Bidding Walt Hopkins farewell hints that the New York Liberty have finally had enough of mere franchise stability.
The field of professional sports is likely the only career arena where one’s accomplishments and title can place them beyond the top one percent of their respective profession but not above the relatable fear of a performance review. Merciless as it is rewarding, the professional sports environment likely becomes even more unforgiving in a league that has been trapped at a dozen teams since 2010 and is eager to make an impact on and off the playing surface despite numerous challenges, some of a systemic nature.
Walt Hopkins found this out the hard way on Monday, Dec. 6.
Fresh off leading the New York Liberty to their first playoff appearance since 2017, which might as well be an eternity in the packed WNBA playoffs, Hopkins and the team parted ways, ending his two-year term at the metropolitan helm. The aftermath has been relatively quiet, but the team has hinted that Hopkins and management came to a mutual decision.
In recent years, the Liberty have managed to beat the WNBA’s December doldrums. Last Christmas came three weeks early when the spirits at Ernst & Young gifted New York with the top pick of the 2021 WNBA Draft. Following the fortuitous bounce of the ping-pong balls, general manager Jonathan Kolb predicted that the chilly evening wouldn’t be “the only night we’re going to be in the news over the next few months.”
A dozen flips of the calendar later, things are hotter than ever.
As the 2021 season and the Liberty’s debut as full-time Barclays Center residents neared, Kolb kept his receipt and wound up exchanging the top pick that, along with some 2022 draft picks and Stephanie Talbot, yielded WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb. The team also signed local legend Betnijah Laney (one of C. Vivian Stringer’s Piscataway protégés) and added Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards with a revamped draft lineup. New York cooled down after a torrid 5-1 start but eventually secured that fateful playoff berth. Once the Liberty earned the “x” next to their name, they took perennial contenders and future WNBA finalists from Phoenix to the literal last second during their playoff cameo this fall.
Though the playoffs marched on without the Liberty, they remained one of the most intriguing topics of the 2021 season. The one-point playoff loss at the hands of the Mercury was accompanied by a lingering whisper. Hopkins’ ousting is a blaring warning louder than Liberty fans engaging in the traditional spelling of the team name before the fourth quarter: The hybrid rebuild is over, or the expiration date is at least printed. For this new era of reaping the rewards of the past half-decade of rebuilding and time spent as hardwood nomads, Hopkins was deemed non-essential.
Whether Hopkins’ tenure ending is fair or not is a discussion for another day as an uncomfortable—yet reassuring—truth lingers in the aftermath: Hopkins did his job and what was asked of him. Technically speaking, the Liberty went through 2020’s Bradenton bubble endeavor with eight rookies, including Hopkins himself as the New York gig was his first professional head coaching job. In essence, he and the Liberty’s young building blocks grew up together, taking their lumps jointly in a two-win showing that built character more than it built a championship.
Hopkins understood the assignment. He knew that wins were going to come beyond the standings column, and they arrived in the form of on-court development. Like his predecessor, Katie Smith, Hopkins had to deal with calamities beyond his control, namely the injury to Sabrina Ionescu, which cut short one of the most anticipated rookie seasons in league history. The Liberty’s international friends from Australia (Rebecca Allen) and France (Marine Johannès) also opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed Asia Durr directly.
In retrospect, the Liberty’s scorching 5-1 start to the 2021 season was perhaps one of the worst (for lack of a better term) things that could’ve happened to the franchise. The first stanza’s ending, during which a returning Ionescu sank the game-winning shot in the team’s Brooklyn debut, would’ve been rejected by the major movie studios for lacking subtlety. It perhaps raised expectations a little too fast. Even though the Liberty ended their playoff drought, the true progress came in the WNBA’s All-Rookie listings, which featured Onyenwere and Richards. Jazmine Jones, the final pick of 2020’s first round, also made great strides during the Liberty’s 2021 campaign.
The transition away from Hopkins suggests that statistical and developmental awards are not going to be enough to call the season a success anymore.
On the aforementioned lottery night, Kolb defined the unusual, yet carefully planned and executed, rebuild as one “where we can be super competitive right now while bringing along the future of the Liberty down the road.” Hopkins played his role in this endeavor. A rare post to his Instagram story even hinted at his bittersweet role in the construction of a contender. Three minutes before the Liberty made the announcement, Hopkins invoked Indian poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore and the following quote: “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”
The outgoing Hopkins won’t enjoy the extended, refreshing shade created by the Liberty’s young core. New York has instead declared it’s time for something more, something they can work with in the immediate future.
It’s difficult to fully assess the future of the Liberty with the presumed storm of free agency looming, but this new job opening may be one of the most sought after and valuable in recent WNBA history. The de facto second year of the Ionescu era is on the horizon. The sharp-shooting antics of Laney and Whitcomb are here to stay as are rookie team reps Onyenwere and Richards. The Baylor alum Richards’ development is particularly intriguing thanks to her newfound shooting prowess after first arriving in New York as a defensive specialist. Time will tell if the free agent Allen returns along with the international talent of Johannès. The next coach will also presumably get to work with a healthy Howard and Jocelyn Willoughby (a presumed starter before an Achilles tear ended her season before it started), even if Durr isn’t ready to take on full basketball activities (though she has publicly declared her intentions to return).
The Hopkins departure confirms, or at least strongly implies, that the Liberty saw him as a coach of development, not unlike what their brother squad in the NBA had in the Kenny Atkinson-to-Steve Nash transition. If anything, the developmental work Hopkins has done in New York could probably help him find a job elsewhere, especially to a team racked with young projects (a spot on fellow former New Yorker Vickie Johnson’s staff in Dallas, perhaps?). But he’s not part of what the Liberty have in mind going forward.
So a pressing question remains: If not Hopkins, who is the right person to coach the Liberty into the future? The timing hints that the Liberty aren’t going to just offer the position to a rising assistant like the Atlanta Dream did with the hire of former New Yorker Tanisha Wright. The fact that the Liberty did this in the quiet period of December and not immediately after the end of the postseason shows that they’ve thought about this process and there’s a plan to make things right. Could it be franchise legend Teresa Weatherspoon, currently stationed in an NBA job in New Orleans, back in Brooklyn on a quest to obtain a ring denied by the Houston Comets? One of Hopkins’ assistants, be it the tenured Shelley Patterson or the respected Jacki Gemelos or Dustin Gray, could rise to the occasion. The latter two strike the naked eye as no different than Hopkins, but a recent on-court retiree like Gemelos could be particularly intriguing. A pair of Opals are poised to lead the Liberty into the future, and in what could purely be irony, their national team’s head coach, Sandy Brondello, was let go alongside Hopkins on Dec. 6.
But the Hopkins departure is undoubtedly a move that pushes the Liberty closer toward “win-now” mode, which is perhaps a sign of pent-up frustration that they’re tired of watching from the outside as the WNBA’s top franchises battle deep into the playoffs for a championship. As another famous young New Yorker was told, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That responsibility awaits the partly lucky and partly brave soul offered the Liberty job.
Playoff appearances? All-Rookie nominations? It’s not 2020 anymore.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags