In August 2014, Becky Hammon played her final game for the San Antonio Stars, and said goodbye to the WNBA to move on to an assistant coaching role with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Now, she’s reportedly finalizing a five-year deal and returning to the WNBA, and in a roundabout way to the franchise with which she spent eight of her 16 seasons as a player.
Hammon is taking over as head coach of the Las Vegas Aces and will try to lead them to their first WNBA title. The Aces were originally the Utah Starzz when the league launched in 1997. Then the franchise moved to San Antonio in 2003, and finally to Las Vegas in 2018. The Aces honored Hammon this past season by retiring her jersey, and now she will be coaching where it hangs in the rafters.
Bill Laimbeer has coached the Aces to a 77-45 record the past four seasons, losing in the WNBA semifinals in 2019 and 2021 and the WNBA Finals in 2020. While it’s not clear at this point what role, if any, Laimbeer will have with the franchise, he has set a very good foundation for the Aces. Can Hammon get them across the finish line to a championship?
We look at what the coaching move means to Hammon, to the Aces, the WNBA and the NBA.
What style does Hammon bring to the Aces?
As a player, Hammon was very respected. The story of her being undrafted out of Colorado State in 1999 has always needed an asterisk, because that was the year so many of the American Basketball League’s former players came into the WNBA, which influenced how many college players were picked in that draft.
Still, Hammon always used going undrafted as another motivational chip on her shoulder, although she already had enough just by being a 5-foot-6 guard from a mid-major school. But Hammon always believed in herself, and not long into her WNBA playing career, she made believers out of everyone. She was part of very good teams in both New York from 1999 to 2006 and in San Antonio from 2007 to 2014, including four trips to the WNBA Finals.
Hammon was fearless in driving the lane, could hit big perimeter shots, was very good at distributing the ball and helped build the confidence of everyone around her.
As a coach, Hammon can get tough when she needs to, but she’s also an uplifting motivator. Laimbeer got along well with his superstar player, forward A’ja Wilson, so Hammon will be cultivating that relationship.
Hammon already has worked a bit with Aces players such as guard Kelsey Plum, whom she got to know when Plum was a rookie in San Antonio in 2017 before the franchise moved to Las Vegas. Hammon has a lot to offer the Aces’ guards from her own practical experience as a longtime perimeter player in the WNBA. But her years of NBA coaching put her in good position to guide Las Vegas’ interior strength, too.
What does this hire mean for the Aces?
Laimbeer has gotten the franchise to the brink of a title. The Aces’ former general manager, Dan Padover, left in October to take over as GM and executive vice president with the Atlanta Dream. Perhaps Laimbeer moves into the general manager role, which he has experience in with his past WNBA head-coaching jobs in Detroit and New York.
Owner Mark Davis, who bought the Aces in January, already has made multiple moves with the franchise, including bringing in former LSU coach Nikki Fargas as team president and former WNBA player Jennifer Azzi as chief business development officer. He seems committed to the Aces being a gold-standard-type franchise for the WNBA.
The Aces have one of the league’s best young players in Wilson, who was the 2020 MVP and is only 25. She is currently a restricted free agent, and center Liz Cambage is an unrestricted free agent.
Plum had the best season of her WNBA career this past year. She, Jackie Young and Dearica Hamby have been consistent contributors the past few years for the Aces. Chelsea Gray was a good fit as a free-agent signee in 2021, just as Angel McCoughtry was in 2020. Hopefully, McCoughtry, who missed this season with a knee injury, is back strong for 2022. Whether Cambage returns or not, Las Vegas should be a strong contender again.
What does this move mean for Hammon’s NBA future?
Many assumed that Hammon was on a path toward becoming an NBA head coach, as she is in her eighth season as a Spurs assistant.
Now, while it looks less likely that Hammon will be the first woman to make that breakthrough, it’s hard to know who it will be or when. If Hammon is successful with the Aces and wins a championship, perhaps she goes back to the NBA — and maybe still will be the first woman to lead a team. Or maybe she doesn’t go back at all.
Laimbeer left the WNBA during the 2009 season and then was in the NBA as an assistant with the Timberwolves from 2009 to 2012. But Laimbeer has said he thought he wasn’t going to get a chance to be an NBA head coach, and he came back to the WNBA, with New York.
It’s very difficult to climb the coaching ladder in the NBA, and to put it bluntly, we can’t know for sure how many franchises have given Hammon a legitimate shot to win a head-coaching position, as opposed to interviewing her to check off a box.
Maybe this move to the Aces is a chance for her to prove herself in a different way. Or maybe it’s what is right for her now. Regardless, there will be excitement among WNBA fans to have her back.
What it means for women coaching in the NBA remains to be seen. Commissioner Adam Silver has pushed the league to bring along women in a lot of different NBA roles, including as coaches, but it’s still going to take one franchise to make one bold move to put a woman in charge as head coach.
Who are the favorites for the other two open WNBA head-coaching jobs?
When the Liberty job opened earlier this month — the franchise and Walt Hopkins parted ways — the thought was that perhaps that franchise could lure Hammon. And she did interview with the Liberty, according to sources.
The favorite for the New York job now might be former Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello, who parted with the Mercury this month, too. As for Phoenix, Mercury assistant Chasity Melvin and Sparks assistant Latricia Trammell are in the mix, and Trammell also interviewed at New York, according to sources.