October 15, 2023 

How Becky Hammon, A’ja Wilson and the Las Vegas Aces took over the WNBA

The Aces are set to define the next era of the league, on and off the court

In his introductory press conference as owner of the Las Vegas Aces, Mark Davis spoke of raising the standard in the WNBA and elevating “the greatest athletes in the world at what they do.”

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

Less than three years later, the Aces are a game away from their second straight WNBA title. They’re seeking to become the league’s first repeat champions since Lisa Leslie, Mwadi Mabika and DeLisha Milton-Jones led the Los Angeles Sparks to back-to-back rings in 2001-02.

In that time, Las Vegas has gone from a franchise whose business operations were split between buildings a four-mile drive apart and whose team was practicing at a nearby university, to one that is headquartered at an 80,000-square-foot facility and pacing the league in tactical planning and player development. The same principles that have fueled the Aces’ on-court development have undergirded their overhauled front office as it has allegedly committed repeated scandals.

The rapid modernization of Las Vegas’ basketball infrastructure has already had seismic effects on the rest of the W. Whether the league’s response to its business operations evolves will direct the course of the WNBA as it enters a new era.

There is little consensus in defining WNBA eras, but most signs point toward a distinct change in the leaguewide talent level and star power starting in 2015 and clearly underway in 2016. With League Pass offering every W game since the 2015 season, that’s another reason to consider that the beginning of a new era.

The biggest irony of this new era is that the best teams now were in many ways the most stylistically regressive during the prior era. Under head coach Bill Laimbeer, Las Vegas started two centers, played a top-three perimeter shot creator as a backup, and brought one of the league’s better power forwards off the bench to play the 3. New York was No. 2 in the standings this year after spending more than half the past decade led by arguably the most ineffective high-volume player of all time. Connecticut finished third this season, its first time playing with consistent space and high-quality team passing since 2011.

The game had already gotten away from Laimbeer’s Aces by the time he relinquished coaching duties in 2021. The two-center lineups were hamstringing the team’s help defense and stifling its better players. Liz Cambage, its highest-paid player, was a defensive liability in the playoffs, and her post scoring was losing value as offensive efficiency rose leaguewide. Vegas finished second in net rating in three straight years from 2019-21 but went 7-11 in the playoffs over that span and won just a single true playoff series.

“When I went back and watched that film [of those Aces teams], I just felt like teams were still playing very traditional, old school, like two post players — [at least] Vegas was. They ran a lot of the triangle [offense] and different things,” current Aces head coach Becky Hammon told reporters in August. “And I just felt like, when I watched them, they were making shots, but they were always in a crowd. It’s hard to make [shots] when there’s just bodies around you all the time [and] you don’t know if somebody’s under your feet. It’s just tight spaces because of the bodies and the spacing.”

That many WNBA teams had stopped innovating at the dawn of the League Pass Era presented Hammon with a significant competitive edge from the moment she joined the Aces. Given the right personnel, Hammon could have a structural advantage in every game by using what she’d learned with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs were already well ahead of any W team when she joined them as an assistant coach in 2014. They were perfecting the “space-and-pace” style that former Phoenix Suns head coach Mark D’Antoni had pioneered a decade earlier. Working with San Antonio also gave Hammon a front-row seat to the rapid, cutting-edge evolution of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

“I mean, good lord,” Hammon told The Next. “We had to scout them, we had to figure out how to stop them. I mean, I have stacks of things offensively where you see something and you like it and you just write it down. And you see something else and you just write it down. Or you see trends … D’Antoni’s philosophy opened up — and then the emergence of Golden State kind of opened up — everything ….

“When you’re talking about trying to gameplan how you’re going to guard split actions with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, or Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, yeah, you definitely learn what works and what doesn’t work real quick.”

Those lessons Hammon picked up informed a philosophy that would have been advanced for the NBA. But those teams didn’t hire her, and it was Vegas’ gain. It became clear within her first game that the franchise was developing into the Light Years Aces.

“When Bill and I [first] talked about Becky,” Aces president Nikki Fargas said at Hammon’s introductory presser, “we both were like, ‘If we can get her, this would be amazing.’ We knew that. And we knew it was going to be a game-changer because that’s all she does; she changes the landscape of where her feet are.”

Hiring Hammon came down to a few factors, but first and foremost was investment from ownership. That was financial investment in Hammon herself, to the tune of a record $1 million salary, and hiring Fargas, whose “power of persuasion” Hammon cited. It was also hiring some of the most respected names in the coaching community to join Hammon’s staff and building the W’s first dedicated facility, which New York Knicks guard Josh Hart tweeted earlier this year would be “top 5 … in the NBA.”

WNBA players have often cited team facilities as the biggest differentiator between franchises. Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd told The Next that “probably one of the biggest selling points for any team right now is having a space for their players.”

The other factor that sold Hammon was the quality of the opening. The two NBA franchises she interviewed with in summer 2021 for head coaching gigs, Portland and Orlando, were both long-term rebuilding jobs even by NBA standards. Vegas, by contrast, ranks alongside the post-2017 Storm and post-2007 Indiana Fever as arguably the best situation an outside hire has ever stepped into in the WNBA.

“I inherited a great group of basketball players,” said Hammon. “To me, they were great individuals, and I wanted to turn them into a team, and I felt like if we could turn them into a team where they bought into each other, that would be a difference-maker and that would be what got them over the hump. And it is what got us over the hump [in 2022].”

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

The other element that got the Aces over the hump was, of course, forward A’ja Wilson. Wilson is the best professional athlete the city of Las Vegas has ever seen and the focal point of Hammon’s system. In principle, that offensive system is fairly simple:

  • Use Wilson’s gravity as an unstoppable interior scorer and excellent decision-making to make defenses collapse inward.
  • Then get the ball in guard Kelsey Plum’s hands and use her shot creation and shooting gravity to force defenses into irreparable rotation.
  • If those two steps don’t generate a good shot, guards Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young can attack defenses scrambling to match up.
  • Finally, just make sure the fifth starter can take advantage of the easiest looks in the league enough that their presence doesn’t impair the other four.

All that starts with redefining Wilson’s entry points. Instead of Wilson posting up between the low block and mid-paint, as she usually did under Laimbeer, Hammon moved Wilson to get the ball farther out, at the elbow, slot or empty side midrange.

Given Wilson’s talent as a post scorer, this traditionally would not make much sense — she’s now starting further from the basket. But Hammon saw a player who could rival Prime Elena Delle Donne as the most unstoppable driver in the WNBA. By lifting the entry points, Wilson now had room to take full advantage of her burst and foot speed, and she could scan most of the court while in the triple-threat.

That’s all straightforward in theory. In practice, the system isn’t that easy to implement. The players Hammon believed were built for the modern age weren’t going to flip the switch from playing the triangle to going spaced-out on their own. In Wilson’s case, that meant improving her pull-up jumper and learning passing reads out of a midrange or perimeter iso. Otherwise, defenses could load up to stop her drives à la Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That push and pull between playing to the Aces’ strengths and shoring up their weaknesses is something Hammon has tried to stay two steps ahead of since Day 1. Wilson entered their first regular season together having massively improved her midrange jumper1 and her pick-and-roll game, not only to round out her skill set but to master the counters to her drives. Only midway through this year did some defenses even begin to find answers for that.

For Plum, growing into the role Hammon envisioned for her meant continuing to reinforce a mentality of hunting 3-pointers and layups. It meant reading the halfcourt as a playmaker by the time she got to the free-throw line (which the Aces call “rim reads”). And it meant balancing both at the same time.

For Young, it meant becoming comfortable nearly quadrupling her 3-point attempts per game from the 0.9 she had attempted across her three years at Notre Dame and first three in Vegas. It also meant buying into a system that wanted her not just to grow into an idealized role, but also to develop her game as much as she wanted. That led to her revamping her 3-point form and becoming one of the W’s best outside shooters.

Plum averaged career highs in points, scoring efficiency, assist rate and usage in 2022 while finishing third in MVP voting, and then she improved her efficiency in 2023. Young has shot 44.3% from three on 4.2 attempts per game over the past two seasons, marks no one has matched — not even Plum.

Up and down the roster, the Aces bridged the gap between where the players were and where they could be through a stronger and more deliberate emphasis on player development.

“You can have all the resources in the world, you got the greatest plan in the world, you still need the players to do the work [and have] the willingness to do the work,” Tyler Marsh, Aces assistant coach and head of player development, told The Next. “And we got great players, we got great people. They’re extremely hard workers. They come in without having to be pushed.”

The Aces’ staff simultaneously uses both a bottom-up and top-down approach — in Marsh’s words, “understand[ing] where they feel like they are in their game and where they would like to go, and then blend[ing] that with the vision that Coach Hammon has for them.” What that looks like varies from player to player, but there is always an informal assessment.

Such a player-led process could theoretically create opportunities for friction between them and the staff. But Hammon’s stated modus operandi from Day 1 was creating a roster and a staff who fit the culture.

“It’s their belief and their trust in us that’s extremely rewarding,” said Marsh. “That’s part of the process: [that] they understand the process, they understand that it’s not something that just happens overnight, even though that’s what it may look like [with] how quickly things come together. We still have our good days and our bad days, just like any team.”

The alignment between players, staff and player development has enabled the Aces to not only implement Hammon’s system, but also continually iterate over the past two seasons even as they’ve rarely felt a true challenge. It allows the player development staff to see both the forest and the trees, focusing more on fundamental skills during the offseason and teaching more narrow skills like guard-guard screening and veer switching during the season.

That’s a big part of why Plum last year was able to master the “relocation three” that was a staple of the Light Years Warriors. That skill allows her to exert as much off-ball gravity as anyone in the WNBA, which in turn allows the ball to be in Gray and Wilson’s hands more and makes their on-ball lives easier.

There’s no secret trick as far as teaching those skills. As Hammon says, “The only thing [is] reps. They gotta do it, they gotta feel it, they gotta see it over and over again. And then you just play basketball out of it.”

Where the Aces may be farthest ahead of the curve is in how the staff ensures those lessons stick. Standard pedagogy in nearly every context has long been about learning concepts in a vacuum before rehearsing in controlled environments. Instead, Vegas integrates individual players’ development plans into the team’s regular offensive drills and teaches in “game-like scenarios,” so that the gap between learning in practice and executing in a game is as small as possible.

All of this player development infrastructure is magnified by the other advantages the Aces already have.

Because of their dedicated facility, they not only have access to a high-quality environment that enables a wide array of approaches, but they also have the ability to come and go as they please without worrying about other teams or community members also using the space. The training equipment allows them to optimize rest and recovery so that skills training is more likely to be successful. A roster where the average member of the core rotation has had an annual salary of nearly $150,000 over the past two years and only two players have made below six figures in one of those seasons2 means they don’t need to go overseas during the winter to make a living. Instead, they can stay in Las Vegas and do more specialized development.

But, for all of those particulars, the primary reason Hammon’s Light Years Aces have the most “beautiful game” offense the league has ever seen is anything but subtle. Her system asks its four stars to make more reads and quicker decisions than they ever have before, but paradoxically, this makes their jobs easier. By spacing out and by asking each to be a threat both on and off the ball, defenses have to surrender help assignments. Playmakers have more options for where to go with the ball and an easier time processing what is going on around them.

“I felt like this personnel could do [my system],” Hammon said. “I think overall, you’ve seen the W now open up. There’s a lot more scoring, there’s a lot more 40-point games, there’s a lot more because of the space. So I think it fits well with the W — I think it looks great on the W, actually.”

Other teams have taken notice. The increase in capable ball-handlers per lineup that D’Antoni popularized is now the case for most teams. The transition from post-centric scoring to the pick-and-roll game has been accelerated. Teams are shifting resources toward player development like never before.

It’s only fitting that Hammon would be the one to open up the creativity of the game, and more specifically that she would be the one to unlock Wilson. As a player, Hammon was the greatest singular offensive engine the league has ever seen. She put up 59.0% true shooting and a 27.8% assist rate on 24.6% usage in 355 games in the middle of her career. Per Across The Timeline, only Diana Taurasi (270 games) and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke (124 games, her entire career) have ever done so in even 100 games.

Hammon went from a star in New York to a superstar in San Antonio, finishing top-six in MVP voting her first three years as a Silver Star. Head coach Dan Hughes built the entire team around her in a way the Liberty had never tried. He leveraged Hammon’s unmatched ability to create efficient offense at high volume for all five players3 into the franchise’s first No. 1 finish in the standings and first Finals appearance.

The team that was Hughes’ greatest influence during those days was, naturally, the Spurs. And after eight years playing for Hughes in San Antonio, Hammon joined the Spurs, where she would spend another eight years. Last season, en route to their first championship, Hammon coached the Aces to their first No. 1 regular-season finish and Finals appearance since the franchise moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas.

Your business can reach over 3 million women’s sports fans every single month!

Here at The Next and The IX, our audience is a collection of the smartest, most passionate women’s sports fans in the world. If your business has a mission to serve these fans, reach out to our team at editors@thenexthoops.com to discuss ways to work together.

There are a couple of important caveats to the Aces’ roster-building. First, these title teams weren’t built out of nothing. The franchise was so bad after Hammon retired4 that it earned top-two odds in four straight lotteries and won an unprecedented three in a row. Those picks turned into: Moriah Jefferson, later the centerpiece in a trade to acquire Cambage; Plum, the second-best shot-creating guard prospect ever; Wilson, the second-best center prospect ever; and Young, who always had the tools and work ethic to become one of the best wings in league history.

Vegas was not just lucky that its worst years coincided with elite prospects entering the draft, but also fortunate not to end up like the 2010-15 Tulsa Shock. Tulsa had top-three odds in five straight lotteries (and top-two in four of them) but ended up with just two future All-WNBA players. It also helped that the Aces narrowly avoided trading the pick that would become Young in the deal for Cambage.

The other caveat is in how Vegas retained and supported its three homegrown stars. Over the past two years, Hammon has effectively had a seven-player rotation, and with the possible exception of Kiah Stokes, controversy surrounds the franchise’s dealings with all of them.

Young, Gray and Plum signed below-market-level extensions during the first three months of the 2022 season. Several league sources told The Next that the Aces secured extensions by providing under-the-table benefits, which is an explicit violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Those same violations allegedly extended to the Aces’ recent free agent signings — namely, veterans Candace Parker and Alysha Clark agreeing to salaries well below market value.

The WNBA league office investigated these claims and found enough evidence to rescind Vegas’ 2025 first-round pick for impermissible benefits promised to former Aces forward Dearica Hamby. However, it claimed to be unable to substantiate claims relating to any other players after neglecting to interview any other members of the 2022 Aces. Around the W, this was widely seen as a failure by the league office.

Vegas announced less than two months later that it had re-signed Wilson to a two-year deal worth about 80% of what teams would have offered her as a free agent this winter.

The very reason the investigation had been sparked was because Hamby was traded to Los Angeles this past offseason, leaving her unable to receive the aforementioned benefits. As such, she no longer had incentive to refrain from accusing the Aces of severe workplace discrimination, including verbal abuse and trading her because she had gotten pregnant.

The same investigation regarding under-the-table payments also looked into Vegas’ treatment of Hamby and resulted in a two-game suspension for Hammon. Hamby later filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, which is sometimes a prerequisite for filing a federal lawsuit, claiming the WNBA league office did not adequately investigate.

The last key contributor Vegas committed to its 2022 roster was guard Riquna Williams. She played a pivotal role as a backup in the first title run and sealed the championship by putting up 17 points on 11 shots in the clinching win.

Signed to a two-year deal, Williams was paid in the ballpark of market value, but she agreed to an unprotected salary despite Vegas being able to carry two more protected contracts that year.5 That concession may have been for several reasons, but one might be showing appreciation for having originally signed her a year earlier.

Winter 2021 had been the first time Williams hit free agency since serving a 10-game suspension in 2019 for committing domestic violence against her ex-girlfriend. (Multiple charges against Williams were dropped once she completed a diversion program.) Despite the severity of both the charges and the suspension, a public repentance for the assault was never offered.

Some teams did not even consider signing Williams in 2021. But she signed with the Aces for one year at a salary around half what a player her caliber could have made if they had not previously committed domestic violence. She still was not pressed to reflect on the assault.

This July, she was again arrested for domestic violence and arraigned on even more severe charges. The charges were dropped after her wife moved to Florida and declined to return to testify, a very common occurrence in such cases.

Hammon made it clear that the Aces were not welcoming Williams back despite the development. But the chances Vegas management will acknowledge its irresponsibility in bringing Williams into the organization and retaining her are about the same as Williams herself sharing reflection or repentance.

The Aces’ pay-for-play scheme and general philosophy that league rules are made to be broken signify that the WNBA has grown up enough to commit big-league scandals. Their commitment to optimization by any means necessary — groundbreaking player development, acquiring players whose salaries were depressed by heinous off-court conduct, unethical conduct by non-player personnel — has taken a franchise that won 22 games in three years and turned it into the most thrilling product in league history. That same approach put Wilson in position to win a second MVP award, earn back-to-back WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, and become a face of the WNBA.

How you square that circle is up to you.

The Aces are just 40 minutes away from a second title after having led the league effectively wire-to-wire for the past two seasons. Their top four players are under contract for another year, and they have cap space for another max contract. The message that will define this era of the WNBA is clear, and it’s the same message as in MLB and the NFL: This is an entertainment business. Viewership is king and winning fixes everything.

“We want to be one of those places,” Fargas said, “where Las Vegas becomes the North Star. We want people to look at [the] Las Vegas Aces franchise and say, ‘Look, ownership is investing! Ownership is recognizing that there are great leaders out there that need to have those opportunities.’ And that’s exactly what Mark Davis has allowed us to do, not only by my hiring, but also by allowing me to go out and really go after a Becky Hammon.”

  1. Wilson has shot 45.3% on 172 pull-up 2-pointers across the last two seasons, per Synergy, after shooting 35.2% on 287 such shots over her first four years.
  2. Young finished her rookie-scale contract last season before making $165,000 in 2023, and center Kiah Stokes re-signed for $81,000 in 2023 after making $115,000 the season prior.
  3. Compare the stats of Vickie Johnson, Ruth Riley, Ann Wauters, Edwige Lawson-Wade, Danielle Robinson, Danielle Adams and Jayne Appel-Marinelli from when they played with Hammon in San Antonio to the rest of their careers, and a trend emerges.
  4. From 2015-17, the franchise’s final three years as the San Antonio Stars, it averaged just under eight wins a season.
  5. The entire starting five signed two-year extensions within a few months of Williams’ signing, however. That means that if the team had protected her 2022 salary, it would not have been able to sign any free agents to protected contracts the following offseason. (Trading Hamby opened one more spot for a protected contract.)

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.