On the opening night of their season, the New York Liberty rewarded a large Barclays Center crowd with a stunning upset of the Connecticut Sun. Both teams were short-handed, sure, but the effort from New York was there all game long, overcoming an early double-digit deficit with a counterpunch composure that the seafoam squad could rarely harness last season.
“When we talk about what we want our identity to be,” Jocelyn Willoughby said, “the words we use are energy and grit. We knew they’d be physical, so we wanted to be physical, too. We don’t want to be on our heels.”
Sami Whitcomb echoed those exact same sentiments. “We want to be gritty. We want to be tough. We want to be fearless.”
In just a few weeks time, all the good will earned from that victory has been siphoned away. Following a four-game losing streak in a week’s time—with two blowout defeats of 27 points or more—the Liberty are looking up at every team in the W. Tuesday night’s tight defeat to the Minnesota Lynx has planted them solely in last place. They’ve struggled in all facets: offense, defense, rebounding, ball security. How, after that hot start in the opener, did we get here?
Inconsistent Availability and Depleted Rotations
While many were surprised by that victory, I’m here to add some context that will make that win even more improbable. There were a few late arrivals expected: they knew Stef Dolson would miss a majority of training camp, just as they were aware of Bec Allen’s belated availability. Less anticipated were injuries to DiDi Richards, Betnijah Laney, and Kylee Shook (whose contract was later suspended for the season) and a wave of illness that made players unavailable for a stretch.
New York canceled their one scheduled preseason game, instead running a scrimmage for fans with an interesting lineup: Han Xu, Natasha Howard, Lorela Cubaj, AD, and Sabrina Ionescu. The following practice, I asked Brondello whether there was strategy involved in that three-big look, especially with that large Connecticut frontcourt queued up to tip off the year. She laughed. “We only had five, so there you go. Tash was at the three.”
Ten players participated in New York’s final practice before the season started, the first time the team achieved that number since cuts were made. Laney, out at the time with the knee injury that would sideline her for the opener, sat at midcourt while two full teams rotated in and out defensively.
By the time the Liberty suited up for game two in Chicago, only Richards remained out. Following the elevated expectations from their opening win, this was a prime spot to make some noise, especially with Laney—their 2021 All-Star—returning to the lineup and the defending champs still missing key contributors, including Kahleah Copper and Allie Quigley. Instead, the Liberty struggled to finish offensively from the jump, and those frustrations carried over to the defensive end. By the time the final buzzer sounded, it was a 33-point win for the Chicago Sky, 83-50, and the only player to notch double figures in scoring was Han Xu, who finished with 10 points in just nine minutes.
After that L, they were back home for three more: an overtime loss to the Indiana Fever in which they were outrebounded 57-33 and couldn’t overcome a one-for-15 night from Howard; a disappointing double-digit defeat to the Dallas Wings in a Sunday matinee; and a blowout revenge game from the now fully-loaded Sun, who forced the Liberty into a franchise-worst 32 turnovers, just one off the all-time league mark.
More bad injury luck followed, with both Laney (right knee) and rookie Lorela Cubaj (concussion protocol) joining Richards and Willoughby on the injured list ahead of a road trip. Before Tuesday’s game at Minnesota, head coach Sandy Brondello ruled Laney out for the entirety of the three-game set away from home.
Reinforcing the Backcourt
During that tight stretch of games, Richards returned to the lineup for all of four minutes before reaggravating her hamstring injury (now out indefinitely), and Willoughby partially tore her quad (out for six weeks). With those two injuries classified as long-term, New York is entitled to a hardship contract. Enter Crystal Dangerfield.
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) May 21, 2022
What makes the 2020 Rookie of the Year such a valuable addition? “She’s a pure point guard,” Brondello said. “We don’t have a pure point guard. It [hasn’t been] fair to Sab [Ionescu], because she’s more of a combo guard, but it’s by committee now. We try to get it so that if the best defender is on someone, that person doesn’t bring it up. We’re still trying to learn how to flow into it.” Brondello mentioned Laney and Whitcomb, two other ball-handlers that have helped Ionescu in the backcourt, but noted that it’s not their primary area of expertise either.
On the year, New York is turning the ball over 18.7 times per contest, ahead of only the Atlanta Dream. Even if one were to make the argument that the number is inflated by the Connecticut contest, heading into Tuesday night, New York’s fewest turnovers in a game was 15; six teams in the W average better than that mark. (The 13 miscues against the Lynx helped them climb from last place.) In terms of assist-to-turnover ratio, the Liberty (0.94) and the Atlanta Dream (0.75) are the only franchises that are below the 1.00 mark; the Las Vegas Aces pace the league with a 1.73 ratio. Dangerfield’s career 1.80 ratio will be an immediate—and significant—boost to New York.
The Liberty also hope that Dangerfield will be able to help them push the pace, as they’re currently just sixth in the league, averaging 80.73 possessions per 40 minutes. For Dangerfield to truly help the offense succeed in transition, she’ll need to recapture the efficiency from her rookie season, in which she shot 47.1 percent from the floor. That dropped off to just 38.8 percent last year, in a turbulent campaign that saw her lose her starting point guard position and saw her floor time cut in half (from 30.0 minutes per game to just 20.1).
As a passer, Dangerfield is not the flashiest, but that’s a good thing for New York, who sometimes eschews the simple pass for the difficult one. “We’ve got to stop making touchdown passes,” Brondello said after practice the other day. “Keep it simple. When you see two, you’ve got to move it. You’ve got to fill.”
The hope is that adding Dangerfield’s skill set will put others into more advantageous positions. Here are six different assists from Dangerfield, all setting teammates up in a variety of ways.
1. A simple pick-and-pop with Alanna Smith for an open three. Watch her run this with Howard, Allen, or Laney.
2. After a steal, Dangerfield pushes pace. With the defense still backpedaling, she finds an open Aerial Powers trailing for a top-of-the-key three.
3. A smooth two-man game with Damiris Dantas. She recognizes the trap coming after Dantas slips, and Dangerfield hits her in the shooting pocket with a crisp bounce pass. Easy midrange make.
4. Another bounce pass here, this time off a pick-and-roll with Sylvia Fowles. Ionescu and Howard execute this well together already, so Dangerfield already has a partner ready to rim run.
5. Despite standing just 5’5”, Dangerfield throws a perfect lob pass over the fronting defense to Fowles. Dolson and Xu have both shown themselves to be strong sealers if an opponent is too aggressive over the top.
6. Again, it’s defense into offense. Following a miss, Dangerfield quickly recognizes Kayla McBride ahead, and she lofts a lead pass, allowing K-Mac the space and time to rise and fire.
There’s a possibility guard Marine Johannès will come over after France’s finals conclude (as early as June 4 in a sweep, as late as June 9 if it goes all five games). Once that happens, if New York decides to bring her over, they’ll likely need to make a roster cut.
Getting Beat Up on the Boards
For the Liberty to rebound, they’re going to have to, well, rebound. This was a major issue last season for New York, often playing with an undersized 4, like Michaela Onyenwere or Allen. The hope was that the added size of Dolson, Xu, and Cubaj would help them secure missed shots with more frequency. To this point, that hasn’t been the case, as they rank last with 31.0 rebounds per game (RPG) and, in grabbing just 44.8 percent of total rebounds, they’re last by nearly three percentage points.
“We’re not the biggest team,” Brondello said. “Rebounding is by committee. It’s not just the post players.”
Sabrina Ionescu echoed those same thoughts. “Everybody has to get on the boards,” she said. “Everybody has to do their job and box out. It’s more of a team effort than an individual effort. It’s on all of us, not just the bigs.”
Last season, Ionescu (5.7 RPG) and Whitcomb (5.0 RPG) set career-highs in rebounding. The challenge with the guards crashing is that nobody is leaking out for easy transition baskets. To this point, they’re tied for 10th with 7.2 fast break points, while also surrendering a league-high 16.2 points in transition. On average, that’s nine points a night that New York is chasing (in more ways than one).
“On misses, we should look to run with opportunity,” Brondello said. “It’s the little details we need to tidy up. You’ve got to get out of your head sometimes and hang in there.”
The week off allowed the team to shake the rough stretch of losses and reset their mental focus. While the tough loss to the Lynx lengthened the losing skid, there were indications of progress: the team looked more composed, and they overcame a poor defensive start and 13-point early deficit to take control for most of the second half. In the end, they didn’t get the victory, but the Liberty showed some of that grit and toughness that they want to be their identity. With the injuries piling up and a difficult road trip underway, that’s exactly what this Liberty team needs to do: hang in there.
Unless otherwise noted, stats appear courtesy of WNBA Stats.