There’s a moment in most Las Vegas Aces games where they turn into the unstoppable offensive juggernaut that was promised when they added the most dominant big in WNBA history. It’s usually during a stoppage of play in the second half of the first and third quarters. Sometimes it’s after a timeout. Sometimes, it’s after a loud horn buzzes in the arena. In eight games this season — technically nine, in fact — it actually was at the opening tip, though that wasn’t the plan.
It’s the moment when one of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson goes to the bench and fifth-year veteran and San Antonio Stars holdover Dearica Hamby enters.
Every game is different, but the season-long trend is supported by too much data to ignore. When Wilson and Cambage share the floor, the Aces score significantly less effectively, miss more shots, grab way fewer offensive rebounds, and draw fouls less frequently. The second Hamby enters for one of them — either one, in fact — the Aces score more efficiently, make more shots, grab significantly more offensive rebounds, and draw more fouls. (Yes, the Aces significantly improve on the glass and at drawing fouls when they only have one towering force inside rather than two). They play at the level of a decent team with their two stars on the floor, then transform into a title favorite when they don’t.
Las Vegas Aces frontcourt combinations
|Wilson + Cambage, no Hamby
|Wilson + Hamby, no Cambage
|Cambage + Hamby, no Wilson
|All three together
This happens for a simple reason: the concept of diminishing returns. Basketball is a zero-sum game. Every shot a player takes is one others can’t, and every time one goes to their preferred space on the floor, the other four need to go somewhere else to give that player space. One plus one doesn’t automatically equal two, especially when pairing superstars with similar strengths. This is a concept as old as basketball itself, one proven by countless studies and illustrated every time a superteam comes together, whether in the NBA or WNBA.
While on separate teams last year, Cambage and Wilson were No. 1 and No. 2 in the WNBA in usage rate. They are both devastatingly effective in the same area of the court and much less effective anywhere else. To be their best selves in that area, they need to be able to lord over it themselves. Because of that, Cambage and Wilson often encroach on the other’s space, allowing opponents to swarm either with multiple defenders.
In a perfect world, Cambage and Wilson could easily share that precious real estate within the flow of the game. Problem is, neither has the skill set or the natural instinct to be their best selves elsewhere on the floor, and opponents know it. When Wilson stands away from the basket, her defender drops off her to help on Cambage, knowing Wilson doesn’t have the shooting range to make her pay.
Cambage is a better deep shooter than Wilson, but has taken just 12 threes all season after launching 37 in 29 games with Dallas last year. Besides, acquiring Cambage to space the floor and shoot threes is like using a Ferrari to drive off-road. You could do it, but that’s not why you bought it.
By virtue of being stars that have (correctly) been the focal point of their teams, Cambage’s and Wilson’s off-ball instincts have atrophied. One tends to stand a half-step too close to the other when abdicating the paint. Wilson in particular doesn’t move, screen, or cut naturally in ways that could distract the defense and open up space for Cambage.
Those small shortcomings add up, especially against coordinated defenses that know Wilson and Cambage can’t score if they never get the ball.
Hamby, on the other hand, does not occupy the same space or shoot as often. She is willing and able to stand and move beyond the three-point line, and though she’s not a high-percentage shooter, she takes enough of them to pull her defender a step or two further away from helping inside. Though Hamby occasionally posts up, she is quick to flee back to the three-point line when Wilson or Cambage wants to do their thing. It’s actually funny watching Hamby run from the lane like she’s just seen a ghost.
Though Hamby is half the offensive force that Cambage and Wilson are, she is twice the threat when she doesn’t have the ball. She sets well-angled screens, runs the floor aggressively, and knows where to stand to maximize the team’s spacing. Because she’s used to playing without the ball, she’s developed the instinct to keep it moving when she doesn’t have an obvious opening to shoot or drive. Opponents get distracted by her, and thus they pay less attention to more dangerous threats.
But while Hamby is a nice player, overusing her at the expense of Cambage and/or Wilson misunderstands her value. Players like Hamby ensure one plus one actually equals two, but maximizing two superstars is the way to make the number at the beginning of that equation larger. That’s why basketball teams load up on stars even if their skills overlap, and it’s why they’ll do so in the future.
So what can the Aces do to alleviate their diminishing returns problem? Broadly, they should use three different, simultaneous approaches.
- Let the problem solve itself naturally over time.
- Limit (but not eliminate) the playing time the two stars get together to give them more chances to be their best selves on their own.
- Alter the skill sets of the other three players on the court to ensure they complement the two stars.
In a theoretical world, option 1 is the most powerful of the three. Nothing solves a problem better than experimenting, failing, and learning from those failures. As Cambage said in a July SLAM cover story, “Once we start getting it together—like when I start knowing the plays—and really just snapping into it quickly and being able to run it straight away on the court, I think we’re going to be unstoppable.”
Each game features glimpses of that grand proclamation. The high-low chemistry between Cambage and Wilson is developing: they’ve assisted each other 34 times this season in 23 games, a rate of about once every three quarters. There are many other moments where they are attempting to blend their talents, but the timing and/or spacing is still a beat off. This is actually reason to be optimistic: more reps leads to better precision, so long as the right idea is being practiced.
But in the real world, time is always at a premium. The Aces have a playoff run incoming, one that may begin with at least one win-or-go-home game. Cambage and Wilson should remain teammates for the long haul, but the future is never certain. The memory of the previous three months doesn’t just go away, and neither does the experience of whatever happens the rest of the season. That’s why Aces coach Bill Laimbeer has to use the second and third approaches to improve the situation.
Using the second method allows Hamby to become a great luxury; she enables Laimbeer to rotate Cambage and Wilson to ensure one is on the floor at all times. Excluding the one game both Cambage and Wilson missed, the Aces have played 211 minutes with both of their stars on the bench, according to advanced stat site Positive Residual. Ensuring that number is zero the rest of the season is an easy step that will go a long way in improving the Aces.
The third method, on the other hand, will be more of a challenge. Laimbeer should change the way the other three players function around Wilson and Cambage, but I’m not sure he will.
The dilemma here involves Jackie Young, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft. Laimbeer, who is also the team’s general manager, views Young as the team’s lead ball-handler of the future and has given her significant opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. That often comes at the expense of 2017 No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum, whose game has stagnated since Cambage arrived and was removed from the starting lineup in Tuesday’s blowout loss to the lottery-bound Indiana Fever.
Throwing Young into the deep end may prove to be a brilliant long-term approach, but in the short term, her inexperience and lack of shooting range exacerbates the already difficult challenge of blending Cambage and Wilson’s talents. Young’s still too antsy under pressure, endangering offensive sets that require pristine timing. Teams don’t respect her jump shot, going under ball screens and standing way off her to muck up space inside.
When Young shares the floor with Cambage and Wilson, the Aces score an average of just 95.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Positive Residual. Take Young off the floor, and that number jumps all the way up to 103.7, albeit in a small sample of just 104 minutes. Plum has her limitations, but her perimeter shooting is a much better fit alongside Cambage and Wilson. Perhaps Laimbeer should have more patience with her mistakes and less with Young’s.
Putting the ball in Young’s hands also means taking it away from sharp-shooting All-Star wing Kayla McBride, who has seen her usage drop considerably from last year without a significant increase in scoring efficiency. Leveraging the threat of McBride’s shooting to open space for Cambage or Wilson is one way the Aces currently mask the spacing challenges of the rest of the roster.
Still, this strategy would be even more effective if Young became a better shooter or was replaced by one in the lineup. After all, Young isn’t on the court in that clip.
Solving for the age-old problem of diminishing returns will be tricky for Laimbeer and can’t be addressed in isolation. Playing Hamby more means less on-court time for Wilson and Cambage to work things out naturally. Limiting Young’s role should help in the short term, but may come at the expense of her long-term development. Any personnel or stylistic change threatens to undermine the Aces’ league-best defense, which has become central to the team’s identity.
But this is also a state of affairs any sane organization should gladly accept to secure two generational talents like Wilson and Cambage. The Aces’ diminishing returns dilemma is similar to what several NBA teams will face this season, whether with guards (Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors), wings (LA Clippers), or bigs (LA Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers). Even if you’re not a fan of the WNBA or the Aces, the problem-solving mechanisms they’ll use will inform the success of future superstar unions in both leagues for years to come.
That should make Laimbeer feel better as he searches his brain for the right solutions. At least his plight is a familiar one.