August 18, 2020 

Aces notebook: Midseason numbers check-in

What we’ve learned about the No. 2 team in the standings nearing the midway point

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PALMETTO, FL- AUGUST 13: Kayla McBride #21 of the Las Vegas Aces shoots the ball against the Minnesota Lynx on August 13, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

The Las Vegas Aces find themselves at the No. 2 spot in the standings through 10 games. It’s time for a midseason rundown of some of the key numbers that stand out so far and why they’ll be worth monitoring the rest of the way. All stats were obtained via unless otherwise noted and are current as of Monday.

Las Vegas is riding a seven-game winning streak, which included a tough six-game-in-eleven-days stretch. Bill Laimbeer noted on Saturday that his team was about to enjoy its first off-day in two weeks. The 8-2 Aces have a very exciting and illuminating stretch coming up this week as they face the Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm. 

The Aces and the Storm, the two top teams in the standings thus far, have yet to face off in 2020. The two matchups between those teams will be must-see television, starting with Saturday’s clash, which will be nationally televised on ABC. There will be a quick turnaround, too: Seattle and Vegas will convene for their second meeting next week. 

It would be fair to say that the Aces have a tougher schedule in the second half compared to what they faced in the first 10 games. They also have not faced the Connecticut Sun yet, a team playing with more confidence after a tough 0-5 start to the season. Four of the Aces’ eight wins to date were against the bottom three teams in the standings. Some key figures were also missing in big wins over Los Angeles (Nneka Ogwumike, Seimone Augustus) and Minnesota (Sylvia Fowles). 

The two games with Seattle will be particularly illuminating for several reasons. Only two of the Storm’s 10 wins have been all that close. Vegas has every right to point to some similar areas where they’ve ranked quite high as well. Seattle hasn’t had to play them, yet, either. A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart figure to be fixtures in the MVP conversation at this point. 

The next few weeks will also give some teams chances to separate in the standings. Which seeding battles will still be at play in the final week of the season? The Aces have will have the opportunity to knock the Storm down a peg and/or simply add some distance between themselves and the other teams aiming for that No. 2 overall seed. 

Now, how did the Aces get here? They rank second in offensive efficiency through Sunday’s games, scoring 105.9 points per 100 possessions. Some familiar or expected strengths remain the same, too. Vegas has held its opponents to 95.5 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league. They have prioritized taking care of the basketball and boast the league’s lowest turnover percentage (16.8). 

The Aces have cleaned up very well on the defensive glass, collecting 75.1 percent of available defensive rebounds—the second-best mark in the league, trailing Washington by a hair (75.2). Of course, pulling down as many defensive rebounds as possible limits second chances for your opponents. It also gives a team more chances to get out in transition. According to PBPStats, the Aces’ average of 13.97 seconds per possession is the fastest in the league for a second consecutive season. 

Las Vegas has done an exceptional job thus far of defending without fouling, currently boasting the lowest opponent free throw attempt rate compared to last season, where they ranked in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, the Aces average the most free throw attempts per game (22.8). 

Wilson has played at an extremely high level in her third WNBA campaign. She ranks second in scoring average (20.3) and leads the league in free throw attempts per game (6.8). The Aces have played with the confidence of a group that knows their star forward can put an end to a scoring drought and carry them home in close games. 

Overall, the Aces have done an excellent job of controlling the controllables, namely by limiting their own turnovers, commanding the defensive glass and defending with discipline to keep their opponents off the foul line. They’ve also been healthy relative to the rest of the league. The top nine players in their rotation have been available for every game, save for one missed by Lindsay Allen due to an inconclusive COVID-19 test result

Aces opponents have averaged the most 3-point attempts per game while just shooting 28.7 percent, nearly six full percentage points below the league average of 34.6. While it’s certainly possible to do a good job of contesting some 3-point attempts, some Jedi 3-point defense is likely at play here. Things may look different by the end of the season as that number normalizes. 

Laimbeer does need to get All-Star guard Kayla McBride more involved in the offense. Her 7.6 shot attempts per game would be a career-low by a significant margin, trailing only last season’s average of 10.5. McBride did get off to a bit of a slow start and has only averaged 24 minutes per game. But even on a per-36 minute basis, McBride’s shots have been down. 

Optimizing the role of your best shooter matters because the Aces get up the fewest number of 3-pointers (10.2) by a wide margin. The No. 11 team, Atlanta, clocks in at 18.7 attempts per game. Now, there is some noise at the top this year. New York and Dallas lead the league in attempts but haven’t exactly been shooting the lights out. Taking more for the sake of taking more isn’t a catch-all solution. 

Balance is key. The other teams in the top six can all get hot from distance. Look no further than Seattle, who is shooting a scorching-hot 42 percent on nearly 23 attempts per game. On Sunday, the Storm shot 13-for-23 from beyond the arc against Connecticut. At some point, you have to worry you might just be fighting too much of an uphill math battle. This clash makes those meetings with Seattle even more compelling. Will the Aces pull out all the stops in those games? Will Laimbeer save something for a potential playoff matchup? 

Major free agent acquisition Angel McCoughtry is off to a fantastic start, shooting 57 percent from the field. Fellow February signing Danielle Robinson has had some big games off the bench; the multiple-time All-Star helps push the pace, get to the rim, and has been an extremely disruptive defensive presence against opposing guards. 

Laimbeer has been diligent with McCoughtry’s minutes, playing her for four-to-five minute stretches and leaning on some of his key reserves to take on more responsibility. The bench has been excellent, led by Robinson, Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby. Don’t be surprised to see both Young and Hamby closing the team’s most important games. Young has really found her confidence in her pull-up jumper to be a much bigger scoring threat, and Hamby’s play hasn’t dropped off at all after earning Sixth Woman of the Year honors in 2019. 

Wilson and Hamby have played 194 minutes together with the Aces outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. That total accounts for 70 percent of Hamby’s minutes played to date and nearly 64 percent of Wilson’s. That has occurred primarily with that duo as the team’s power forward and center. Hamby has only logged 13 minutes with Wilson and one of the team’s two centers on the floor—a look we saw more often in 2019 to get Hamby, Wilson and All-WNBA center Liz Cambage all on the floor at the same time.  

The Aces have looked like a formidable playoff challenger so far in 2020. But some of their key players may come back down to earth after shooting well north of 50 percent inside the arc as their opponents see some positive regression beyond it. What will that look like on the scoreboard and in the stat sheet?

In the meantime, the Aces will hope to stay healthy and make the most of some chances to build even more momentum with wins over some of the top teams in the league in this upcoming string of games. This Aces group checks some key boxes both with things you can measure (limited turnovers, rebounding, pace) and others that simply can’t be wholly quantified. Las Vegas has a leading MVP candidate still very much on the upswing in Wilson and a battle-tested second option in McCoughtry to just go score when the team needs a basket most. 

You may have struggled to imagine this outcome right out of the gates for the Aces as they opened camp with low numbers. Las Vegas now has good reason to proceed as one of the most confident teams in the league as all 12 teams begin jockeying for position in this sprint to the playoffs. 

Written by Ben Dull

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