After five successful seasons in New York, helping to bring the Liberty back to the upper echelon of the WNBA, Bill Laimbeer is headed to the desert to rejuvenate another franchise.
The San Antonio Stars announced they were moving to Las Vegas in October and that Laimbeer, who has won three WNBA titles as a head coach, would be moving with them to serve as head coach and president of basketball operations.
On Monday, the newly relocated team unveiled its new name — the Las Vegas Aces — as well as a new color scheme and logo. With the logistics in place, Laimbeer can now begin to give the franchise an identity. We caught up with Laimbeer this week before and after Monday’s big announcement.
What are the biggest challenges you face with a relocated franchise?
Just trying to organize everything from scratch: Bringing the team to Vegas. Getting the players in place. And then there’s everything else that has to go into this. Securing the arena, practice sites. Buying equipment and medical supplies, hiring employees. It’s time-consuming and I keep figuring out things that have to be done.
How do you think the players on the roster will react to a new situation?
Once the initial shock passes – I think it caught everybody by surprise – I think they will see that there’s a really good opportunity here. They are wanted here. MGM is making a strong commitment to the franchise. The building is a quality place to be. They will all understand that.
Most of your players are overseas now, right? Have you been in communication with them?
Moriah Jefferson is rehabbing in the states. Everybody else is overseas. We have exchanged emails and a few phone calls. I will see Moriah this week on our announcement day. It will be great to get a chance to talk to her about what we are thinking about, get her feedback about some things, pick her brain about what the players have experience and try to choose the best parts of that.
What’s the biggest challenge here?
Well, the team hasn’t been the best and that’s been quite the challenge. It’s easier actually when it comes to dealing with the players. There’s not going to be a lot of player movement. We need to add some players; there will be some competition for jobs and time. I don’t know the players, but a lot of this is the easy part, the players’ end of things. Once we get everything set up in year one, we will be ready to move forward with our plans. A lot of people in this company are working on this project in so many areas. They are really focused on making sure this launch goes well. We are going to stub our toe here or there, but everyone has put in a lot of time and effort.
Why was it a time of change for you, to make this move?
I think a change was coming. In New York, we got to be a good team, but we didn’t get over the hump. Katie Smith, I think it was her time to move up the ranks. I told her my timeline was finite in New York. I wanted a different challenge. Rebuilding a last-place team is definitely a challenge, and it was the right time for me to take on something like this. Las Vegas is a very different environment, so we will see how it is.
You coached in the Eastern Conference for a long time. You are moving out West with teams like Los Angeles and Minnesota and Phoenix. How will that be?
I think a couple of years ago, it would have been a different thing. Now everybody plays everybody three times. There isn’t any advantage or disadvantage to being in one conference or the other. I think the biggest thing is the logistical situation, longer flights and time zone changes. On the West Coast, you are traveling across the country and you lose a whole day, you lose practice days. It takes something out of you. That will be the biggest thing being out west.
You have a young roster. Will you need to take on a different kind of leadership role without a lot of veterans to lean on?
The answer is probably yes, I will find myself more in a leadership position than I would if I had a more veteran team. I’m hoping we can add some veteran leaders, I just don’t know. We are too new in the process of player acquisition at this point. That doesn’t even start until the first of February. But having a young team doesn’t bother me. Especially for a new franchise, we have a lot of young, talented players can attach to. Our fans can grow with them and we will all figure out together who we are and what we are about.
You now have a team identity off the floor. How will you go about creating an identity on the floor?
Those are two distinctly different things. The stuff we did (Monday) doesn’t involve personnel. We have “X” amount of players who have “X” amount of skills. We have the first pick in the draft, and you expect that first pick to be an impact player. There are lots of factors that will go into it and what style of play we will be able to play. Our identity will be a work in progress, all depending on our players. You can’t put a square peg into a round hole.
Did you have a chance to talk with any of your players at the unveiling on Monday?
Yes. Kayla Alexander and Moriah Jefferson were there. I talked to Kayla about on-the-court stuff, what I’d like to see from her. She was only here for one day. Moriah is here for a few days. But I think this was a big eye-opener for both of them, with how things went and the bigness of the situation compared to what they experienced in San Antonio.
What will be happening with the franchise over these next few months?
I have a lot to do between now and the end of March, every day, all day. I need to do a lot of scouting now. That No. 1 pick is the easy one — it’s going to be one of a few players. But with our No. 13 pick, we are going to have to expand our pool of possibilities. We could also be working on trades to acquire another draft pick. Moriah will be here. She will be a “community player,” helping to sell tickets, doing community outreach, reaching out with possible sponsors, while she is rehabbing her knee. She had surgery in September, but she will be seeing a lot of people here. I think she’s really looking forward to it.
What are you most looking forward to before the season starts?
I’m looking forward to forward to free agency. There are not a lot of impact players out there, but there are a lot of role players. We are young, so maybe there are some leaders out there. We will be doing some trade talking, trying to understand what our team is going to look like. And a lot of logistical stuff. We are walking the arena today, deciding what our locker room is going to look like. I’m looking forward to seeing what our team will look like.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.