I badly want Becky Hammon to get a shot at an NBA head coaching gig. But I’m also begging you to appreciate what an impressive feat she just pulled off, leading the Las Vegas Aces to their first WNBA championship in her first season as a head coach.
I would love it if she could get rid of a glass ceiling for us, knock that lid off the rim. Because of what it will signify: Women can be leaders of men. Women can be head coaches in the major men’s pro sports leagues. And, oh, by the way, women can be presidents and run Fortune 500 companies, too.
But Hammon doesn’t need an NBA job to prove what caliber of leader she is. The woman just dropped into a whole new scene, revamped a defense and opened up an offense in a way that delivered a talented team its first elusive title.
Her lead assistant Natalie Nakase previously spent a decade as a Clippers assistant coach, absorbing expertise from Doc Rivers, an NBA championship coach, and then Tyronn Lue, also a champion and one of the game’s great adjustment-makers. She’ll tell you Hammon is as good a coach as either of those guys.
What’s more, Nakase said, “her ability to get buy-in is probably the fastest I’ve ever seen” – clutch because the WNBA is a five-month sprint through a hyper-competitive gauntlet.
If the NBA is like a 14-team fantasy league, the WNBA is equivalent to an eight-team rotisserie exercise. Every dang team is loaded. The NBA’s 30 squads employ a collection of 450 of the world’s preeminent men’s basketball players, but if you’re a lady hooper, you have to be among the best 144 in the world to stick on one of the 12 WNBA rosters.
And Hammon’s Aces emerged from that fracas, head and shoulders superior, because of her.
They shot 3-pointers like a modern NBA team, attempting 12.9 more per game this year than under Bill Laimbeer the previous season. They hit 36.1% of those attempts, and 38.1% in the playoffs, when they set a WNBA single-game record by knocking down 23 3-pointers in a first-round victory over Phoenix.
They led the WNBA in scoring, putting up an average of 90.4 points, more than any team in 12 years. And they moved with NBA-inspired pace, leading the league with 82.2 possessions – all in 40-minute games, mind you.
Hammon gave Las Vegas its first pro sports title and became the league’s first coach to win it all in Year 1. She’s also the first former WNBA player – and she was a good one, a six-time All-Star and two-time All-WNBA first-teamer – to be named Coach of the Year.
And you know what? I want Hammon to get paid. Like, really paid.
Aces owner Mark Davis signed her to a $1 million deal, making her the highest-paid coach in the history of the league. That’s cool, but it’s considerably less than NBA head coaches bring home; the men holding those jobs reportedly average between $3 to $5 million per season.
I’d like to go to bed at night knowing Hammon is being compensated commensurate with her talents and not less than men with similar – or less – skill and experience.
But I’m also eager to watch Hammon try and make more WNBA history, to take her shot at turning the Aces into the league’s first repeat champions since the Sparks won consecutive titles in 2001-02.
Hammon’s presence is a W for the W, and that resonates with anyone who’s rooting for the league, like I am.
Like Nakase is.
On Monday night, just about 24 hours after she added a WNBA championship to the 1998 CIF title she won for Marina High in Huntington Beach, Nakase estimated she was conversing on two hours of sleep, going strong on happy adrenaline.
She raved about Hammon and said she thanked her during the celebration on the flight back from Connecticut, where Las Vegas finished off the best-of-five series against the Sun with a game to spare.
She talked about Hammon’s sharp eye for detail, visible both in 8-hour meetings in a windowless room before each playoff series and at halftime of any given game.
Nakase said being on the Aces’ staff loosened her up, that Hammon’s game face masks hilarity that made her a natural fit with an Aces team that’s as good at being goofy as it is at basketball. (Maybe that’s why Nakase didn’t initially believe Hammon when she mentioned, mid-flight, that Barack Obama had tweeted his congrats?)
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 18, 2022
Nakase also talked about Chelsea Gray’s clutch gene and Riquna Williams’ knack for “shooting the (stuff) out of the ball,” about WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson’s astounding humility and Kelsey Plum’s unbeatable work ethic: “Top-tier in the whole world, NBA, WNBA, it doesn’t matter.”
She said kept hearing how fun the Aces were to watch – from family and friends, from NBA players like Buddy Hield and Chris Paul, and from every Uber driver she encountered in Las Vegas.
She also saw how much each of the Aces’ players invested into their jobs – including financially, splurging on nutrition and sleep trackers that an NBA team would otherwise provide. And she was moved by the Aces’ interactions with fans and the community at large.
Her first WNBA season left her feeling recognizably inspired, and like she owes it to her players to fight for them.
“I just think it’s unfair,” Nakase said. “These women give so much more to their sport, engaging with the fans, being a role model, setting an example, being a great human being, they deserve to be paid. …
“You hear all the reasons (they’re not). The viewership – but that’s B.S., even if they have a lot of viewers, we’re still not getting the contracts that male sports are getting … and there would be more viewers if they put more games on national television. But people keep saying no one watches. Well, all my friends watched, all these NBA guys watch.”
What they watched was Becky Hammon proving she can win as a head coach, and that she can do it at the highest level.
Now if she could just get a shot, someday, to do it in the NBA.