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A fantastic 2020 season raises expectations for the Las Vegas Aces

In spite of a dispiriting sweep in the WNBA Finals, the Las Vegas Aces’ season was an undisputed success. MVP A’ja Wilson, vintage Angel McCoughtry and super Sixth Woman Dearica Hamby, among other factors, resulted in an excellent regular season, and higher expectations for 2021.

Connecticut Sun v Las Vegas Aces - Game Five
Despite absences and injuries, the Las Vegas Aces reached the 2020 WNBA Finals.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Before the 2019 season, the Las Vegas Aces went all in by trading for superstar center Liz Cambage. During the 2020 offseason, they doubled down on this bet by signing free agent Angel McCoughtry.

Even as they were swept out of the WNBA Finals by the Seattle Storm, Vegas’ bet paid off, albeit not in the ways expected.

A’ja Wilson emerged as an unquestioned MVP while leading the team to the Finals without Cambage or starting point guard Kelsey Plum (Achilles injury). Along the way, she was assisted by McCoughtry, who proved the perfect Robin to Wilson’s Batman. And back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby did it all — captaining the WNBA’s best bench unit that featured 2019 No. 1 draft pick Jackie Young showing promise as a booster off the bench.

Throughout an outstanding 18-4 regular season, the Aces did it their way. In a WNBA increasingly infatuated with 3-point shooting, floor spacing and small ball, the Aces fashioned themselves as a throwback and became the league’s second-most efficient offense by racking up points in the paint and from the free-throw line. Vegas was equally effective on the defensive end, protecting the paint and dominating the glass.

Here’s more on what the Aces achieved, and what they can accomplish in the future:

An almost perfect slot machine

To most outside observers, it is a bit inexplicable that two of the Vegas’ five best players — Dearica Hamby and Jackie Young — came off the bench. For much of the regular season, Carolyn Swords, who returned from a short-lived retirement, and Lindsay Allen served as token starters, even as Hamby and Young were two of the Aces’ five finishers.

But there was a purpose to head coach Bill Laimbeer’s stubborn devotion to his starting lineup.

The combination of Hamby and Young gave the Aces the league’s highest-scoring bench and Laimbeer’s rotational preferences also earned him buy-in up and down the roster — ensuring his players had, understood and accepted their designated roles. Or, to stretch a Vegas-inspired metaphor, they were slotted into the Laimbeer-Aces machine in a way that allowed the crusty coach to maximize the hand he was dealt.

However, the playoffs somewhat exposed the limitations of Laimbeer’s carefully-calibrated machine. While Hamby’s injury was critical (more on that below), Young never found her rhythm in the postseason and reverted to the rookie-year passivity she seemed to have shed throughout a much-improved sophomore season. It is also worth wondering if Kayla McBride can be further weaponized. While her reputation as a 3-point markswoman endows her gravity even when she doesn’t have the ball by creating space for Wilson or McCoughtry to go to work, giving McBride more opportunities to fire away could have helped her find more consistency and injected the Vegas offense with a bit more diversity.

Next year, assuming Cambage returns to the WNBA and Plum fully recovers from her Achilles injury, Laimbeer will have to tinker with his machine. Although any organization would love such an influx of elite talent, optimizing it is a tricky task. In 2019, the Aces could not figure out how to fully realize the potential powers of their three bigs — Cambage, Wilson and Hamby. That Wilson thrived in the absence of Cambage (more on that below as well) points to the difficulty of getting the most out of two dominant interior talents.

In contrast, the return of Plum should help things run more smoothly. Danielle Robinson is an effective floor general who played better than expected in the 2020 playoffs but her lack of outside shooting lowers the ceiling on the Aces’ offense. As a point guard that can shoot, and does not hesitate to do so, Plum demands the defense’s constant attention, which makes her more dangerous for the Vegas offense.

From the ‘Hamby Heave’ to Hamby’s injury

Dearica Hamby’s ill-timed yet awesome half-court heave was a defining moment of the 2019 WNBA Playoffs.

For 2020, Hamby’s injury should be considered just as definitional.

Hampered in the first three games of the semifinals with a calf injury, Hamby then suffered a season-ending knee injury. Even as the Aces escaped the Connecticut Sun in five games without their Sixth Woman of the Year, her absence in the Finals was monumental.

Hamby is more than the best reserve in the WNBA; she also is the best Breanna Stewart defender in the WNBA.

Hamby’s combination of speed, strength, length and endurance allows her to effectively trouble Stewart, who went on to be named 2020 Finals MVP. In the first regular-season tilt between the Aces and Storm, Hamby helped to force Stewart into inefficiency. While Hamby may not have changed the outcome of the Finals, she would have altered the complexion of the series — making things much more difficult for Stewie and the Storm.

Touched by an Angel

For a 2020 Las Vegas Aces team that was expected to be stacked with stars and future stars, adding an aging star — Angel McCoughtry — was a gamble.

It was risky due to the fact that McCoughtry had not played real WNBA minutes since early August 2018 with the Atlanta Dream, where she had played her whole career. Legitimate questions about McCoughtry’s ability to serve as a supporting star, rather than as the center of a team’s universe, further elevated the risk level of this acquisition.

That general manager Dan Padover was named Executive of the Year confirms the absolute success of McCoughtry’s Las Vegas arrival.

She modeled graceful superstar evolution. With her minutes judiciously managed, she traded the insistent, incessant style of play that characterized her prime for a more efficient, more strategic approach, which allowed her to impact the action on both ends of the floor throughout the 22-game regular season.

McCoughtry also showed she can still access a higher gear. Laimbeer reportedly wanted McCoughtry for her ability to be a head-down, hell-bent bucket-getter in the crucible of the postseason. In Game 4 of the Aces’ semifinals series against the Sun, McCoughtry was just that. She turned in an absolutely classic performance and willed her team to the win with 29 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals.

That effort was essential to the Aces’ eventual Finals berth. However, McCoughtry met an unfortunately familiar fate in the Finals. Her fourth trip to the Finals again ended without a win.

The MVP reign of Queen A’ja

A’ja Wilson’s third professional season sealed her superstardom and more MVP trophies, Finals appearances and, eventually, championships seem to be her destiny.

The possible return of Liz Cambage could complicate Wilson’s continued ascendance, however.

In 2019, Cambage seemed to serve as the Aces’ 1A with Wilson operating as the 1B. Might this hierarchy need to be reversed? In 2020, Wilson thrived as the Aces’ unquestioned number one option. Even as she has room to improve as a playmaker, Wilson established herself as a singularly dominant offensive force who should not play second fiddle to anyone.

Can Wilson again be at her best if she is sharing real estate and splitting touches with Cambage?

On the other hand, the return of Cambage would alleviate the offensive and defensive burdens that Wilson bore this season. Having attained the ultimate individual honor in a MVP award, conserving energy and sacrificing stats in order to achieve the ultimate overall goal — a title — might appeal to Wilson.

Whatever it may be, we will be looking forward to watching A’ja and the Aces in 2021.