribble hand-offs, cuts and baseline screens could give the Kings’ offense a dynamism they’ve been lacking the past few years.
Can the Lakers separate Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis? The Lakers are saying the right things about Westbrook but it seems obvious that they might have preferred to move on from him this offseason. If he refuses to adapt in terms of his shot selection, off-ball movement and willingness to come off the bench there is only so much the Lakers can do with him. However, trying to link his minutes with LeBron James, as much as possible, is probably to Los Angeles’ benefit.
None of the combinations worked out particularly well for the Lakers but their minutes will have to be staggered to some degree and anchoring Westbrook and LeBron together was the best of the bad options last season. At the risk of delving into pseudo-psychology, Westbrook is probably more willing to defer to LeBron and play the role the Lakers needed him to in that configuration. With Davis, the ball is in Westbrook’s hands far more often and his decision-making becomes a bigger issue. For example, Westbrook’s usage rate was 28.6 when he played with just Davis, compared to 24.3 when he played with just LeBron. Davis posted an effective field goal percentage of 51.5 when playing with just Westbrook, compared to 58.2 percent in all minutes he played without Westbrook.
Can the Chicago Bulls space the floor better?
As mentioned above, even the most 3-point-averse NBA teams are still way ahead of where the Las Vegas Aces were before Becky Hammon arrived. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some low-hanging fruit to be gained for a team like the Chicago Bulls.
Last season, the Bulls ranked dead-last in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game at 28.8. That number is the reflection of their entire constellation of personnel and strategy but one easy opportunity for improvement is simply stretching their floor-spacing. The Bulls lead the league in catch-and-shoot 2-pointers jumpers last season at 4.3 per game, one of only four teams to average 3.0 or more per game. Nikola Vucevic was, by far, the biggest offender, attempting a whopping 216 catch-and-shoot 2s over the court of the season.
The issue isn’t just that 3-pointers have a higher expected value, it’s that having Vucevic spotting up inside the arc instead of beyond brings another defender closer to the paint and cramps spacing and driving lanes for DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and the Bulls’ other creators. A lot of these spot-up 2s are coming off the pick-and-roll but even when there’s an opportunity to hold space at the 3-point line and either get a shot-off or pull a rim protector, he has a tendency to drift towards the mid-range.
Running some of these pick-and-rolls a bit higher so that Vucevic is closer to the line as he separates could help a lot, not to mention give LaVine and DeRozan more runway to attack. To be fair, Vucevic is a good mid-range shooter and hit just 31.4 percent from beyond the arc last season after hitting 40.0 percent the previous season. But even if he’s more accurate closer to the basket, the Bulls’ offense may be better off if he’s playing a few steps farther.
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The NBA and NBPA are having early discussions about the next CBA
Shams Charania reported on early discussions the NBA and NBPA are having on the next CBA (subscription required). What you should know:
- The NBPA and league office have a cooperative working relationship thanks to on-the-fly CBA updates that needed to be worked through during the coronavirus pandemic.
- The draft eligibility age looks poised to be lowered from 19 to 18, opening eligibility to high school prospects for the first time since 2005.
- On the table is a mental health injury designation for players, which would be the first professional North American sports league to offer such an official injury distinction.
- Work stoppages due to lockouts have occurred in the NBA in 1995 (three months), 1998 (six months), and 2011 (five months).
- No lockouts have occurred since Adam Silver was appointed commissioner in 2014.
- The most recent non-lockout work stoppage was due to the coronavirus pandemic. Provisional CBA changes were made to finish the 2020 NBA season at Walt Disney World in “The Bubble” and in the following season to keep games going.
Jae Crowder remains available, hungry for a ring
Brian Windhorst reported that Jae Crowder is still very much available. In reply to a stat about his playoff wins, he said he would rather have the championships that he didn’t win. He cited Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday as “taking” those from him on Twitter. Interesting that he didn’t mention Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Why it matters:
- Crowder was top-10 in defensive box plus/minus last year. He’s got two-way ability and could be a piece to help push things over the top for a Finals competitor.
Robert Sarver updates
Last week, an investigation into Robert Sarver’s workplace conduct resulted in penalties.
What you need to know:
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