Why Laimbeer, Johnson, Raimon coaching All-Star Game is good news for Aces

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 26: Head coach Bill Laimbeer of Team Wilson looks on during the AT&T WNBA All-Star Practice and Media Availability 2019 on July 26, 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 26: Head coach Bill Laimbeer of Team Wilson looks on during the AT&T WNBA All-Star Practice and Media Availability 2019 on July 26, 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images) /

LAS VEGAS—Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer quipped after a recent home game that he’s rather have had All-Star weekend off.

Not this year.

Laimbeer and assistant coaches Vickie Johnson and Kelly Raimon were on the sidelines for the All-Star Game coaching Team Wilson.

The All-Star Game doesn’t come with the usual rigor of game planning and scouting. Players are here to have fun, not play defense and execute half-court sets with absolute precision and focus.

Laimbeer (and other coaches in the same position) may not love the fact that he’s spending his weekend on the sidelines.

But he has to love why he’s there.

Because the Aces and Mystics had the two best records when the All-Star starters were announced, Laimbeer and Mike Thibault were named All-Star head coaches.

This is year two of Laimbeer’s infamous three-year plan—clearly accelerated by the arrival of All-WNBA center Liz Cambage via trade—since taking over as Aces head coach and president of basketball operations in time for the franchise’s move to Las Vegas.

Compared to this point on the calendar last season, when the WNBA announced that Las Vegas would host this All-Star game, the Aces franchise is in a much different place.

The team that simply hoped to scrap their way to a playoff bid and develop its young talent in 2018 is among the top championship contenders in 2019.

“It was exciting for us to know that it would be in Vegas last year looking forward to this year, just knowing that Vegas could put on a great production for All-Star,” Raimon told High Post Hoops. “It would just be good for everybody, good for the league. Last year, we knew that we had a lot of talent and a lot of potential just coming together and getting to know each other. This year, adding Liz is huge, but we carried over everything we had last year and then added some.”

“It’s been a challenge but the process has always been good,” Johnson added. “Nothing in life is given unless you go through the process, so you can appreciate a [13-6] start, being number one in the league. MGM is hosting the All-Star Game and really letting the world know they support women’s basketball and the WNBA on a higher level.

“In my opinion, Liz and [A’ja] Wilson are the two best players in the world. And now they’re on the same team. It’s a plus. But it’s an adjustment. Everybody’s finding their way.”

Raimon is pleased with the level the All-Star duo is playing at along with a selfless approach that sets the tone for the rest of the team.

“They work so well off of each other and they pass so well to each other,” she said. “They’re both probably our best post passers, and they’re passing so often to each other. I think that comes with being a post player, knowing when and where you want the ball. They have a knack for that.

“They’re both very unselfish and want each other to succeed. That makes me really happy. They’re really pulling for each other. They’re not trying to work against each other. They’re working together and that goes for our whole team. It really seems like we all trust in each other.

“On teams that I’ve been on where I’ve won championships or been successful, that’s been the thing that sets you apart. You know that you can trust in each other and what you can do and you have an openness and a feel to do it knowing that everybody has your back.”

The Aces are the league’s top-ranked defense at the break, something all three coaches are immensely proud of.

“We were almost at the bottom defensively last season,” Raimon said. “Now we’re at the top of the league in a lot of categories. For me, that’s the biggest thing.”

“We’re proud the players are understanding the message of how much work you’ve got to put in and how long of a season it is, and to just take care of business every game,” Laimbeer added. “We’re starting to get better at that. We have our moments. But overall, I’m happy with the accelerated learning process.”

Johnson highlighted the team’s comeback victory July 13 in Washington, a flashbulb moment illustrating some of that accelerating learning process.

“The effort we brought in Washington was a growing experience,” she said. “That was my proudest moment. We were down 15 in the first and just chipped away, chipped away. And they talked. They were like, ‘F— this. We’re getting over the hump. Let’s just do it. We’re going to win.’ Earlier in the season, it just would have been a loss.”

Kayla McBride is the team’s third All-Star, making Wilson and Cambage so much tougher to defend with her dynamic scoring abilities from the perimeter. The coaching staff has been pleased with her role in shaping their top-ranked defense. Johnson cited McBride’s calmness is big moments and offered up a glowing comparison to a fellow former San Antonio Star.

“Defensively, the effort that she has brought has meant a great deal. A big part of us being number one defensively has to do with her and [Kelsey] Plum taking pride in individual defense and holding the team accountable.

“But the biggest area of growth for her to me is leadership. [McBride] is a player that reminds me of Becky Hammon in a sense—so focused on their game and being locked in. Able to still play their game at a high level and still communicate with their teammates.”

Dearica Hamby has been just as irreplaceable as the team’s three All-Stars, first as their top reserve and now in the starting lineup with Wilson sidelined by an ankle injury. Armed with the security of a new multi-year contract, her level of play took off from night one.

“She’s just so unique in what she can bring as far as the athleticism and the strength that she has,” Raimon said. “She’s able to pretty much guard one through five. She can really get out and guard on the perimeter, but she’s strong inside and able to take hits.

“She just brings something that nobody else really has in the league. She’s able to run, post up and is an excellent rebounder. She just provides amazing energy off the bench for us. As far as being undersized height-wise, she doesn’t play that way.”

Off the floor, Laimbeer appreciates the other arms of the franchise that have championed all the work necessary to put on an event of this magnitude.

“We’re not really a large part of the All-Star preparation,” he said. “A lot of that has fallen to the entertainment group. That’s good for us because we’re able to focus on basketball.”

Dan Padover has also been a big help to Laimbeer. Padover worked previously with Laimbeer in New York and was hired as general manager in December. Padover now shoulders some of the non-coaching front-office duties to allow Laimbeer to focus more on coaching.

“I look at it every day as my goal is to do everything I can to help him focus solely on coaching,” Padover said. “He’s still the president, so he’s going to jump in on certain things. But I think it’s nice to know that he’s got me and [assistant general manager] Christine Monjer getting things done. And from a basketball perspective, I think he just likes an extra mind to bounce things off of after games and things like that.

“I think having another confidant, someone that he’s worked with before and a basketball person that he can have do a lot of the administrative duties so he can focus on coaching—I would hope that’s been a relief for him.”

In tackling those day-to-day coaching duties, Laimbeer values what Raimon and Johnson bring to the table. The trio is now in their second season together in Las Vegas.

“As a group, the coaches understand what I’m looking for,” he said. “I’m kind of a harsh person at times. I’m not a warm and fuzzy. So that’s part of their job to translate that to the players and work with them and keep them on an even keel as much as possible.”

Raimon highlighted the staff’s role in continually pushing the team to improve and evolve, not making sure there’s no room left for complacency to creep into their minds in a season that’s largely been defined to date by the big names either injured or unavailable.

“We’ve been constantly telling them that it’s the little things and constantly cleaning up things,” she said. “You can’t stay who you are. If you’re making mistakes, you can’t continue to make the same mistakes if you’re playing to win a championship or even go deep into the playoffs. We’re just really trying to make them understand every little thing needs to be cleaned up. That’s how you get better every day.”

“[Laimbeer] has done a good job on continuing to get us to grow as a basketball team and ignoring the hype of where we’re gonna finish and just taking it game by game, learning from some of the mistakes that we’ve made and how we can get better course of the season,” Padover added. “The team you are in May, you have to be a different team in September.”

The Aces have eked out some close wins to get to this point—13-6, tied atop the standings with the Connecticut Sun. But Laimbeer isn’t interested in talking about himself, looking too far into the future or getting caught up in the 13-6 start. He’s all about the team and where they’re going. Johnson credits his approach for what they’ve done so far.

“It’s due to him,” she said. “His leadership on and off the court, his belief in each individual. The way he holds them accountable is huge. It’s great learning from him because I still want to be a head coach again one day.

“I think that our success is largely due to him and what he brings to the table every day, especially for a group understanding how hard they have to work, how focused they have to be day in and day out, not taking anything for granted and understanding how hard this league is every night. And that’s what he does every day: Bring his best.

“He deserves to be the All-Star coach and he’s one of the top basketball coaches in this league. Just his basketball mind, offensively and defensively, is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.”

The next obstacle for the Aces could be an extended window without Wilson’s services as she rehabs a high ankle sprain. Her timetable for a return has not yet been announced. They’ll lean even more on Cambage, McBride and Hamby as they aim to continue their current pace to nab a top-two playoff seed.

This team—the one that lost seven of eight to start the 2018 season—securing a double-bye into the semifinals and avoiding single-elimination play altogether?

Not bad for year two of three.

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