What is New York's State of Mind?
By Isaac Benjamin
After winning the second-most games in the league over the past two years, hopes for the 2017 Liberty were sky high coming into May. For this core, key injuries over the past two years have transformed expectations into excuses. Coach Bill Laimbeer knows all too well how fleeting the window for contention can be from his time playing and coaching in Detroit. Any squad with Tina Charles leading the way is formidable, and with a healthy roster coming into training camp, the Liberty were ready to make the leap from preseason-to-postseason contenders. But the start of the season means closing the door on preseason expectations and a whole new set of excuses…It is too soon to worry about New York’s middling start to the season?
It’s impossible to contextualize this year’s team without understanding what they lost. In March, Tanisha Wright announced she was taking a season-long hiatus. Wright brought more than a veteran presence to the backcourt. She was named to the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team and helped the herculean Charles anchor a defense that allowed a league-best .413 field goal percentage.
With Wright’s announcement, New York knew their guards would have to step up. The Liberty finished first in the East despite their 10th ranked offensive efficiency. Losing Wright hurt but meant the team could abandon plodding offensive sets for a faster pace. The backcourt was so deep that the team released their top 2017 draft pick, Lindsay Allen when cutting the final roster down to 12, One-by-one, this depth has been depleted.
Last year’s trade for Shoni Schimmel ended in disappointment when a concussion concluded her underwhelming season after only 17 games. The team was looking for the 2x All Star to have a comeback year before a preseason announcement that Schimmel would not be playing this year because of personal reasons.
All was still fine in Gotham with Britney Boyd at the helm. The third-year guard has shined when healthy. Last year, she noticeably changed the pace of the team and was primed for a breakout season by earning the starting point guard nod to start the year. She rewarded Laimbeer’s faith with a white-hot start, shooting 60% from the field, for 13 points a game, 4 boards, 2.5 dimes and 1.5 steals. Charles, the team leader, felt the lineup transformation changed more than pacing. “I think the first thing that comes to my mind is energy. Boyd’s a hard worker, in everything she does. Her positive energy off the court and then just going into practice doing what the coaches need, just doing everything that I’ve asked of her.”
This new look for the Liberty only lasted 7 quarters before Boyd collapsed with a non-contact injury against the Minnesota Lynx on May 18th. An MRI the next day confirmed an ACL tear and the 10-12-month rehabilitation that comes with surgery on the ligament. Concerns about how the injury’s effect on the speedster’s burst will dominate next year’s expectations but 2 games into this season, the team was back to square one at the 1.
New York is painfully familiar with the difficult road to ACL recovery. After averaging 14 ppg in 2015, guard Epiphany Prince suffered the same injury playing in Russia that November. Prince missed the first 26 games of the ’16 season regaining strength in her right knee but the rehabilitation process didn’t end with team doctors clearing her to play. For the vet dubbed an “emotionally-tough silent assassin” by franchise icon and New York Director of Player Development Theresa Witherspoon, returning to the court in 2016 couldn’t only be measured by the box score (she only averaged 13.9 minutes a game in her 6 appearances). “This is not only a physical injury.” Prince explained, “it’s a mental, emotional injury.’’
This Spring, with her knee and more importantly, her mindset, fully recovered, the 29-year old hit the ground running. Replacing Boyd as field general against the Phoenix Mercury on May 23rd, Prince went off. In her triumphant return to the starting lineup, she led both teams with 24 points, shooting 10 of 14 from the field with four 3-pointers. Her game-winning shot with 4.5 seconds left in the game capped off a 69-67 win over the Phoenix team who eliminated the Liberty in last year’s playoffs.
Prince was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after continuing her hot streak in Seattle. The Rutgers alum finished the week third in the conference for scoring (21.5 ppg), tied for fourth in assists (4.5 apg) and tied for sixth in field goal percentage (.533).
Playing more than 34 minutes for the third consecutive game, Prince delivered a loaded stat line against the Los Angeles Sparks: scoring 21 points, with 3 from beyond the arch, 4 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals. Despite her impressive play, Tuesday’s loss to the defending champions was a bittersweet reminder of Prince’s star power.
Following the game, Prince left the team to lead the Russian National Team in next month’s EuroBasket tournament. Prince plays for Dynamo Kursk during the offseason, and since becoming a Russian citizen in 2010, is obligated to play in international competitions. “It’s tough to leave in the middle (of the season),” she lamented, “but I feel that I have an obligation to two teams,” Prince said. While the month-long hiatus is no surprise, it interrupts Laimbeer’s successful solution to New York’s backcourt issues. “It will be a mix and match every night depending on who we’re playing” the head coach admitted, “People will have to step up.”
For the Liberty to remain contenders, it’s up to Bria Hartley and Sugar Rodgers to step up and stand out.
Harley was traded to New York in January, a by-product of Washington clearing space ahead of the blockbuster trade for Elana Delle Donna. The pass-first point guard grew up a Liberty fan and in a New York Times profile, voiced frustration about the toll injuries and opportunities have had on her career: “I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder. Years past didn’t necessarily go the way I wanted to and I want to go out—and make a statement.”
At the time of the trade, Hartley’s experience running an up-tempo attack at UConn was crucial to supporting Wright’s skills. However, since Wright’s March announcement, the offense has leaned on lead guards scoring more than facilitating. Thus far, Hartley has averaged roughly 10 minutes a game, and should see more opportunities to support the depleted backcourt. But the reality is she was acquired for veteran depth, and cannot be counted on to lead an offense.
It may seem early for summer hot-takes, but the Liberty will only go as far as Sugar Rodgers can take them. In her first three years with New York, the shooting guard has seen her role evolve and her production has steadily increased every year. Filling in for Prince last year, her scoring jumped from 8.1 to 14.5 ppg. Her three-point efficiency has followed suit where 2016’s 43.8% shooting firmly establishes her as an inside/outside dynamic threat with Charles.
The growth of Rodgers and Boyd encouraged Laimbeer to give the young guards the keys to the 2017 offense. Playing behind Boyd’s and Prince’s hot start, Rodgers took advantage of her matchups and dropped 20 points and 7 rebounds in the second game of the season against Minnesota. When her running mate went down, Rodgers’ minutes went up and will approach 40 a game without Prince. She leads the league with 14 3pm and is third in attempts. With the ball in her hands more, nights like her 6/11 three-point showcase in Seattle could become commonplace.
It’s not too late for the Liberty. It’s a safe bet that Tina Charles will continue to rank among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding. If Rodgers can replicate Prince’s production for a second consecutive year, and speed up her continued improvement, the blueprint is there for her to breakout. When Prince returns, New York will have the elite scoring backcourt that Laimbeer once envisioned. A resigned Lindsay Allen can partner with Hartley to spell Rodgers and continue the fresh paced offense. The roster is good enough to tread water while this experiment figures out its kinks.
Once again, New York is missing crucial players it expected to ride to the playoffs. However, their defense is so dominant that, with a bit of luck, different players can fill the same roles that helped Charles stay atop the standings. Every team suffers setbacks throughout the season, and the Liberty are lucky that 5 games in, they know what hurdles they need to overcome.