Why go to Times Square to see one ball drop in December when you can see several drop through a Brooklyn-based hoop over the summer? Women’s basketball fans in New York City are finally faced with such an opportunity again as 2021 saw the New York Liberty return to action within city limits. The Liberty commenced their first year as Brooklyn lodgers in style, welcoming in WNBA honorees Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard and future WNBA All-Rookie Team reps Michaela Onyenwere (the league’s eventual Rookie of the Year) and DiDi Richards. With the newcomers uniting with surging sophomore Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty ended a three-year playoff drought and took the eventual WNBA finalists to the brink in Phoenix during the single-elimination first round.
Now that they are back in the proper metropolitan area, the Liberty’s most recent endeavors in their newfound stability have suggested that they’re not going to be satisfied with a mere playoff berth anymore. The team recently parted ways with head coach Walt Hopkins and hired championship supervisor Sandy Brondello.
Armed with newfound confidence after last year’s events, what else can the Liberty work on as they venture into a new year? Pop another bottle of champagne and investigate with Winsidr through a series of New York New Year’s resolutions
1. Bring Back Bec
The Liberty’s 25th anniversary celebration brought back several Madison Square Garden performers. One, in fact, resided on the active roster: Bec Allen.
The Victoria-born “Spida” is the lone active remnant from the team’s Tina Charles era, having lingered on the New York roster since 2015 (pausing to opt out of the Bradenton Bubble in 2020). Allen struggled to earn consistent minutes over her first four seasons but came into her own in 2019. Further energized by championship endeavors in Spain, Allen put in the best season of her WNBA career in 2021, averaging a personal best 9.2 ppg and 1.6 spg (the latter ranking fourth best in the league). So, of course, she’s destined to be a free agent this year.
Allen’s skill set, which is centered on tenacious defense and well-developed outside shooting abilities, fits in perfectly with what it takes to succeed in the modern Association, so she’ll undoubtedly attract attention from the Liberty’s domestic foes. But the Liberty should do everything in their power to extend her tour in seafoam, especially with Brondello—who worked with Allen during Australia’s most recent Olympic and World Cup endeavors—taking over as the team’s next sideline supervisor.
2. Stiff the Fifth
Liberty fans would often include the draft lottery among their winter holidays, but that tradition came to an end with the aforementioned playoff appearance. The Liberty are currently situated in the fifth slot in the 2022 WNBA Draft, but they probably shouldn’t linger there.
New York’s current group is bursting with potential. Jazmine Jones, who is set to enter her third season, seems tailor-made to be a lasting contributor. Onyenwere and Richards could’ve faded into the background with so many marquee veteran acquisitions, but instead, they became indispensable in a playoff run.
Hope and potential undoubtedly define the Liberty’s future thanks in part to the “hybrid rebuild” overseen by general manager Jonathan Kolb and CEO Keia Clarke. But some painful roster decisions are likely on the horizon, including decisions that could bid farewell to some of the foundational acquisitions made over the last two seasons (one such player, 2020’s ninth overall pick Megan Walker, is already gone). If it were up to management, they’d like to keep all of them, but the return of valuable assets—like Marine Johannès (an international star that has sat out the last two seasons), Jocelyn Willoughby (who missed all of last season with an Achilles injury) and Asia Durr (2019’s second overall pick who’s planning to return from a lasting case of COVID-19)—will likely force their hand.
The Liberty seem serious about trying to break through to the WNBA’s penthouse, which is currently occupied by Connecticut, Las Vegas, Minnesota, Seattle and Chicago. At this point in time, it feels like the Liberty would be much better off developing the young, elite talent on their roster rather than trying to work with something new. Jumping to the top of the standings immediately might be too optimistic, but the time feels right for the Liberty to make a seismic shift that will put them on the elevator toward the W’s top-heavy, lofty heights.
It’s time to stop relying on the draft and shift the pick over for an asset that could help push the team over the edge. If they wind up picking fifth this spring, they better have a good reason.
3. Accept (Retained) Assistance
Change and turnover have defined the Liberty’s recent history, and with Hopkins now gone after two seasons, the coaching spot is no exception. However, when it comes to the Liberty’s growing expectations, salvation could lie within.
There’s no word on the fate of a majority of Hopkins’ assistant staff, but there’s no doubt they left a sizable impact on the current foundation. Jacki Gemelos is the only one spoken for, having accepted the director of client services and marketing position at the Disrupt the Game agency. While it stings that Gemelos won’t immediately continue her coaching career after she built a strong rapport with the Liberty players she faced in the Bradenton Bubble, she was nonetheless rewarded with a big opportunity. Plus, the leftovers could be part of the solution that pushes the Liberty over the top.
Shelley Patterson and Dustin Gray joined Hopkins on the bench last season and each brings their own set of unique advantages to the table. Patterson knows what it’s like to build a winning program from the ground up, having worked with Cheryl Reeve as she developed the Minnesota Lynx. Gray’s resume isn’t quite as expansive as Patterson’s, but the younger players sang his praises as a talent nurturer. His work with Richards was particularly impressive, helping her add a shooting aspect to her game even though she was drafted primarily for her defensive abilities.
Management often likes to make a clean sweep of the staff when hiring a new boss, but retaining at least one of Patterson and/or Gray to support Brondello could work to the Liberty’s benefit.
4. Assess the Big Picture
Kiah Stokes’ in-season departure and Howard’s nearly season-long injury issues made last year a bit of a mulligan for the Liberty’s interior game. They’re hinting that they can make things work by shooting the problem away, but the coming months are a perfect time to address and improve the situation in the paint.
New York ranked 11th in offensive boards and tied for 10th in overall rebounds last season. Some of those lost boards deterred their capture of an elusive home playoff game.
The Liberty likely expect to have Howard back at full strength next season, but things get a little murkier from there on out. Kylee Shook (6’4”) could remain a long-term project for the next staff, while Leaonna Odom (6’2”) was one of the bubble’s best-kept secrets—particularly on defense—but struggled to find a spot in the rotation after coming back from injury. Han Xu, a fan favorite and another two-year international holdout, could also be considered.
New York could also seek help from elsewhere. However, picking someone up from free agency could prove difficult. Some of the top names (i.e. Jonquel Jones) have been cored, and before you ask, it’s unlikely the Liberty will try to stage a Tina Charles reunion. Stefanie Dolson is perhaps the best interior name the Liberty could contact, with Elizabeth Williams in the runner-up slot. As mentioned previously, the Liberty need a good reason to keep the fifth overall pick, but retaining the draft selection could be justified if New York uses that development energy on a paint threat, like Mississippi’s Shakira Austin or Oregon’s Nyara Sabally.
Potential reigns in New York as the Liberty have made no secrets on what they believe their future holds through the hiring of Brondello. But what must follow is a carefully tinkered offseason that allows the team to fully work with and maximize its potential. The choices New York makes can fuel athletic dynasties or exacerbate failure and disappointment. Some of the Liberty’s most crucial battles could be fought long before the ball touches Barclays Center’s hardwood.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags