The WNBA playoffs were practically a commercial advertisement for Becky Hammon’s intelligence as head coach.
She won two Aces away for her first WNBA championship in a Tuesday night game against the Connecticut Sun. Its in-game decisions were flawless – if you want to see how matches play out after timeout, come back and watch the end of Match 3 of the semifinals against the Seattle Storm – and no less LeBron James noticed.
Impressive though Hamon is, it does raise a question: What the hell were the Portland Trail Blazers and Orlando Magic doing with its passage? And what’s the excuse for all the sad NBA teams that didn’t even show up for an interview?
“I haven’t,” Aces owner Mark Davis told USA TODAY Sports when asked if he’s heard from any jealous NBA owners. “But I’m sure they’re sitting there thinking, ‘Well, why didn’t I think of that?’ “”
This is the thing. Some of them did. All of them can be.
And none of them were smart enough, or brave enough, to make Hammon the first female manager of a men’s team in a major professional sport.
Hammon spent seven years as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, Greg 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 spent an entire year as an assistant, on Hammon. Or the magic of hiring longtime Dallas Mavericks assistant Jamal Mosley instead.
“If you want to hire me, you’ll find a reason to hire me,” Hamon told CNBC After not getting Portland or Orlando jobs in 2021. “And if you don’t want to hire me, you’ll find that reason too. And just that.”
Now is the time to question how these decisions work with Trail Blazers and Magic. Both teams were bottom dwellers last season. The Magic didn’t spend a day above 0.500, while the Trail Blazers fell free after Damian Lillard was injured, losing in 21 of their last 23 games.
Aces’ success makes those mistakes look worse.
True, Hamon inherited a loaded roster when she was hired in December. But the Ace have had Aja Wilson, Kelsey Bloom, Jackie Young – all of whom were previously No. 1 picks in the WNBA Draft – and Derica Hamby for the past few seasons now, and they’ve never played that way.
Aces tied the Chicago Sky for a record best of the regular season, at 26-10, and earned the top seed in a head-to-head tiebreak. Hammon was the most popular choice for Coach of the Year, while Wilson won her second MVP title, and Young was named MVP..
Defense is still a staple for the Aces, but Hammon opened up the Las Vegas offensive. Instead of hitting the ball at the post, she gave her players the green light to shoot. The Aces have attempted more than 300 field goals this season than they did last year, under former coach Bill Laimbere, and their average of 90.4 points per game was more than four points higher than Chicago, the second most productive WNBA team.
Much of that comes from the newfound freedom of a three-point scope. After years of being sensitive to shooting from distance — the Aces routinely ranked last under Laimbeer — the Aces finished second in the WNBA on three-point attempts this year and led the league by three points.
However, the Aces are not limited to winning triples only. Their 748 passes were a franchise record, as was their score of 52 percent from a two-point range.
“I think we put a good brand of basketball out there, and an exciting brand of basketball,” Hammon said after the Aces sealed a place in the WNBA Finals. “You guys know, I’m not afraid to confuse it, change it up a bit, and take a different look there.”
It’s the looks that Hamon paints on late ATOs that are perhaps the best support for her coaching skills. She’s been great in this area all season, but the biggest podium from the playoffs – and being the speakers – really showed off her knowledge of the X and O.
With the Aces trailing the Seattle Storm by four with 11 seconds remaining in Game Three of the semifinals, Hammon’s first call was a three-time play spread by Rickona Williams, which she made. Next set up the light up Wilson in front of the basket.
Sue Bird answered with three from deep in the corner, and even Davis thought she would be the winner of the Seattle game.
“I thought, ‘Boy, if we’re going to lose, you have to be in a creative shot from one of the most famous players ever,’” he said.
However, Hammon had another game left. Ziv Young screens Plum as she cuts toward the basket and summit of Ezi Magbegor in Seattle. He was just hesitating for a split second, but it was enough for Young to slip away and be in position to grab Chelsea Gray’s inside pass and take a corner kick as regulation ended.
Aces outplayed Storm 18-6 in overtime to win the match.
“It was beyond anything I could have imagined,” Davis said.
That’s the thing, though. Davis I was Able to imagine Hamon’s potential as head coach, he is now reaping the benefits.
The NBA teams that didn’t now watch Hamon succeed from afar, realizing that only themselves are to blame.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrarmour.