Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Thanks to the Golden Knights, local sports fans have gotten used to instant gratification when it comes to their major league teams. They started better than anyone expected, and their winning ways have laid out a blueprint for the soon-to-arrive Aces of the WNBA: Be good, and this city will embrace you.
Can the Aces arrive as instant contenders when their season tips off in May? They’ll have a head start on the Knights because they’re not an expansion team — the franchise is relocating from San Antonio, with a full roster in tow — but there is still a lot of work to be done before Las Vegas is competing for WNBA championships.
On the court, there is a foundation. Even though San Antonio finished in last place in the Western Conference in each of the past three years, amassing a combined record of 23-79, there is talent on hand. Third-year point guard Moriah Jefferson is a promising playmaker (career 12.1 points, 4.3 assists per game), kayla McBride is a veteran all-star and guard kelsey Plum was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s WNBA draft. The Aces will have the first overall pick in this year’s draft, giving the team an opportunity to add a college star such as 6-foot-5 South Carolina center A’Ja Wilson, who averaged 17.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks last season.
Tasked with bringing it together is head coach Bill Laimbeer, a WNBA legend.
Laimbeer said he would adapt his system to the personnel and try to win right away.
“I’ve been a defensive coach in this league for a long time, but I’m not sure we’re going to have a lock-down defensive system like I’ve built before,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to do a little more scoring and more free-flowing offense, because we have scoring.
“Kelsey Plum is the leading scorer in the history of women’s college basketball, Kelly McBride is a career 15-points-per-game scorer, I’ve got Moriah Jefferson to push the ball up a thousand miles per hour, and now the first pick in the draft is going to be a quality player. So let’s get going.”
In addition to managing the players, Laimbeer is working on assembling a staff. He said the team hired a strength coach and a director of business operations, but there are still many openings to fill.
“I’ve got to get two assistant coaches, I’ve got to get a player operations person, I’ve got to get a video coordinator, I’ve got to get an equipment manager,” Laimbeer said. “So staffing is one issue.”
Laimbeer believes attracting talent — whether it’s players or coaches or front office personnel — is one area in which Las Vegas won’t have to worry.
“I think it’s going to be a huge bonus for us,” he said, “because people want to be here. And the first-class operation that MGM is setting up, the amount of commitment and resources they’re putting forth for this team, players notice that. Word-of-mouth will get around so fast.”
Fast enough to turn the Aces into one of the league’s top teams in their first season in Vegas, just like the Golden Knights? That remains to be seen. But given the current state of the franchise — on and off the court — local fans shouldn’t have to wait very long for a winning team.
Coach will provide a winning game plan
Bill Laimbeer has been in the WNBA longer than he was in the NBA.
It may seem hard to believe, but Laimbeer’s memorable, hate-able, championship-winning NBA playing career lasted 13 seasons, mostly with the Detroit Pistons. His narrative-changing coaching career in the WNBA also has lasted 13 seasons, meaning that when he leads the Las Vegas Aces from the sideline in their first game in May, he’ll officially be more experienced in the women’s league.
It’s a surprising note, especially to those who remember watching him sink 3-pointers and swing elbows as a key member of the “Bad Boys” championship teams of the 1980s, but it speaks to Laimbeer’s commitment to his second act.
Laimbeer has seen the league develop over the past two decades and can trace it from its infancy to the viable professional sports enterprise it is today.
To hear Laimbeer describe the changes the WNBA has undergone since he got involved, it sounds like a completely different league.
“The players are bigger, faster and stronger by far than ever before,” Laimbeer says. “They’re very well coached. College basketball has really elevated their game over the years. They’re all on TV now, so all the ladies in college basketball are on TV, they get exposure, and now they want to go to the next level, because there is a next level in professional sports for them.
“That’s the biggest thing, from back then to now, is the quality of play.”
When Laimbeer took over a struggling Detroit Shock team in the middle of the 2002 season, he immediately installed a tough-minded defensive system, and the impact was noticeable right away. In his first full year as head coach, he led the Shock to the 2003 WNBA championship, one of three titles the team would eventually win during his eight-year tenure.
Laimbeer resigned during the 2009 season and spent four years out of the league before returning to coach the New York Liberty in 2013. After back-to-back fifth-place finishes, he was let go by the front office, only to return months later when newly hired executive Isiah Thomas took control of the Liberty and rehired his former “Bad Boy” teammate.
Given a second chance in New York, Laimbeer produced three consecutive first-place teams from 2015-17.
Because of his proven success with multiple teams, when MGM needed someone to front the Las Vegas Aces, Laimbeer was the name at the top of the wish list.
MGM Resorts International President Bill Hornbuckle said Laimbeer’s deep, institutional knowledge of the WNBA and his ability to produce results quickly made him a perfect fit for the Las Vegas franchise.
“He brings credibility instantly,” Hornbuckle says. “He just does. You don’t even have to follow basketball to know the name Bill Laimbeer. … In that world, in that league, he’s been around longer than anybody. He knows the sport well, he knows the league well, he knows the talent well and he knows what motivates and drives them.”
Laimbeer’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the WNBA has helped the Aces get the franchise up and running. It’s a hands-on process for Laimbeer, who embraces doing a little bit of everything.
Since he was brought aboard, he’s assisted in designing the remodel of the arena, promoting ticket sales and searching for sponsors.
In Laimbeer, Las Vegas isn’t just getting a great coach, but someone who is dedicated to making the WNBA work in this city.
Hornbuckle says Laimbeer had only one question when he was approached about the job: Is the franchise committed to winning?
“It wasn’t about economics, it wasn’t about Las Vegas vs. any other city,” Hornbuckle says. “It was about, ‘Are you guys truly committed to wanting to make this a success? Because if you are, I’d love to make the move.’ And once we got ourselves positioned with him where he believed that, he was all in.”