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Becky Hammon challenges Aces: Become ‘great’ defensive team

(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The confetti had barely settled from the Las Vegas Aces’ 2022 WNBA championship. Yet Becky Hammon already was evaluating ways in which her team could improve.

Sure, the Aces had just hoisted the trophy. But a new season was brewing, bringing with it new challenges and, more importantly for the Las Vegas coach, new opportunities to get better.

When she thinks of that 2022 squad, one weakness stands out: defense.

“Being an average defensive team wasn’t good enough,” Hammon said. “So I’ve challenged them. These women are not average at anything they put their hands in. So why would we settle for anything less than great defense every night?”

This season is different. The Aces hold a 13-1 record heading into Thursday’s superteam clash with the New York Liberty. They started the year with a seven-game winning streak, which included close calls against the Dream (87-92), the Fever (84-80) and the Sun (90-84) – but in each instance, the Aces held off their opponents, and in every case, it was because of their defense.

“A goal of ours is to stay top three of the league defensively,” A’ja Wilson said. “That’s where we need to aim, and we’re trying our best to do that.”

The Aces finally dropped a game on June 8, a 94-77 loss to the Connecticut Sun. Of that game, Hammon said the Sun “kicked our ass,” on both ends of the floor. Las Vegas gave up its highest point total of the season, allowing the Sun to shoot 57.1% from 3-point range. A career-high 41 points from DeWanna Bonner didn’t help.

But after the dismal performance, the Aces bounced back with six consecutive wins, many of them fueled by – you guessed it – defense. The streak included a 96-63 win against the Seattle Storm and a 93-62 win against the Minnesota Lynx in back-to-back games, their lowest point totals allowed this season.

In 2022, the Aces gave up 84.1 points per game, which ranked ninth in the 12-team league. This season, that number is down to 77.4, good for second-best in the WNBA. It wasn’t a major offseason overhaul that led to the improvement but rather a combination of key signings and a change in mindset.

Candace Parker was, of course, the Aces’ most high-profile signing during the offseason, and the 16-year veteran provided an instant defensive upgrade. At 6-4, she makes for a scary defensive combination with Wilson inside, but she also can match up with guards on the perimeter.

While the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year may be nearing the end of her career, she’s still a skilled defender, and her 1.5 steals per game so far this season is her highest mark since 2017.

Alysha Clark also joined Las Vegas in the offseason, and while not as high-profile as Parker, she also is another experienced player with a strong defensive skill set. A two-time All-WNBA Defensive team selection, Clark allows the Aces to play a smaller lineup, either to combat guard-heavy opponents or to bring pressure in the backcourt that speeds up the game.

Offseason addition Alysha Clark helps the Aces flex their defensive muscles. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

And 6-3 center Kiah Stokes is making an impact off the bench, playing more minutes – up from 15.3 to 18.5 – and averaging a career-high 1.5 blocks per game. Wilson, last season’s DPOY, points to Stokes as the player that holds the Aces’ defense together.

“Kiah’s the anchor to our defense,” Wilson told the Hartford Courant on June 7. “A lot of people say that it’s me, but I pass that to Kiah 100%. She is just always at the right place at the right time and I trust her, like guards trust us and then I trust Kiah when she’s behind me. So she literally holds it down.”

The offseason additions and Stokes’ increased role takes care of the X’s and O’s of the team’s defensive attack, but a large part of Las Vegas’ improvement comes from approach.

The 40-game WNBA schedule comes with quick turnarounds, and teams often play with just one day between games. The Aces take advantage of their limited practice, devoting even the smallest windows of time to defensive drills.

“Even though we don’t have a ton of time, we’ll just do a quick drill to make sure people are talking and active, and being as physical as we can be,” Sydney Colson said.

The team’s mindset has changed too, with defensive assignments becoming more of a priority. Everyone has turned up the intensity, and Hammon says that early in the season when Kelsey Plum wasn’t shooting well, it was the guard’s defense that kept her in games.

The team is bigger and stronger thanks to additions in the offseason, but if everyone isn’t contributing on defense, then there are breakdowns.

The goal for the Aces? Zero breakdowns.

“Sometimes things change game by game,” Colson said. “But it’s also the MO that we have. We want to be more physical, we want to compete on every possession.”