Las Vegas Sun

September 29, 2023

Hammon brings new style to Aces but maintains championship aspirations

Becky Hammon

John Locher / AP

San Antonio Spurs coach Becky Hammon celebrates with her team after they defeated the Phoenix Suns in an NBA Summer League championship game Monday, July 20, 2015, in Las Vegas.

One of the most celebrated moments of Becky Hammon’s coaching career came in 2015, when she led the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA Summer League championship at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Now, the 45-year-old, who takes over head coaching duties for the Las Vegas Aces this season, is being tasked with winning another title a few miles away at Michelob Ultra Arena. Hammon has been considered among the sharpest up-and-coming minds in all of basketball for the past several years while serving as an assistant under legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Aces' early-season schedule

May 6 at Phoenix Mercury, 7 p.m.

May 8 vs. Seattle Storm, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

May 10 at Washington Mystics, 4 p.m.

May 13 at Atlanta Dream, 4:30 p.m.

May 17 vs. Phoenix Mercury, 7 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

May 19 vs. Minnesota Lynx, 7 p.m.

May 21 vs. Phoenix Mercury, noon (ABC)

May 23 vs. Los Angeles Sparks, 7 p.m. (Facebook)

She interviewed for at least one NBA head coaching job before Aces owner Mark Davis lured her to the WNBA with the largest contract in league history. Exact details are undisclosed, other than that Hammon’s annual salary eclipses $1 million.

For that price, Davis expects Hammon to deliver Las Vegas a championship. The Aces have come extremely close the past two seasons, losing in the WNBA Finals in 2020 and in the semifinals last year. Hammon could help push them over the top.

“I’ve got a great foundation, so it’s not about tearing down everything and completely rebuilding,” Hammon said after a recent practice. “We’ve got a lot of good pieces in place already. You don’t throw the baby out [with] the bathwater.”

The Aces haven’t changed much from a personnel standpoint under Hammon’s watch, with five of their top six players from a year ago returning, including 2020 league MVP A’ja Wilson, who signed a two-year, $398,000 contract extension. Wilson’s increased salary cap hit, combined with Hammon’s system, meant the odd player out was Liz Cambage, who departed for the Los Angeles Sparks.

Former coach Bill Laimbeer preferred a throwback approach, with two frontcourt players like Wilson and Cambage on the floor at all times. Hammon’s scheme is more modern; instead of playing through the post, the Aces should be more wide-open this year.

“I’m hitting home spacing, pace and playing the right way and sharing with each other,” Hammon said during a preseason Zoom call with the media.

Playmaking shooter Kelsey Plum could benefit and take yet another leap after edging Cambage as the Aces’ second-leading scorer behind Wilson a year ago. The former No. 1 overall pick won the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year award by averaging 14.8 points per game while coming off the bench to spell fellow returning guards Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams and Jackie Young.

The players might be mostly the same, but the Aces’ style should look drastically different. Hammon is installing a totally new offense and defense, and though she’s happy with the progress the players have shown going into the May 6 opener at Phoenix, there could be growing pains.

WNBA training camp runs less than three weeks, and Hammon completed her duties in San Antonio before coming to Las Vegas.

“There’s a lot of teaching to be done, a lot of communication that needs to be done,” she said. “We get through practice, and I still want to get through five more things, so it’s kind of never-ending.”

Hammon sounds confident, however, about the rapport she has already built with her players. She said being able to relate to the roster through shared experiences has helped.

Hammon remains one of the top players in Aces franchise history. Her No. 26 jersey was retired after she played for the San Antonio Stars from 2007 to 2014 and made a pair of All-WNBA first teams. The Stars became the Aces when MGM Resorts International purchased and relocated the franchise here in 2018.

Hammon plans to give players more freedom on the floor, at least on the offensive end. Wilson, for example, has never attempted a 3-point shot in her four-year WNBA career; Laimbeer wanted her virtually glued to the paint. Hammon has come in and encouraged Wilson to extend her range and even work on her shot beyond the arc.

“It’s a lot of space, a lot for everyone to operate at their positions that they’re really good at,” Wilson said of Hammon’s scheme after a recent practice. “It opens the floor up for everybody, and everybody gets an opportunity to do their things.”

After two near-misses, the Aces enter the season as a title favorite for the third consecutive year. They’ve been aggressive beyond signing Hammon, trading away future picks to acquire a pair of first-rounders in this year’s WNBA Draft.

They used one of those selections to grab a player who should sync with Hammon’s preference for spacing—3-point sharp-shooter Kierstan Bell from Florida Gulf Coast. Shooting also drew the organization to second-round pick Aisha Sheppard from Virginia Tech, whom Hammon said has been even better than expected in training camp.

The Aces ranked dead last in 3-point shooting frequency last year in the WNBA, attempting 13.5 per game—about four fewer shots than any other team and 14 fewer than league-leading New York and Washington. Those numbers seem guaranteed to rise.

Hammon doesn’t intend to undo everything Laimbeer put in place, but her philosophies will ensure change despite most of the faces looking familiar.

“We can do a couple things offensively and defensively differently that I think will help put us over the hump,” Hammon said.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.