September 19, 2022
‘We have to be scrappers’: How Las Vegas captured the 2022 WNBA title
The Aces' 'buy-in factor... has been high'
2022 was a year of firsts for the Las Vegas Aces. They had a first-year head coach in Becky Hammon, who was given the highest salary of any head coach in WNBA history to come to Las Vegas. They finished in first place in at the end of the regular season, winning the most games in franchise history along the way. They had the No. 1 offense in the league, which was the second-best regular season offense in the history of the WNBA.
Now, they are champions.
The Aces beat the Connecticut Sun 78-71 on Sunday afternoon to win the 2022 WNBA championship, winning the championship series 3-1. Chelsea Gray was named finals MVP after averaging 18.8 points and 6 assists while shooting 58.5% from the field during the four games. The Aces had to scrap and claw their way to win this championship, something they have done all season long and a mentality they got from their head coach.
“They stayed focused. This has been the goal since training camp. Luckily I got a group of really resilient players and you know, I said it out there but probably the biggest thing I’m proud of is just how they have come together over the course of the past five, six months to really become a team,” Hammon said. “I told the girls at that time the beginning of the year. We have to be scrappers because there will be times we are just smaller than everybody, and just show the grit and the focus, and it’s not always how tall you are to play this game. It’s what matters in here (head) and in here (heart).”
Early success for Las Vegas
When Becky Hammon was hired in December, she felt the Aces were well within reach of a championship. She came in and immediately went to work implementing her system. She made some major changes, moving A’ja Wilson to the center position, getting the team to take more threes and give her players more freedom on the offensive end.
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The changes worked right away, and the Aces rolled to start the season. They were the highest scoring offense in the league and were flying past their opponents early on. Then, the Aces hit a little slump right before the All-Star break. Their defense wasn’t playing up to Hammon’s standards and they started to drop games.
However, the righted the ship after the break and went into the playoffs as the number one seed. They were able to handle Phoenix in the first round pretty easily. Then they played one of the best series of all-time against the Seattle Storm and were able to come out on top in four games. Finally, they won the championship, defeating the Sun in a hard-fought championship series on Sunday.
Throughout the season, the Aces haven’t relied heavily on one specific player. Yes, A’ja Wilson was MVP and Chelsea Gray had an incredible postseason, but the Aces won their championship getting great performances from different people every night. They were a team that bought into what Hammon was selling and it allowed them to come together for a championship.
“First thing that you have to do in building a championship culture is to set a tone of accountability first and foremost. Bringing people together for a common goal that’s bigger than themselves, and then you’ve got to get the buy-in factor. My buy-in factor on each one of these women has been high, and I think they respond to me well, and you know, I try to be very clear with what their job is, what the expectation is,” Hammon said. “Everybody is held to the same line in the sense of, nobody is shooting it over two, three people. Play the right way and everybody wins, and when we win, everything else takes care of itself.”
Versatility required for Las Vegas to win it all
This entire postseason for the Aces hasn’t been easy for the Aces and has required a lot of grit and toughness from the team. They had three completely different series and it took different styles of play to win all three. It seemed like every time the Aces faced adversity in the playoffs, they were able to use grittiness and toughness to find a way to win.
“She’s been believing in us from the beginning to play our style on both ends of the floor. I don’t know if you guys seen it, but we were small as heck and we just had the belief. We were scrappers and that’s what she instilled in us from the beginning. It was from the beginning of training camp until now. So we been working on it and working for each other,” Gray said. “In training camp you start making those habits and start creating that relationship. When the season starts and you’re in the thick of things, you have things to fall back on – what type of person, what type of competitor they are. So she started off from the beginning, making sure she is not going to be easy on us, just making sure that we are ready when the time comes.”
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The whole season for the Aces has been defined by grittiness and toughness. The Aces played a very pretty style of basketball but the work they put into every game was incredible. It starts with the MVP Wilson moving to the center position, having to guard players bigger than her while also rebounding and scoring. She did all these things and had her best season statistically. She also played incredible defense, for which she was named DPOY.
“This is amazing. I say all the time, I wouldn’t be where I am today without my teammates. But winning a championship is something that no one can ever take from you and once you got that down, you are in the books forever,” said Wilson. “When you are talking about a legacy, you talk about, you have to win and I don’t win without my teammates. This moment right here, this year right here is something I’m never going to forget and this is not going to be the first. I’m not going to be like LeBron and start naming off numbers and stuff, but nah, this won’t be the [last]. And I’m just so glad I can celebrate this with Chelsea and everyone else because we worked so hard to get to this moment.
Additionally, Jackie Young, who improved drastically from last season and turned into an incredible two-way player, and Kelsey Plum also had incredible improvement after moving to the starting lineup full time, scoring the basketball and winning the All-Star game MVP. Then there’s Gray, who was snubbed from the All-Star game and turned in one of the best postseason performances we’ve ever seen.
The Las Vegas bench is heard from
The biggest criticism of the Aces all season long was their lack of bench production and you saw that in stretches throughout the playoffs. However, the starters stepped up and made a lot of key plays to win the championship. This again shows how tough the Aces were to fight through the fatigue and find ways to win games when they were tired. Of course, in the clinching Game 4 win, it’s only right someone steps up off the bench for the Aces as Riquna Williams had 17 points, including a couple of clutch baskets down the stretch.
For the majority of the players on this roster, it is their first-ever championship. While the Aces were a team full of stars, it was their toughness, grit and togetherness that led to the title. They were led by a first-year head coach who made some changes to allow her players to play to their fullest potential and help lead the franchise she played for to their first ever title.
“Obviously super proud of the group. It was a battle. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy… I don’t know, it’s actually hard to put into words right now. A little surreal. Maybe you can call me back in like a week when it sinks in,” Hammon said.
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.