May 21, 2024 

How Las Vegas Aces are coping without Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray

Becky Hammon: 'I actually don't want anybody to try to be Chelsea'

The start of a new season always brings a level of excitement to any professional sports franchise and its fans, but also challenges. Now imagine the lift of replacing two starters, one a future Hall of Famer, the other a perennial all-star. That is what the back-to-back reigning champs, the Las Vegas Aces, are having to do early in the 2024 WNBA season with the retirement of Candace Parker and the injury suffered by Chelsea Gray. The Aces are 2-0 through their first two games but they haven’t been easy, and the play has been choppy.

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“It hasn’t always felt good at times, but it shouldn’t,” said Becky Hammon. “I think the gas pedal part where we make mistakes, it’s like we compound. It’s got to be one mistake, then we’ve got to self-correct and move on. But when it’s consecutive mistakes, those are when it kind of gets away and you lose leads.”

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Coming into training camp, Parker was expected to be a part of the 2024 Las Vegas Aces roster. She was coming off a major foot injury but had re-signed in the offseason and the Aces had a plan for her return. So, when on the first day of training camp, she announced she was retiring, it caught everyone by surprise.

The one advantage the Aces faced in this situation was that Parker missed a large chunk of last season due to her injury. They had played and won without her a season ago. In her absence, Kiah Stokes jumped into the starting lineup, something Stokes is familiar with during her time in Las Vegas. In the first two games of the season, Stokes got the start in the spot Parker had a season ago, next to Finals MVP A’ja Wilson in the frontcourt.

Stokes herself is coming off an injury she suffered in Game 3 of the WNBA finals a year ago. Due to that injury, this was the first offseason she didn’t play overseas. Stokes has never been much of a scorer, but she’s made her living on defense and rebounding. However, she hasn’t looked 100% like herself in the first two games. She only played an average of 22 minutes in the first two games and struggled at time on defense when switching onto perimeter players in the Aces base defense. The Aces will need her to find her form next to Wilson defensively to help solidify their front court. She will continue to start as Becky Hammon trusts her and she should get stronger and more confident in her healed foot as the season progresses.

The Aces also added Megan Gustafson to their roster this offseason to help bolster their frontcourt depth. Through the first two games, she has averaged 15 minutes, 6.5 points and 3.5 rebounds. She has been the first sub off the bench in both games so far this year, and she is getting comfortable with her Aces teammates. 

She’s had some good moments so far, including a great cut when Kelsey Plum drove against the Sparks that led to any easy layup for Gustafson. She’s also been taking threes at a higher rate through two games than she did last year with the Mercury. Her ability to shoot the outside shot from the forward position is a big reason why Hammon likes her and something that should help replace the production of Candace Parker. However, Gustafson is still learning the Aces defensive scheme which involves a lot of switching, something she hasn’t done a lot before. Hammon likes her offensive capabilities but knows it will take time for her to be fully integrated in the defensive system.

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“When we first come out of the gates, we’re real sharp,” Hammon said. “We have to maintain that sharpness throughout the game. Some of the stuff is different to you know, with Megan when we’re switching a lot it’s hard for her to guard Kahleah Copper. You know where A’ja and Kiah, it’s a little bit easier for them. So, in some ways, we’re still trying to incorporate some of our rules in our base defense. We were in base defense base for most of the game and the switching at times just got lazy.”

Something the Aces did at the end of both of their first two games was go to a small ball lineup. With the versatility of Alysha Clark on the defensive end, Las Vegas feels comfortable playing with that smaller lineup that has Clark at the four. We saw in the first game, the Aces go with Sydney Colson as the fifth player with Chelsea Gray out. However, in the second game, we saw that spot filled by rookie Kate Martin.

While Parker retired, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Aces go more to this small ball lineup in key moments and to finish games. They did it in the playoffs last year, especially against New York in the Finals. It also wouldn’t be shocking to see Martin get to play in these types of lineups. She was on the floor on Saturday when the Aces went on a 17-1 second quarter run to take a halftime lead against the Sparks. She played 26 minutes on Saturday, including 14 of the final 15 minutes of the game.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Jacy Sheldon (4) is defended by Iowa Hawkeyes guard Kate Martin (20) during the second half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Photo credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s hard to being a rookie, it’s so hard — let alone being a rookie with the two times champs,” Wilson said of her rookie teammate. “I can only imagine what she goes home to or just kind of thinks and processes. I try to lift her in every single way that I can, try to be there for her. I feel like today I kind of looked at her, I was like believe in yourself, go. Believe your matchup, attack that because it’s needed. She’s got 11 people behind her that’s going to make sure that she’s comfortable and good at where she is and [that she] believes in herself and always bring the energy just like she does for us.”

Hammon refers to Martin as a pro already and told her to shadow everything Alysha Clark does.  The Aces may use Martin as a secondary Clark and allow her to play in big moments with different types of lineups. Her versatility as bigger guard/smaller post will allow her fit with a host of different players on the floor. Hammon likes to have players who can shoot the ball and so Martin and Clark playing at the other forward position next to A’ja Wilson will probably happen a lot the rest of the season with Parker now retired.

“We’re gonna keep the ship afloat until Chelsea gets back,” said Hammon. “I’ve already told them you know, it’s not going to be any one person. I actually don’t want anybody to try to be Chelsea. I just need to squeeze a little bit more out of this one (A’ja Wilson), squeeze a little more out of KP (Kelsey Plum) and I think I can actually squeeze a lot more out of Jackie. Then those other pieces you know Kiah coming in and hitting shots, Megan hitting shots. AC (Alysha Clark) I think has been great.”

While Parker’s replacements seem to have been ironed out, replacing Chelsea Gray has been a little more difficult through two games for the Aces. They have used both Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum at their point guard in the first two games with mixed results. They both have scored well, with them averaging 22.5 and 19 respectively. However, at times the Aces offense has gotten stagnant.

Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young (0) brings the ball up the court during the WNBA game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 06, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The Mercury hurt the Aces in the first game by throwing a zone at them late and Las Vegas looked lost. In Saturday’s game against the Sparks, the Aces shot 24% from the field in the first quarter. In both those situations, Chelsea Gray most likely would have settled the Aces offense down and gotten them in the right situation to be successful. Plum and Young want to be out there and giving their all for their team but playing point guard is one of the hardest positions to play.

“Playing point guard in this league, it is the hardest position to play,” Hammon said. “They (Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum) never want to come out. They get mad, they go for 40 but it’s the cumulative effect especially with those two because they’re basically involved in every play offensively and defensively. They’re chasing, they’re on the perimeter, Jackie’s normally on that other team’s best perimeter player. They exert a lot of energy. It’s nice to have the combination of them but I gotta find a way to get them a little bit more rest.”

Unfortunately for the Aces, there isn’t an easy an answer to replacing Chelsea Gray. Hammon has asked everyone to step up a little bit. She feels she can squeeze more out of Jackie Young, who had a career high 11 assists day on Saturday. Running the offense will probably fall a lot more on her shoulders but it will take a team effort to help replace Gray’s output and maybe more importantly, her basketball IQ. The Aces have a lot of talent, but finding a way to handle Gray’s extended absence may be one of the most difficult challenges they faced during Hammon’s tenure.

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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.

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