Hammon suspension overshadows Las Vegas’ quest to repeat as season opens

Heading into the 2023 season as the WNBA’s defending champions, the Las Vegas Aces would typically be facing the standard questions about repeating. But with the league’s announcement Tuesday of penalties against the franchise and coach Becky Hammon for dealings with Dearica Hamby before trading her to the Los Angeles Sparks in January, the usual narrative — and the launch of the season Friday — has been overshadowed.

Hamby made her allegations on social media about what she called unethical treatment by the Aces right after the Jan. 21 trade. The league acknowledged on Feb. 8 it was investigating the situation. It should have been the utmost priority to conclude the investigation and announce the outcome a few weeks before the season started, at the very least.

Instead, the announcement was made Tuesday, literally a few minutes into the start of a two-day series of WNBA-scheduled video calls for media with the league’s coaches. One second reporters were asking new Indiana Fever coach Christie Sides about her hopes this year with No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston, the next second they were seeing “WNBA imposes penalties on Las Vegas Aces” on email and Twitter.

That pushed to the back burner every other team, as well as Wednesday’s announcement of the league’s expanded partnership with CarMax.

Many questions remain about the investigation and penalties; the Aces lost their 2025 first-round draft pick and Hammon was suspended two games without pay. The situation got even murkier when the WNBA was criticized by the players’ union for the punishment not being harsh enough and by the Aces/Hammon for being too harsh and inaccurate. It remains to be seen whether Hamby will take any legal action against the Aces.

The WNBA could have been on top of the narrative by being fully transparent months ago about how the investigation would be conducted and who would conduct it, and then in a reasonable time frame — not four days before the seasons starts — make the results known or at least provide some kind of detailed summary. Especially since there were two different aspects to the investigation: What was said to Hamby about her pregnancy, and did the Aces promise impermissible benefits to her, or to anyone else?

Nonetheless, the WNBA’s 27th season launches with four games Friday, and then Las Vegas opens its season Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ABC) against the Seattle Storm. Will the Hamby situation be a distraction to the Aces, or will it largely blow over after the games begin? And what about the other aspects of trying to win back-to-back championships, something that hasn’t been done in the WNBA since 2001-2002?

Here are the biggest keys for the Aces as they start 2023 with a ton of talent but a tough task at hand: being the best again.

Maintaining chemistry throughout the season

The Aces had it in abundance in 2022, despite it being Hammon’s first season at the helm. Players talked about knowing their roles and what was expected of them, and they accepted a different system. The team didn’t have a lot of highs and lows. Despite one rough stretch in late June and early July when the Aces lost five of seven, they never lost more than two in a row throughout the season. They went 8-2 in the playoffs and were at their best when they needed to be.

So far, the situation with Hamby hasn’t appeared to impact how the Aces interact with each other or with Hammon. Obviously, the season hasn’t started yet, but in talking with media, Las Vegas players seemed eager and confident about who they have returning — led by 2022 starters A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum — and the free agent additions to the team — led by forwards Candace Parker and Alysha Clark, both two-time WNBA champions, and Australian center Cayla George.

That trio ranges from 34 to 37 years old. It’s a group of seasoned vets who all have said how much it means to them at this stage in their careers to be part of a championship contender. Parker, one of the sport’s all-time best, talked about just wanting to fit in and help. George joked that if she’s just needed at times to wave a towel and shout encouragement from the bench, she’ll give it her all.

The WNBA season has expanded to 40 games, and there are bound to be some challenges, such as fatigue. But this team is loaded with skill and players who are known for their leadership, experience and maturity.

Of the Aces last season, Clark said, “You can tell the teams that have true off-court chemistry and those that don’t. That was something that stood out from the jump. And just the confidence — now being here, you know where that comes from. It’s the top down. Becky instills confidence in her players on a daily basis.”

Continuing to be the most frustrating team to guard in the league

The Aces led the league in scoring (90.4 PPG), offensive rating (111.9), pace (80.6) and turnover percentage (12.3%) last season. All are impressive, but this especially stands out because it shows how different the Aces were under Hammon: They were second in 3-pointers (343). Las Vegas wasn’t known for 3-point shooting under previous coach Bill Laimbeer.

Plum is one of the best perimeter shooters in professional basketball; her 113 3-pointers led the league in 2022. But five of her teammates made at least 30 3s, including Young (50) and Wilson (31). Neither was known as a 3-point shooter until last season, even going back to their college superstar days.

Young made 36 treys in her three seasons with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, while Wilson made six in four years with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Young totaled 22 3-pointers in her previous three WNBA seasons; Wilson had one in four pro seasons. Through lots of extra work, they became effective from behind the arc.

“That’s just them being in the gym and a testament to them being willing to grow their games,” Plum said. “For [Jackie] to come out and shoot over 40% from 3 and just be really efficient with it is phenomenal. A’ja, she’s always had a really beautiful shot and high release, and she worked on that in the offseason.

“I think it also says a lot about Becky’s offense, her spacing and her empowerment. When players work on things and then they come into the season, not all coaches are onboard with them trying new things. Becky’s just like, ‘If you’re open, shoot it.'”

Flexing even more defensive versatility

The 2022 Aces were sixth in the league in defensive rating (104.0), which, combined with their sizzling offense, had them second in net rating (plus-7.9). They were tied for ninth in average points allowed (84.1). Their defense was more than good enough for the championship, and Wilson was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year along with being MVP.

But with the experience they have, plus bringing in a player known for her defense as much as Clark is, it’s reasonable to expect the Aces could be stronger defensively in 2023.

“She can guard 1 through 4,” Gray said of Clark, “and we can do some switching things defensively; there’s some help scenarios we might not have to do. Yes, we’re going to have a base we want to go into the game with, but we’re able to put people on different matchups sometimes.”

Putting last year in the rearview mirror

Every championship team in every sport says this when starting a new season: “Last season is last season; this is a new year.” Easier said than done.

A couple of things help the Aces: having new players like Parker and Clark who already have WNBA titles but didn’t win last year; the goal of doing something that hasn’t been done in two decades in the WNBA; the challenge of another so-called “superteam” in the New York Liberty, and; the fact that — if they stay healthy — the Aces could be even better than in 2022.

But it also requires not comparing things to last season, Wilson said.

“I keep telling myself that the journey is not going to look the same,” she said. “That’s a key factor mentally. If we don’t start off (13-2 as Las Vegas did in 2022), we can’t just blow up and say, ‘Oh my God … we’re not going to win it.

“I try to get into the fact that it doesn’t have to look ‘this’ way because that’s what it took to win before. We have to get past that and just run our race and play our game.”

Parker’s former longtime team, the Los Angeles Sparks, was the last to win back-to-back titles. It did so in 2001-2002, when Parker was still in high school. She tried to repeat with the Sparks in 2017 and with the Chicago Sky last year.

“Hopefully the third time’s a charm with this team,” said Parker, acknowledging she wasn’t with Las Vegas in 2022. “I think the biggest thing is to treat every season as its own. There’s a lot of time you reflect on what worked last year. And the way the league works, what worked last year isn’t going to work this year.”

Keeping things in perspective

Last season was mostly all roses for the Aces. WNBA fans were pleased to see a well-regarded former player like Hammon return to the league to coach after eight seasons in the NBA. Wilson is one of the league’s most popular players and a two-time MVP. The Aces’ playing style and personality made them really fun to watch, and Gray was sensational in the playoffs.

Wilson said she thinks WNBA fans will be “anti-Aces” this season because they won the title. The offseason situation with Hamby has made some fans turn against Hammon and the Las Vegas organization, while others haven’t decided yet what they think about what happened.

It’s worth noting — which Hammon herself brought up in a video call with media Wednesday — that she has been through controversy and criticism before: when she played for the Russian national team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Hammon, a South Dakota native, never thought she would get the opportunity to compete for the United States, and playing for a Russian club team allowed her to get dual citizenship.

Hammon also witnessed every possible critique as a San Antonio Spurs assistant: from those who thought she was not offered an NBA head-coaching job only because she is a woman, to those who thought she was only getting consideration because she is a woman.

Going back to Hammon’s professional start as an undrafted WNBA player, she has carved her own path regardless of outside opinion. The Aces organization and her current players appear fully in support of her.

Maybe the Aces will be seen as “villains” by some fans this season. Maybe the narratives won’t all be positive. But to repeat, Las Vegas must deal with it all.

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