Familiar face returns to NY to face old team

By Patrick Ralph

For five seasons, Bill Laimbeer served as the head coach of the New York Liberty. He was also in charge of basketball operations in New York during his first two seasons before his former Detroit Pistons teammate Isiah Thomas was tapped to run the front office.

On Wednesday night, the two-time WNBA Coach of the Year will return to face his old team when the Las Vegas Aces play the Liberty for the first time since the franchise relocated to Sin City.

While the Westchester County Center will serve as a different setting for the game than what Laimbeer became accustomed to at Madison Square Garden during his time in New York, the Aces head coach and general manager is sure to receive a boisterous welcome home from the Liberty faithful on Wednesday.

“It will be great,” said Liberty head coach Katie Smith, who served as an assistant under Laimbeer for four seasons and as his top assistant in his last two seasons in New York. “To have Bill back in New York, I am sure a lot of fans will have fun with him, whether it’s good, bad or booing. He embraces all of that. It will be good to see him in a different role, with another team.”

Laimbeer came to New York in 2013 after coaching eight seasons with the defunct Detroit Shock (now the Dallas Wings) and winning three WNBA titles. He had won Coach of the Year honors once and was widely-considered to be one of the best coaches in the league. The hope would be that Laimbeer could return New York to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2002 and help the team win its first title in franchise history.

Laimbeer’s first two seasons in New York were far from good. The Liberty went a combined 26-42 and finished no better than fifth in the East as New York failed to make the playoffs in both seasons.

Ironically, as Laimbeer was removed from the front office and replaced by Thomas after the 2014 season, things started to click for New York in 2015.

Now serving solely as the head coach, Laimbeer guided the Liberty to the best record in the East at 23-11. His efforts earned him his second Coach of the Year award. However, after eliminating the Washington Mystics in the opening round of the playoffs, the Liberty were sent home by the Indiana Fever in the conference finals.

In his last two seasons in New York, Laimbeer would lead the Liberty to consecutive seasons with the best record in the East. After winning 21 games in 2016, the Liberty jumped back up to 22 wins in 2017.

However, despite earning first round byes in the revamped playoff format, the Liberty were eliminated on their home floor by the Phoenix Mercury and the aforementioned Mystics in both seasons.

This past offseason, as the former San Antonio Stars were sold and relocated to Las Vegas, the Aces’ ownership group chose Laimbeer to lead the franchise on the floor and in the front office as they moved into their new home. After five seasons, Laimbeer’s tenure in New York was over.

Similar to his NBA days as a member of the “Bad Boys” championship teams in Detroit, Laimbeer has always been one to stir up controversy and receive criticism as a coach. While some will look back at his time in New York as a success for getting the team back to the playoffs with the best record in the East for three straight years, others feel that his inability to win in the playoffs with the Liberty has defined his legacy and that his teams could only win in the regular season. Not to mention, many believe that his coaching and style of play have not been adapted or updated enough to the current times of the WNBA, and that the game has simply passed him by.

Thus far, the start that Laimbeer is off to in Las Vegas is not helping his cause and only aiding his critics with ammunition. The Aces were not expected to be a playoff team coming into this season, but Laimbeer is also not known as a coach who is very interested in being part of a rebuild.

Through nine games, the Aces are 2-7 and are only better than the winless Fever so far this season. Most of Las Vegas’ problems reside on the defensive end of the floor, where opponents are scoring a league-high 89 points per game against the Aces. In addition, the Aces also have the lowest three-point percentage (29 percent) and highest opponents’ three-point percentage (36.8 percent) in the WNBA.

But the one bright spot for the Aces has been the play of rookie forward A’ja Wilson, who has catapulted herself into the driver’s seat for Rookie of the Year in the WNBA. This past April’s No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft leads the Aces in points (22 per game), rebounds (8.3 rebounds per game), and blocks (1.3 blocks per game). Both her scoring and rebounding numbers place Wilson sixth in the league.

Las Vegas’ three-point defense will be put to the test on Wednesday night as the Liberty lead the league in three-point attempts this season. In New York’s 78-75 home win over Indiana this past Sunday, the Liberty connected on 13 of their 24 three-point attempts.

Tina Charles will need to be the answer to slowing down Wilson. She leads the team in both points (22.8 points per game) and rebounds ( 8.1 rebounds per game), and her scoring and rebounding totals rank second and fifth in the league. Charles has also put together three double-doubles this season.

Laimbeer will not be the only former member of the Liberty to return on Wednesday night. Centers Carolyn Swords and Kelsey Bone, as well as guard Lindsey Allen, will be facing their former team in White Plains as members of the Aces.

Needless to say, it should be a very interesting night at the Westchester County Center.