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The Aces Don’t Need Threes To Win

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The past decade of professional basketball featured an overwhelming buffet of stylistic changes built on one simple premise: Three is greater than two. At all levels, coaches and players discovered the ramifications of a mathematical truth we all learn as toddlers. By taking a step back on long jumpers, they can score more points and leverage the threat of those jumpers to create space to drive for layups.

As defenses adjusted, offenses kept pushing their players further from the hoop in a never-ending game of “top this!” Three-point shooting evolved from a nifty bonus feature to the most important quality of great offense. Now it seems impossible to win at the highest levels without it.

But as the 2020 season comes to a close, one team has emerged to challenge that truism. When the Las Vegas Aces begin their WNBA postseason run on Sunday against the Connecticut Sun, they won’t just be fighting for their city’s first professional title. They’ll also be competing to answer a fundamental question about the sport that seemed settled: Is it really possible to win a championship without shooting and making lots of 3-pointers?

Maybe the answer is yes after all. The Aces went 18-4 during the regular season, earning the league’s No. 1 overall seed despite the absences of All-Star center Liz Cambage and point guard Kelsey Plum, who broke out in the 2019 playoffs. Along the way, they scored 109.6 points per 100 possessions, which gave them the ninth-most efficient regular season offense in WNBA history.

They’re the co-favorites for the 2020 WNBA crown despite (or because of?) their historic unwillingness to take long-distance shots. They attempted just 11.5 3-pointers per game, which was nearly five and a half fewer than the next-lowest ranked team in the league, the Atlanta Dream. The Aces also scored just 14.3 percent of their points on makes from beyond the arc, a share that six teams — half the league — doubled this season. If we look at the difference between Vegas’s total 3-point attempts and the WNBA average, the Aces’ reluctance to fire away from downtown compared to their competition was historic:

Vegas was historically reluctant to shoot from deep

Largest negative percent difference between a team’s 3-point attempts and the WNBA average in a season, 1997-2020

3-point Attempts
Season Team By Team Lg. Average % vs. Average
2004 Detroit Shock 209 415.4 -49.7
2005 Houston Comets 205 403.5 -49.2
1997 Cleveland Rockers 177 336.8 -47.4
2011 Atlanta Dream 284 537.9 -47.2
2020 Las Vegas Aces 253 465.4 -45.6
2018 Las Vegas Aces 361 660.2 -45.3
2002 Utah Starzz 247 419.7 -41.1
2005 Detroit Shock 238 403.5 -41.0
2014 Los Angeles Sparks 282 477.9 -41.0
2001 Utah Starzz 244 413.4 -41.0

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

That kind of shot profile is usually reserved for teams that can’t put the ball in the basket, not ones that have one of the most potent offenses ever. Yet the Aces have somehow solved what seemed to be an impossible equation: how to score efficiently while largely eschewing the shots worth the most points.

The simple answer is that they maximize the strengths of their star instead of a theoretical one (who might be a better deep shooter). A’ja Wilson, 2018’s No. 1 overall draft pick — and 2020 WNBA MVP — has blossomed in Cambage’s absence, allowing the Aces to mash teams inside with deep post-ups and endless drives to the basket. They scored an average of 42.7 points per game in the paint this season, the most in WNBA history. They also generated more free throws than any other team by far, grabbed a ton of offensive rebounds and posted the league’s lowest turnover rate. Those strengths made up for the points the Aces gave away at the 3-point line.

The more complicated answer offers important lessons for would-be duplicators across all levels of the sport. It centers on one word: pace.

We often use the shorthand “pace and space” to describe modern offenses, implicitly grouping two separate concepts together (playing fast and shooting lots of threes) into one larger philosophy. But the key to the Aces’ success is that they push the ball in transition and run their offense with relentless speed and precision. They mask their limited “space” by turbo-charging their “pace.”

Pace, in this case, manifests in multiple ways. The Aces average the most possessions per game in the league, the most commonly cited measure of how fast a team plays. Specifically, they push the pace in transition off their defense. Nobody uses less of the shot clock on average after steals, and only Phoenix uses less after the other team misses.

An opponent has hardly any time to blink before an Aces ball-handler is rushing right at them. Like many NBA teams, the Aces eschew outlet passes to allow their top wing players to dribble the ball up themselves. Angel McCoughtry, a 34-year-old five-time All-Star who signed with the Aces in free agency after missing the 2018 playoffs and entire 2019 season with a knee injury, has revived her career as a devastating grab-and-go slasher in transition.

McCoughtry isn’t the only Aces player with the green light to push the ball. Second-year guard Jackie Young and forward DeArica Hamby, the back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year, have free rein to attack whenever they grab a rebound.

Instead of sitting back waiting for an outlet pass, the other guards run the wings and give Las Vegas a numbers advantage. Every Aces defensive stop immediately becomes a high-leverage scoring opportunity.

But the Aces’ pace is most notable in half-court situations, when the defense (theoretically) is set. They waste little time getting the ball into the frontcourt and begin their sets sooner than most WNBA teams. The Aces pass quickly, cut decisively and time their movement precisely to confuse the back-line defenders.

There’s no wasted time and little of the stagnation that usually happens when one player surveys the floor. The Aces pass, catch and immediately attack with startling speed, given their allergy to 3-point shooting.

Even though the Aces led the league in possessions per game, their success also underscores the limits of older statistics like possessions per game and fast break points per game. The Aces did not lead the league in the latter category — they were tied for fourth — but that kind of stat fails to convey just how the Aces keep up that relentless pace even after the initial scoring opportunity evaporates. By continuing to move quickly in their half-court sets, the Aces rarely are forced to scramble to find a shot. According to Synergy Sports, only 7.2 percent of the Aces’ possessions ended with fewer than five seconds on the shot clock, the lowest mark in the league:

Vegas plays fast in transition — and in the half-court

Leaguewide rankings in the share of plays made in transition and with fewer than five seconds left on the shot clock, 2020 WNBA season

Largest Share of Plays in Transition Largest share of plays w/ short clock*
Rk Team Share Rk Team Share
1 LAS 16.4% 1 IND 11.0%
2 NYL 16.0 2 DAL 10.2
3 LVA 15.8 3 NYL 10.1
4 DAL 15.6 4 WAS 10.1
5 SEA 15.5 5 MIN 9.8
6 ATL 13.9 6 LAS 8.9
7 CON 13.1 7 ATL 8.8
8 PHX 12.7 8 CHI 8.8
9 WAS 12.7 9 CON 8.5
10 CHI 12.0 10 SEA 8.4
11 MIN 11.5 11 PHX 7.7
12 IND 9.7 12 LVA 7.2

*Short-clock situations are possessions that end with fewer than five seconds left on the shot clock.

Source: Synergy Sports Technology

The Aces have to play fast in every situation because they can’t rely on their shooting to space the floor. Their most common alignment begins with the ball-handlers and two other players forming a triangle on one side of the court, while the two other players running some sort of play on the opposite side.

By timing their possessions so the on- and off-ball movements happen simultaneously, the Aces are often able to clear one side of the floor for one of their stars to go to work, whether it’s Wilson inside, McCoughtry slashing to the cup, Kayla McBride curling off a screen, or any other combination.

Even if defenses wanted to ignore perimeter players and load up in the paint, the Aces don’t give them any time to send that help. There’s a reason Wilson faces fewer double teams than she should based on her performance, and it’s not just because she makes her own move quickly. The Aces don’t ward off potential double-teams with shooting. They ward off potential double-teams by moving.

In a perfect world, the Aces could take a few more 3-pointers and thus not have to move so often to generate proper floor spacing. All things being equal, it’s better to shoot (and make) lots of threes than not. Cutting and shooting don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s also possible the Aces’ style will be less effective in a playoff series, when their opponent is able to spend more time game planning against their idiosyncratic tendencies.

But all things are never equal in basketball. This unique style suits coach Bill Laimbeer — whose teams have often ranked near the bottom of the league in 3-point shooting — and a roster missing Plum’s pick-and-roll wizardry and Cambage’s dominant interior scoring. As a result, the Aces have found a way to be better than the sum of their parts. And that’s all any fan can really ask of their favorite team.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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