January 4, 2022 

Becky Hammon comes home to WNBA, Aces

Why Hammon is doing this now, what her arrival in Las Vegas means and how the Aces keep pushing the WNBA forward

Back in the summer of 2020, when Becky Hammon was doing a virtual interview with ESPN, LaChina Robinson asked the former point guard about getting back into the women’s side of basketball.

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Hammon answer included saying she “was off on a little bit of a journey right now, trekking some paths that haven’t been trekked before” and making sure she was taking the responsibility seriously, no matter how heavy it felt. But at the end of the answer?

“I’ll come back around,” Hammon said. “People always come home eventually.”

Eventually was, officially, New Year’s Eve 2021 for Hammon, who agreed to become the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces after months of pursuit from Aces president Nikki Fargas.

Hammon did her first press conference as the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces from a hotel in Toronto, where the MNBA’s San Antonio Spurs will take on the Raptors tomorrow night. Hammon is remaining with the Spurs until WNBA training camp begins in April and acknowledged these next few months will be “very busy” as she manages both jobs at once.

But it’s clear that Hammon is ready to come in to Las Vegas and make an impact — and that she’s got the highest aspirations in mind.

“I know that the Aces are close, and I do feel like implementing a system — my offensive system and defensive system — is something I’m really looking forward to,” Hammon said. “I think that a championship is well within reach. That opportunity in itself, walk into a situation with a winning team and the caliber of players that I’ll be inheriting from Bill in the foundation he laid, I’m super fortunate, super blessed and obviously very excited.”

Why the W … and why now … for Hammon

When it came to making this decision, Hammon made it a point to emphasize that she didn’t seem to have a hierarchy in comparing NBA jobs to WNBA jobs, even if others wanted to ascribe it to her. She’s interviewed for a few NBA head coaching positions, most recently being reported as a finalist for the Portland Trail Blazers job this past NBA offseason, but felt the important part was becoming a head coach.

“This was not really about the NBA or the WNBA,” Hammon said. “This was about me personally, being ready to have a team and wanting to have a team and wanting to sit in that chair and then being presented with an opportunity to do so.

“I’m here talking to you guys because I feel like I’m ready to be in that seat, and this is the organization that wanted to give me that opportunity. I have a lot to give and that, if anything, I’ve learned that basketball is basketball. The court is 94 feet. The hoop is 10 feet high. There’s 10 players on the court, and it really doesn’t matter who’s out there.”

But Hammon didn’t shy away from letting her thoughts on the NBA’s lack of willingness to hire her stand out, even indirectly. She initially said she “had no intentions of leaving the NBA at this point” before the Aces reached out — and, as it became clear, had a deep-seated interest in her.

“This is the organization that made it very, very obvious,” Hammon said. “They wanted me really, really bad. And so it’s always good to feel wanted. It quickly became evident to me that Las Vegas was the place to be.”

Hammon added that, in her previous head coaching interviews, she consistently heard two pieces of feedback: that she had only been in San Antonio and she had never been a head coach (even though she had been the head coach for the Spurs’ 2015 Summer League championship team). When asked about how the interviews with the NBA teams played a role in this decision, Hammon said she felt “very close” to getting those positions, but also expressed some doubt about just how close she was to getting her shot at an NBA head coaching job.

“NBA jobs are hard to get. In some ways, I feel like the NBA maybe is close. In other ways, I feel like they’re a long ways off from hiring. I don’t know when it could happen,” Hammon said. “What I know is that the Aces have 100% of my attention and energy and I’m super proud to be their head coach and lead this group of girls.”

Hammon said she had “a lot of sleepless nights” contemplating the offer, and Fargas joked that she was “sending those vibes to her” all the way back in September, when the Aces hosted Hammon for a jersey retirement ceremony. Fargas, Davis and the Aces had to be patient, but Hammon gave them the answer that had Fargas jumping for joy.

“Becky is the most talented person for the Aces — period, hands down,” Fargas said. “So to get her here, I just said, ‘Whoa, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, thank you Santa Claus,’ because that was one of the biggest presents that the Aces organization could have underneath our family tree, so to speak.”

How Hammon’s arrival impacts Sin City

Hammon not only brings with her a wealth or personal knowledge from her 16-year playing career, but from her eight years under the tutelage of legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, something she’s grateful for — and ready to share.

“I’m super, super grateful for all of those years, because it was really all training ground for me for what I’m going to do next,” Hammon said. “Coach Pop has been pouring into me a lot of knowledge — not only basketball knowledge, history, all sorts of knowledge. I feel like I’m bubbling over of stuff that I want to give back, that I have to say. Things that I want to teach, things that I want to convey, things that I want to instill, habits I want to create with the girls and for the girls.

“That’s what I feel — I’m bubbling over to give back.”

When asked for a quality that set Hammon apart, Fargas quickly retorted with, “How much time do I have?” before answering.

“There’s an energy about Becky that is just contagious,” Fargas said. “I use this a lot with my daughter and say, ‘Are you going to be that kid that, when you walk into the room, it lights up? Or are you going to be that kid that, when you leave the room, it lights up?’ With Becky, when you can feel her presence.

“The energy, the presence, it’s there and it represents winning. It represents doing things the right way. It represents respect. It represents treating people like you want to be treated. It represents having an accountability but also shouldering the weight of what comes with that when you do step and sit two inches, three inches over.”

Hammon said she needed to rewatch all of the Aces games from 2021, but already had a few ideas how she’ll tweak how the team is used compared to how they played previously under former head coach Bill Laimbeer — but tweak, not overhaul.

“Doing a total rehaul or massive changes? No, I don’t see that happening,” Hammon said. “I think they have some really good pieces in place, and what it’s about is finding the chemistry with those players, building the foundation out but also adding a few pieces that fit the style I want to play and that I see moving this team in that direction. Which means we’ll probably shoot a few more threes to be quite honest. We’ll get up at the floor, up and down probably a little bit more.”

Hammon didn’t commit to any decisions on her staff at the time, but saying she needed to have a staff in place that was like-minded, understood the WNBA, fit into the culture Hammon wants and can have Hammon “trust their eyes in what they see and feel.” It will be one of several things she has to manage in an offseason with some major uncertainty — and a lot of variables.

Only five players are currently under contract for 2022: Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Dearica Hamby, Jackie Young and Destiny Slocum, accounting for nearly half of the team’s cap space. A’ja Wilson is a restricted free agent, meaning she will be back in Las Vegas no matter what, but how she fits in financially — on a maximum contract for three years, or for one year, or even on the qualifying offer to get her to the supermaximum contract amount ahead of 2023 — is an open-ended question.

Elsewhere, JiSu Park is a reserved free agent, and the other four — Liz Cambage, Angel McCoughtry, Kiah Stokes and Riquna Williams — are all unrestricted. It would be tough to run back last year’s team close to as-is, only with a healthy McCoughtry, because of the financial situation. But does Hammon believe in the structure of the Aces from last year to bring back the core pieces?

Perhaps the biggest wild card — not just in Las Vegas but for the entire league — is Cambage, whose transcendent talent occasionally is overshadowed by other things, on-court and off. Just since the season ended, Cambage has publicly withdrawn her name from consideration for the Australian national team ahead of the Opals hosting the 2022 FIBA World Cup, started an OnlyFans channel and continued to grow her DJ career, doing multiple shows in Australia and scheduling a four-day show in Cabo in Feburary.

Liz Cambage
LAS VEGAS, NV – JUNE 17: Liz Cambage #8 of the Las Vegas Aces high fives A’ja Wilson #22 of the Las Vegas Aces during the game against the New York Liberty on June 17, 2021 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NBAE via Getty Images)

But even focusing on the end of last season, there were questions about how strong her relationship was with Laimbeer and the Aces after the semifinals last year. After Laimbeer played her for less than 10 minutes in Game 1 and Laimbeer openly questioned her physical fitness after she contracted the COVID-19 virus, Cambage stayed out of the Aces locker room for a while and was sitting on the team’s bench in full uniform more than 30 minutes after the game ended and only left after a chat with Aces assistant coach Vanessa Nygaard. Cambage played more the rest of the series, including 29 minutes with a +15 in the close Game 5 loss, and flashed the superstar-level that she’s shown whenever she’s played in America.

But several questions need to be answered, starting with: does Cambage want to play basketball at all, and does she want to play here in the WNBA? Then, on top of that, would she want to return to Las Vegas? Then, for the Aces and Hammon, do they even want her back, especially when you consider Wilson’s MVP season in 2020 came when Cambage opted out of the bubble? And how much money will Las Vegas be able and/or willing to offer Cambage? And would that number be topped by any other teams throughout the league that have cap space — like Atlanta, with former Aces general manager Dan Padover now the GM there, former Aces assistant coach Tanisha Wright now the head coach and a near blank slate of roster spots and cap space?

It adds to the intrigue of this particular hire, and the timing of it. Hammon will surely get a crash course back into the world and drama of the WNBA — but that’s something the Russian “citizen” not only is plenty used to, but also said she always kept considering.

“I never closed the door on the WNBA because I love the WNBA. It’s where I came from,” Hammon said. “We’re not having any of these conversations without the WNBA. I’m not an assistant coach for the Spurs [without the WNBA]. I’m super grateful for my time in the WNBA.

“Basketball has been my life. I’ve had a heck of a journey, a heck of a ride. I know there’s still a lot of great things ahead of me to do and things that I want to do and accomplish. And I can’t wait to see it.”

Las Vegas keeps pushing the WNBA forward

Fargas opened the press conference giving credit to Aces owner Mark Davis, with Fargas expressing several times that Davis has been key behind hiring Fargas, Hammon, former women’s basketball star Jennifer Azzi as Chief Business Development Officer and Blair Hardiek as Chief Marketing and Communications Officer. And Hammon said those were key, too.

“Mark’s commitment, Nikki’s commitment, the people that they’re bringing along like Jennifer Azzi, it’s like, ‘How can I not be a part of this group?’ Hammon said. “You just could feel that they’re building something special.”

Davis has reportedly not shied away from making significant investments in the Aces, both in structure and now in staffing. The Aces are expecting to be done with building a practice facility ahead of training camp and Fargas said there have been discussions of building an arena for the Aces, too. And The Athletic and several other outlets reported that Hammon will be the highest-paid coach in the WNBA, making a “landmark” salary.

The type of commitment at the ownership level — seemingly sparing no expense, forcibly rising the tide of the WNBA that could potentially lift the whole league — is something Fargas called “extremely important.”

“We’re not here to cut corners. We don’t cut corners. As a former player, when you run and say, ‘Hey, touch the line,’ we go over the line, we don’t barely touch it,” Fargas said. “When you have an owner who wants to uplift this league by showing the value of hiring Becky, we’re recognizing talent and we are investing in talent. So yes, coaches need to paid and they need to be at that level where we feel is very, very worthy of Becky’s contract.

“We have to lift up the league — I’m not saying that there’s not great coaches in the league, I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying let’s recognize talent and let’s definitely pay talent and have the same equitable comp contracts that allow our genders to uplift each other. I think it’s important for us to show that, when you invest, look what it can do for the league as an entirety, not just for the Aces organization.”

And Fargas emphasized that point by talking about the “uptick” that bringing Hammon to coach the Aces will have on the organization: in ticket sales, in engagement on social media, in marketing, in corporate partnerships. Even though Fargas and Hammon will undoubtedly view on-court success with a binary question of, “Did you win a championship or not?” there are other ways this hire makes an impact.

“When I was asked what does a win look like, it’s this journey that we’re on together,” Fargas said. “The first 25 years of the league is what it is. But how do we move the needle? How do we move the next 25 years to be even better for the younger generations to come?”

With this hire, the Aces are showing they’re committed to doing whatever it takes to move forward — and fast. To the WNBA and its other teams: try to keep up.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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