WNBA playoffs 2022: How Becky Hammon has the Las Vegas Aces on the brink of a championship

A'ja Wilson enters the frame to Gucci Mane's "I Think I Love Her," dapping up everyone dressed in hoodies and flip flops in the small room. Suddenly the beat drops, the lights switch off, and Wilson's supporting cast -- her Las Vegas Aces teammates -- start jumping up and down, their phone flashlights illuminating the set like a live concert. Wilson is front and center, lip syncing into a massage gun as microphone. Between the bouncing backup dancers, one can catch a glimpse of Jackie Young as she lays on a massage table, a bit incognito in sunglasses and doing her own thing.

The same crew comes together for another scene, this time for Sydney Colson's rendition into a cupping machine of Lil Boosie's "Set It Off." They've taken over their athletic trainer's hotel room and need props, after all.

Wilson and her teammates upload these -- and other videos of teammates dancing in sync in a hotel hallway during a long break between road games -- to TikTok. And the Aces are viral.

But where, one may ask, was head coach Becky Hammon during all this?

"Becky was nowhere near that room," the coach said, chuckling the next day.

Hammon -- in her first year as head coach following a storied playing career in the WNBA and an eight-year stint as an assistant in the NBA -- may have been absent for her team's shenanigans. But behind her new-look offense that's taken the league by storm and fresh culture emphasizing effort, accountability and strong relationships, she's left her imprint on an Aces squad that's having more fun than ever on and off the court.

"It's cool, calm, be you," reserve Riquna Williams said of the culture in Vegas. "It makes it fun when you can just relax and have fun and not have to sink into a shell and hide. This is probably one of the best coaches of a team I've been on. Everyone's so positive and gets along pretty well."

So far, the results have spoken for themselves: Behind a 9-1 start and 26-10 regular season record, the Aces earned the No. 1 seed into the playoffs, and are 1-1 in their best-of-five semifinal series against the Seattle Storm. Prior to tip, Hammon was honored as the 2022 coach of the year -- the first former WNBA player to win the award in her debut season -- along with Wilson and Young for taking home Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player, respectively.

But for a franchise that has been knocking on the door of winning a title for so long -- and is all too familiar with the disappointment of falling short of the goal -- little else matters, new coach or not, if they aren't able to seal the deal this month by taking home the WNBA title and building the next WNBA dynasty.

Vegas didn't experience extensive roster turnover like other teams going into 2022. Its core five -- Wilson, Young, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Dearica Hamby -- were all major contributors last year, and in all but Gray's case even longer. But Hammon's hiring still served as a reset for the team. The players say, it was a necessary one.

The Aces enjoyed notable success under Bill Laimbeer, the three-time WNBA champion coach who led the team when the franchise relocated in 2018 from San Antonio. After falling short in the semifinals to eventual champions Washington Mystics in 2019 and getting swept by Seattle in the 2020 Finals, they thought 2021 was their year. They'd acquired one of the best point guards in the world in Gray in free agency, finally returned Plum from her Achilles injury and offered a one-two punch of Wilson and four-time All-Star center Liz Cambage down low, and clinched the No. 2 seed in the postseason. Then they dropped the winner-take-all Game 5 in the semifinals against the 5-seeded Phoenix Mercury -- on their home floor, no less.

The way the 2021 season concluded left a bad taste in their mouths -- in Plum's words, "I felt like we got punk'd." So much so that the team approached the offseason with a renewed determination.

Her teammates approached the offseason with a similar determination. Young had a stellar WNBL season in Australia and was constantly adding outside workouts, boxing and using the heat chamber.

Plum took a break from basketball in the first month of the offseason, primarily working on building her strength coming off her Achilles injury. Then she went full-throttle at home in the U.S. and with Galatasaray in Turkey, with extra lifting and conditioning, bike workouts, Pilates, swimming -- "everything you could think of."

Perhaps no one took it worse than Wilson, who called the loss "probably the worst I've ever felt in my whole career." She still envisions plays from the game when she steps foot in Mandalay Bay.

"I gave it my all, but it still wasn't enough and that did not sit right with me at all," Wilson said.

So Wilson switched up her offseason approach, training with Donnie Raimon, the husband of former Aces assistant Kelly Schumacher Raimon and a specialist in biomechanics. By replacing traditional training with workouts that homed in on specific movements she makes in a game, Wilson feels she's in the best shape she's ever been in, and hasn't been bothered by the ankle problems that have nagged her during her career.

"Can we win at all or not [this year]? Who knows," Wilson said. "At the same time, I'm going to make sure that we don't feel like we did last year, no matter what."

Hammon -- whose hiring and replacement of Laimbeer was announced on New Year's Eve, and whose seven-figure deal makes her the highest paid coach in the WNBA -- told her new players she wanted to overhaul the offense. Instead of Laimbeer's low post-dominant system, she sought to implement a NBA-esque, pace-and-space style predicated on making the right reads.

With the departure of Cambage in free agency, Wilson could move from the four to the five, allowing Vegas to play a smaller and more athletic lineup. And while Hammon didn't guarantee anyone a starting spot, Plum and Hamby -- who both came off the bench under Laimbeer and combined for the previous three Sixth Player of the Year awards -- were ultimately slotted into the starting five. In part because Plum approached training camp dead-set on making "[Hammon] know that I'm the best guard in this league."

"We've kind of been through the same thing, had the same problems each year," Hamby said. "So moving pieces around, trying to figure little things out here and there, [I] definitely think it was a fresh start."

On paper, the Aces don't look dramatically different from previous years -- they were, top two in offensive efficiency in 2020 and 2021 -- though their offensive rating in 2022 (109.6) is the second-best in league history.

But after coming in last in the league in 3-point attempts per game each year from 2018 to 2021, Vegas' tries from deep nearly doubled, from 13.5 per game (2021 regular season) to 26.4 per game (2022 regular season). It wasn't just giving proven shooters like Gray and Plum the green light to let it fly, either, but extending it to those who rarely shot the 3-ball, like Young and Wilson.

Young said her previous struggles from 3 originated from a mental block more than anything else. So in addition to tweaking her shot, Hammon helped her build her confidence in shooting 3s in game situations. She went from attempting 77 treys across her previous three seasons to taking the second-most on the team (116) in the 2022 regular season -- hitting 43.1% of them.

The resulting spacing from increased shooting helped everything and everyone else: Wilson to operate inside, especially off the dribble; Gray to pick apart defenses on picks and rolls; and players like Plum and Young, who thrive off plowing downhill.

"There were moments where it was just so hard to score last year," Gray said. "And then this year, you see so much more happening where people are wide open or we're taking shots that we practice all the time, and it allows for people like Jackie, like KP, to really get to their spots and be successful."

Hammon may be the mastermind on the sidelines, but Gray is the conductor of the entire operation, entrusted with a lot of the playcalling. The veteran guard said it was challenging to assert herself as a leader last year in her first year with the team. This year, she's more comfortable and confident than ever in that role, thanks to being able to pick Hammon's brain on everything from the importance of in-game, nonverbal communication to how to get the best out of your teammates more broadly.

"She's a second Becky for us," Young said of Gray.

"An extension of myself, really," Hammon added. "I'm her assistant coach."

Hammon's basketball mind -- Plum calls her "the best X's and O's coach I've ever played for, man or woman" -- put individual players and the team collectively in a position to thrive as they'd never before. But Hammon is also focused on something much more intangible.

"This is a mentality for us," Hammon said. "This is a heart and head battle. This is not about skills, who can shoot best, who can do this. This is about laying it all on the line if you have to in order for your team to win... once I have that mentality [from everyone], we'll be alright."

The Aces have called Vegas home since 2018, but their roots date back to the beginning of the league: They were originally the Utah Starzz from 1997 to 2002, after which they relocated and became the San Antonio Silver Stars. But they can't fall back on a winning tradition like that of the Minnesota Lynx (four) or the Los Angeles Sparks (three), or the rich legacy of the New York Liberty, one of three remaining original franchises.

Still, the void creates an opportunity for the group to carve its own path in the WNBA landscape. What precisely that looks like will in large part be shaped by how Hammon continues to shape Vegas' culture -- "you can't win without [one]," said Gray, the only member of the team to have won a WNBA title (with the Sparks in 2016).

Hammon's culture, players said, starts with accountability. She wants you to play the right way and doesn't let the "so-called little things" slide, according to Wilson.

Once, the Aces were watching film against Minnesota, and Hammon paused the tape to show Plum that instead of shooting it over Sylvia Fowles and Natalie Achonwa in the paint, she was supposed to look to kick it out. Later, she pointed out a missed defensive rotation. It didn't matter if it was Plum, Young, Wilson or rookie Kierstan Bell.

"She can call people out, and she's going to let you know straight up what's wrong, and we appreciate that," Wilson added. "It's black and white; there's no gray. In some situations in the past, it could have been gray."

"In the past, we've always said we want to play the right way," Hamby said. "But we didn't necessarily have a coach to kind of hold us to that standard, 1-12, 1-11."

As counterintuitive as it may sound, the standard of accountability Hammon has set -- which trickles down to the players holding each other accountable -- enhances their trust in each other.

"You know you can go to battle with that person because they have your back," Gray said.

The accountability fits with Hammon's personal philosophy: You can't out-give life, or the game; and when you give, you always get more in return.

It's in line, too, with what made her so great as a player: her "hunger, fight, heart, determination to win and succeed and be great each and every time," Gray said. "She doesn't want to take days or possessions off. It's going to be every single time."

Consistently meeting Hammon's standard proved difficult for the Aces prior to the All-Star Game, when they dropped five of seven games entering the break. They suffered too much defensive slippage, and weren't able to put together complete games. The ship started to right itself post-All-Star, which included a WNBA-record 71 first-half points in a 108-74 smackdown of the Liberty.

"Once we gave it our all, you saw we broke records," Wilson said. "We're fully capable of doing that night in and night out if we just continue to just put in the work and put in all that we need, we'll reap those benefits."

Indeed: The Aces went 12-3 after the break, including winning the second Commissioner's Cup championship game over the host Chicago Sky.

In Game 2 of the first round against Phoenix, the Aces made their first 10 shots of the game, the most consecutive makes from the field in a game in WNBA playoff history. But Hammon told reporters postgame she didn't even notice because she was "so mad about the defense" -- which allowed Phoenix to score 30 points in the first quarter alone. Her team would go on to hit a WNBA-record 23 3s on 63.9% shooting, but her favorite stat of the night? Thirty-one assists on 41 made field goals, demonstrating teamwork instead of selfish play.

"Obviously tonight the offense was special," Hammon said with a smile. "So I'd be remiss to not give them credit. They played the right way."

The sharpness of Hammon's accountability is balanced by what players describe as her commitment to empowerment and camaraderie, something she was known for as both a player and an assistant coach.

"She always tells us we're one of the smartest teams, men's and women's, that she's ever been around," Hamby said. "And so I think just the sense of encouragement she brings is part of that fresh start."

It helps, too, that Hammon has been in their shoes: She barely missed overlapping with Gray and Hamby, retiring the year before both started their pro careers in 2015.

"She literally tells us stuff that we can relate to in a sense that's, like, why wouldn't you want to play for her and win that game and dive after that ball for her," Wilson said. It's one of the same qualities, she noted, which helped her bond with Dawn Staley, her college coach at South Carolina. "She's been there, done that."

For Hamby, there's an extra level of connection. Hamby often brings her daughter, Amaya, to practice, and Hammon, who has two young boys, will sit and talk to her.

"I've had moments where I'm struggling, I'm heartbroken, and she'll sit and talk with you," Hamby said. "In the past, it was kind of just like here and there. Just strictly basketball. But I think when it comes down to it, you want to play for somebody that you know will have your back on and off the floor. And she does that.

"We genuinely like each other, and that starts with her. She genuinely loves us, and we can feel it and it just trickles down."

Each member of Vegas' core five -- all of whom are under 30 -- re-signed with the team earlier this year, with Wilson signed on through 2023 and the other four through 2024. Hammon noted each player took slightly less than they could have, indicating a "literal investment in your teammate." Wilson, for example, the 2020 MVP and a frontrunner for this year's award, will be Vegas' highest-paid player next season, earning roughly $202,000 -- nearly $33,000 less than the player supermax.

With so many young, key pieces signed on for the near future, it's a more promising position for a championship-hopeful franchise than others dealing with impending retirements (Seattle), upcoming salary cap crunches (Connecticut Sun) or a slew of free agents (Chicago).

"When you talk about legendary and great teams, you see a core together for a long period of time," Gray said. "You can go back all the way to the Houston Comets when they had their people together. You see the Lynx, what they were able to do. You get a familiarity, you challenge each other, you respect one another, and so that's what we're building here."

The Aces hear the naysayers who point to their loaded rosters and regular season successes with no championship to show for it. While they're optimistic over what they're building for the future, they're focused on what they need to do in the present.

"I think we're at the point where it's like, we have to win a championship," Hamby said. "We have the pieces. I feel like it's a little more mental for us at this point. I feel like if we win one, then we're winning two and three and four."

It's one thing to be that connected off the court, or when things are going smoothly on it. But when Hammon reviewed film from last year, she noticed when things got tough, the team did not trust in each other, and individuals opted to take over; that, in her eyes, was their downfall.

"You would look at our team last year, and heads would be down and it was kind of obvious we were falling apart," Hamby said. "I think now we're getting to the point [where when] we're having our moment, but we're not looking at each other and pointing fingers."

At the beginning of the season, Hammon created the acronym T.R.U.S.T. to relay her expectations for the team: Talk. Remember. Unwavering. Secure and solid. And Together.

Trust is the area in which Hammon has seen the most growth among the team. It's also the one in which they have yet to face their biggest test, with their semifinal series against a threatening Seattle team still ongoing.

Still, Hammon liked what she saw from the Aces in Game 2 on Wednesday night -- especially when they used a 24-16 third quarter run to pull ahead by eight, and then withstood a Seattle run to come out with a win.

"What do we do when it gets hard? Do we splinter off, or do we come together?" Hammon said. "Those are the little battles that I'm fighting behind the scenes -- that I'll win, just because I'm stubborn. And I think they'll see that that's what it takes to win."