August 2, 2022
Defense is the number one thing that will decide the Las Vegas Aces’ fate in 2022
Why the Aces will need to see more defensive performances like the one in their Commissioner's Cup championship if they want that elusive first championship
Defense wins championships. It’s one of the oldest adages in the world of sports. If you talk to any coach or player about the keys to being a successful team, it usually starts on the defensive side of the ball. For the 2022 Las Vegas Aces’ that statement couldn’t be more accurate and the defense has already shown itself to be the number one factor to the team’s success.
The Aces’ started the season on fire, winning nine of their first ten games. Under first-year head coach Becky Hammon, they blitzkrieged the league, sporting a new high-powered offense and a very stingy defense. However, as the season has progressed, that stingy defense has started to show some cracks. During that 9-1 start, the Aces had a defensive efficiency rating of 95.8 and were giving up just 79.8 points per game. However, from the beginning of June until the All-Star Break, the Aces played .500 basketball while seeing their defensive efficiency rating rise to 107 and seeing opponents scoring an average of 90.1 points per game against them. Both of those two statistics were the bottom two in the WNBA during that stretch.
“I think our defense is versatile, but we have to learn how to communicate and trust one another. I think we’re so locked into making sure that…we just can’t let this person score, but it’s nine other people around us. It’s eight other people around us. I think at the end of the day on the defensive end, we have to lock down and anchor together,” said A’ja Wilson. “I think this all-star break is going to be good for all of us because we need to step away, step away from the game a little bit and not just look at ourselves but just step away from the game. A lot has been going on on both sides of the basketball for us, but we just got to just find a way to grind it out.”
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Since the All-Star break, the Aces’ have looked much more like their early season defensive form than the previous month plus. Over the last eight games, the Aces are 7-1 and have a defensive efficiency rating of 96.5, second best in the WNBA during that stretch. They are also holding their opponents to 79.3 points per game compared to the 90.1 they were giving up throughout June and into early July. Those numbers are close to the top of the WNBA since the break and drastically improve from where the Aces were before the break.
“Minus that first quarter of the Atlanta game, I think we’ve been pretty solid defensively. We obviously play with a lot of possessions per game, so it’s really hard for my team to hold somebody in the 60s and 70s because you’re playing with so many possessions,” Hammon said. “We kind of have to gauge a little bit differently on our success on the defensive end, so field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, points in the paint. We have to look at it a little bit differently.”
You saw what their return to defensive form looked like in their Commissioners Cup victory over Chicago last Tuesday night. They held Chicago, who has the second highest scoring offense in the league, to 82 points. The Aces came out of the gates locked in on the defensive end, holding the Sky to 14 points in the first quarter on 28% shooting. They also held Chicago without a made three-pointer until the 6:08 mark of the second quarter.
“It’s a mindset. It’s a heart decision. Defense doesn’t take a lot. You don’t have to be necessarily talented to play defense. You just have to want it,” Wilson said. “I’m going to make sure my teammates know, like I said, that I’m there and we buckle in. When we are locked in on the defensive end, like I was telling KP, this doesn’t have to be just a Commissioner’s Cup game. This could be an every-game thing for us. But it’s just a shift of the mindset. So hopefully, going into this long road trip that we have ahead that we can stay and maintain that mindset.”
The All-Star break was much needed for the Aces’ who play their starters as much as any team in WNBA. The Aces’ starters are great, with four of the five being names All-Stars, but playing as many minutes as they do causes fatigue. When players get tired, defense is the first area that seems to deteriorate.
The Aces’ have a roster with multiple very high-level defenders on it. Jackie Young has broken out this year on both sides of the floor and has shown to be one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. Dearica Hamby is a swiss army knife on defense who’s had the primary responsibility of guarding players like Breanna Stewart, Arike Ogunbowale and Candace Parker, to name just a few. A’ja Wilson is not only an MVP candidate but also a defensive player of the year candidate. She leads the league in blocked shots and is third in the league in defensive win shares.
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“Her defensive effort has been off the chart and you’re gonna see as we go through the season, there should be talks about her being one of the best defensive players in the league,” said Hammon of Wilson. “This is gonna sound really corny but just her alertness, her alertness as to what’s going on. Seeing everything come at her and being able to anchor, pass people out quickly on mismatches and then just the overall effort, attention to detail that she’s put in.”
When you watch the Aces play, you can tell when they are locked in on defense. In the first quarter of the Commissioners Cup championship game against Chicago, they were talking on defense, getting deflections and using the defense to fuel their offense. If you watch the first quarter of their game against Atlanta on July 19th, their lone loss since the All-Star break, you won’t see any communication, undisciplined habits and a team that wasn’t all on the same page on the defensive side of the ball.
For the Aces’ to be successful over their final six regular season games as well as the playoffs, it is going to start on the defensive side of the ball. The numbers have shown when the Aces’ are a good defensive team, they win games and win them pretty handily. Over the last eight games, the Aces’ have won their games by an average of 13.6 points. During their .500 stretch from the beginning of June until the All-Star break, they were being outscored by two points per game. They were able to capture the Commissioner’s Cup championship behind their defense and if they want to win their first championship in franchise history, the old adage will have to ring true for them. Defense is the key to winning a championship.
“We have a lot of good offensive pieces, but in the last week, two weeks, ever since All-Star break, I told them I don’t care about offense, I want defense. Defense for 40 minutes. After that, I don’t really care about your jump shot,” said Hammon.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.