It’s not quite a “championship or bust” season for the Las Vegas Aces. With reigning MVP A’ja Wilson entering only her fourth WNBA season, Vegas will be a championship contender for seasons to come.
However, 2021 might be the best chance for Wilson and company to deliver a title to Sin City.
The returning core of last year’s squad — Wilson, Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young — will be rejoined by Liz Cambage, who opted out of the 2020 season, and Kelsey Plum, who missed to the 2020 season due to injury, and joined by Chelsea Gray, who left the Los Angeles Sparks to seek a second championship with the Aces.
This combination of star power and dependable depth vaulted the Aces to the top of Swish Appeal’s preseason power rankings.
The team realizes what comes with such a status. “It’s going to be tough and especially for us. We’re going to have that target on our back. It’s there, it’s always been there. We’re going to get everyone’s A-game, so why not show up with our A-game,” said A’ja Wilson at media day.
Can Vegas bring their A-game and meet these high expectations?
Here are two reasons the Aces might stumble and two reasons they might achieve the ultimate success — a WNBA championship.
An unlucky draw?: Reasons for concern about the Las Vegas Aces
1. Can the Wilson-Cambage pairing be maximized?
During the 2019 season, Mike Prada analyzed the Aces’ struggle to maximize their two frontcourt stars, exploring why the combination of A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage resulted in diminishing returns.
Prada suggested that time was the solution to this problem. As the pair spent more time on the court together, they would develop familiarity and, eventually, become more dangerous. Unfortunately, the chaos of 2020 prevented the duo from refining their chemistry. Entering the 2021 season, how Vegas can get the best out of Wilson and Cambage remains in question.
With Cambage absent last season, Wilson ascended to MVP-dom. In reintegrating Cambage, the Aces certainly do not want to take away from Wilson’s excellence. Cambage expressed admiration for Wilson’s 2020 performance at media day, saying:
A’ja really stepped into her pure dominant role I think last year. Being that key go-to player and carrying the team to the Finals. She really grew and stepped into her role as the one. I think she’s the best player in the WNBA right now. I think people need to put respect on her name. That’s just how I feel about A’ja right now.
However, the Aces likewise do not want to fail to take advantage of Cambage, one of the most dominant post presences in WNBA history.
A potential salve for the Wilson-Cambage partnership is shooting. If Wilson and Cambage can credibly space the floor for each other, they then can take turns going to work on the block or in the paint. In training camp, Wilson has flashed an emerging 3-pointer. While head coach Bill Laimbeer did not fully endorse Wilson’s extended range, he did not deny it’s potential, noting:
She did raise up not even thinking yesterday on a 3-ball, surprised me a little bit. And she knew when she let it go that it was all money. On occasion, OK, I get it. But overall, I think that I’d rather have her in the mid-range game or in the low block doing what she does best. It’s a natural progression for any player to extend their range. Whether she does that consistently this year, time will tell on that one.
During the regular season, Laimbeer, Wilson and Cambage should have time for experimentation. While it will be important for Wilson and Cambage to share the court, the coach also can stagger them, allowing them separately to serve as the sole focal point of the offensive attack.
At media day, Laimbeer indicated that he expected the whole team to undergo an adjustment period, suggesting:
We have a significant change from last year’s roster, probably up to half the basketball team. So it’s going to take a little bit of time to learn how to play with each other. ... But I think our team is positioned well. We still have to learn to play with each other, how we mesh with each other.
Nevertheless, when push comes to shove in the heat of the postseason, it will be essential that the Wilson-Cambage combo has worked through any awkwardness so that both can be optimized.
2. Will the Aces more frequently fire away from behind the arc?
Bill Laimbeer is not just lukewarm about A’ja Wilson shooting threes.
In a WNBA that increasingly has embraced the 3-pointer, Laimbeer’s Aces have remained an outlier. Last season, despite employing one of the league’s best shooters in Kayla McBride, Vegas was last in 3-pointers attempted (254) and made (93).
Nevertheless, the Aces’ offense was not diminished, as they finished last season with the second-best offensive rating (107.3). They thrived around the basket and from mid-range, finishing top two in field goals made and attempted from these areas of the court. Powered by the foul-drawing prowess of Wilson and Angel McCoughtry, Vegas also led the league in free throw rate. With Liz Cambage back in the fold, they should be even more dangerous, generating high-scoring, efficient offensive with only a moderate number of 3-pointers.
However, this does not mean that shooting more 3s would not make the Aces’ offense even better, especially with Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Riquna Williams and Destiny Slocum (and maybe even Wilson?) giving them a deeper suite of threatening long-range shooters.
Trading 2s and 3s also can be a dangerous prospect in a tightly-contested game, especially a tightly-contested playoff game. The ability to quickly erase or extend leads with a flurry of 3-pointers is a valuable weapon, suggesting that, in preparation, it might be wise for Laimbeer to more fully incorporate triples into the Aces’ offense attack during the regular season.
Winning the jackpot!: Reasons for confidence about the Las Vegas Aces
1. The W’s best bench
Propelled by back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby and an improved Jackie Young, the Aces had the best bench in the WNBA last season. Even if Hamby is a starting-quality player, Laimbeer insists upon brining her off the bench, thus ensuring that his second unit consistently outclasses those of opponents.
This season’s squad should have an even better bench mob. Riquna Williams is a proven flamethrower, able to explode for high-scoring outputs. If rookie Destiny Slocum can earn the trust of Laimbeer, she could contribute even more off-the-bench shooting and scoring.
After they battle the Aces’ intimidating starting unit, opposing teams will not get any relief when Vegas’ reserves enter the game.
2. Talent over everything
The Aces’ most obvious advantage in their quest for a championship is their overwhelming talent. Their big names can claim a trophy case full of honors and awards — Rookie of Years, Sixth Woman of the Years, All-Stars, All-Defensives, All-WNBAs and an MVP. And on the sideline is a three-time championship-winning coach with two Coach of the Year awards.
This aggregation of talent not only equips the Aces for the championship chase, but also should allow them to enter the postseason with an extra advantage.
Last season, despite missing a number of key players, Vegas judiciously managed Angel McCoughtry’s minutes, with the then-34-year-old averaging 20 minutes per game. This strategy paid off, as “Vintage Angel” appeared during the playoffs. In Game 4 of Vegas’ semifinal series with the Connecticut Sun, McCoughtry turned in a spectacular 29-point performance in 33 minutes of action. She followed that up with 20 points in 34 minutes in Game 5, helping the Aces punch their ticket to the WNBA Finals.
This season, the Aces cannot only again monitor McCoughtry’s minutes but also similarly can manage the playing time of Kelsey Plum, who is coming off an Achilles injury, Dearica Hamby, who is coming off a knee injury, Chelsea Gray, who spent the offseason playing in Spain, and Liz Cambage, who played in the NBL last winter, as well as any other player who needs extra time to nurse a nagging injury.
The Aces should have enough firepower to earn a top seed without all of their stars playing at their peak during the regular season. Because of this, Vegas can take a conservative approach to player health, thereby doing their best to guarantee that their stacked roster enters the postseason ready to rampage toward the title.