June 15, 2024 

Las Vegas Aces’ early-season struggles start and end with defense

Hammon: 'We’ve got to learn how to stop our own bleeding'

When you win a championship in any sport, the spotlight is very bright the next season. When you win back-to-back championships, that spotlight can be almost white hot. So if a team in that situation struggles, the noise quickly becomes very loud. This is the case for the Las Vegas Aces, who have lost four of their last six games heading into a WNBA Finals rematch with the New York Liberty on Saturday.

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

During the first two years of head coach Becky Hammon’s tenure, the Aces lost a total of 16 regular-season games. This season, they’ve lost five of their first 11 games. This includes the first three-game losing streak of Hammon’s tenure, which cost the Aces a spot in the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. While many people would say the absence of injured point guard Chelsea Gray has been the biggest issue — and it has played a role — the main reason behind the Aces’ struggles is their defense.

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

“I thought tonight we were just in too many rotations, and then there were times where it was supposed to be [a rotation] and nobody just went, so it was just wide open,” Hammon told reporters on Tuesday after a loss to the Minnesota Lynx. “When I’m looking at scouting reports, whether it’s offensively or defensively, give [players] three things. Cause I also don’t want them thinking too much, then you get paralysis. …

“That’s why I talk so much about our habits. We’re not doing anything particularly brand new; we’re just not being solid in our base. And I think that’s just one thing that we’re missing is … just be solid defensively.”

Last year, the Aces were the No. 1 defense in the WNBA based on points allowed per 100 possessions and No. 2 in opponent scoring. Right now, they rank ninth in both categories. In their five losses, the Aces are giving up 90 points per game. That’s more than the Indiana Fever are giving up per game on the season, and they rank last in the WNBA in that category.

Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray stands on the sideline in sweats with her arms behind her back.
Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray stands on the sideline and watches her teammates play against the Minnesota Lynx as she recovers from an injury. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

The biggest struggle for the Aces defense is guarding the 3-point line. Opponents are making almost 10 threes per game against Las Vegas, which is second-worst in the WNBA, and shooting 39.0% from beyond the arc, which is the worst in the league. In three of their five losses, the Aces have allowed opponents to hit double-digit threes, including allowing the Phoenix Mercury and the Lynx to make 16 and 15, respectively.

“I don’t need an A-plus, but can we get a C? Because right now we’ve been an F guarding the 3-point line,” Hammon said. “Just defensively, you have to take something away. How we’re orchestrated, our schemes — we’re trying to push the ball and force the ball into certain areas of the floor. You might give up some threes.

“That being said, the rhythm catch-and-shoot threes are the ones that tick me off. A lot of times they’re getting them in transition. We give up maybe two or three off offensive rebounds, and those are just back-breakers that drive a coach crazy. So consider me crazy.”

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. Subscribers to The Next receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

Three-point defense was an issue in Hammon’s first season, when the team gave up just over nine threes per game. Many of those games that year came before the All-Star break and a “come to Jesus” meeting led by Hammon and former WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson. Wilson feels the team doesn’t need to press the panic button right now. Instead, players need to “be themselves and find their true identity.”

On defense, the Aces are being put into a lot of rotations. They are helping each other initially when guarding opponents’ actions, but they aren’t reacting quickly enough to help their teammate who’s helping. This is leading to a lot of open looks for opponents as the ball moves around the floor. The Aces have also struggled at times with their switching defense both on and off the ball.

These things take trust, something Hammon feels her team is surprisingly lacking.

Minnesota Lynx forward Alanna Smith holds the ball over her head with two hands and looks for an outlet as Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes pressures her.
Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes (right) walls up against Minnesota Lynx forward Alanna Smith (8) during a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 29, 2024. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

“We got to put the work first,” Hammon said. “The trust, I’m not quite sure why the trust isn’t there, but we know that’s something we can fix and work on. We know each other well. We’ve been through battles and the attention to detail. I thought we came out and made some great steps forward offensively, and then we couldn’t guard our lunch on the other end. We’ve got to learn how to stop our own bleeding. And, look, at the end of the day, this is uncomfortable. Nobody likes it, but it could be one of the best things for us, honestly.”

Trust plays a major role on defense, but another big factor is endurance. The Aces have had injuries and other factors that have kept them from being 100% on that front.

Without Gray, the Aces have been starting wing Alysha Clark. Clark is an outstanding defender but is playing 31 minutes per game compared to the 22.5 she played last year in her Sixth Player of the Year role. Until this season, Clark had never averaged over 30 minutes a game in her entire career. At 36 years old, she is being asked to do a lot.

Want even more women’s sports in your inbox?

Subscribe now to our sister publication The IX and receive our independent women’s sports newsletter six days a week. Learn more about your favorite athletes and teams around the world competing in soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, hockey and gymnastics from our incredible team of writers.

Readers of The Next now save 50% on their subscription to The IX.

Center Kiah Stokes, meanwhile, is coming off a major injury that prevented her from playing overseas last winter. She has started the season very slowly, shooting just 28.6% from the field. At times on defense, she has looked a step slow and hasn’t been as stout next to Wilson in the frontcourt as in years past. 

“This is a long, long, long-ass season. … I’m not gonna press the panic button,” Wilson told reporters this week. “I’m going to make sure that my teammates don’t press the panic button because I’m still gonna bet on us. I’m still going to always ride for my teammates. I know exactly what’s in that locker room; I know the things that we’ve done. … We move on, and we roll with the punches because it’s not going to get easier.

“It’s never been easy for us. … So for me to be here just losing my mind and pulling my hair out over something that hasn’t been easy — I know it may look easy to a lot of different people because of the record, because [of] the way we play, but it’s never been easy. We’re gonna continue to be us, continue to find us and grind it out.”

Las Vegas Aces wing Alysha Clark has her arms straight up as Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride makes contact while trying to shoot a right-handed layup.
Las Vegas Aces wing Alysha Clark contests a shot by Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride during a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 29, 2024. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

The Aces are also working in three new pieces this season: center Megan Gustafson, rookie guard Kate Martin and veteran guard Tiffany Hayes. Gustafson has been good at guarding posts but has struggled at times when switched onto guards. Martin has been able to handle her own on the defensive end but has moments where she makes rookie mistakes. Hayes has flashed at times on offense during her five games with the Aces, but she is still getting back into game shape after retiring in December.

One of the Aces’ biggest keys on defense over the past few years has been guard Jackie Young. She has defended the opponent’s best perimeter player almost every night. However, with Gray out, the Aces have also asked Young to be the primary point guard. This has forced Young to have to balance scoring, facilitating and guarding the other team’s best perimeter player.

You also add to this that Young was sick during the Aces’ loss to the Seattle Storm, and it was bad enough that Hammon made her stay home during their road trip to Los Angeles, another loss. All of these factors have been new for Young, and she is having to find a balance in her new role.

“My wind isn’t where it was,” Young told reporters this week. “But that’s how it is whenever you’re sick. So you just try to come back, get your wind back, get your legs back. I felt good. I like to be at 100%, never tired. So being a little bit tired is kind of weird for me. So just trying to figure that out.

“But in the past few games, I just talked to Coach. When I first came back, I did not have it. I was like, ‘I need a sub.’ So [I] just try to be smart, push through when I needed to push through and then just take a break.”

Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride extends her arm in front of her, looking to get a shot off. Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young looks to contest from behind and has her left hand on McBride's back.
Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young (left) tries to contest a shot by Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride during a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 29, 2024. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

Hammon has been very critical of her team’s effort on defense to start the season, and the numbers and the eye test support that. Like in 2022, the Aces will need to fix their defense this season in order to compete for their third consecutive championship.

Las Vegas showed some growth defensively in its win at Phoenix on Thursday. In the first two games against the Mercury this season, the Aces gave up a combined 31 triples. On Thursday, they gave up just eight. They also came back from a 16-point first-quarter deficit to get the win. However, the Aces still gave up 99 points in the game.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

If you listen to guard Sydney Colson, the Aces haven’t been the Aces to start the season, but they know that and are working to fix it.

“Those first 10 games of the season, that really wasn’t us,” Colson told reporters after Thursday’s game, when she saw progress on the defensive end. “Even in some of the wins, it wasn’t us. And so we knew that we needed to get back to a certain style of play.”

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.