Bill Laimbeer changed the WNBA forever — Becky Hammon talks new Las Vegas Aces role — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 5, 2022

As the news spread around this delightful, small world of women’s basketball we inhabit that Becky Hammon was going to make the leap back to the WNBA, taking over as general manager and head coach of the Las Vegas Aces, very little attention was paid to what that meant for the current occupier of those jobs, Bill Laimbeer.

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It’s hard to imagine another sport where the coach found second overall on the all-time wins list, with three WNBA titles, is allowed to just ride off into the sunset this quietly.

But this is not out of character for Laimbeer when it comes to exits — he’s had an elegant way of finding the door when it makes sense for him, leaving Detroit early in 2009 ahead of that franchise’s move to Tulsa, and once again when the New York Liberty were headed to years of turmoil as James Dolan decided to leave them by the side of the road. And remember, Las Vegas changed ownership hands, from MGM to Mark Davis, since Laimbeer had been hired.

In each case, he had mentored women on his staff who took on expanded roles after his departure. In Detroit, an assistant coach named Cheryl Reeve assumed a dual role, general manager as well, while his top assistant in New York, Katie Smith, took over for Laimbeer as head coach. His assistants in Las Vegas have included Vickie Johnson, now the head coach in Dallas, and Tanisha Wright, now running the show in Atlanta. Even with Hammon on board, Laimbeer is staying to provide a bridge while she finishes out the year in San Antonio with the Spurs.

As Reeve said to me when I asked her for her thoughts about Laimbeer, he has “been one of the best in providing opportunities for former players to coach which has helped diversify the head coach talent pool we see today.”

Laimbeer never needed the WNBA, but he clearly loved it, and challenged those who worked with him and those who opposed him alike to get better and better. His stubbornness could infuriate many on either side of that divide, but it is impossible to argue with his results. He won when he had as much talent as anyone, and he won when, on paper, his teams should have been mediocre at best. His players defended, and he held fast to tactics that worked for him — like finding starter minutes for his best bench players — and evolved in other ways, like playing at a dramatically faster pace once he arrived in Las Vegas.

He was also endlessly interesting copy. During what were the most fallow of WNBA coverage years, the world missed the opportunity of Bill Laimbeer, in New York, driving news cycles, simply because there weren’t enough regular reporters to hear him. Laimbeer never shied away from telling us what he really thought, and that’s generally all it takes in men’s sports to turn a press conference into a three-day story. I remember him doing this on one particular postgame, that devilish smile his tell whenever he was about to thrust the knife in, wondering whether his comment would be picked up and brought across the corridors of Madison Square Garden.

Usually, it didn’t happen. That was okay by Laimbeer — he’d just say it again. But with an increased number of outlets covering the league, we truly missed some Laimbeer-driven news cycles by a mere few years, I believe.

Seeing Laimbeer leaving the WNBA also means a likely end to the bullyball style Laimbeer teams played. He resolutely kept his three-point attempts limited right until the end, even with a roster filled with players like Kelsey Plum. Analytics devotees — and I am one such devotee — never truly understood why he did this. Many dismissed him as unlikely to succeed because of it. For the record, I never did, seeing Laimbeer teams figure it out, again and again.

So it was in the Wubble in 2020, the Aces finishing 18-4, Laimbeer holding court in the lobby of the main hotel, surrounded by other coaches, telling stories late into the night. And let’s not forget this year’s Aces finished 24-8. How many coaches do you know who leave their job after going 42-12?

“Bill’s coaching legacy in the W is that of building championship contenders,” Reeve said. “Each of the three places he coached he took his team from sub .500 to championship contention.  He worked hard in assembling successful rosters and was a coach who had a unique ability to manage his players.”

That said, Reeve didn’t want to work for Bill Laimbeer when he first asked her to interview for an assistant coaching position back in the mid-2000s. She’s been an assistant in Cleveland and Charlotte. He was the enemy. She interviewed, coming in thinking she hated the guy. She left wanting to work for him, and did.

And when he left Detroit, Reeve had this to say about the GM job he’d paved the way for her to take.

“I’m hoping that we can make people ask why no one tried this earlier,” she said.

That was Bill Laimbeer in the WNBA: heterodox to the end, a mixture of past a future, bluntness and quiet grace, an outsized influence on what we think of the league today and for years to come.

“Bill’s mark on the league has been significant and he deserves a ton of credit for where the league is today,” Reeve said to me this week.

Becky Hammon is a tremendous hire. If all goes well, she could have a career like that of Bill Laimbeer.

This week in women’s basketball (abbreviated, I’d unplugged last week)

Debbie Antonelli catches up with Nia Clouden.

Terrific Jonathan Abrams piece on Diamond Johnson.

Jackie Powell ranks the top 25 WNBA free agents.

A new pod from Christy Winters-Scott and Gabe Ibrahim.

Five at The IX: Becky Hammon

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.