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Becky Hammon Is the WNBA’s Coaching Ace

Bypassed for NBA head coaching jobs, the former San Antonio Spurs assistant is thriving in the WNBA, and has led a stacked Las Vegas Aces squad to the WNBA Finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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 just 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 no. 1 picks in the WNBA draft in back-to-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 was not 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 Seattle Storm. That performance came just two days after the first 29-point, 10-assist game in WNBA playoff history. Her entire conference championship series was nonstop ludicrous, bonkers, crazy-pills 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 four points with 11 seconds left. That’s when Hammon drew up three straight perfect plays to get the Aces out of trouble. First, some screen-the-screener action that left Riquna Williams completely unguarded from 3. One huddle, one perfect play, one bucket.

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

The Storm answered with a 3 that looked like it was going to 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 up a lot of action to keep the defense occupied and away from the hoop, and had Young fake a screen for Plum, making her defender hesitate—and then Young cut to the hoop and caught 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 huddles, three perfect plays, three buckets. It was enough to force overtime, where the Aces romped. And because the WNBA allows cameras inside of the huddle—the NBA does not—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’s first championship in any pro sport, unless we count minor leagues. Hammon is the first first-year head coach to make the Finals since the WNBA’s first year, as well as the first person to make the WNBA Finals as a player and a coach.

Oh yeah! Becky Hammon was a really good player. A six-time All-Star, Hammon is still fourth in WNBA history in career 3-pointers made and sixth in assists. She was named to the W25 team commemorating the 25 best players in the league’s first 25 years. And before hiring her as 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 stayed in San Antonio—but in a groundbreaking 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 in on Spurs practices during the 2013-14 season, while she was rehabbing an ACL injury, and quickly realized he wasn’t simply doing her a favor—she had a lot to offer. (Nobody accused Coach Pop of doing a publicity stunt—everybody knows Coach Pop doesn’t do publicity stunts.) Hammon became the first woman to serve as an assistant coach of a men’s team in any of the major American professional sports leagues. She was the head coach of the Spurs’ summer league team, and won that championship in 2015—some quality foreshadowing 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 acting head coach, the first woman to do so.

Recently, her name began to come up as a potential NBA head coach. She had several interviews with NBA teams over the past few offseasons, reportedly with the Magic and Trail Blazers. (Both eventually hired men and finished toward the bottom of the NBA standings.) Hammon said she was told teams had two concerns: That she had only ever coached with the Spurs, and that she had never run her own team. (This hadn’t been an issue for multiple male Popovich assistants over the years—Mike Budenholzer, Jacque Vaughn, and Brett Brown were all hired as NBA head coaches without ever having had 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’d have to go back to the league she played in.

Hammon was announced as the Aces’ new coach—and the first WNBA head coach ever to make $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 kick-starting the budding trend of pro 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 got the Aces close: In 2020, Vegas made the WNBA Finals, but were run off the court by the Storm, getting 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 retired as part of a peaceful transition of power when the team was close to hiring Hammon.

Hammon showed up, and the Aces got vengeance. The Aces won the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup, tied 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 beat Breanna Stewart in a playoff series. The Aces did this with roughly the same squad they had in 2021—if anything, they lost talent, having moved on from Liz Cambage, the problematic 6-foot-8 center who has since fallen out of the league due to her general bad vibes. (We probably should’ve known Cambage wasn’t going to stick with the Aces after publicly complaining that Hammon was getting paid too much.) The Aces didn’t need more talent to win—they needed a smarter approach.

Hammon has finally brought the Aces into the 21st century, as the Aces were essentially the last team in professional basketball to hear about the 3-point revolution. Laimbeer’s Vegas squads shot the ball roughly 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 everybody 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 by 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 pro career while 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 clear he didn’t approve, because Wilson did not attempt another 3-pointer for the rest of the season.

Under Hammon, this changed real quick. Without Cambage on the court, the Aces stopped forcing the ball into the post and began launching. 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; nobody else in the league even had more than 100. Young shot 43.1 percent from 3, sixth in the league. Gray has made 3.7 3s per game in the playoffs—the Aces averaged 3.7 3s per game as a team in 2018. Wilson turned out to be a great 3-point shooter and has made 31 3s—a 3,100 percent increase over her three years under Laimbeer. In their Game 2 victory 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—playoff or regular season.

Many basketball coaches could have identified that the Aces needed to shoot more. (I also could have, and I am notably not a basketball coach.) But Hammon’s impact has been much larger than simply hitting the “shoot 3-pointers” button. The Aces actually shoot 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 pace is mind-blowing. Hammon’s rotations have been praised—she’s actually starting her best players, which Laimbeer often didn’t—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] stuff. People are taking some of our sets on offense, too.”

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 landmark moment in professional sports—a woman, fully in control, in charge of men in a men’s sports league. Popovich has repeatedly advocated for Hammon to be an NBA head coach; Pau Gasol wrote a Players’ Tribune article called “An Open Letter About Female Coaches” shooting down arguments against Hammon. (Pau is a pro-level thinkpiece author.) Women’s basketball and men’s basketball are both basketball, and it’s clear people believe Hammon’s ideas could work in either league. LeBron James noticed her late-game out-of-bounds play-calling 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 inherently 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 WNBA job was a “step down.” “To think I’ve outgrown the WNBA in a coaching capacity is ridiculous.”

Sure, Hammon could coach in the NBA one day. The men’s league can offer more money and the opportunity to be a trailblazer—but she’s breaking ground right now in the WNBA. Hammon has turned one of the best groups of talent in league history into the record-setting, must-watch offensive juggernaut they were meant to be, and they’re on the verge 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.