'We've got to be better': Las Vegas Aces are the favorite but have work to do (2024)

  • 'We've got to be better': Las Vegas Aces are the favorite but have work to do (1)

    Michael Voepel, ESPN.comMay 23, 2024, 02:15 PM ET


      Michael Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

LAS VEGAS -- The Aces players were surprised. They wondered why coach Becky Hammon wasn't even more angry.

It's not that Hammon wasn't irritated with Tuesday's 98-88 loss at home to the Phoenix Mercury -- a 13.5-point underdog. She was. But she saw it all coming.

"It doesn't work that you flip on a switch, after being apart for six to seven months, and you're that same team you were last October," Hammon told ESPN, referring to the peak the Aces reached when they won their second consecutive WNBA championship in fall 2023.

"We start over understanding we've got a pretty good foundation, but then have to settle into that foundation. Right now, what I'm seeing is seven or eight different identities throughout the course of the game. We have to shore up who we are on both ends."

Before Tuesday's loss, the Aces again looked like the league's top team, and might be the toughest challenge yet when No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark and the winless Indiana Fever come to town Saturday. But Las Vegas -- which lost just twice at home last season -- has some adjustments to make.

"I feel like we had been flirting with L's, as Becky would say," forward A'ja Wilson said in Tuesday's postgame news conference as Las Vegas dropped to 2-1. "We needed this. This was a good test for us. Give a lot of credit to Phoenix ... but we're not there yet. I'm going to try to give us some grace because this is what, Game 3?"

Yes, it's early in the league's 40-game regular-season schedule, but the Aces -- who were undefeated at home last season until August -- already have identified several issues.

"Sometimes we have glimpses," Wilson said of how good the Aces can be. "But wholeheartedly, we've got to be better."

Here is a look at the good and bad so far for the team picked by many to win the WNBA title for a third consecutive season.

Aces miss Chelsea Gray -- and not just on offense

Gray, the 2022 WNBA Finals MVP and one of the best point guards in the league, hasn't played this season as she continues to rehab a foot injury suffered in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals in October 2023. Gray told ESPN last week that she will return but isn't rushing it because she wants to be available for the long haul this season.

Gray had career-high averages of 15.3 points and 7.3 assists in 2023. Both her teammates and Hammon said the Aces are less organized on offense without Gray on the court. But Las Vegas feels Gray's absence at the other end too.

"We miss her anticipation," Hammon said. "If she was a football player on defense, she would be a safety or defensive back who would read and playcall. She can read offenses and pick them apart. She uses angles and her brain to cause chaos."

Aces' offense continues to be one of WNBA's best

'We've got to be better': Las Vegas Aces are the favorite but have work to do (2)play

Copper stars as Mercury hand loss to Aces

Kahleah Copper scores 37 points in the Phoenix Mercury's 98-88 victory over the Las Vegas Aces.

Last season, the Aces averaged a league-best 92.8 PPG. Even without Gray, they are now averaging 88.7, which is second in the WNBA -- and it would have ranked second in the final stats last year, too. Not much of a drop-off.

However, the Aces' field goal percentage now is ninth in the league at 41.9, compared to finishing first last season at 48.6%. That speaks to how much Gray contributes to efficiency. Even so, the Aces have put up 89, 89 and 88 points.

Last season, Wilson and guards Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum all averaged double-figure scoring, led by Wilson's 22.8. Currently, Wilson, Young and Plum are all averaging at least 21 PPG. Young (8.3) and Plum (5.0) are leading the Aces in assists.

Center Kiah Stokes started the second half of last season after Candace Parker was injured. Stokes, known much more for her defense, averaged 2.2 PPG and made five 3-pointers in 40 games in 2023. Thus far in 2024, she's at 5.7 PPG and already has made four 3s.

Forward Alysha Clark, the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year last season, is starting now in Gray's absence. She is averaging 8.3 PPG compared to 6.7 last year. And center Megan Gustafson, who was with Phoenix in 2023, is coming off the bench for Las Vegas for 5.0 PPG.

"Eighty-eight points is enough to win a game," Hammon said Tuesday. "I don't really care about the offense now. You play that defensive end, and then we'll talk about offense."

Las Vegas defense needs work

'We've got to be better': Las Vegas Aces are the favorite but have work to do (3)play

A'ja Wilson drops 30 points in Aces' first win of the season

A'ja Wilson goes for 30 points to propel the Aces past the Mercury 89-80 in the first game of the season.

The Aces aren't playing the type of defense they produced in their past two championship seasons. They have allowed opponents 86.7 PPG, which ranks 10th in the league. Last season they allowed 80.3 points per game.

Again, it's only three games, and two of them were against the Mercury (the other was vs. the Los Angeles Sparks). But Hammon is concerned.

"I don't want to see 98 points rung up on our home court," she said Tuesday. "We were not locked in and ready to go. I can give them the best game plan in the world or the worst -- what they put into it is what they're going to get out of it. At a certain point, you have to say, 'OK, I'm going to stop my man.'

"We have four of the best defensive players in the league. That's two games in a row that I thought we were not very good defensively at all."

Wilson, who has been the WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons, was equally blunt.

"We have enough on the offensive end," she said. "It's the defense that could make us or break us."

Foundation is set up for future success

Asked why the Aces have been so hard to beat the past two seasons, Hammon laughed and said, "I have really good players."

But then she explained what has worked for Las Vegas -- and why -- since she arrived in 2022.

"The system we put in place can withstand the hard stuff," Hammon said. "If you have a crummy foundation, in the hardest moments it's going to crack. We want to be so shored up in who we are, how we do things, and clear communication. I want each player to know exactly what her role is and what her expectation is. And then I can hold them accountable."

Three consecutive No. 1 draft picks -- Plum (2017), Wilson (2018) and Young (2019) -- have been the core of the championship build, along with Gray who came to Las Vegas as a free agent in 2021. The Aces reached the semifinals in 2019, WNBA Finals in 2020, and semifinals in 2021. Coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer set up the Aces' core from 2018-21, after the franchise relocated to Las Vegas from San Antonio in 2018 having been to the playoffs just once in the previous five seasons.

When Hammon took over as Aces coach in 2022 after eight years as an NBA assistant in San Antonio, she brought an offensive system that placed more value on 3-point shooting to complement Wilson inside. It has worked, getting the Aces two consecutive championships. Wilson, Gray and Young are signed through 2025; Plum is set to be a free agent after this season.

Stokes, who was waived by the New York Liberty in June 2021, signed a few days later with Las Vegas and has been an asset for the Aces ever since. Clark, who had previous championship experience with the Seattle Storm, signed with the Aces last year.

Hammon will push the Aces to keep working toward their best version without Gray, which will make things even smoother when she returns.

"Our core group is battle-tested. We've been through a lot of situations, and we don't panic. Without Chelsea, there aren't going to be runaway games. We're not going to win by 20, 25. Our margin for error is less. It hasn't felt like 'us' yet, but that's why our practice work matters so much."

'We've got to be better': Las Vegas Aces are the favorite but have work to do (2024)


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