WNBA suspends Hammon: Whats next for Las Vegas Aces, Dearica Hamby?

    M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

After a three-months-plus investigation involving more than 30 people, the WNBA said Tuesday it is suspending Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon for two games and taking away the Aces’ 2025 first-round draft pick because the franchise violated league rules regarding impermissible player benefits and workplace policies.

The investigation was launched because of claims made by former Aces player Dearica Hamby after she was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in January. Hamby accused the Aces of “unethical” behavior.

“Being traded is part of the business,” Hamby said in a statement posted on Instagram. “Being lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against is not.”

Hamby played for the Aces from 2015, when the franchise was still in San Antonio as the Stars, through 2022. She agreed to a two-year contract extension with the Aces last June. Hamby was then slowed by injury during the playoffs as Las Vegas won its first WNBA title.

Hamby announced during the Aces’ victory parade that she was expecting her second child and planned to play in the 2023 season. After the trade, she said she was told she was “not taking my workouts seriously” and that Aces personnel told her they “[didn’t] see that” she’d be ready to return.

“I have had my character and work ethic attacked,” Hamby’s statement read at the time. “I was promised things to entice me to sign my contract extension that were not followed through on.”

What do the penalties mean for the Aces and the WNBA? Let’s look at the issues involved.

Does the suspension impact Hammon’s reputation?

2022 was very much a feel-good year for Hammon, who after spending eight years as a San Antonio Spurs assistant following her WNBA playing career at last got a head-coaching job. Winning the WNBA title in her first season guiding a franchise brought Hammon and the Aces a lot of positive publicity. This puts a little tarnish on that.

What bothers some WNBA followers the most is that Hammon, Aces president Nikki Fargas and general manager Natalie Williams are all mothers themselves, and the result of the investigation suggests Hamby didn’t receive the support one might have expected during her pregnancy.

However, in a statement released early Tuesday evening, the Aces organization defended itself and Hammon.

“The Las Vegas Aces are deeply disappointed by the outcome of the WNBA investigation,” the statement read. “We are committed to supporting all our players to the fullest extent allowed by the WNBA. Our actions have always been consistent with our responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest professional standards, and the facts we presented were consistent with these standards. The well-being of our players and their families has and will always be at the forefront of who we are.

“The WNBA’s determinations about Becky Hammon are inconsistent with what we know and love about her. Becky is a caring human being who forges close personal relationships with her players. We stand behind Coach Hammon as she continues to lead the Las Vegas Aces.”

Whether or not the “real” issue was that the Aces saw a chance to sign free agent Candace Parker and were ready to move on from Hamby despite their previous agreement with her, the investigation put the onus on Hammon as having made the comments to which Hamby objected.

Hammon is not the first WNBA coach suspended for something she said. Then-Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller, now with the Sparks, was fined $10,000 and suspended one game for comments he made about player Liz Cambage’s size while arguing with an official during a 2021 game.

Like many WNBA organizations, the Aces sell “family atmosphere” and “player empowerment” as part of their culture. That also might take a hit with these penalties.

Does that matter to the current Aces or future free agents who might consider the organization? Those are trickier questions. For the most part, Hammon got good reviews publicly from players last season and so far this year in preseason media sessions. The Aces organization under owner Mark Davis has done a lot to make the players’ everyday accommodations top-notch.

But the players’ union, the WNBPA, called the WNBA’s punishment for the Aces “far from appropriate,” saying it didn’t go far enough.

Hammon has a media video conference Wednesday that was scheduled before the penalties were announced; all WNBA coaches are doing those as part of the lead-up to the opening of the season Friday.

What’s the precedent for stripping draft picks for rules violations?

This is the first time a WNBA team has ever lost a draft pick, but it’s common in the NBA. In recent years, multiple teams have forfeited second-round picks for tampering violations. The Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers lost second-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft, while the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks were stripped of them a year ago.

What the Aces were found to have done is more serious than the timing-related violations recently punished by the NBA. In those cases, the transactions themselves were legal but communication between players and teams happened prior to the beginning of free agency.

The better comparison for Las Vegas’ situation is when the Minnesota Timberwolves were found in 2000 to have agreed to a future contract with forward Joe Smith, allowing them to pay Smith less money as a free agent before he established Bird rights and could re-sign for the promised larger amount.

The late David Stern, then the NBA commissioner, voided Smith’s contract with Minnesota — making him a free agent — and stripped the team of its next five first-round picks in addition to levying a $3.5 million fine. The Timberwolves ultimately got two of the first-rounders back, but still lost three picks during a period when they were trying to build a contending team around MVP Kevin Garnett.

To some degree, the WNBA’s hands might have been tied in punishing the Aces via draft picks. Las Vegas had already traded its 2024 first-rounder to the Sparks with Hamby. Unlike the NBA, where teams are able to trade picks up to seven drafts into the future, the WNBA permits it just two years ahead, meaning the 2025 first-rounder was the only one currently in play for the Aces. — Kevin Pelton

Does losing a 2025 draft pick really hurt the Aces?

At this point, the 2024 and 2025 WNBA drafts are expected to have franchise-changing players. Because the upcoming senior class still has the COVID-19 waiver possibility to play a fifth year in college, it’s uncertain which of the top players will go to the draft in 2024. But 2025 looks strong.

That said, the Aces are championship favorites this year. Star A’ja Wilson is an unrestricted free agent for 2024, but Las Vegas has four other key players — Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Alysha Clark — under contract through 2024. In short, it’s unlikely the Aces will be a draft lottery team in 2025, which probably takes away the sting of potentially losing a major star in the draft then.

These penalties might hurt the Aces’ reputation, but will they be a deterrent across the league to prevent this type of situation happening again? That’s the question we can’t answer right now, but the hope is that teams take this seriously.

What can we make of the fact that the WNBA could not substantiate salary-cap circumvention by the Aces?

Without actually seeing the results of the investigation, it’s hard to decipher. On one hand, the league said the penalties were for violations of rules regarding impermissible player benefits and workplace policies.

With the WNBA having a hard salary cap, could impermissible player benefits be seen as a type of circumvention of the cap? As one general manager told ESPN, such things can be a bit more difficult for the league to judge.

If a franchise such as Las Vegas gets players appearance deals based on relationships the Raiders or Aces, both owned by Davis, have with local businesses, that isn’t necessarily circumventing the cap, even if it means putting more money in players’ pockets. If a WNBA team promises to pay for certain services for players, such as school tuition for children, that could be seen as circumvention. At this point, based on the league’s statement, it couldn’t verify that against the Aces.

In their statement, the Aces also addressed this: “As expected, the facts did not demonstrate that the Aces violated the salary cap by paying players ‘under the table’ or acted impermissibly during the 2023 free-agency period.

“We look forward to continuing to support our players, coaches, employees, and the Las Vegas community.”

Is there a next step for Hamby?

It’s unknown at this point if she intends to take legal action against the Aces based on the Respect in the Workplace violation the league said came from comments Hammon made to Hamby about the player’s pregnancy.

Hamby didn’t lose her job as a WNBA player when she was traded. But she still might have a case that she was discriminated against and dealt with trauma because of the remarks made to her and the need to move from the organization where she had spent her entire WNBA career. In its statement, the union said it will support Hamby as she considers further options.

In a video posted on Twitter by John W. Davis of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Hamby spoke with reporters Tuesday in Los Angeles about the WNBA’s decision, which she said she found out about Monday.

“I kind of want to move forward and focus on where I am today. I’m healthy, I’m happy. My son is healthy,” Hamby said of her baby, Legend. “I’m going to be playing basketball this season. This part of it is over; me and the union will continue to explore more options.”

Hamby said she called Los Angeles general manager Karen Bryant before training camp because she was ready to get back to playing. She returned quickly after having her first child, daughter Amaya, and is back again after Legend’s birth. The Sparks open the 2023 WNBA season on Friday against the Phoenix Mercury.

“I’m not going to try to put too much pressure on myself. I’m focusing on getting back into shape and turning the motor back on for basketball,” Hamby said. “But I’m going to play. I told [coach Curt Miller] to hold me to the same standard you would if I was fully healthy or not recovering from pregnancy. I work hard, and I think that will speak for itself.

“I’ve been having to dial myself in and not make it personal to prove the Aces wrong. Right now, I’m proving to myself and my kids I can do it. Initially, when the trade happened, I doubted myself a little bit, but I’m back. I’m a tough player, I’ve got to go back and embrace the physicality. I’m prepared for Friday.”

ESPN senior writer Kevin Pelton contributed to this story.

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