Liberty’s Struggles This Season Begin On Offense

By Patrick Ralph

This past Tuesday night, the New York Liberty lost to the WNBA-best Seattle Storm 77-62 on their home floor. While it may have been just one game, it meant more than just another loss for the Liberty. It was the Liberty’s 12th loss of the season, already matching their total number of losses from last year at the halfway point of 2018.

It also showed the different directions in which the Liberty and Storm are going in this season. After both playoff teams underwent coaching changes this past offseason, the Storm have surged with Dan Hughes while the Liberty have faltered under Katie Smith this season.
Standing at 5-12 now and with the second-worst record in the league, the Liberty are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Unless New York has a miracle turnaround in the second half of the season, one akin to their 10-game winning streak to close out the 2017 season, the Liberty will not be in the playoffs after finishing with the best record in the East for the last three seasons. While much of the Liberty’s problems this season can be pointed to a significant drop-off on the defensive end, it is on offense where New York’s issues reign supreme.

Under former head coach Bill Laimbeer, the Liberty played at one of the slowest paces in the league. Like Laimbeer as a player with the Detroit Pistons and as a coach with the Detroit Shock, New York was a hard-nosed defensive team that rebounded the ball well and grinded out wins against opponents by dominating the paint.

Liberty games were not aesthetically pleasing to watch, but that style of play worked to their advantage in the regular season. However, it did not buy them any favors when it came to the postseason. Not surprisingly, their style of play drew sharp criticism from many around the league.

Now, under their first-year head coach, the Liberty have changed their style of play. New York is playing faster and looking to get out more in transition rather than try to play in the half-court like it did under Laimbeer. As a result, the Liberty are averaging more possessions per game this season.

however, despite playing at a quicker pace this season, it has not translated to better play or more wins in New York. In fact, it has actually made the Liberty a worse offensive team than in past years. The team’s ball movement has improved this year under Smith, but it is hard to find many other positives on the offensive end for the Liberty.

One change in the Liberty’s play this season has been at the three-point line. New York is taking more threes this year, but making less. As a result, only the Dallas Wings and Atlanta Dream have a worse three-point shooting percentage this season than the Liberty. On the other hand, New York ranks in the top third of the league in three-point attempts. If New York wants to take more threes, it needs to make them. Otherwise, it is all but negating the change in style of play.

The Liberty are also third to last in the league in offensive rating and points per game, as well as in the bottom half of the league in field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage.

Along with becoming a more perimeter-focused team, the Liberty have ceded control of the paint to opponents this year. In exchange for more threes, New York is taking less twos this season. In addition, the Liberty are both taking and making less free throws this year. In fact, New York is dead last in the league in free throws attempted.

The Liberty are neither as aggressive nor as physical this year as in past seasons. Because the Liberty are focusing more on the three-point line, there is inherently going to be less opportunities to draw contact and get to the line than if New York was looking to score more in the paint.

This also has led to the Liberty becoming one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. Along with defense, rebounding was one of New York’s calling cards under Laimbeer. Almost no team was going to beat the Liberty on the glass. However, after leading the league last year in rebounds per game, New York is now in the bottom third of the WNBA in boards. As a result, opposing teams are rebounding the ball better now against the Liberty.

Since the Liberty are more focused now on pushing the ball offensively and getting everyone out in transition, rebounding has become less of a priority for this team. In addition, if a team is taking more threes and its players are primarily situated on the perimeter, they are not in a good rebounding position. Therefore, when the Liberty miss shots, no one is crashing the glass to create second-chance points.

The Liberty’s change to a more high-tempo style of play has also caused this team to become more undisciplined and sloppy. Under Laimbeer, the Liberty were one of the best teams in the league at taking care of the basketball. Now, New York’s faster pace has pushed it into the top half of the league in turnovers this season. Even Smith called her own team undisciplined after Tuesday night’s home loss to Seattle.

This has been the case for the past several years, New York’s glaring problem on offense has been the lack of consistent production from others not named Tina Charles. Winning cures and sugarcoats almost everything, but now that the Liberty are losing, the lack of offensive firepower outside of Charles has come to the forefront.

Since arriving to New York in 2014, Charles has had to do most of the work on her own in her five years with the Liberty. Charles is on pace to lead the WNBA in usage for the second straight year, and in field goals attempted and missed for the third straight year.

Since 2015, the five-time All-Star has never finished lower than third in usage, field goal attempts, and missed field goals. In fact, Charles has led the league in field goal attempts and missed field goals for the last three years. The former MVP has finished in the top five in minutes played, and in the top three in two-point field goal attempts over the last four years, too.

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If Charles does not shoot well or get some help offensively, it becomes even more difficult for the Liberty to win. The burden on Charles has been heavy, and it cannot be getting any lighter as New York slides down the standings. Needless to say, it is unsustainable going forward.

Many fans and some around the league have begun to question whether Smith is the right coach to lead the Liberty, given that the team’s struggles are occurring on her watch despite the roster remaining the same from last year. However, others who watch the Liberty closely believe that these issues were bound to rise to the surface at some point because of the roster makeup.

The question now becomes what can and will the team do to improve. The easy solution would be to let go of Smith and bring in a new head coach to turn things around, but firing Smith after one season would not be as simple as advertised. Getting rid of a first-year head coach, especially one who has served as an assistant in New York for several years, would be a difficult move to make.

Therefore, if the Liberty are committed to playing this new run-and-gun style, a roster overhaul at the trade deadline or this offseason might be more likely. Some have begun to question the Liberty’s roster and say that it is better on paper than on the floor.  It is becoming more clear that some of the Liberty’s current players just may not fit well with this up-tempo pace. For example, as talented as she is, Charles thrives and is at her best in the half-court rather than in transition.

Of course, hanging over the Liberty’s poor season is the albatross that is playing home games at Westchester County Center in White Plains instead of at Madison Square Garden. The drop off in the facility and resources, not to mention the uncertain future of the franchise in New York as its owner explores a sale, cannot be helping the situation on the court this year.

The Liberty were once a team not aesthetically pleasing to watch because they played a slower style of basketball, but it made them good and helped them win. Now, New York has become painful to watch because it is playing a brand of basketball that just simply has not worked or fit so far with this team.

And something is going to have to change.

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