The WNBA playoffs have practically been an infomercial for Becky Hammon’s brilliance as a head coach.
She has the Aces one win away from their first WNBA championship going after Tuesday night’s blowout of the Connecticut Sun. Her in-game decisions have been flawless – if you want to know how to run plays out of a timeout, go back and watch the end of Game 3 of the semifinals against the Seattle Storm – and no less than LeBron James has taken notice.
Impressive as Hammon has been, however, it raises a question: What the hell were the Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic doing in passing her by? And what’s the excuse for all the other sad-sack NBA teams that didn’t even bring her in for an interview?
“I have not,” Aces owner Mark Davis told USA TODAY Sports when asked whether he’s heard from any jealous NBA owners. “But I’m sure they’re sitting there thinking, ‘Hmm, why didn’t I think of that?’ ”
That’s the thing. Some of them did. All of them could have.
And not one of them was smart enough, or had guts enough, to make Hammon the first female head coach of a men’s team in a major professional sport.
Hammon spent seven years as an assistant to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and said the excuse she heard was that she lacked experience as a head coach. That didn’t stop the Trail Blazers from hiring Chauncey Billups, who’d had all of one year as an assistant, over Hammon. Or the Magic from hiring longtime Dallas Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley instead.
“If you want to hire me, you’ll find a reason to hire me,” Hammon told CNBC after not getting the Portland or Orlando jobs in 2021. “And if you don’t want to hire me, you’ll find that reason, too. And that’s just that.”
Now’s a good time to ask how those decisions are working out for the Trail Blazers and Magic. Both teams were bottom-dwellers last season. The Magic didn’t spend a day above .500, while the Trail Blazers went into a free fall after Damian Lillard was injured, losers of 21 of their last 23 games.
The Aces’ success makes those misses look even worse.
It’s true that Hammon inherited a loaded roster when she was hired in December. But the Aces have had A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young – all former No. 1 picks in the WNBA draft — and Dearica Hamby for the last few seasons now, and they never played like this.
The Aces tied the Chicago Sky for best regular-season record, at 26-10, and got the No. 1 seed on the head-to-head tiebreak. Hammon was the overwhelming choice for coach of the year honors, while Wilson won her second MVP title and Young was named Most Improved Player.
Defense remains a staple for the Aces, but Hammon has opened up Las Vegas’ offense. Instead of pounding the ball into the post, she’s given her players the green light to shoot. The Aces attempted almost 300 more field goals this season than they did last year, under previous coach Bill Laimbeer, and their average of 90.4 points per game was more than four points higher than Chicago, the WNBA’s second-most productive team.
Much of that comes from a newfound freedom from three-point range. After years of being near-allergic to shooting from distance – the Aces routinely ranked last under Laimbeer – the Aces were second in the WNBA in three-point attempts this year and led the league in three-point percentage.
The Aces aren’t just jacking up threes, though. Their 748 assists were a franchise record, as was their 52 percent shooting from two-point range.
“I think we put a good brand of basketball out there, an exciting brand of basketball,” Hammon said after the Aces clinched a spot in the WNBA Finals. “As you guys know, I’m not afraid to mix it up, change it up a little bit, throw different looks out there.”
It’s the looks Hammon draws up on late-game ATOs that are perhaps the best endorsement of her coaching skills. She’s been phenomenal in this area all season, but the larger platform of the playoffs — and her being mic’d up — has really showcased her knowledge of X’s and O’s.
With the Aces trailing the Seattle Storm by four with 11 seconds left in Game 3 of the semifinals, Hammon’s first call was a play that sprung Riquna Williams for a three, which she made. The next set up Wilson’s go-ahead jumper in front of the basket.
Sue Bird answered with a three from deep in the corner, and even Davis thought it would be the game-winner for Seattle.
“I thought, ‘Oh boy, if we’re going to lose, it’s got to be on an iconic shot from one of the most iconic players ever,’ ” he said.
Hammon had one more play left, however. Young faked a screen for Plum as she was cutting toward the basket and Seattle’s Ezi Magbegor bit. It was only a split-second hesitation, but it was enough for Young to slip by and get in position to catch Chelsea Gray’s inbounds pass and make a layup as regulation ended.
The Aces outscored the Storm 18-6 in overtime to win the game.
“It was beyond anything I could have imagined,” Davis said.
That’s the thing, though. Davis was able to imagine Hammon’s potential as a head coach, and now he’s reaping the benefits.
The NBA teams who didn’t are now watching Hammon succeed from afar, knowing they only have themselves to blame.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.