New York Liberty: Don’t give up on Katie Smith just yet

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New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith has endured countless toils in her two years at the helm. With her team behind her, she deserves more time.

In the sports nirvana that is New York City, firing the coach/manager, or at least calling for their ousting, is as much of a tradition as the marathon and the Thanksgiving Day parade. Legends of their respective fields aren’t immune to the notoriously quick trigger fingers of NYC overseers. Larry Brown lasted a mere single season with the Knicks. Joe Torre was asked to leave after four World Series parades. Billy Martin went through the process four separate times.

Some say New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith could be next to join that list.

On the court, Smith, the possible GOAT before 24/7 GOAT discussions were thrust upon the overfed public, has a secure legacy as one of the of greatest players in basketball history. A winner, a trailblazer on the amateur, professional, and international levels, Smith saw her on-court success immortalized in Springfield last fall.

Her journey has continued on the New York bench, where matching success has eluded her. Through two seasons, the Liberty have gone 17-51 under Smith’s watch. A .250 average might be tolerable on the Yankees or Mets, but not so much for New York basketball coaches.

After all, New York is a city that worships a roundball deity. Locations like Rucker Park and “The Cage” on West 4th Street are city landmarks. Knicks and Nets talk dominates the cutthroat world of NYC sports talk radio on a yearly basis. Obviously such an outspoken and knowledgeable fanbase would want their summers filled with victorious basketball, especially with the city’s 82-game squads failing to fill the void (four playoff series wins amongst the Knicks and Nets combined since 2005).

But looking solely at numbers is like visiting New York and only visiting the Empire State Building; sure you see something important…but you don’t see everything.

Smith has been a New York staple since 2013. It was the final uniform she wore in her illustrious playing career. When the final buzzer sounded for her on-court days, Smith was immediately brought in as an assistant coach under Bill Laimbeer.

If anyone knew of Smith’s potential on the bench, it was Laimbeer. The two were almost inseperable in the early parts of the new century, helping Detroit make its mark on the women’s basketball map. The pair’s magnum opus was in 2008, when the Shock officially became the first post-Houston dynasty with their third title. Smith led the charge with MVP honors, taking over a squad that missing contributors Cheryl Ford and Plenette Pierson.

When Smith exchanged sneakers for suits in 2013, she and Laimbeer began a takeover of the standings. From 2015-17, the Liberty won 66 games, tops in the Eastern Conference. Playoff success eluded them, but Laimbeer felt something special was in store, indirectly handpicking Smith to be his eventual successor.

Past and present Liberty forward Amanda Zahui B. certainly noticed the transition.  The Swedish interior threat began her New York career as a castaway from Detroit’s remnants in Tulsa. Under Smith, Zahui B has become a strong WNBA contributor, developing a stronger all-around game that has allowed her to reclaim her career’s narrative.

“Katie was the head assistant coach when I came to New York. She saw something in me, and she stills sees it and believes that I have it,” said Zahui B, she of 8.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 23 starts this season, all career-highs. “I haven’t reached my peak yet….She and the coaching staff just believe in me.

Nightmares have ensued for the Liberty since, their arrival coinciding with Smith’s promotion. Laimbeer departed New York to oversee the development of the then-unnamed Las Vegas squad that spawned from San Antonio. In his place arose Smith.

Her promotion pitted her in the right place at the wrong. Since her October 2017 placement, Smith has had to deal with multiple calamities that franchises could go their whole existence without encountering.

Less than a month after Smith’s move up, the Liberty were put up for sale by the Madison Square Garden Company. That alone was plenty to deal with. While disassociation with James Dolan’s shenanigans seemed like addition by subtraction, the Liberty were set to lose a relatively healthy relationship with the Knicks. Separation from NBA brother organizations has often been a death sentence in the WNBA. It was a fate that befell successful franchises in Charlotte, Cleveland, and Sacramento, among others. Even the mighty Houston Comets were swept away by the trend, as Rockets owner Leslie Alexander bid them farewell in 2007. Two years under local furniture magnate Hilton Koch served as de facto hospice care, as the Comets went extinct two years later.

With a New York buyer not immediately present, the Liberty were more or less evicted from the eponymous building. Save for two matinee games, the Liberty were transferred to Westchester County Center, a cozy, beige, Art Deco-adorned relic in suburban White Plains. Official attendance for the County Center was 2,500, but that number is significantly reduced on Liberty game days. Nearly an hour away from their city-based following and most of the games tipping off after rush hour, the Liberty have played games in front of small crowds that single-handedly bring down the WNBA’s median attendance.

The move to White Plains only brought on another Comets parallel. Houston’s final days were spent away from Toyota Center, as the team was shifted to the far-smaller Reliant Arena (now known as NRG Arena) for what became their final two seasons.

Thus, Smith had to deal with a squad that well could’ve been playing in a lame duck home and coaching a team that could’ve been floating in basketball purgatory. The Liberty’s play on the court further suffered to the tune of a franchise-worst 7-27 record. Injuries were particularly cruel to the nomadic squad. All but two players missed at least one game due to ailments. Things became so painful (literally) that the Liberty had to go through a four-game road trip to end the season by dressing eight women at most.

Yet, Smith kept the group together, believing in each other. Moral victories were unable to be transferred to the standings, but it was still encouraging to see the depleted group fight for every point, every possession.

One such example came in an August visit to Laimbeer’s new Las Vegas dwelling. Reeling from a brutal battle in Los Angeles the night before, the Liberty and their eight-woman squad had to play an upstart Aces team aiming for the playoffs. To make matters worse, star Tina Charles was a late scratch with back spasms. The Aces pounced on the exhausted New Yorkers quick to the tune of a 22-3 lead. But the Liberty slowly made things respectable in the tough effort, even cutting down the Vegas lead to single digits in the third quarter before eventually falling 85-72.

The moral victories were of little consolation to the Liberty, but they were never uncomfortable professing their belief in each other as they went through an excessively difficult stretch forced by factors beyond their control.

“I think this team has a lot of fight,” veteran Bria Hartley said after that aforementioned effort in Vegas. “We didn’t start the way we wanted to, but we always fight back. We always tell each other to keep going and we were able to step up.”

Even opponents took note of the Liberty’s effort. Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike flat out declared “I don’t think their record is indicative of the type of team that they are” after the spark took a narrow 82-81 decision from Westchester.

During that trying time, players never made excuses. Charles, politely vocal about the team’s unenviable Westchester situation, even remarked that if the arena was indeed the crux of the Liberty’s problems, they would’ve “won on the road”. The past seasons have been dealt with through class and camaraderie from the New York participants, defined by a belief in their leadership and each other.

“There’s been no cracks whatsoever,” guard Rebecca Allen said of team chemistry. “We’re a really close group full of really good personalities. It makes it so enjoyable to go to work, even when we’re not getting outcomes in games we’ve been hoping for.”

“We still come to work, we’re still getting it done, sticking to the principles that we put down. There’s still a professionalism that’s definitely still there.”

The resiliency of Smith’s squads could perhaps be compared to famous Brooklyn resident, Steve “Captain America” Rogers. Such parallels could only be amplified by good news bestowed last January.

New York basketball would indeed be destined to move. Airfare, however, was thankfully not necessary, as a familiar subway ride would’ve sufficed. The Liberty were purchased by Taiwan-born internet mogul Joseph Tsai, then the minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Tsai’s purchase provided hope and foundation, as well as a clean slate after enduring Dolan’s silliness. Timing and Tsai’s minority Nets stake perhaps made an immediate move to Barclays Center impossible, but 2019, spurred on by Tsai’s implied New York commitment, at least soothed concerns about the close-knit team’s potential demise.

Instead, Smith had more on her plate than ever. The Liberty at least made it to double-figures with a 10-24 standing in a season that ended on Sunday. With basketball’s Murphy’s Law bearing down on them, 10 wins almost felt like more.

A virtual United Nations, the Liberty weren’t eaten alive by international affairs. French sharp-shooter Marine Johannes wouldn’t join the team until July. She would soon be joined in the EuroBasket festivities by Zahui B (Sweden), Bria Hartley (also France), and Kiah Stokes (Turkey). The departures and injuries to guards Rebecca Allen and April’s second overall pick Asia Durr forced the Liberty to take on emergency signings. When the Euro-trippers got back, the team announced Stokes would sit out the entire season for personal reasons.

Losses weren’t limited to the on-court ladies. In June, the team’s top assistant Charmin Smith, a calming mentor prescience to former Cal-Berkeley proteges Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray, returned to the Golden Bears to be their head coach after Lindsay Gottlieb’s NBA calling to Cleveland. Durr proved to be an efficient rookie, but wound up missing the final dozen games of the season with a groin issue.

The countless forms of crisis actually wiped out a hopeful start for the Liberty. A four-game winning streak in the vicinity of Independence Day put them at 7-7 and in prime position for a playoff spot. The respective temporary and permanent departures of Durr and Charmin Smith, the biggest strikes to the team’s flow, stifled any true progress the Liberty were trying to make.

In other words, 10 wins might’ve been enough of a spirited effort as it was. 13 of the Liberty’s two dozen defeats were decided by 10 points or less. Even when all became lost via elimination, the Liberty put forth strong efforts. They generally kept pace with Washington and Connecticut in pair of visits from the earners of the postseason’s double-byes.

Silver linings with a hint of seafoam green further emerged throughout the year. Sophomore Kia Nurse made her first All-Star appearance. Allen established herself as one of the league’s sharpest three-point shooters. Zahui B. tallied a WNBA-best 37 in a redemption-filled win in Los Angeles that came less than 24 hours after a blowout

The already ludicrous notion of tanking had no place in New York. Their penultimate game of the season against the Indiana Fever bore the caveat that the loser would hold the best odds for the upcoming WNBA Draft Lottery, one whose top prize is generally considered to be walking triple-double Sabrina Ionescu.

Smith dispelled the idea of tossing a game for mere percentage points. Her focus was in the present, on her team, one that was taking her messages of grit and determination to heart. When the Liberty eventually dropped the game against their fellow cumulative bottom-feeders, Smith was again informed of the macabre gift. She bluntly replied “I’d much rather win some games”.

“We’re trying to win. We’re going to go out here and compete,” Smith firmly declared prior to Indiana’s visit. “We want to put our best foot forward and just keep getting better. I would love to finish with two wins.” (The Liberty did earn one more win, topping Atlanta 71-63 on Sunday)

Not one New Yorker, however, reveled in the relative accomplishments. Smith’s sense of strength and disciplined unity was on display throughout the organization. For example, when the team broke past last year’s win total to pick up their eighth win, Brittany Boyd was in no mood to celebrate.

“This year’s a new team. I don’t think we celebrate 8 wins,” Boyd said following a July win over Los Angeles. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”

The resiliency of Smith’s team should come as zero surprise to anyone who knows her story. Smith’s path to Springfield almost ended before it began, as her dominance in her hometown of Columbus ended after six-plus years. A strong career at Ohio State led to a hometown professional opportunity with the Columbus Quest of the American Basketball League. Smith would help the team win the lone pair of ABL championships before the league’s cessation in 1998.

Offered a chance to continue the journey in the fledgling WNBA, Smith became the first face of the Minnesota Lynx. She was dealt to Detroit in a fateful trade before the titles arrived in Minneapolis, but she set the pace by placing them in their first postseason appearances. She’s used to longform projects that eventually pay big dividends.

If this is what she can do with limited resources, there is undoubtedly potential for her and this squad once they finally get settled. As such, she’s more than deserving of another year, especially with good things possibly on the horizon.

This summer, Tsai completed his takeover of the Nets by purchasing the remaining stake of the team from Mikhail Prokhorov. He additionally took control of both Barclays Center and Long Island’s renovated Nassau Coliseum (home of the Nets’ similarly branded G-League affiliate) through a separate purchase of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment. Discussion are ongoing about making either building the Liberty’s new home.

Franchise stability is slowly but surely making its way back to New York. The idea that the Liberty wouldn’t be able to fill the arena on Atlantic Avenue was thoroughly dispelled by 7,715 fans showing up to watch the reeling Liberty battle the undermanned Seattle Storm last month. Roundball worshippers in a city commonly referred to as “The Capital of the World” came out to support a local institution playing their beloved game…what a concept.

For the second straight year, Smith has a chance to mentor a new young playmaker, someone she could see herself in (guards Chennedy Carter and Destiny Slocum are also potential lottery picks should to top one go elsewhere). New perks, however, have the best opportunity to arrive yet.

True to form, Smith wasn’t discussing the potentials in her final seasonal conversation with the New York media. Personal excitement still reigned as she went over her roster’s outlook for 2020.

“We probably need a PG. We’re not sure what Tanisha’s doing at the end of the season, so probably a lead guard type of action,” she said. “I think Durr and (Johannes), Nurse and (Allen) are solid at the wing spots.” On the interior game, she commented “We need to find another big. I know Stokes will be coming back, hopefully. Zahui, Han will have another under her belt. I think we have to get better in that area too and just find more production, find playmakers overall.”

They say the night is darkest just before the dawn, even in a place where the lights are so bright and one that never sleeps. With restraint slowly loosening, coach Katie Smith deserves to finally get a chance to raise the sunrise over a city eager to welcome them back. 

on Twitter @GeoffMags5490 

 

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3 Comments

  1. You know how I feel about Katie from our conversations at the Liberty game few weeks ago against the Dream, and I agree with you. I told Brian Heyman of Newsday this, and I will tell you that what the Liberty need is stability. Too many coaches have come and gone in recent year under the Dolan-led Liberty. The last thing the players need is another coaching change.

    I understand wins have not come often, but you and I talked about this. It’s about incremental improvement, and we saw this with Brittney, Bria, Marine Johannes and Rebeca Allen as they got better as the season progress to the point we saw improvement. I feel by staying put, the Liberty can get better.

    At this point, you can’t keep firing coaches.

    Great column, Geoff, and it was pleasure working with you for this one game.

  2. Pingback: Shhhh……..resting for playoffs | Women's Hoops World

  3. Jeremy Boxerbaum on

    1.) Rebecca Allen is forward, not a guard.

    2.) Don’t underestimate Kiah Stokes’ importance to the team. If you remember, there was one season when Bill Laimbeer was still in New York that she got hurt late in the season. The Liberty limped to the end of the regular season and was quickly eliminated from the playoffs. I think the team has really missed her rebounding, shot-blocking and overall defense.

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