The New York Liberty added only ten wins to their ledger in 2019. But on-court development and big victories off it have them hopeful in a stable future.
The reigning champion Washington Mystics notwithstanding, no one in basketball has had a more successful autumn than the New York Liberty.
Forced into a rare postseason drought, the Liberty have finally strung some wins together, albeit off-court, after two years of futility. The ping-pong balls bounced the right way for at least one hapless New York basketball team, as the Liberty emerged as the winners of September’s WNBA Draft Lottery. Whoever’s chosen with that top pick, be it Sabrina Ionescu or the field, will play her home games within city limits. With new owner Joe Tsai taking full control of Barclays Center, the Liberty will return to the proper New York City area with home games now hosted in Brooklyn.
Trapped in basketball purgatory over the past two seasons, the Liberty no longer play with a lame-duck feeling following them. Ousted head coach Katie Smith was the apparent sacrifice in the grand scheme of things, but the current landscape of New York basketball is currently brightened by a sense of youth and hope.
Before the good times officially return, however, the Liberty must analyze the bad and the relative good that landed them in this position in the first place, and answering the questions that will prevent them from sinking to these new depths ever again.
Charles In Charge(?)
Toward the end of the summer, Tina Charles took in US Open action in Queens seated in the same section as New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist. The parallels between the pair are, frankly, remarkable. Each has accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish in their respective sports, with the elusive exception of hoisting the championship trophy in their primary respective league. Triumphs of Washington superstars (Elena Delle Donne/Alex Ovechkin) have passed an unwanted torch: serving as the best player without a championship.
Both the Liberty and the Rangers have undergone extensive renovations in recent years, jeopardizing the chances of seeing Charles and Lundqvist earn well-deserved trophies. Such rebuilds have created plenty of hard-fought, heartbreaking losses on both sides and filled fans heads with unfathomable hypothetical images: the idea of seeing these New York legends don new colors to chase a championship and earn valuable capital as the local quest for a title continues.
For the record, Charles made it clear at several points last season she wasn’t interested in a change of address for the sole purpose of chasing a ring. In addition to adding “filmmaker” to her enormous resume, Charles also played historian at several points, talking up the Liberty’s storied history as she advocated for the team to play its game at Barclays.
“I (wasn’t) surprised at the crowd,” Charles remarked of a crowd exceeding 7,000 when the Liberty held a one-game preview in Brooklyn last year. “The New York Liberty has a great following. This is a legendary organization, being one of the very first franchises when it started in 97. It wasn’t a shocker to me at all.”
The Liberty have showcased a series of young guards over the past two drafts (Kia Nurse and Asia Durr) and one more (Sabrina Ionescu) could well join with the top pick. It’ll be interesting to see if stability and a venue back in city limits brings Charles to a new level of greatness as she advance past a decade’s worth of WNBA experience.
The New Class
The Liberty featured a trio of rookies on their 2018 roster, each bringing their own brand of flair and hype to New York. This experiment of youth in revolt, however, produced mixed results in their first season.
Asia Durr, April’s second overall pick, displayed flashes of brilliance but was limited to 18 games due to injury. Historic second-round choice Han Xu struggled to find a role in the rotation. Marine Johannes came over midseason from Europe but still has plenty to work on.
The trio (should the unrestricted free agent Johannes re-sign) will be in a bit of an awkward position with a new coach, who will undoubtedly seek to insert their own players and tendencies in the roster. Durr’s return will be particularly intriguing, as the former Louisville Cardinal began the offseason with a successful surgery. She quickly found a role in the starting lineup as a rookie, but it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of her role if the Liberty use their newfound Brooklyn powers to lure in a prestigious veteran guard like Angel McCoughtry or Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Meanwhile, Han made her case for more playing time en route to a silver medal for China after a strong showing at the Asia Cup competition in Bangalore, leading the proceedings in blocks (2.6 per game) and reaching the all-tournament team. Han displayed confidence once the Liberty’s elimination was ensured (she brushed off concerns about guarding Liz Cambage by declaring “I’m tall too”), but her relatively thin frame and struggles to help out on defense were concerning. Improving her strength and fitness will be vital this offseason.
New York’s recent struggles have caused many to forget that, as little as two years ago, this team was routinely topping the Eastern Conference. A pair of familiar faces from those squads made their case to be building blocks for the future.
If Smith leaves one part of her legacy behind in New York, it should be her work with Amanda Zahui B. The former second overall pick came to the city when Smith was still an assistant in 2016. At that time, Zahui B. was part of the last stand of the Tulsa Shock, traded to the Liberty after a mere single season. Under Smith’s watch, she became a vital part of the rotation, culminating with a consistent role in the starting lineup this season. Averages of 8.6 points and 6.3 rebounds were new career-highs, which became big when Kiah Stokes opted to sit out there year for personal reasons. Additionally, Zahui B became a mentor to fellow interior women Han and Reshanda Gray.
Elsewhere, Rebecca Allen made her own brand of personal history. She initially struggled to gain minutes under both Smith and Bill Laimbeer, but she made the most of several players’ departure for EuroBasket this summer. New career-highs awaited her in 2019, soothing the blow of the forced Durr departure.
Both Zahui B. and Allen, locker neighbors and close friends off the court, were signed last season. The Liberty’s confidence rewarded, both appear to be destined to play a role in the team’s future.
It’s not like the Liberty were looking for excuses. After all, Charles remarked at the beginning the year that if the exodus to Westchester County Center was the team’s biggest issue, the team would’ve been perfectly fine on the road.
The team’s lack of stability was finally solved. A new era can begin. How will New York respond?
2019 was an improvement over the previous year, even if the increase in wins left something to be desired. But the Liberty aren’t at a point where the potential insertion of Ionescu makes them the team to beat again. Much to learn, New York still has, especially on the defensive end. Too many games were lost thanks to a failure to get a stop in crucial times. In fact, a buzzer beater from Teaira McCowan on opening night perhaps set the tone for a tough year ahead.
This season was the year of emerging building blocks. Kia Nurse was another such arrival, making her first All-Star appearance and partaking in the three-point competition. Zahui B and Allen were veterans that reclaimed the narratives on their respective careers. Charles had some struggles with shooting, but continued to do Tina Charles things.
Difficult as it was, the Liberty earned stability, the greatest victory of all. Now, the time has finally come to make the most of it. Time will tell if they’re able to capitalize.
Top Moments of 2019
The Liberty’s unofficial Brooklyn debut came in a May exhibition against the Chinese national team. Appropriately, it was Han who played heroine in a come-from-behind victory. She opened the Barclays era with the first points of the ball game and shared the 19-point scoring lead with Nurse. The Liberty won the game by an 89-71 final.
New York lost top assistant coach Charmin Smith in the middle of the season when she returned to Berkeley to take Cal’s head coaching position. The Liberty sent her off the perfect way via a 69-68 win over Dallas on June 28. A pair of Golden Bears bid farewell to Smith in perfect fashion. Gray had a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, while Brittany Boyd added seven assists and rebounds each.
-Durr-Nurse Is On Call
A glimpse of the Liberty’s possible future was on perfect display during a June win over Minnesota. Nurse and Durr united for 46 points, allowing the Liberty to start an early winning streak via a 75-69 win. Three days prior, the Liberty ended the longest losing streak in franchise history with an 88-78 win over Las Vegas.
-Queen of Queens
In addition to adding filmmaker to her resume this season, Charles wasted no time in becoming the all-time leading scorer in Liberty history, using a 21-point performance against Los Angeles on June 4 to pass up Vickie Johnson. Prior to the season’s tip-off, Charles unveiled Charlie’s Records at the Tribeca Film Festival, her directorial debut that centered on her father Rawlston’s New York-based record store.
-Back in the New York Groove
The Liberty fell to the Seattle Storm by an 84-69 final on August 11, but it still presented the biggest win the franchise has had in awhile. A crowd of 7,715 gathered that afternoon to watch the Liberty take on the defending champions, a number that would’ve ranked fourth in 2019 league averages. A city that worships basketball came out to watch one of its most prestigious teams. within city limits…who’d have thunk it!
-The Amanda Show
New York resiliency reached its peak in a June 15 visit to Los Angeles. The team was reeling from a brutal loss in Las Vegas less than 24 hours prior, but a historic performance from Zahui B rendered concerns null. She quickly busted her career-best in scoring in the first half and led a New York comeback effort with 37 points, the single-best scoring effort in the entire league this season. Nurse put the finishing touches on the 98-92 road win with 26 points, 15 of which came from the foul line to set a new team record.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490