The Las Vegas Aces' 2018 Season

The Las Vegas Aces certainly exceeded expectations in their inaugural season. But were the expectations too low?

Started From The Bottom

The Las Vegas Aces ended the season with a 14-20 record and 9th place in the league. For a team that only won no more than 8 games in each of its previous three seasons as the San Antonio Stars (and did not make the playoffs for each of those three seasons), this was a vast improvement.

The team hired a new coach and President of Basketball Operations in Bill Laimbeer, who has his own pedigree as both an NBA player (two-time champion with the Detroit Pistons and considered one of the best defensive players of his era, if not ever) and a WNBA coach (two-time Coach of the Year, and three-time champion coaching the Detroit Shock).  They relocated from San Antonio, TX to Las Vegas, NV when the Stars were sold to MGM Resorts International (which also owns Bellagio, The Mirage, and the Mandalay Bay resorts, among other properties).

Las Vegas nabbed the #1 overall draft pick for the second year in a row; this time it was University of South Carolina standout and consensus National Player of the Year A’Ja Wilson (in 2017, the #1 pick was Wilson’s Aces teammate Kelsey Plum).

They brought back most of the San Antonio core including Kayla McBride, Moriah Jefferson, Plum, Nia Coffey, and Dearica Hamby. They added proven veterans in Tamera Young (acquired in the offseason as a free agent from the Atlanta Dream) and Carolyn Swords (acquired in the offseason as a free agent from the Seattle Storm). They drafted a 19-year-old defensive phenom from South Korea named Ji-Su Park and a perimeter threat from the University of Tennessee in Jaime Nared.

Now We’re Here

The Aces’ baptism in the WNBA regular season did not go smoothly. McBride and Plum both arrived after the start of the regular season due to overseas obligations (they both played in the Turkish League, which ran later than other European basketball leagues). They lost their first four regular-season games and were league bottom dwellers (along with the Indiana Fever) for almost a month.

All of this on top of the compressed regular-season schedule (34 games in 13 weeks, as opposed to 16 weeks) in order to accommodate Team USA’s representation in the 2018 FIBA World Cup Basketball tournament in late September.

The team had to learn each other, with so many new faces and three rookies (and a new coach).  Jefferson sat out most of the season rehabbing an ACL injury she received last year. Plum was trying to figure out her role (and herself) after a disappointing rookie season followed by a successful season playing in Turkey. Wilson, who was anointed the franchise’s savior (much like Plum was in the prior season) before her name was even called on draft night, had to take a leadership role that was beyond anything she’d done in college while deferring to the veterans with regard to professional player protocols.  

Not-So-Great Expectations

If the Aces had managed to just survive the season, that would have been seen as an accomplishment by many. But based on their level of play when they were on point, one has to wonder if the bar was set too low. Laimbeer famously told his team that he “didn’t do last place” (referring to their league standings over the last three seasons as the Stars) and the players flourished under his style and his vision. They finished in ninth place, so that part of Laimbeer’s declaration was fulfilled.

Yet the coach can only be responsible for so much. It eventually is up to the players to get it together and execute the plans, and the Aces fell flat sometimes. It seemed more of a mental issue than a playing issue; sometimes the Las Vegas players seemed to not have their heads in the game sufficiently, and there were times that they seemed to give up (as Wilson did during the July 15 game rematch against the Sparks).

It was at these times that the Aces reminded me of the smart kids in high school who never had to study for tests until the last minute and still managed to get good grades. That approach almost always worked until they went to college and met up with students just as smart, if not smarter, than they were, and then scrambled right before midterm and final exams to try and get things together just to keep from flunking out.

I do wonder what would have happened if Laimbeer had not only pushed a bit more, but the players got out of their own way as a team to better internalize what he was teaching. They had the talent, but the execution could have been a lot better despite the “youth” excuse, such as turning up the intensity at the wrong times (like in the final season game against Atlanta. It’s nice to put on a show for the fans but that show could have them in the playoffs right now. Just saying.)

The Future Is...Now?

Once the Aces started winning, and once Wilson proved that the hype surrounding her was real (it didn’t take long), talk turned to the playoffs: could Las Vegas, one of the youngest teams in the league (most players on the roster had five years or less of professional experience at the beginning of the 2018 season), actually make the playoffs in this, their inaugural year? It wouldn’t even matter if they got bounced in the first round; just making it would make a serious statement about this team’s reincarnation. Laimbeer had done it before, with the Shock, although his “worst to first” mastery didn’t fully come to fruition until his second season at the helm when the Shock won the 2003 WNBA championship for the first time in franchise history.

Las Vegas continued to play in fits and starts; win streaks that included quality wins over the Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Seattle Storm, Washington Mystics, and defending champions Minnesota Lynx, followed by losses that were winnable.

The play of other teams as the season progresses shone a light at the end of the playoff tunnel for the Aces: from a mathematical standpoint, they could feasibly make the playoffs. In the last two weeks of the 2018 regular season the New York Liberty, Chicago Sky, and Indiana Fever had been eliminated from playoff contention and the Aces were sitting at the #9 spot and only two games behind the #8 team (which at one time was the Connecticut Sun but ended up the Dallas Wings). The top eight teams, regardless of conference, made the playoffs.

Then a vortex of travel hell prompted the Aces (with the support of Laimbeer and the WNBPA, the players’ union) to cancel a road game against the Washington Mystics, citing overall player health and an increased risk of player injury. That cancellation was eventually ruled a forfeit by the WNBA four days later, giving the Mystics the win (the Mystics are currently in the playoffs as the #3 seed).

That forfeit likely cost Las Vegas the playoffs, as they ended up in a must-win situation on August 17 against Dallas for the final spot; Dallas won by 5 points in a very gritty and emotional performance.  

In their final game of the season, the Aces were looking to spoil the Atlanta Dream’s hold on the #2 seed but fell by almost 20 points.

Next Steps

As players prepare to head overseas or take some much-needed rest and recovery, all eyes are on what will happen next season. The Aces’ ceiling, as well as fan expectations, are high and missing the playoffs will not be an option next season.

Laimbeer values familiarity, hence his offseason recruiting of Swords and Lindsay Allen, both of whom he coached for the New York Liberty. But he also values winning and while the team as currently constituted did okay for their first season, there is a lot of room for improvement. I always got a sense that players were basically auditioning this year for a spot on the team next year, and wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more new faces on the Aces in 2019.

One of the pressing questions I have is: will Laimbeer go after the Liberty’s Tina Charles? He coached Charles as well during his time in New York, and Charles is a free agent at the end of this season. But the ultra-accomplished Charles is a native New Yorker who spent the bulk of her domestic professional career in New York, and all of her basketball life in the tri-state area that encompasses New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (Charles is a Queens, NY native who played college basketball at the University of Connecticut and was drafted #1 overall by the Connecticut Sun in 2010 before being traded to the Liberty in 2014).  

Charles is also 29 years old and has never gotten past the second round in the current playoff format (some of her playoff appearances were under Laimbeer, might I add); she’ll be 30 by the start of next season and beginning to exit her prime playing days. She wants what all professional athletes want: a championship. If she can be pried out of the Big Apple to relocate to Sin City, that would be a major coup for the Aces. Charles has the necessary edge that the Aces need; no disrespect to Young or Swords, but a team as young as the Aces needs a fellow player to put a foot in their collective butt when they are not performing up to par. Charles is a player that demands accountability, and she knows Laimbeer has the chops to turn a franchise around and produce not just winners, but also champions.

If Laimbeer manages to poach Charles (and that’s a big “if”), then who goes to make room for her? The WNBA 2019 draft lottery will be held on August 28; Las Vegas will be in contention with the Liberty, the Fever, and the Chicago Sky to get the #1 overall draft pick. Even if the Aces don’t get the top pick, a top-five pick will net them a quality player in an upcoming draft that promises to be just as loaded as the 2018 draft, what with Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabry (Notre Dame), Teaira McCowan (Mississippi State), Asia Durr (Louisville), and Katie Lou Samuelson (UConn) all likely going in the first round. Who the Aces get to draft will have a large bearing on the remix of the current roster. That’s also assuming that all of the Las Vegas players who are no longer under contract, want to stay. With all these moving parts, it’s too soon to tell who will be on the move for the Aces but we’ll be keeping an eye on future developments.

We’ll be updating the Aces’ offseason moves on Hashtag Basketball, so stay tuned. And thanks for stopping by this season.

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