A’ja Wilson had the finest season of her professional career after moving to center in 2022, thriving in the extra space afforded by having four perimeter threats on the court. It helped that Wilson also expanded her shooting range to the 3-point line, but it was a collective five-out Las Vegas offense that allowed Wilson to be at her best.
Wilson’s ability to protect the rim as the lone big — to the point that she earned Defensive Player of the Year — was a critical factor in allowing the Aces to make that shift. The league leader in blocks cleaned up whatever came her way while also stoning like-sized and bigger posts in the paint.
But as the season wore on, and Dearica Hamby’s shooting fell off a cliff, the benefits of playing small diminished with teams content to help off Hamby. The Seattle Storm, incidentally, were an early practitioner of that strategy. So Vegas reverted to a more traditional scheme, taking Hamby out of the starting lineup in favor of Kiah Stokes, whose rim protection was at least superior to Hamby’s even if neither was a threat as a spacer.
The Aces finished the regular season on a tear, but the limitations of bringing a non-shooter into the starting five started to show up during the postseason. In the first round, the Mercury liberally helped off of Stokes, which created congestion around Wilson, but Phoenix didn’t have enough offense to keep pace with Las Vegas.
In the semifinals, the Storm had a clear directive to force Stokes to try to beat them, and it worked in Game 1, as Stokes shot 2-of-7 from the field, including three missed layups, and turned the ball over four times. More importantly, Wilson was stifled by the Storm defense throughout, especially with Stokes on the floor. The Aces were outscored by six in the 29 minutes the two shared the court, but plus-2 when Wilson played without her starting center.
That trend continued in Game 2, as Seattle continued to leave Stokes to provide help elsewhere. Wilson and Stokes were once again a net-negative as a partnership, outscored by 11 in their time on the floor together. The key in this game was that Becky Hammon limited that pairing to 18 minutes. And the person filling in for Stokes wasn’t Iliana Rupert or another big — instead, it was Riquna Williams, a 5’7 guard.
If Las Vegas’ starting lineup for the bulk of the regular season was a pseudo-small five, Hammon was going all in on an honest-to-goodness small-ball crew to try to break the Storm’s defense in what was essentially a must-win game. The grouping of Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Williams, and Wilson played together for 16:10 against Seattle in Game 2, outscoring the Storm by 16 points during that time. Wilson got unlocked, scoring 15 of that lineup’s 47 points.
“You saw we went small, I think that keeps their defense a little more honest because at times they just had like a rover like a free safety just mucking stuff up,” Hammon said postgame. “So putting shooting around [A’ja] at every position makes their defense play a little more honestly. So she was able to shake loose, get some layups get some easy ones, see the ball go in, or get in a mismatch, and we were able to punish them that way.
“Kelsey got downhill,” Hammon added. “We started to get stuff going to the basket, which you guys know I love threes, but I love the rim too. And I thought we did a great job attacking. We didn’t just settle, we attacked — and that’s why we got to the free throw line because we were in attack mode.”
The Aces earned 12 more free throws in Game 2 than in Game 1. Per Positive Residual, they also took 27 percent of their shots at the rim, compared to 21 percent in the opener, and made a whopping 77 percent of their rim attempts, thanks to their ability to spread the defense.
Even with Williams missing shots — she went 0-for-6 from the field — she still demanded to be guarded and reeled in three offensive rebounds to get Las Vegas extra possessions.
But offense isn’t what you worry about with a small lineup — the defense is the concerning part. Can Young keep up with Breanna Stewart despite the size disadvantage? If Wilson guards Stewart, then who can body Tina Charles at the basket, where she makes 65 percent of her shot attempts? Does a lineup that played 14 minutes together during the regular season know how to communicate and rotate together?
The Aces answered enough of those questions. Las Vegas elected to keep Wilson on Stewart to neutralize Seattle’s primary threat. When Ezi Magbegor was the other big, Young got the matchup because of her length. When Charles was the other big, Hammon put Gray (a point guard, lest we forget) on the future Hall of Famer, electing to bother Charles with Gray’s strength. The move was a stroke of brilliance, as Gray ended up forcing four jump balls in the post.
“I thought that stretch that we went small, put Chelsea Gray on the post, and her activity really changed the momentum of the game,” Hammon said. “That’s one of the things we want to be defensively is just active and disruptive, active and disruptive. Physical, aggressive, and I thought she really set the tone for us defensively with her activity, her communication.”
The Storm noted postgame that they were occasionally stuck hunting mismatches instead of running their offense when the Aces went small, but with Charles unable to punish her defender, that strategy didn’t pay off. Instead, Las Vegas reaped the offensive benefits of having shooting and spacing while also being able to frustrate Seattle on the other end.
Much was made about the Aces’ going small in order to open up their offense last night.
I was curious about how it affected the Storm’s process offensively, so I asked how they were able to balance running their usual offense vs looking to mismatch hunt. pic.twitter.com/Zn8c3hrgol
— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) September 1, 2022
On this week’s episode of The Whiparound, Em Adler posited that the Aces would have to go with a spacing five to juice up their offense, and there was regular-season data to back up that theory. Las Vegas was plus-22 in the 14 minutes these five played during the regular season, including a plus-10 mark over two games against the Storm. All of those minutes came in the last two games, too, after Seattle had acquired Charles.
The question now is if small ball is a gimmick that the Storm will now be able to prepare for — and potentially defend better if Gabby Williams is available — and if the Aces can afford to play their rotation so many minutes. Las Vegas only really used six players in Game 2, and the wear will become heavier once the series shifts to every other day.
But the Aces have proof of concept that going small rattles Seattle on both ends of the floor; they haven’t shied away from playing Wilson at the five or from tightening their rotation all season. Why start now? Hammon and Co. have found a strategy that works, and in a series with such tight margins, they have to exploit whatever advantage they can.