The Vegas Royal Flush

Why the Aces, with these five players firing on all cylinders, are my pick to win it all

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The five best players on the Las Vegas Aces don’t start games together. Part of that was by design for Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer. Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby have bolstered one of the most productive bench units in league history, taking some pressure off of the starters while balancing out their attack across all 40 minutes in the regular season.

Laimbeer’s approach has paid off this year as the Aces clinched the No. 1 overall seed. Hamby, the 2019 Sixth Woman of the Year, was extremely effective once again in 2020 while finishing second on the team in minutes. Young, the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, took a big step forward in year two, finding her confidence as a scorer. In fact, Hamby, Young, and backup point guard Danielle Robinson each played more minutes than starters Angel McCoughtry, Carolyn Swords and Lindsay Allen in the regular season.

Ahead of the start of their semifinal series against Connecticut on Sunday, these crumbs naturally lead to several related big-picture playoff questions for the Aces: Will the rotation look the same? Will the nature of playoff basketball call for Laimbeer to make some lineup adjustments? Are the Aces even better than they showed in the regular season because Laimbeer will be able to dial up the minutes of his best players in their quest for a championship?

My answer to all three questions is yes. The varied strengths of a lineup featuring A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride, Young, Hamby and McCoughtry, the expectation that those five players will play more minutes together, and the big pile of evidence from the regular season showing that Laimbeer has found ways to put each one in positions to succeed and help the team win games are why the Aces were my start-of-the-postseason pick to win the title.

The basics

That five-player lineup logged 59 minutes together in the regular season according to Positive Residual. That is far from being a substantial sampling, but it was one of the team’s five most-used lineups according to WNBA.com. That group also got to that total in just 12 games compared to 21 or 17 for the team’s other lineups in the top five in terms of total minute count.

McCoughty averaging just 20 minutes per game made it less likely we’d see that group together for longer stretches. Additionally, the Wilson-McBride and Young-Hamby tandems were naturally staggered because the former started games while the latter came off the bench.

The starting lineup logged the most minutes (147) together and outscored opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions. Lineup No. 2 (122 minutes) posted a 10.1 net rating with the top three reserves—Robinson, Young, Hamby—next to Wilson and McBride. Clocking in at No. 3, a Wilson-plus-bench lineup featuring Robinson, Hamby, Young and Sugar Rodgers posted a 29.7 net rating in 86 minutes. Finally, a Swords-plus-bench lineup—a natural outcome for short stretches when Wilson went to the bench—got slightly outscored in 60 total minutes.

Overall, the Aces still were effective with that starting unit in the regular season. It was also clear that Swords and Allen were able to play with a certain degree of clarity even if they weren’t playing heavy minutes. They knew exactly what Laimbeer expected from them, and they understood exactly how they fit into the bigger picture.

Will those fortunes flip beginning on Sunday? Or, would Laimbeer even consider making the first move by way of a lineup change? Connecticut doesn’t appear to pose significant matchup issues for either player. The Aces play sound team defense, and the Sun were the 10th-most efficient halfcourt offense (0.862 points per possession) in the regular season according to Synergy Sports.

Minute totals should rise for the top-six players on the Aces, Robinson included, but they’ll still need contributions from several players beyond those six. A situation like this can raise the philosophical debate of whether teams should intentionally start games with their five best players versus a more holistic outlook. Swords and Allen have been starters all season, and surely they both must carry a certain degree of confidence as a result. What happens if that’s suddenly stripped away? While the argument in favor of starting with your best five isn’t very complicated, this can’t just be a one-or-the-other proposition. Is it possible that you can string together good stretches with that lineup, too? Even in the playoffs, in the right matchups, I think the answer there is yes, too.

How they fit together offensively

All that aside, this comes down to a belief that the Aces will be incredibly tough to stop (and score on—we’ll get to that next) when that Royal Flush unit is on the floor. In two or three longer stretches per game, including crunch time, that’s the group I believe needs to be out there for this team to win it all.

So, what makes it so easy to see this group in that light? I think this really starts with the skill sets of McBride and McCoughtry, and what Laimbeer has done to weaponize what both players do best. McBride is their biggest 3-point threat. For a team that doesn’t take very many triples, you can bet her name is getting circled three times on scouting reports. There might be other players you’re willing to leave open. If you make mistakes on McBride, she is going to hurt you.

But McBride is so much more than a standstill shooter. She shot 44 percent coming off screens this season and 52 percent on handoffs according to Synergy Sports. Put her in some two-man game with Wilson or Hamby and she can beat you backdoor, find that big rolling to the basket, or stick a pull-up jumper. First just playing and making a read with Wilson and then with Hamby, McBride hit two massive 3-pointers in last weekend’s win over the Sparks as Vegas clinched a top-two seed.

Together, McCoughtry and McBride put constant pressure on the defense because they loom as such big off-ball scoring threats. Defenders have to be ready to chase them around screens. McCoughtry isn’t known primarily for her jump shot like McBride, but one of the newest members of the Aces has been efficient from all over the floor: 16-of-34 on 3-pointers, a hair above the league average from midrange, and 50 percent on paint attempts outside the restricted area.

McCoughtry is so dangerous coming off a screen because she just might be the toughest player in the league to get back in front of without fouling when she curls or gets an angle to attack the basket.

Las Vegas played at the second-fastest pace in the league (14.25 seconds per possession) according to PBPStats.com. McCoughtry is a force in transition, jetting right by bigger players while also being tall and strong enough to go right through and over smaller opponents.

You may have expected more A’ja Wilson talk right off the bat. (Don’t worry, we’re getting there. ) A similar thought applies to both McCoughtry and the newly-minted 2020 MVP: Don’t the Aces become even tougher to guard in the playoff if and when they opt to play through those two players even more? McCoughtry only used 55 possessions as a pick and roll ball handler in the regular season. Who has the personnel to really think they can handle McCoughtry-Wilson pick and rolls? McCoughtry also creates massive problems for opponents crashing the offensive glass and on quick duck ins, where she’s able to simply overpower her defender to get a quick layup or earn a trip to the line.

Hamby has been excellent on both ends of the floor once again this season. You really have to consider transition alone as a third equally-impactful dimension of Hamby’s game (has the term three-way player been coined yet?), where she’ll burn you running the floor on a possession-by-possession basis harder than just about every player in the league. Even if that doesn’t result in a bucket right away, you might end up cross-matched as a result, giving the Aces something easy to pick at early in a possession.

In a halfcourt offensive setting, Hamby can impact the game in a variety of ways. But the focus today will be on her spacing. She narrowly set a career-high in 3-point makes this season with 18 and finished third on the team in both 3-point makes and attempts. The Aces simply can’t replicate all of the great things they get from Hamby alone. And when you have to anticipate playoff opponents forcing you to make a few more outside shots at least to a degree, Hamby’s ability to both be a credible spacer and attack to score from the perimeter make her a vital cog in this rotation.

Young did an admirable job as a rookie in what must have been a complete whirlwind of an introduction to the pro game. As more of a nominal point guard at times, her job was to push the pace and set the table for the numerous scoring options on last year’s team. Young has begun asserting herself more as a scorer in year two and has converted at an impressive rate. She shot nearly 52 percent out of pick and roll this season compared to 26 percent on a similar number of attempts as a rookie. Further, Young shot 53 percent in the paint and 48 percent from midrange after shooting below 34 percent from all three zones inside the arc as a rookie.

Assertive was a very intentional word choice in this case with Young. She isn’t just taking shots with the shot clock winding down or when she’s able to get all the way to the rim. She is seeing red any time she brings the ball up the floor against a smaller guard. That’s important, especially with this Royal Flush unit, because teams probably will need to stash a smaller guard on her.

Watch the Vegas bench closely here as Young went right at Kelsey Mitchell with 18 on the shot clock in semi-transition. Laimbeer was loving it.

Ah yes, now let’s get to Wilson. I saved her for last here because, ultimately, the foundation for any pro-Aces case in these playoffs has to boil down to them having the option to throw it down to Wilson over and over again, especially to close games and to find an answer if the other team is going on a run of their own.

Wilson led the league this season with 152 post-up possessions according to Synergy Sports and surpassed or was nearly equal to (within 0.006 points per possession, hardly a stretch) the efficiency of five of the top-10 players in overall post-up volume at 0.967 PPP. She’s a unique scorer because of her ability to post for a deep back-to-basket touch, face up and drive by you, knock down a face-up jumper, or even create something for herself one-on-one off the dribble.

People can’t stop fouling her, but the urgency to contest her jumpers is understandable because she gets off the floor and has such a high release. And when defenders do try to get into her body to be more physical, she can put it on the floor and drive right by them.

Wilson is an incredibly dangerous partner in any two-man game with one of McBride, McCoughtry, Young or Robinson. Think about that sentence for a moment. The Aces can really target the most favorable matchups when three of those guards are out there together. There won’t be any real hiding places if Vegas does decide to get very calculated about which defenders they try to test. There’s a flip side to that, too: if one defender happens to do an excellent job on, say, McBride (or insert Teammate X here), that alone won’t sink their ship.

Let Young (or even McCoughtry) come off a Wilson screen with Hamby spaced out to the 3-point line, and you can see the difficult tradeoffs facing the defense.

Young can get downhill to the rim or step right into an easy pull-up if your big doesn’t step up to initially obstruct her path. But once you commit there, the other big (Hamby’s defender) is thrust into a tough spot. Can you get there in time to cover up Wilson on the roll? With McCoughtry all the way in the opposite corner, look at how long of a run that would be to rotate and closeout to Hamby at the 3-point line.

With Hamby setting a ball screen, the Aces can also create prime opportunities for Wilson to flash for a quick isolation chance. Watch Wilson bolt into the lane as her defender is stepping in the opposite direction—out of the lane to avoid a defensive three-seconds violation.

Because Wilson is a capable midrange shooter, having her screen and pop out to the 15-to-19 foot range puts the defense in a tough spot, too. If you just hope to show in Young’s path and then recover, you’ll be too late.

McBride’s defender even considered stunting that time, which could have been an even more costly mistake to potentially leave McBride for an open 3-pointer one pass away. The Aces will also mix in chances for McCoughtry to duck in simultaneously, seen in this sequence—another example of how the Aces force you to guard several things at once or in rapid succession. Most of them are more of the quick hitter variety, too.

The team likely facing some reasonable questions about their spacing in these playoffs counteracts some of those efforts because they don’t give you time to load up to each one. They aren’t the basketball equivalent of a station-to-station baseball team. As much as words like ‘smashmouth’ are ascribed to any Laimbeer team, these Aces really are more of a musical ensemble with a bunch of different people working together. If you focus too much on one individual, you’ll completely lose sight of what they’re accomplishing together. (And yes, they do also have a certain physicality and toughness to them, which is also a commendable trait.)

With that Royal Flush lineup, the Aces simply have more options to turn to when the going really gets rough in a halfcourt setting. That’s the entire idea of playoff basketball. Do you have enough players that can just go make a play? Young had Wilson as a throwback option coming off this ball screen. If she did end up in a tough spot, she could pitch it out to Wilson who could take over from there.

Young also realized that she had a chance to work to a spot and rise up about six feet from the rim, and that’s an easy look for her. Late in the fourth quarter in a one-possession game, the Aces didn’t even have to work all that hard to get into something that would give them chances to score. The Aces didn’t lean on the pick and roll all that much, finishing 10th in volume with 311 possessions according to Synergy Sports. I’m expecting a shift there. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a viable option if and when the Aces need more of it. Young and McCoughtry have been too good all season, and it gives Wilson chances to catch on the move against a defense that hasn’t loaded up for her at all.

Going back to Wilson’s post game, where teams will likely send hard double teams or aggressively dig down with a nearby guard. The Aces seem to have a pretty good grasp on what to do even when an opponent helps off the ‘right’ players. Watch Allen’s cut suck another defender into the lane, thus creating an open 3-pointer for McBride. Then, Robinson submitted one of the best dimes of the season with this beautiful touch pass to McCoughtry after a well-timed cut from the weak side.

The league’s No. 2 offense in 2020 is so much more than the old-school, pound-it-inside light Laimbeer is painted in as a coach. They do play through Wilson a whole bunch. They also run good stuff to get good looks for their other top scorers. As we’ve seen, those two things work hand in hand. You have to prepare for much more than Wilson in the post. And because those other options have been so effective, the Aces are able to keep defenses honest and off-balance heading into these playoffs.

Why they’ll be a stout defensive unit

Overall, the Aces were the No. 2 defense this season, allowing 97.2 points per 100 possessions. Seattle (93.3 defensive rating) has a slight lead over that next tier of teams. The four teams left standing rank in the top five. The same general theory applies year after year: if you want to compete for championships, you have to get your defense to a certain level. The top four is usually a pretty good target to set.

The Aces have allowed just 96.1 points per 100 in their 460 Wilson-Hamby minutes. Opponents shot below the league average at the rim (66 percent, minus-2.3) and in non-restricted area paint attempts (37 percent, minus-4.6) according to Positive Residual.

Wilson has been one of the best rim protectors in the league and led the league in blocked shots this season. She has leaned more into utilizing her own verticality as a weapon to contest and challenge shots. Additionally, she hasn’t put her team in bad spots by getting in a bunch of foul trouble. Staying on the floor to play more minutes and staying in more plays by not leaping at everything chasing blocks, she’s able to anchor the team’s defensive rebounding efforts. The Aces posted the league’s best defensive rebounding percentage (74.8) to limit second-chance opportunities of their opponents.

Actually being ready to turn and go get that rebound was so much more important than selling out to chase a block on an already-difficult floater attempt.

That Hamby-Wilson tandem allows them to mix things up defensively. Both can meet and move with ball-handlers out at the 3-point line coming off of screens and recover back to their own player.

This team has also done a fair amount of switching, which really sets off a fascinating chain of events. When executed properly, it’s an effective way to remove creases for driving lanes and force your opponent to beat you by making shots over you without ever getting all the way around you to force more help and open up something even better.

Betnijah Laney played right into the Aces’ hands. The possession completely stalled out, and Vegas was able to force a tough shot on the drive.

After a switch, if a guard can’t find an open pull-up or get into the lane, the attention typically shifts to the guards. The defense will usually be left with one of their smalls on a big. Can that be exploited? Therein lies the strength of this group. Young, McBride and McCoughtry have more collective size than any big-minutes perimeter trio left standing. With a little bit of help and maybe a well-timed dig, it’s possible to force really talented forwards into some tough shots that you can live with as a defense.

You might need to live with some looks like that from a player like Stewart, especially when the alternative against a full-fledged Seattle attack is open 3-pointers and more chances to touch the paint on a drive. In a similar situation against Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier, watch McBride front this time, leaving the Aces susceptible to a lob over the top. Wilson was alert, arrived in time to help, stayed vertical, and even won the Aces the possession as the ball went out of bounds off of Collier.

Talking, knowing when to help, doing your early work to prevent a deep post catch, and finishing plays with defensive rebounds are paramount. The Aces pass the smell test in every area. If we end up seeing No. 1 versus No. 2 in the Finals, we would be witnessing a fascinating clash of offensive (and defensive!) styles. This particular Aces lineup is as well-suited as any in the league this year to slow down the Storm.

Wrapping up

Laimbeer managed McCoughtry’s minutes with much more than the regular season in mind. McBride’s shooting has perked up after a slow start. Young may not have looked ready to score like this as a rookie, but Laimbeer’s vision for her career with the Aces has been crystal clear in year two. Hamby might not start games. But she has earned the right to close them, and the team has made it known how important she is to their success. Wilson is every general manager’s dream—a superstar you can build around for the long haul. As excited as they must be for what they can still accomplish in 2020, the Aces also know that because of Wilson, they’ll be able to build something capable of sustained success.

That Royal Flush group has only played 59 minutes together all season. But as we saw from the Aces in last year’s semifinals, now is the time of year where you ride your best five players. That group has logged 27 of their 59 minutes in the fourth quarter, where they’ve outscored their opponent by 33 points in 53 total possessions.

One of the four remaining teams is just six wins away from a championship. When the chips are down, based on what we’ve seen league-wide in the regular season, Laimbeer has the best hand. With those five players healthy and firing on all cylinders at the start of these playoffs, the Aces look like the favorites to go win it all in year three of the infamous three-year plan.


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