The New York Liberty were due for some good news after winning just 17 games during the last two seasons and James Dolan put the team up for sale while moving them out of Madison Square Garden.
Having the best odds in the 2020 WNBA Draft lottery paid off as New York drew the No. 1 overall pick, and the team announced last month that they will play their home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn after two seasons at the inferior and very out of the way Westchester County Center.
Here’s more on the big questions facing the Liberty as they look to improve the on-court product in time for their big debut at Barclays.
Sabrina becomes the big ticket?
Is selecting Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu with the first overall pick simply a formality at this point? Ducks head coach Kelly Graves even had some fun on Twitter as the draft lottery unfolded.
The Liberty do face some difficult decisions, first in choosing a new head coach after the club decided to move on from Katie Smith after two seasons.
What they do with that No. 1 pick shouldn’t be one of them.
Ionescu likely would have been the No. 1 overall pick last season (for the Las Vegas Aces) had she elected to come out early. The do-it-all guard is a brilliant passer, has a nice pull-up game from the midrange and forces opponents to react to her shooting ability from deep off the dribble.
More importantly, her drive and tenacity combined with that tremendous skill set regularly harken comparisons to WNBA luminary stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.
Atop all that, the Liberty desperately need a lead guard that can set the table, remain a scoring threat away from the ball and take control late in games to ensure that the team is getting great shots.
Check, check and check.
Turning the defense back around
The Liberty took a nosedive after finishing as a top-four defense during the 2014 through 2017 seasons under Bill Laimbeer, (who moved on to become head coach and president of basketball operations for the Las Vegas Aces). New York then allowed 105.9 points per 100 possessions (tenth) in 2018 and ranked dead last (103.8) in 2019.
That turn for the worst has been disheartening with several key holdovers and 2018 first-round pick Kia Nurse—a helpful guard/wing defensive presence from day one—still on the roster.
Parsing through opponent shooting data on WNBA.com, you’ll notice a common thread from the Laimbeer years: Those New York teams ranked top-three in fewest shots allowed at the rim while also holding opponents well below the league average shooting percentage in three of the four seasons.
The Liberty allowed just 16.8 attempts per game in 2018, only trailing Laimbeer’s Aces at 10.6, but didn’t affect as many of them. Opponents shot 63.9 percent in the restricted area during 2018, and that number dropped to 57.4 percent this past season, though the Liberty allowed the second-most attempts (21.0) on average. Restricted area shooting numbers are an easy thing to point at, but how much can that alone actually tell us? It certainly isn’t a catch-all.
Consider the team’s center rotation, nonetheless.
Carolyn Swords, Kia Vaughn and Kiah Stokes each played a big part in those Laimbeer seasons. Swords spent the last two campaigns with the Aces. Vaughn and Stokes split those center minutes again for New York in 2018.
The former went unsigned during the 2019 offseason and did not play in what would have been her age-32 season. Stokes missed the entire 2019 run.
Amanda Zahui B was prioritized in the center rotation under coach Smith. She has some stretch to her game, making her an appealing partner for low-block scorer Tina Charles. Zahui B shot 34.4 percent on 61 attempts in 2018 and 31.9 percent on 69 attempts this past season in 460 and 558 minutes, respectively.
New York’s next coach will need to consider Zahui’s place in the scheme, however. Take out her 7-of-8 explosion against Los Angeles, and you’re looking at a player that shot 15-of-61 from deep in 23 games. She comes with some limitations defensively, particularly when required to slide her feet while containing guards or face-up bigs.
The Liberty should be taking fliers on somebody at either big position to open up the floor for Charles. 2019 draftee Han Xu also gives them some shooting from the center position, but they won’t be finding their game-changing rim protector in that duo.
Getting Stokes back on the floor in 2020 may help toggle between both looks as those three players compete for the lion’s share of the 40 center minutes.
Troubles for Tina
Charles shot a career-low 39.8 percent from the field last season. She heated up some in August after sub-36 percent shooting in June (11 games) and July (seven games). Her 3-point shot not falling (11-of-59) didn’t help after hitting respectable marks as she began stretching her game out in 2016.
Missed 3-pointers aside, Charles’ 41.2 percentage on twos was the second-lowest mark of her 10-year career. Simply not converting more looks right around the basket was a big culprit. She shot 52.4 percent on 126 restricted area attempts, a four-year low that was also a full seven points below the league average—an extremely troubling number for a big.
While the officiating of bigger post players was a mysterious point of contention all of last season, Charles’ .235 free throw rate was right on par with the previous four seasons according to Basketball-Reference.
The franchise really needs to find out what they have in Zahui and Han, as both could simplify some decisions for Charles as she ages and even completely remove a bigger body from the picture on some post-up possessions.
As I mentioned with the Dallas Wings, this 2020 lottery pick could complete the kind of lineup that can realistically enter the season with playoff aspirations while carrying plenty of long-term growth potential.
Ionescu, Nurse and Asia Durr were all selected in back-to-back-to-back drafts and could be the starting backcourt of the future next to Charles and a center. The Liberty also figure to have above-average guard/wing depth with Rebecca Allen under contract and the inside track to bring back dynamic young guard Marine Johannes.
Nothing is promised for the Liberty’s on-court success in 2020. Thankfully, the sale to new owner Joe Tsai went through, and he appears much more invested in seeing the Liberty succeed. The news of the relocation to Barclays was a nice first step: Sharing the arena with an-up-and-coming Brooklyn Nets team can’t hurt, either.
A WNBA without a major presence in New York wouldn’t feel quite right. Just don’t expect the honeymoon phase to last long for whoever the new coach turns out to be. This group has some serious offensive firepower that should be enough to make them competitive with enough effort and attention to detail on the other end.
Expectations will bounce back pretty quickly.
Note: Contract and free agency status for players derived from the High Post Hoops salary database.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.