Whether the Las Vegas Aces can improve on last year's WNBA runner-up finish might hinge on the chemistry Liz Cambage and A'ja Wilson can build.
The All-Star frontcourt duo first played together in 2019 after Cambage was dealt to the Aces. But with Cambage receiving a medical exemption to miss the 2020 season at the WNBA's campus site in Bradenton, Florida, Wilson took center stage for the Aces. She was named MVP after averaging 20.5 PPG and 8.5 RPG while leading Las Vegas to the No. 1 seed with an 18-4 record en route to the Finals.
Now Cambage and Wilson are back together for a second season and expectations are high for Las Vegas despite an uneven start. The Aces split two WNBA Finals rematches with the Seattle Storm and were swept by the hot-starting Connecticut Sun. But they have dominated lesser competition, leaving Las Vegas (5-3) fifth in the WNBA standings albeit it with the league's best point differential at plus-10.1 PPG.
When Cambage, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011, first arrived in Las Vegas, she and Wilson had to integrate their games on the fly because the trade wasn't finalized until one week before the start of the 2019 regular season and Cambage was dealing with Achilles tendinitis that sidelined her for the season opener. Later, Wilson, the No. 1 draft pick in 2018, dealt with an ankle sprain that forced her to miss eight games. Still, the Aces finished with the WNBA's fourth-best record at 21-13.
This season, the two stars have the luxury of more time to figure out how they fit together, a process Wilson said is "still evolving" eight games into the season after a full training camp.
"We still have to learn each other a lot," she said, "but when it comes down to it, we're both two great players that are going to feed off of each other very well. I think that's what makes us so special, because you can try to double us but you can't. I think we've both been in situations where we're so used to people doubling us and now it's more open and more free."
During the 429 minutes Cambage and Wilson played together in 2019, Las Vegas barely outscored opponents, posting a plus-2.9 net rating according to WNBA Advanced Stats. The Aces' 2019 success was more about how well they played when Cambage and Wilson played separately with Sixth Woman Award winner Dearica Hamby. Those pairings posted net ratings of plus-11.2 points per 100 possessions (Wilson and Hamby) and plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions (Cambage and Hamby).
That has shown modest improvement so far in 2021. With the Cambage-Wilson frontcourt pairing, Las Vegas has outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in 149 minutes. Aces coach Bill Laimbeer gives much of the credit to Cambage, who committed to joining the team for the start of training camp.
"She's really conformed to what we're trying to accomplish," Laimbeer said. "She's sacrificed her game in many ways. She's paying attention more than she ever has in the past. It's been great improvement from her from the last time we had her. The commitment is there on her part, which makes it easy for them to play together."
Both players sacrificing statistically
Although Laimbeer credits Cambage's sacrifices, both players have seen their numbers drop off from when they were the go-to options in the post for their teams. In Cambage's case, that was with the Dallas Wings prior to requesting a trade. She led the WNBA with 23.0 PPG in 2018, her final season in Dallas, which declined to 15.9 PPG in 2019 and 14.8 PPG so far this season. Some of that is due to Cambage playing fewer minutes -- she has averaged just 23.6 MPG this season -- but her scoring per 36 minutes has also declined by 20% as compared to 2018.
Meanwhile, Wilson is scoring nearly three fewer points per game than her MVP campaign while averaging more minutes. Statistics supplied by WNBA Advanced Stats show that Wilson has performed far better with Cambage on the bench, whereas Cambage's efficiency has suffered a bit without Wilson alongside her.
Part of the challenge is surely that Cambage is so dominant in the paint it leaves less opportunity for Wilson to work down low that she enjoys playing alongside reserves Hamby and Ji-Su Park, whose midrange shooting provides Wilson space inside. Through May 30, Wilson had attempted 7.9 free throws per 36 minutes with Cambage on the bench as compared to 4.3 alongside her -- valuable shots given Wilson is shooting a career-high 92% at the foul line.
Essentially, Las Vegas has toggled between two different but effective styles: a starting lineup with both frontcourt All-Stars that tends to feature Cambage and lineups with Wilson and reserves that have feasted on opposing second units. As much better as Cambage and Wilson have played together this season, the team has still been better yet with Wilson and Hamby (plus-17.3 net rating in 138 minutes, 49 of which have come with Cambage in giant frontcourts).
Of course, part of the value of having two All-Stars in the frontcourt is that Laimbeer can keep one of them on the court at nearly all times. The Aces have played just 21 minutes in eight games with neither Cambage nor Wilson on the court, nearly all of which have come late in lopsided games.
In a more competitive league with other teams also getting back stars who missed out on the Wubble, Las Vegas doesn't look likely to match last year's winning percentage. Still, if Cambage and Wilson continue building their partnership, the Aces could take the final step in their development by winning a championship.
"I think that's pretty much the scary part of it," Wilson said. "We're still trying to get to know how to play with one another, but it's something that's a joy to me and I know it's a joy to Liz where we don't have to worry about other legs and arms coming at us. We can kind of be free in a way. Once we get each other going in that way, I think the best is yet to come."