Midseason Checkup: Las Vegas Aces

A synopsis of the Las Vegas Aces's performance at the midpoint of the 2018 season.

Statistics are taken from the official Las Vegas Aces and WNBA sites. 

Here we are, approximately halfway through the 2018 WNBA season and a month away from the 2018 All-Star game in Minneapolis, MN. The Aces have had their ups and downs and currently sit at 5-11. But what does this actually mean? Let’s discuss.

The Revival

New name. New owner. New location. New coach. New faces. New rookies. New no. 1 draft pick. The franchise formerly known as the San Antonio Stars has been through a lot since the beginning of the year. All of this newness has an effect on team chemistry; it’s hard knowing where a teammate’s sweet spot is on the court, or when they are going to move off the ball if you barely know that teammate’s name. Las Vegas had the fortune of getting consensus national college player A’Ja Wilson to go along with last year’s no. 1 pick, Kelsey Plum (who was drafted by the Stars).

Wilson was anointed as the face/savior of the franchise almost as soon as her name was called on draft night. The rest of the team had five years or less (usually less) experience in the WNBA. One of her fellow rookies, Ji-Su Park, is the youngest player in the league at 19 years old. The team clearly needed some seasoned guidance, which came in the form of the offseason signings of Tamera Young and Carolyn Swords.

Training camp brought more new faces, as former Stars were cut and camp standouts were added. Other players were signed in the preseason and early days of the regular season (some out of necessity due to player injury or absence) and waived shortly thereafter. Returning players were late to the party due to overseas play. The starting rosters were a revolving door from game to game. The team’s record slid to 0-4, the second worst in the league.

The Jello is Jiggling

Then things started clicking for this young group. On June 1, the Aces got their first win at home over the visiting Washington Mystics (who were without franchise player Elena Delle Donne), 85-73, and improved to 1-4.

They lost three more before going on the road and notching wins against the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty.

They returned to Las Vegas and beat the Liberty again, as well as the visiting Seattle Storm.

The players are showing themselves to be more comfortable with each other. The team’s Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with team outings, such as dinner, golfing, and volunteer work. A steady starting rotation helps as well, as Laimbeer decided to keep Plum in the point guard spot and replace Swords with Park.

Moral Victories

Close losses (7 points or less) to the Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, and Phoenix Mercury (their June 10 game, anyway) show that while Las Vegas is a young team, it is extremely talented. Even expected losses to the Mercury and Minnesota Lynx weren't as bad as most expected (though the Lynx game was a blowout by 15 points; it could have been worse).

The aforementioned opponents had to work hard for those wins, and there were more than a few fans (and opposing players) who were surprised that those games ended as they did.

Even the recent loss to the Dallas Wings was by a six-point margin, 97-91 and was possible only by the literal last-minute heroics of the Wings’ Skylar Diggins-Smith; the game had had several ties and lead changes and was anyone’s win up until the final 1:30 of the fourth quarter.

How the Aces will respond to rematches against the Los Angeles Sparks (July 1);  Minnesota Lynx (July 13 and August 9); Phoenix Mercury (July 16 and August 1); Connecticut Sun (July 7 and August 5); Atlanta Dream (August 7 and 19) and Wings (August 17) will go a long way in determining if they are continuing to learn the lessons of how to succeed in this extremely stacked league, or are they falling back on the “Well, we’re a young team” excuse. 

Closing the Bakery

 One of the areas in which Las Vegas needs to improve is in reducing the numbers of turnovers per game. As of now, the Aces are averaging 13.8 turnovers per game, which is slightly below their opponents’ average of 13.3. This is a vast improvement from the beginning of the season when the Aces were averaging 16 turnovers per game.  

Part of this is getting better on reads. More turnovers occurred due to miscommunication between the Aces on the court (e.g., overthrows, missed passes due to inattention, etc.). Another part is increasing protection around the rim. The Las Vegas defense can be porous at times, but sometimes there is only so much you can do to defend a player who can shoot from mid-court and make the shot (hi, Diana Taurasi).

Let's Get Physical

Wilson and Park are among the latest of a long line of rookies that have had to get used to the sheer physicality of the WNBA. It is this factor that has recently had teams making the wise decision to get more physical with Wilson in order to limit her scoring capability. It has worked; during the recent games against the Liberty and the Lynx, Wilson looked exhausted as a result of tangling with much stronger players in the paint (hi, Rebekkah Brunson).

Park is still adjusting to the much stronger centers in the league, such as Dallas’s Liz Cambage and Phoenix’s Brittney Griner (although most teams don’t have an answer for Cambage or Griner, so Park is doing fine just to stay upright).

Three Is the Magic Number

Laimbeer has preached about not relying on 3-pointers, even in a league that is becoming increasingly driven by them (much like the NBA). In a way, I understand his logic; good defense will stop most positioning for three-point shots and his fledgling Aces needed to get that particular tool under wraps before moving on to another tool.

Las Vegas’s 3-point shooting percentage as a team is actually higher than their opponents at this juncture, but only slightly. Kayla McBride, Nia Coffey, and Plum are responsible for the majority of the three-point shots on the team. Coffey’s three-game absence due to an ankle injury caused a dip in those numbers, but Plum has been more aggressive and taking (and making) more threes. Dearica Hamby is also lethal from three-point range -- when she feels confident enough to shoot it. Working on her confidence in taking the shot in the first place will be necessary as this compressed season moves on.

Trust the Process

(I don’t think the Philadelphia 76ers will mind me borrowing their unofficial slogan for a minute)

This year will be chalked up to growing pains, but expect the Aces to be true threats in the 2019 season. Prepare for even more new faces as Laimbeer assesses this season and figures out who he wants to jettison in preparation for next year’s draft (which promises to be equally stacked with the likes of Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey; Louisville’s Asia Durr; UConn's Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson; and Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan), plus players returning to the league in training camps.

The rest of this season will be fascinating to watch as the Aces continue to grow; next season, they will be a must-see on par with the top teams in the league--in fact, the Aces will probably be among the top teams in the league. You heard it here first.

#ALLIN 

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