What a way to ring in 2022 for the New York Liberty. With fewer than six hours to go in 2021, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that the team would be naming Sandy Brondello as the ninth head coach in franchise history. On Friday, January 7th, a full week later, the team confirmed the reporting and made the announcement official.
It’s official, Libs fam! Join us in welcoming Sandy Brondello as the Liberty’s head coach! 🗽
Visit https://t.co/K3GSgj5F9s for more details. pic.twitter.com/wVjiFIwhCg
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) January 7, 2022
“It is an honor to join the historic New York Liberty franchise and to coach and lead such a talented roster of players,” Brondello said in a statement released by the team. “I owe immense gratitude to the team’s ownership and front office for entrusting me with this important role during such an integral time in the history of the organization. Alongside my family, I’m excited to move to New York City and begin preparations for our upcoming season.”
“We are excited to have Sandy join us,” said Liberty owners Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai. “We ran a thorough search process for the next head coach, and when we met with Sandy in New York, we knew she would bring not only her wealth of experience but also her passion for elevating our star players and developing our young core. We have no doubt Sandy will be that strong voice to set the culture for the New York Liberty to compete at the highest level.”
Brondello’s hiring comes just weeks after New York parted ways with Walt Hopkins, who posted a 14-40 record in his two seasons leading the huddle. Brondello, whose contract was shockingly not renewed by the Phoenix Mercury following a WNBA Finals appearance.
Brondello called Phoenix home for the majority of her WNBA head coaching career, aside from a one-season stint helming the San Antonio Silver Stars. She spent the last eight seasons with the Mercury, leading the team to a title in 2014. Per Across the Timeline, Brondello’s 164 wins rank 10th among WNBA head coaches. Among coaches with at least 50 games under their belt, her 56.2 win percentage ranks 14th.
Brondello has been a part of the W nearly since its inception, playing in the league for five seasons, starting in 1998. Across five seasons—two with the Detroit Shock, two with the Miami Sol, and one with the Seattle Storm—Brondello averaged 11.4 points per game (PPG), and her career 41.0 percent from long range ranks seventh all-time. She was also named to the inaugural All-Star Game in 1999. While the WNBA didn’t exist until the tail end of her career, Brondello was a member of Australia’s national team, the Opals, for 17 years. During that time, she won two bronze medals at four World Championships, as well as two silver medals and a bronze across four Olympic tournaments. Brondello is also a member of the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame.
Big Apple Opals
In addition to her coaching duties in the States, Brondello has also led the Opals since 2017. In 2018, she guided Australia to gold over England in the Commonwealth Games, then secured silver in the 2018 FIBA World Cup, falling to Team USA in the championship game. Later this year, the FIBA World Cup is returning immediately after the WNBA season wraps up; last month, the Opals named an initial roster.
Two names from that list should stand out to Liberty fans. The first is Sami Whitcomb, the sharpshooter who finished second in made-threes last season, while also taking on a veteran leadership role. The second is Bec Allen, the dynamic defender who closed out two New York victories with her wingspan. One of those games, a turnover-fest against the Los Angeles Sparks to commemorate the 25th anniversary, featured two Bec blocks in the waning seconds. The other happened to be against Brondello’s Mercury, when Allen pickpocketed a loose dribble from Skylar Diggins-Smith as time ticked off the clock.
Allen is also one of the Liberty’s two unrestricted free agents (along with Reshanda Gray), and her two-way ability is sure to be in demand in the coming weeks. Will Brondello’s existing relationship with Allen help to encourage a reunion? And, is retaining her the team’s top priority this offseason?
More Action for Natasha Howard?
According to Synergy, Brondello’s Phoenix team compiled the third most efficient offense in 2021, with its mark of .945 points per possession (PPP) trailing only the Las Vegas Aces (.982 PPP) and the Seattle Storm (.956 PPP). A major component of that success was the revitalized play of Brittney Griner, an MVP candidate throughout the season, holding down the paint while Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi created action along the perimeter.
While the last few offseasons have produced tons of surprises and shake-ups, the current construction of the Liberty roster doesn’t carry the same Griner gravity in the paint. While Natasha Howard is a talented scorer around the basket, she is less of a traditional post, relying more on her athleticism than her size. In 2021, Howard ranked in the 44th percentile on post-ups, per Synergy. Her 1.25 PPP around the basket in non-post-ups, though, landed her in the 82nd percentile. It’s worth a reminder, however, that an MCL sprain cost Tash several months, and she had to play her way back into shape (and chemistry), so it’s likely she improves on her still-impressive counting stats. In 13 games, she averaged 16.2 PPG and 7.2 rebounds per game (RPG). Defensively, she ranked in the 99th percentile, surrendering just .598 PPP while holding opponents to 26.1 percent shooting. She was especially disruptive when closing out on jump shooters, who converted just seven of 38 attempts over Howard’s outstretched arms.
To see what kind of actions Brondello could run for Howard, I pored through Carolyn Smalls’ breakdowns of Mercury sets (note, if you’re not following her work on Twitter, fix that as soon as you finish reading this piece!)
The @PhoenixMercury had some great actions in game 2 of the #WNBAFinals, one of them being this stagger shuffle/slice. To me the over flow on the weak side indicates a stagger screen is likely and that’s exactly what happens. @SheyP11 comes off screens from @brittneygriner pic.twitter.com/vnZcnsV9dM
— Carolyn Smalls (@coach__smalls) October 15, 2021
The Liberty ran lots of off-ball action to free up shooters, but not so much for action around the basket (though Hopkins’ five-out system did encourage the freedom to cut through open lanes). The potential of carving out a more consistent role for Howard—or drafting a big that could slide her to the 4—is an exciting development for 2022.
Keep the Core Improving
Last season, Betnijah Laney proved to be everything the Liberty wanted and more, after signing her to a near-max contract in free agency. With Laney coming off a most-improved campaign in the Bradenton bubble’s empty gym, and joining a brand new roster with key pieces showing up late, it was fair to wonder if there would be a level of regression. Any concerns were quickly put to bed, as Laney kicked off her campaign with eight straight games hitting the 20-point benchmark.
In the second half of the season, teams began to bring extra pressure Laney’s way, game-planning against her ability to create off the dribble. Each successive month saw her scoring average dip, from its high point of 22.3 PPG in May all the way down to 9.8 PPG in September. In three matchups against the Connecticut Sun, she scored a total of 18 points, bothered by DeWanna Bonner’s length and the team’s quick switches.
Sabrina Ionescu also had her struggles against double teams, most evident against blitzing teams in the first half of the season that took advantage as she worked back from the ankle injury that cost her the majority of her rookie season. As the Liberty’s primary generators on offense, it makes sense that opponents would be aggressive against the pair.
By season’s end, however, the Liberty’s big three paced the league in the wrong category: Howard (3.8), Laney (3.7), and Ionescu (3.2) turned the ball over more than any player in the league. New York finished dead last in turnovers per game, with 16.9. (Connecticut was next closest at 15.1.) By comparison, Brondello’s Mercury were fifth, averaging 13.7 giveaways per game. For the Liberty, this number was a slight improvement on their unforced errors in 2020, when they surrendered a league-worst 17.8 turnovers a night.
I watched another Carolyn Smalls breakdown that should fit nicely into New York’s playbook. This Phoenix set below shows crisp ball movement out of a double team, with Diggins-Smith quickly finding an outlet when an aggressive hedge turns into a trap. Kia Vaughn’s ability to read the close at the basket, coupled with Griner’s ability to make a wide open shot from the free throw line, could work with the Liberty’s current personnel.
The @PhoenixMercury had a huge win last night with their big 3, @DianaTaurasi, @SkyDigg4 and @brittneygriner all contributing big numbers. Diggins-Smith drifts to the corner to create more space and set up the DHO with Kia Vaughn. The @LVAces defense double Diggins-Smith pic.twitter.com/8pNufz7hiS
— Carolyn Smalls (@coach__smalls) October 1, 2021
While Michaela Onyenwere, who spent the majority of her rookie season starting at the 4, didn’t play much in the pick-and-roll, she ranked in the 92nd percentile among cutters, according to Synergy, though her ability to convert as an above-average spot-up shooter adds another wrinkle, if used to pick-and-pop. Still, if she’s drawing the opposing center from the paint, Howard is a very capable shooter from midrange (and can even extend out a bit further for the top-of-the-key three.)
An Exciting Free Agency Period
Of course, much can—and likely will—change between now and training camp. All year long, I wear out the Her Hoops Stats team salary cap pages, but let’s take a quick look now at the Liberty’s situation.
As mentioned earlier, New York has two rotation pieces that are unrestricted free agents, in Allen and Gray. With just three protected contracts in Howard, Whitcomb, and Laney, Brondello has some flexibility to mold the roster as she sees fit. As of now, the team has $196,560 (with $69,224 earmarked for the fifth pick in April’s draft). There are many variables here, such as the returns of Asia Durr (after her two-year battle with long-haul COVID), and Jocelyn Willoughby (a likely starter before she tore her ACL during a preseason scrimmage and missed the 2021 season). There are also intriguing overseas options in the mix, including walking highlight reel, Marine Johannès, and the 6’9” Han Xu. Both star in this highlight below.
Some of you haven’t watched enough Marine Johannes highlights, and it shows. @MarineJ5
🎥: @WNBA; @FIBA pic.twitter.com/jhuapTybn9
— WSLAM (@wslam) September 10, 2019
Depending on how much latitude (or liberty, if you will) Brondello has with roster reformation, she and GM Jonathan Kolb could make some noise in the coming weeks, either via free agency or in trade talks. Over his two years as head coach, Walt Hopkins developed a capable young core, and he leaves this team in much better shape than he found it in. Now, with Sandy Brondello patrolling the sidelines, they’re ready to take the next step.