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

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."