Becky Hammon is the Training Ace of the WNBA – The Ringer

Becky Hammon is the Training Ace of the WNBA - The Ringer

The Las Vegas Aces are ridiculously stacked. Their superstar, A’ja Wilson, won her second WNBA MVP award this season, and also won Defensive Player of the Year while finishing third in the league in total points. Kelsey Plum is the all-time leading scorer in women’s Division I history, and was one of only two players in the WNBA to score 20 points per game this year. Jackie Young was named the league’s Most Improved Player. Wilson, Plum, and Young were not. 1 picks in the WNBA draft in back-to-back seasons from 2017 to 2019, and each was an All-Star this year—as was another Aces starter, Dearica Hamby. That leaves just one Vegas starter who wasn’t named to the All-Star Game this year—Chelsea Gray, who just sent the Aces to the WNBA Finals with the first 30-point, 10-assist game in WNBA playoff history Tuesday night against the WNBA. Seattle Storm. That performance came just two days after the first 29-point, 10-assist game in WNBA playoff history. Her entire conference championship streak was non-stop ridiculous, crazy, crazy-pill clutch shooting; she is the most destructive thing to happen to the city of Seattle since the made-for-TV movie 10.5: Apocalypse.

And yet, the biggest star on the Aces might be their first-year head coach, Becky Hammon. Her coaching brilliance was on full display in Game 3 of the semifinals against the Storm. A Vegas loss in that game would have given Seattle a series lead, and forced Las Vegas to win back-to-back games to avoid elimination — and the Storm led by as many as four points with 11 seconds left. That’s when Hammon drew three straight perfect games to get the Aces out of trouble. First, some screen-the-screen action that left Riquna Williams completely off guard from a 3. One layup, one perfect game, one bucket.

After getting the ball trailing by one point, Hammon cleared the lane to give Wilson a clean iso possession to take the lead. Two piles, two perfect plays, two buckets.

The Storm answered with a 3 that looked like it would be the game-winner – but Hammon responded. With 1.8 seconds left, her players wouldn’t have time to drive to the basket for a game-tying layup—so she made sure Young was moving toward the basket when she caught the ball. She drew a lot of action to keep the defense busy and away from the hoop, and had Young fake a screen for Plum, causing her defender to hesitate – and then Young cut to the hoop and grabbed the ball with momentum. It was the most important possession of the WNBA season, and Hammon got Young an easy layup. Anticlimactic, but effective.

Three piles, three perfect plays, three buckets. It was enough to force overtime, where the Aces fumbled. And because the WNBA allows cameras inside the crowd—the NBA doesn’t—Hammon was front and center, as prominent as she’s ever been.

The Aces won Game 4—another thriller– to advance to the WNBA Finals, with Game 1 on Sunday against the Connecticut Sun. If they win, it will be Las Vegas’ first championship in any professional sport, unless we count minor leagues. Hammon is the first first-year head coach to make the Playoffs since the first year of the WNBA, as well as the first person to make the WNBA Finals as a player and coach.

Yes indeed! Becky Hammon was really good player. A six-time All-Star, Hammon still is fourth in WNBA history in career 3-pointers made and sixth in assists. She was named to the W25 team celebrating the 25 best players in the first 25 years of the league. And before hiring her as a coach, the Aces retired her number, holding a ceremony last September to honor her career with the franchise when it played in San Antonio.

After retiring in 2014, Hammon remained in San Antonio — but in a pioneering role. Hammon was tapped by Gregg Popovich, the five-time NBA champion and winningest coach in NBA history, to join the staff of the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich let Hammon sit on Spurs practices during the 2013-14 season, as she rehabbed an ACL injury, and quickly realized he wasn’t just doing her a favor—she had a lot to offer. (No one has accused Coach Pop of pulling publicity stunts—everyone knows Coach Pop doesn’t pull publicity stunts.) Hammon became the first woman who served as assistant coach of a male team in one of the most important American professional sports leagues. She was the head coach of the Spurs’ summer league team, and won that championship in 2015— some quality harbinger of her future success in Las Vegas. She went from the back row of the bench to the front, rising to become one of Popovich’s lead assistants. When Popovich was ejected from a game in 2020, Hammon took over as interim head coach, the first woman to do so.

Recently, her name has started to come up as a potential NBA head coach. She has had several interviews with NBA teams over the past few offseasons, reportedly with the Magic and Trail Blazers. (Both later hired men and finished toward the bottom of the NBA standings.) Hammon said that she it was told that teams had two concerns: That she only ever trained with the Spurs, and that she never managed her own team. (That hasn’t been a problem for multiple male Popovich assistants over the years—Mike Budenholzer, Jacque Vaughn, and Brett Brown have all been hired as NBA head coaches without ever having an NBA coaching job outside of Pop’s staff—but alas.) Hammon realized that if she wanted a chance to run her own team, she should go back to the league she played in.

Hammon was announced as the new coach of the Aces –and the first WNBA head coach ever to earn $1 million per year— back in December. She finished the 2021-22 season with the Spurs and took over an Aces team that had suffered back-to-back disappointing finishes. After moving to Las Vegas in 2017 (and starting the budding trend of professional sports teams moving to Vegas), the Aces hired Bill Laimbeer, a two-time NBA champion player who won three championships as a WNBA head coach. Laimbeer brought the Aces closer: In 2020, Vegas made the WNBA Finals, but was run off the court by the Storm, being swept with three double-digit losses. Last year, the Aces had the best record in the Western Conference, but lost a heartbreaking semifinal series to the Phoenix Mercury. Laimbeer was expected to return as coach in 2022, but stepped down as part of a peaceful transition of power when the team was close to hiring Hammon.

Hammon appeared, and the Aces got their revenge. The Aces won the WNBA Commissioner’s Cuptied for the best record in the league, and had the second-highest offensive rating in WNBA history. In the first round of the playoffs, they swept the Mercury, winning by 16 and 37 points. In the second round, they knocked off the Seattle Storm, becoming the first team ever to defeat Breanna Stewart in a playoff series. The Aces did so with roughly the same squad they had in 2021 — if anything, they lost talent, moving on from Liz Cambage, the troubled 6-foot-8 center who later fell out of the league. because of her general bad vibes. (We probably should have known Cambage wasn’t going to stay with the Aces after publicly complaining that Hammon was being paid too much.) The Aces didn’t need more talent to win—they needed a smarter approach.

Hammon finally brought the Aces into the 21st century, as the Aces were basically the last team in professional basketball to hear about the 3-point revolution. Laimbeer’s Vegas squads shot the ball about as much as his Bad Boy Pistons. The Aces finished last in 3-point attempts in all four seasons under Laimbeer, and by massive margins. In 2021, they shot 13.5 3-pointers per game, while everyone else in the league shot at least 17 per game. In Laimbeer’s four seasons in charge of the Aces, they had the four lowest rates of 3-pointers attempted. of any WNBA team or any NBA team in that time frame. Wilson did not make a 3-pointer in the first three seasons of her professional career playing under Laimbeer, including in her first MVP campaign in 2020. In 2021, she took and made a 3-pointer 66 seconds into the Aces’ first game. of the season. Laimbeer must have made it clear he didn’t approve, as Wilson didn’t attempt another 3-pointer for the rest of the season.

Under Hammon, that changed really quickly. Without Cambage on the court, the Aces stopped forcing the ball into the post and started pitching. The Aces were second in 3-pointers made this season and first in 3-point field goal percentage. Plum led the WNBA with 113 3-pointers; no one else in the league even had more than 100. Young shot 43.1 percent from 3, sixth in the league. Gray made 3.7 3s per game in the playoffs—the Aces averaged 3.7 3s per game as a team in 2018. Wilson proved to be an excellent 3-point shooter and made 31 3s — a 3,100 percent increase in her three years under. Laimbeer. In their Game 2 win over the Mercury in the first round of the playoffs, the Aces hit 23 3s, setting the WNBA record for most 3-pointers in any game – playoffs or regular season.

Many basketball coaches could have identified that the Aces needed to shoot more. (I might have, too, and I’m especially not a basketball coach.) But Hammon’s impact was far greater than simply hitting the “shoot 3-pointer” button. The Aces are actually shooting better on 2-pointers under Hammon (52.0 percent) than they did last year (49.5 percent), and have the third lowest turnover rate in league history. That they commit the fewest turnovers per game in the WNBA despite having the highest speed is amazing. Hammon’s rotations were praised—she actually starts her best players, which Laimbeer often didn’t do– and the rest of the league wants in. In an interview with the Associated Press, Plum claimed that other teams were “starting to steal some of [Hammon’s] things. People also take offense to some of our sets.”

Now, the questions are inevitable: After working for Popovich and thriving as a head coach in the WNBA, people will wonder if and when she will become an NBA head coach. It would be a major moment in professional sports—a woman, fully in control, in charge of men in a men’s sports league. Popovich several times recommended that Hammon be an NBA head coach; Pau Gasol wrote a Tribune of players an article called “An Open Letter About Female Coaches” shooting down arguments against Hammon. (Pau is a pro-level opinion writer.) Women’s basketball and men’s basketball are both basketball, and it’s clear people believe Hammon’s ideas could work in both leagues. LeBron James noted her late game out-of-bounds play call the other day:

But focusing on Hammon’s potential to run an NBA franchise implies a hierarchy: that coaching in the NBA should be her ultimate career goal, because the WNBA is essentially less than. That’s clearly not something Hammon believes. “I think it’s an ignorant statement,” Hammon told the Associated Press about people who said taking a job in the WNBA was a “step down.” “To think I’ve surpassed the WNBA in coaching ability is ridiculous.”

Sure, Hammon could coach in the NBA one day. The men’s league may offer more money and the chance to be a trailblazer—but she’s now breaking out in the WNBA. Hammon has turned one of the best groups of talent in league history into the record-breaking, must-watch offensive load they were meant to be, and they’re on the brink of a championship, pushing the league forward. as it grows in popularity. NBA teams were dumb enough to pass on Becky Hammon, now they’ll just have to wait.

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