The Las Vegas Aces’ hard-nosed head coach Bill Laimbeer has been giving his team the most rest of any team in the WNBA, helping the team win in the clutch.
When Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer played in the NBA, the issue of getting players rest was not a concern. For ten of Laimbeer’s 14 NBA seasons, he played at least 80 of the 82 regular-season games, while averaging at least 30 minutes per game. He’s one of only a dozen players in NBA history to have played that much in at least ten different seasons. And, of course, given Laimbeer’s style, a fight was about to break out during most of those minutes.
Giving rest was also not a concern when Laimbeer was at the helm of the Detroit Shock, where he won three WNBA championships across his first six seasons of coaching, from 2003-2008. If you line up the top 50 individual seasons with the most minutes played in WNBA history, a full seven of them came from Laimbeer’s teams with the Shock, with Deanna Nolan and current New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith registering over 35 minutes per game on a regular basis. During the 2018 season, no player on any WNBA team entered that top 50.
The context of Laimbeer’s career makes it all the more remarkable that, here in 2019, he is keeping his Las Vegas Aces one of the freshest teams in the league as the playoffs approach. Part of Laimbeer’s approach does include his refreshingly new-school attitude towards his new center Liz Cambage, who has written with admirable honesty in The Players’ Tribune about her need to take time off during this season for mental health reasons. While Laimbeer and the Aces should be admired for taking a flexible and trusting approach with Cambage, Laimbeer’s new embrace of rest is not limited to off-court issues: Laimbeer has been incredibly diligent in rationing minutes for his entire team.
All-Star shooting guard Kayla McBride is averaging 29.8 minutes per game on the season right now — meaning, after a busy night or two, her 2019 average could easily rise above 30 minutes a night. However, at the moment, the Aces are one of just two teams in the league who does not have a player averaging 30 or more minutes per game. (The other team to have all of its players below the 30-minute threshold is the last-place Atlanta Dream — although, to be fair, coach Nikki Collen was the only coach to provide the same rest for her stars last season, when the Dream were one game away from a Finals appearance.) But Laimbeer is actually staying dramatically clear of the 30-minute line: second-year All-Star A’ja Wilson, sitting at 27.9 minutes per game, is the only other member of the Aces who is above 25 minutes a night. The tight rationing of minutes has allowed Cambage to stay incredibly fresh and incredibly efficient: Cambage is fourth in the league in points per possession but has played fewer total minutes than every 2019 All-Star who has not missed time with an injury.
As was the case with the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs — the NBA champions who brought player rest into the mainstream — the 2019 Aces have been able to provide rest to their top-end starters thanks to full-roster depth. Every night, Laimbeer rolls out an incredible 11-player rotation. Wilson, who missed some time with an ankle injury, and still-developing 20-year-old prospect JiSu Park are the only Aces who have missed more than two games for any reason. Las Vegas has actually played most of the season with just 11 players on the roster, meaning that just about every player has been playing on every night — a definite oddity in the world of professional basketball.
This isn’t the only way the Aces are an oddity: Las Vegas has staked out a lead on a ridiculous number of league-wide leaderboards, but the categories don’t always have a lot to do with one another. For instance, Las Vegas is clearly the best defense in the league, full of tenacious guards who play with confidence ahead of the mighty rim-protecting trio of Cambage, Wilson, and Most Improved Player candidate Dearica Hamby. But, unlike many defensively elite teams, who may want to grind the game to a halt, the Aces play at the second-fastest pace in the WNBA. As Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight points out, the Aces actually force their opponents into the longest possessions of anyone in the league — all while moving at the quickest offensive pace themselves, including scoring the most fastbreak points in the game.
The Aces lead the league in 3-point accuracy — but also take the fewest attempts from deep. But, again, unlike your typical 3-point-averse team, Las Vegas is not jacking up shots from the mid-range: only the Los Angeles Sparks score a smaller percentage of their buckets in the mid-range game. As is to be expected with the mighty presences of Cambage and Wilson, the Aces are pouring in points from the key. However, the team is not just dumping the ball to one of their interior All-Stars and clearing out: the Aces are creating assists on more of their baskets than any team in the league.
Add it all up, and the Aces really are designed to thrive in the tough, bitter ends of close games, where physicality is at a premium. While there is a small sample size alert here, it does follow from the Aces’ team identity that they would be able to gain crucial advantages during close fourth quarters. This season, the Aces have played 77 minutes that WNBA.com classifies as “clutch” — a scoring margin within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, or in overtime. That’s easily the most in the league. And: the Aces have dominated during these crucial minutes, outscoring opponents by half a point a minute — or, the same pace as a 20-point blowout.
Las Vegas’ intense, team-wide defense can grind the opponent to a complete halt — especially given that teams tend to play a slightly slower fourth-quarter pace anyhow. In the clutch against the Aces, opponents have managed to shoot a combined 28.7 percent from the field. The following video shows the Aces’ incredible defensive versatility. In the first clip, McBride instinctively sees one pass ahead as Aces players frantically switch and recover, allowing her to get a crucial hand in the face against Minnesota’s Stephanie Talbot. Try to go inside and, of course, Cambage and/or Wilson and/or Hamby will be there waiting:
The Aces’ offense hums along like usual in the clutch, shooting 45 percent, with more than two assists for every turnover. If the Aces don’t manage to create a signature quick-strike look, Cambage or Wilson be trusted on to generate a bucket in the post if all other options have run dry. Also, the two bigs can work a powerful high-low game, or they can create huge openings with powerful screens, opening up looks for what is, again, the most accurate 3-point team in the game:
(Las Vegas also maintains their dominant margin when adding in free throws, as opponents are often forced to foul Cambage or Wilson: the Aces have 66 attempts from the stripe during these clutch minutes, while opponents only have 42.)
The Aces may have preferred to have a regular-season where they didn’t have to prove their abilities in the clutch over and over again. After all, the owners of the league’s best offense, the Washington Mystics, have spent the least amount of time in the clutch of any WNBA team, mostly because their offense is so powerful that starters are usually sitting out the fourth quarter. But let’s remember that this was a 14-20 team from last season who helped create their own luck, assembling a powerful trade package to acquire Cambage, who had been assumed to be moving to the Sparks during the entire offseason. The Aces were about a week away from tipping off when Cambage finally came to town, and the young team has managed to balance the sudden championship expectations by going out and winning games. At some point in their first journey into the playoffs together, there will be a game where the clock will wind down to the last few minutes of a close game. The Aces will be rested, and they will be ready.