New York Liberty: What can be expected?

The New York Liberty are embarking on a “hybrid rebuild.” Does that include, say a trip to the playoffs? Winsidr does an (early) investigation. 

Merriam-Webster is constantly updating its renowned dictionary. Among the terms added in January are “cancel culture”, “crowdfunding”, and “hard pass”. The definition of “bubble” was updated to include an explanation of the enclosures throughout the worlds of sports as leagues first fought their way through the ongoing health crisis, like the WNBA’s setting in Bradenton. 

Alas for the New York Liberty, there is no definition for “hybrid rebuild”.

General manager Jonathan Kolb entered the term into the Liberty lexicon after the team unwrapped an early Christmas gift in December, albeit one they eventually exchanged. Back then, the Liberty had drawn the top pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft, the second straight year their name topped the initial draft board. 

“We have a really exciting opportunity to kind of have a hybrid rebuild…where we can be super competitive right now while bringing along the future of the Liberty down the road,” Kolb said after the ping pong balls bounced the Liberty’s way. “So that’s what we’re going to try to do. We have a plan, and we’ll see how it goes.”

The pessimistic observer could’ve initially dismissed Kolb’s words as bureaucracy from a general manager trying to soothe a fanbase no doubt annoyed by winning only 19 games over the past three seasons. But when the next steps of Kolb’s plan were revealed in the ensuing weeks, it was clear that he was working on something to get one of the WNBA’s charter franchises back on the path to the promised land. 

Part one of the process involved welcoming in Betnijah Laney, the Most Improved Player from the Bradenton bubble. Later, having kept the receipt from lottery night, the top pick was shipped out west to Seattle (who later dealt it to Dallas) in exchange for Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb. The list of sacrifices in the return to respectability was updated with All-Star Kia Nurse and early draft entrant Megan Walker going to Phoenix, joining former franchise face Tina Charles (who is officially situated in Washington). 

That ledger may soon be updated, as the Liberty still have some roster juggling to do, especially because their name still appears on the first-round draft board in the sixth slot (acquiring the choice from the aforementioned Mercury). The inspiring story of Amanda Zahui B. in New York, a former second overall pick who reclaimed the narrative on her WNBA career after a rocky start in Tulsa, likewise ended. In the hullabaloo of Howard and Whitcomb’s arrival, Zahui B. inked a new deal with the Los Angeles Sparks. 

Nonetheless, the Liberty appear to have finally found the stairs out of the WNBA cellar. Suddenly, a team that was forced to dress seven rookies during the Bradenton excursion has championship panache as they prepare to (presumably) make their full-time Brooklyn entry. When the return of Sabrina Ionescu—trapped in de facto hibernation since leaving her third career WNBA contest with an injury—is arguably the third-biggest move of the offseason, you know you’ve done something right. 

The moves to bring in Laney, Howard, and Whitcomb fulfill a promise that Kolb made to the Liberty’s loud and loyal fanbase on lottery night. 

“The fans that have been ride or die with this since 1997 deserve this,” Kolb said of the Liberty’s offseason lucky. “I think if you really look at the trajectory of this franchise, where it’s going from an ownership standpoint, a front office standpoint, coaching standpoint, now a player acquisition standpoint, this is exciting. It’s an exciting time to be a fan.”

Despite the maneuvering and navigating of Kolb, as well as the strong assistance of head coach Walt Hopkins and CEO Keia Clarke, an offseason of answers has given rise to a new list of questions. The primary quandary…now what? 

True transparency is often rare from the powers that be in professional sports, but Kolb’s promises of a hybrid rebuild, uncanny as the concept may be, was a welcome open look. After bringing in Howard and Whitcomb and their combined five championship rings, no parade down the Canyon of Heroes (empty to ticker-tape since 2012, save for the return of the United States’ women’s soccer team after their World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019) was immediately planned. There’s a sense of grounding to these moves. Sure, experts have likely shuffled their predictions in their WNBA season previews, but the consensus remains that the Liberty probably don’t have the firepower to infiltrate the Association’s top-heavy penthouse just yet, even if some members (cough, Los Angeles) seem poised for eviction. 

Howard, Laney, and Whitcomb join a team that was starving for veteran leadership. The seven-rookie lineup was born out of necessity when some members of the Liberty’s United Nations council of veterans (Rebecca Allen, Marine Johannès, Han Xu) understandably opted out of the bubble proceedings in the wake of the ongoing health crisis. Things were far easier to predict for the Liberty’s immediate future, and they weren’t pretty, at least in the standings. The Liberty finished a bubble-worst 2-20, with all but six of those losses coming by double-figures. 

Hopkins knew going in that wins would have to be found in places other than the scoreboard. 

“(We’ll) focus on growth, focus on collusion, getting good at a handful of things,” Hopkins said going into the season. “It’s about growth, individual growth. It’s about small victories, celebrating when the players get out of their comfort zone…the more uncomfortable we’re willing to be, I think the more growth we’ll see.”

Plenty of progress was made with the young group even without Ionescu. The breakout of All-Rookie team nominee Jazmine Jones was particularly inspiring, as the Louisville alumna filled in admirably in a point guard role she hadn’t played since her high school days at Florida A&M’s Developmental Research School. Second-round standout Leaonna Odom transformed into a reliable defender and edged closer to becoming essential with awkward roster decisions potentially still looming. 

As a result, Kolb remarked that there were definitely positives to take away from the bubble, telling WFAN’s Danielle McCartan that he highly disagreed with the idea from some outlets that the endeavor was a “lost season”.

“What we got to see was the beginning of a group coming together,” Kolb said of 2020. “I really do think we achieved that. We’re fast-forwarding a little bit, but we’re still keeping a majority of those players from last season in terms of the youth. Now we’re going to be able to put those players in competitive basketball games.” 

Set to finally experience some form of franchise stability in Brooklyn, the Liberty, without a doubt, got better since the bubble was popped. In addition to their newcomers from afar, New York brass appears convinced that at least some of their foreign friends, namely Australian Opal Rebecca Allen, will return to the metropolitan area. A tenacious defender who has no hesitance to start shooting from the outside, Allen might well have been born to partake in a Hopkins system. 

The concept of a “baby vet” left with Nurse and Zahui B., as Layshia Clarendon and Kiah Stokes (the latter being the sole survivor of the “baby vet” dwelling on the IMG Academy campus) now have some assistance and can lead and guide while probably serving in more appropriate reserve roles. Other potential returnees from the rookie class include Jocelyn Willoughby and Kylee Shook, each of whom displayed Floridian flashes of brilliance. 

Yet, there is no rush to start popping champagne bottles just yet. While Hopkins continuously reiterated his excitement—the idea of veterans Howard and Allen playing defense on the same side with some of the youngsters has him feeling “like (a kid) in a candy store”—he hinted that wins still might not be the ultimate scale on which the team should be judged and analyzed. 

“In terms of expectations, it’s a day-by-day thing. You take care of the controllable factors…the wins are a byproduct of that,” Hopkins said after Howard/Whitcomb trade. Speaking with McCartan, he reiterated that the immediate future is “about seeing what we can do on a day-to-day basis, stay together in terms of building a system, building a culture, treating one another in a way that matters to us and keep our eyes on that. The wins are a byproduct of fully buying into the day-to-day process. I know it’s a buzzword right now, the ‘trust the process’ stuff but it’s something I live my life by.”

The bigger win for the Liberty now appears to be the establishment of that new metropolitan culture. 

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In the eyes of some, it might be a miracle that the Liberty franchise is still standing, at least in its current New York settings. After wrapping up a three-year stretch (2015-17) where they enjoyed prosperity through an Eastern Conference-best 66 wins, the good times abruptly ended when the Madison Square Garden Company put the Liberty up for sale prior to the 2018 season and moved them away from the eponymous building save for two summer matinees. 

Those happenings—forced eviction and emancipation from an NBA arena and brother—are often the first step in the relocation process or even the telltale signs of a coming fold. Through the efforts of the Kolb-Clarke duology (as well as a helping hand from Brooklyn Nets ownership), the Liberty got back to the city. But the year 2020 A.D. had little regard for their best-laid plans and not only forced the Florida relocation but took away some of their most beloved names through logistics, illness, and injuries. 

But set to firmly replant their NYC footprint through a newly minted partnership with Barclays Center, the Liberty are giving a city that worships a roundball deity reason to hope again, especially with other squads leaving much to be desired. The Nets, while revitalized, have yet to reach a conference finals series in their Brooklyn incarnation, while the Knicks have won only a single playoff set since 2001. Even reliable college fare like Syracuse and St. John’s have failed to live up to their standards in recent years. 

But now that they’re back within city limits and restocked through both new and familiar faces, the Liberty have their sights set on off-court wins through the formation of a rebooted New York culture. Howard and Whitcomb each played witness to the start of such a process in August 2019, when the Liberty hosted Seattle in front of thousands of new fans. The official tally (7,715) would’ve ranked fourth compared to average 2019 attendance outputs. Each of the three teams ahead of them (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Minnesota) advanced to the playoffs and held established residencies in NBA arenas. 

“I want Liberty fans to know I am a hard worker, I play my role, I do my part, I play good defense, I run the floor, I encourage my teammates,” Howard said of the role she wishes to play in the new culture. “I try to push (teammates) to the next level, make them uncomfortable, (teach them) something that they don’t know how to do. I just want to be that type of person that my teammates can trust and lean on and I got plenty more stuff to show the Liberty fans as well that nobody else has seen at all.”

“We’re all going to be starting brand new together…we’re going to be on this new journey of getting New York back to the winning ways and the good culture. It’s all of us. I hope we’re all leading in different areas,” Whitcomb concurred. “People tend to assume that the leadership role comes from vets and older players. But the exciting part of this group is…I see leadership in our younger players as well. I’m excited to see who naturally develops and grows into those roles.” 

The culture change can be readily viewed—or more appropriately, heard—through the city’s infamously cutthroat world of sports talk radio. The legendary airwaves of WFAN, often reserved for those in charge of the Giants, Yankees, or Nets, were dealt to Kolb and Hopkins, who were welcomed in by McCartan after the acquisitions were made official. 

There, Kolb made it clear that, like many buildings in the city, the renovations are not yet complete. The rebuild is set to continue, but after sowing young talent through the nether regions of the WNBA for three seemingly endless seasons, the Liberty may finally be ready to reap, all while growing toward a hopeful future. 

“What’s really important is that we’re still building,” Kolb said. “We’re going to look to not necessarily have a one-year fix. We’re not going to plug somebody because we (supposedly) need that (postseason) spot this year. It’s going to be with a forward-thinking approach.” 

“I know that’s not the finite answer, but it’s really the truth. We’re going to find the best person for us going forward for the long-term.” 

 

On Twitter @GeoffJMags

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