Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The WNBA playoffs begin on Sept. 11, and the Las Vegas Aces are poised to head into the postseason as one of the favorites to win the title. Can this star-studded Aces squad bring the city its first professional sports championship? There are plenty of reasons to think they can get the job done.
Defense wins championships
It’s an old adage and one the Aces clearly believe in. They have been playing elite defense all season, and at press time, Las Vegas ranked No. 1 in the league in defensive rating by a wide margin (92.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). When a tight playoff contest inevitably comes down to the final possessions, Las Vegas is the most likely team to get that game-clinching stop.
One of the Aces’ top priorities has been getting star center Liz Cambage acclimated to the team and making sure she peaks at the right time. It hasn’t always been a smooth process, as injuries, conditioning and mental health issues have cropped up at different times to keep Cambage from finding her groove. But she’s now as healthy as she’s been all year, and after opening up to the Player’s Tribune about her fight with depression, she appears ready to put her full effort behind Las Vegas’ playoff push. After posting 16.1 points and 8.3 rebounds in the regular season (25.1 minutes) through August 15, look for Cambage to up her game when it really counts.
As Cambage primes for the postseason, the Aces should also gain another dominant post player in time for the stretch run. An ankle injury sidelined All-Star forward A’ja Wilson for most of August, but she is expected to be at full speed in time for the Aces’ first playoff game, giving the team yet another elite producer (15.9 points, 6.6 rebounds per game).
If there was a silver lining to Wilson’s injury, it was that it forced Dearica Hamby into a more prominent role. Given a starting spot in the frontcourt and increased minutes, the fourth-year forward averaged 15.0 points and 10.3 rebounds during an eight-game span without Wilson. Hamby also showed her shooting ability by stepping out and making 35% of her 3-point attempts during that stretch. Head coach Bill Laimbeer has long touted Hamby as an elite role player; now it appears she’s even more than that. Moving her back to the bench for the playoffs should give the Aces one of the best reserve units in the league.
When playoff games turn into grind-it-out affairs and buckets are hard to come by, the Aces’ offense should be able to consistently generate the easiest of attempts: free throws. At press time, Las Vegas ranked first in the league in free throw attempts (21 per game; New York ranked second at 18 per game) and first in makes (16.4 per game). Cambage and Wilson were the main drivers, as they’re both in the top five individually (4.9 and 5.1 attempts per game, respectively). Defenses have a hard time containing the duo of Cambage and Wilson, to the point they often have to resort to fouling. If Cambage and Wilson keep getting to the line at a similar rate in the playoffs, it will help keep the Las Vegas offense on track even when the pressure mounts.
Shoot your shot
Las Vegas likes to work the ball into the post and run the offense through Cambage and Wilson, and they’ve been extremely successful doing that. But when outside shots present themselves, the Aces have taken advantage by making 38.1% of their 3-point shots, the best mark in the WNBA. Guard Kayla McBride has been ridiculously accurate from deep, hitting 46.7% from 3-point range, good for third in the league.
One of the reasons the Aces have such a dominant defense is because they take care of the glass. Las Vegas ranks first in the league in rebounding rate, as they grab 53% of all available rebounds, and they’re No. 1 in the all-important defensive rebounding rate (72.5%). As legendary NBA coach Pat Riley liked to say, “No rebounds, no rings.” The Aces will get those rebounds when it matters most.
Laimbeer has won three WNBA championships as a coach, and his 14 years of experience has given him the right perspective when it comes to steering teams with postseason expectations. He has consistently taken the long view with the Aces this season; he didn’t panic during the team’s early-season struggles, he focused on developing his rotations and individual players (Hamby being the best example), and the Aces are in a great spot heading into the second season. Now it’s time for Laimbeer to show a tactician’s touch as Las Vegas attempts to navigate the playoffs and claim the trophy.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.