Tuesday, July 11, 2023 | 2 a.m.
When the Las Vegas Aces signed Candace Parker and added the future Hall-of-Famer to their championship roster, the possibilities of what were to come were limitless.
It wasn’t just the fact that she’s one of the more accomplished basketball players ever — two WNBA titles, two Olympic gold medals, two MVP trophies, to name a few of her accolades — but that she could still contribute a great deal at 37 years old.
With the Aces out to a 17-2 start, Parker doesn’t need to be a dominant force to make a difference. The Aces run through their Core Four — A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young.
Parker is the tune-up to an already well-oiled machine.
“The Core Four have played together for a long time, so (I’m) just (trying) to read and react to what everybody likes to do,” Parker said. “I’m learning, and to play in this offense with this much space, I think it’s special.”
Parker checked off boxes that the Aces needed when they signed her in January.
Defensively, she’s one of the best ever. The 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, Parker has averaged 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals per game in her 16-year career. That side of the court was going to take pressure off Wilson and move the reigning Defensive Player of the Year back to power forward.
It was the offense that was going to be the side to watch. How could a team that led the WNBA last season at 90.4 points per game somehow get even better?
The answer is a lot.
At 6-foot-4 in the WNBA, it shouldn’t be this easy for a traditional center to move the ball up the floor and make passes like this.
It’s just a layer of how good the Aces are.
They’re averaging 93.6 points and are on pace to be the first team since the Phoenix Mercury in 2009 and 2010 to average 90 points in back-to-back seasons. That was the apex of the Diana Taurasi era in Phoenix when the Mercury won three championships in seven seasons.
Las Vegas is on that trajectory. Four starters are averaging double figures in points, with Wilson (19.6) and Plum (19.1) leading the way. Young (19.0) and Gray (14.6) are also capable of taking over a game.
“I think everybody’s added something to their game this year, so I think that makes it more dangerous,” Parker said.
Meanwhile, Parker is averaging just 9.0 points per game, the lowest of her career, but is averaging 5.4 rebounds and almost four assists in 23 minutes a night.
The system that coach Becky Hammon runs, where everyone touches the ball and is willing to make the extra pass, allows Parker to maximize her time.
“Candace Parker is Candace Parker. She’s a legend, a Hall-of-Famer,” Wilson said. “She’s going to do her, and I think surrounding herself with All-Stars, we’re just going to continue to gel, and mesh.”
It’s nothing flashy, but Parker’s ability to stretch the floor opens up the paint. Rather than drifting toward the paint, staying behind the 3-point line allows for Young to get uncontested space along the baseline. Wilson is flanked opposite Young to free up the post.
Parker commands so much attention that defenses have to account for her passing ability. Even without Wilson on the floor — backup center Kiah Stokes is in on this play — it draws enough eyes on Parker that it allows Plum an easy drive to the basket. Arguably Plum’s greatest strength is beating defenders 1-on-1 and attacking the rim. She did this with ease against the New York Liberty’s guards.
Basketball is evolving into a position-less game. Teams value the non-traditional center that can stretch the floor and create with the ball in their hands. That’s why Parker was so coveted by the Aces. Not just because of her playing pedigree, but how she opens the floor for her teammates.
This next play is a perfect example of that. Parker, once again, operates at the top of the key with the ball in her hands. Normally, it would be Wilson or Parker setting the screens to allow the guards to create. Instead, because Plum attracts so much attention off the ball, it allows Young to set the screen, roll to the basket and have enough space to finish the layup from Parker.
That same attention to detail is shown in this next clip, where Young once again gets open on a cut. This time it’s Wilson with the ball with Parker coming to set a screen. Most defenders would do what Liberty guard Marine Johannes does here: She’s expecting Young to go around Pakrer’s screen and curl back toward the 3-point line.
But Young, instead, cuts toward the basket and Wilson finds her for the layup.
Wilson would’ve had a number of options had she not made the pass. Parker would’ve drifted to the 3-point line and been open for a shot, or she would’ve had a 1-on-1 matchup with Breanna Stewart. The latter isn’t the best choice, but Young might have been available in the corner for a 3-point attempt, as well.
It’s that kind of passing that has made the Aces dangerous. It’s the ball movement that is similar to what the San Antonio Spurs ran while Hammon was an assistant under head coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs took pride in ball movement at all five positions, ranging from Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw in the frontcourt, to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker working on the pick-and-roll.
Having that mentality creates moments like this, where Parker and Wilson work together, bring the defense away from the rim and leaving an open lane to the basket.
Or when Wilson can command attention in the paint and allow Parker to stand behind the 3-point line and get an open look.
“She’s just finding her spots,” Hammon said. “When she hits threes, it’s a bit of a separation factor, but I like her in the short role. She’s just ultra deadly. She gets in that paint area or the low block, she’s a long, smart, just sees things.
The Aces’ free-flowing offense makes it an ideal situation for Parker. She’s not playing 30 minutes a night anymore, but is still effective to allow the other Las Vegas stars to do their part.
Parker was going to be an instant help defensively and alleviating the pressure from Wilson in the post. It was going to take time for the offense to play through her. Though she may not be the superstar she used to be, Parker doesn’t have to be. Her presence has been more than enough.