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Gordon: Becky Hammon helps Aces clear championship hurdle

She spent two weeks pondering, deliberating, deciding.

New York or Las Vegas? Las Vegas or New York?

“My agent asked me, ‘What are you thinking? What are you thinking?’ … I said ‘My gut says Vegas,’” Aces coach Becky Hammon recalled Tuesday during the celebratory parade that followed the first WNBA championship in franchise history.

“I’ve got heck of a roster. And there ain’t no coach in the world that’s winning (expletive) without a good roster.”

And no roster that’s winning anything without a good coach, either.

Hammon wasn’t just good this season. She was excellent, phenomenal, amazing — or any other superlative that serves as a synonym. In four short months, she morphed from head coaching debutante to Coach of the Year. From Coach of the Year to WNBA champion.

She was the rightful recipient of the “Becky” chants from the thousands gathered on the Strip to celebrate.

Hammon was hired by owner Mark Davis to lift the franchise beyond its previous plateaus and she delivered, arriving on center stage Tuesday outside the Bellagio surrounded by players she helped mold into a title-winning team.

“I’m super blessed to be here,” said Hammon, also one of the greatest players in the WNBA’s history. “I thank you all for showing up.”

A sentiment the city surely reciprocates.

Ready to win

Indeed, the roster was ready to win, something Hammon acknowledged on ESPN after the Aces clinched the championship. Former coach Bill Laimbeer had constructed a team loaded with foundational and complementary talent — but rigid in execution, especially during postseason play.

Hence the million-dollar hiring of Hammon, who deviated from her predecessor’s philosophies to maximize the collection of skills her players possessed. High-low sets turned into spread pick-and-rolls. Postups into 3-pointers. A’ja Wilson into a two-time league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young into potential perennial All-Stars.

Dearica Hamby was an All-Star again. Chelsea Gray wasn’t, claiming Finals MVP instead after a banner postseason full of dominance in the clutch. Riquna Williams and Kiah Stokes remained ready under Hammon’s watchful eye, contributing the most when the games mattered the most.

The postseason is also when Hammon was at her best, reserving every schematic and tactical advantage the Aces had for what turned out to be a 10-game run.

A smaller lineup thwarted the Seattle Storm while a bigger one outbruised the the Connecticut Sun — until it was time to go small again in the fourth quarter of the decisive Game 4.

“She’s been believing in us from the beginning, just to play our style on both ends of the floor,” Gray said. “It was from the beginning of training camp until now. We’ve been working on it and working for each other.”

‘Not by mistake’

Therein lies the essence of Hammon’s brilliance: she’s an expert at empowerment. The schematics are secondary to the trust she’s fostered up and down the roster.

The tenor of the team changed the second she arrived from San Antonio, where she’d coached eight years as an assistant with the Spurs.

“It’s an open dialogue. That’s how we’ve been communicating,” Gray said before the postseason began. “We’re able to joke, but at the same time, like, we know she means business and wants the best for us and wants to win.”

Lest we forget that Hammon was underrecruited and undrafted. Underappreciated as an assistant coach in the NBA and undeterred on her quest to coach champions.

“My journey is not by mistake. Every hard thing that I’ve gone through has built something in me that I needed down the road,” she said. “It’s not really about proving other people wrong. It’s proving myself right. … If you like me, great. If not, we just keep it moving.”

The Aces love Hammon.

Las Vegas does, too.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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