January 6, 2023
2023 WNBA free agency preview: New York Liberty
New York wants to return WNBA finals for the first time since 2002, and 2023 free agency will determine how long that could take
On February 1, 2019 Rachel Galligan of Winsidr reported that the New York Liberty signed restricted free agent Natasha Cloud to a two-year offer sheet. This was all before some critical changes that not only the Liberty, but the WNBA writ large would endure. The 2020 CBA hadn’t been created and agreed upon and the Liberty were still playing in the Westchester County Center (WCC), a venue not fit to house a professional basketball team.
The Liberty went out on a limb to sign Cloud and saw how she had improved during the 2018 regular season. She accrued votes for Most Improved Player, which was won by current Liberty forward Natasha Howard. It was a move that was countered with lightning quick speed by former head coach and current Mystics general manager Mike Thibault. The Mystics didn’t need the four days the previous CBA provided for teams to match offer sheets. All they needed was mere hours to complete the administrative work necessary to retain their point guard who wasn’t exactly enticed by what the Liberty were offering.
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Cloud’s decision to return to the Mystics provided her with newer facilities, a locker room that was much more well furnished than WCC, the opportunity to continue playing alongside Elena Delle Donne and of course one of the most cunning head coaches in the WNBA in Thibault. That was enough for Cloud, and it was all what the Liberty couldn’t provide. And while Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai purchased the team officially a little bit over a week before, free agents and top WNBA talent still laughed at New York. They couldn’t be taken seriously. New ownership’s ideals hadn’t been properly implemented.
On February 1, 2023, exactly four years later, the once laughed at Liberty could have a “who’s laughing now moment,” a moment that represents how the franchise has improved and moved up the W’s pecking order. When Chris Haynes reported almost a year ago that Breanna Stewart, one of the best players in the world and one of the winningest players of her generation, had taken a meeting with the Liberty, it was clear that New York was thinking of the long game. Their strategy looked eerily similar to what the Las Vegas Aces had done in 2020. They invited Chelsea Gray on a visit a year before she became an unrestricted free agent, planting a seed in her mind of what playing in a new location for different ownership would look like. And when the time came for Gray to decide, she knew what she wanted.
Now back to Stewart and the Liberty. The superstar returned to the franchise she knew once again, but this time it wasn’t because of facilities, roster or the coaching staff, but rather it was because of Sue Bird. Stewart wanted to remain loyal and felt tethered to the final season of the point guard who helped her win two WNBA titles. But a year later, now that Bird has retired and now that the Las Vegas Aces have won their first championship, the Liberty are primed to follow a similar path, one that pairs a homegrown star (for Vegas it was A’ja Wilson, for New York it’s Sabrina Ionescu) with another superstar that is open to looking for something different (for Vegas it was Gray and for New York it’s Stewart). The Aces wanted their first championship, and Gray wanted a place where she could win and be treated like a professional. The Liberty desire their first championship, and Stewart could be enticed by the fact that she would be closer to her parents and grandparents, and could have access to the largest media market in the world in order to grow her brand. Puma’s flagship store is on fifth avenue and it’s worth remembering that her new colorway of her signature shoe, the Stewie 1, is called “Reintroduce”. (I could be overthinking this slightly, but one dictionary definition of the word reintroduce is: put a species of animal or plant back into a region where it formerly lived.) *Insert eyeball emoji.*
Head coach Sandy Brondello, someone who met with Stewart in LA almost a year ago, alluded to the possibility of successfully courting Stewart during her exit interviews back in August. She explained that she believed that her system, expectations and way that she operates successfully permeated to the Liberty, a foundation had been laid.
“And now it’s about going out and adding…,” she said. “There should be some pretty good free agents out there and if we can just nail one or two I think that would help us, that would lead us in the right direction to maybe progress even faster next year and go further in the playoffs because the goal is to win a championship.”
Signing someone like Stewart expedites the Liberty’s process and progress. But also, this is far from a fait accompli, and New York knows this. The front office understands that it cannot control what players want and what decisions they will make. Wining and dining someone sometimes can influence a decision, but there’s no formula that makes any of this certain. In the end, it will be Stewart’s decision if she stays in Seattle, chooses another franchise or decides to sign with New York.
This is also why the Liberty’s 2023 free agency outlook is a bit more complicated than it was in 2022. There wasn’t a condition that all other moves rested on. The Liberty had their plan and their targets, which meant signing Stefanie Dolson, re-signing Rebecca Allen and later down the line welcoming back Marine Johannès. There was also a clear commitment to developing their young talented core, players who the team had drafted in years prior. The will she, won’t she that Breanna Stewart poses with New York creates multiple contingency plans and versions within the two main paths New York can take.
But before I lay out the two paths and multiple options that are possible in each one — I’m just laying out broad options for now, but the cap analysis and more detailed decision making analysis, including more of “the who” will come later — it’s worth remembering exactly what the Liberty need from a general vantage point of acquisition. What was missing in 2022 that will make New York not only a better, but a more complete team in 2023?
On court needs and a decision tree
When Brondello was asked more broadly for the different qualitative components that she believes the Liberty should look to add in 2023, the first she mentioned was toughness. That of course was an easy set up to mention Betnijah Laney, the 2021 All-Star that missed the majority of the 2022 campaign, only to return with a few games left in the regular season and then the playoffs.
Laney is emotionally, mentally and physically tough. It’s a key ingredient in the type of dance Laney does when she plays, and that grit permeates to her teammates, especially Ionescu, who upped her mental and physical toughness as a result of being healthy. But the other item on Brondello’s broad list was athleticism, something Laney has, but is still a work in progress for Ionescu.
“I think a little bit more toughness, a little bit more athleticism, ability to break down defenses one-on-one,” Brondello said. “We don’t have a lot of that, Betnijah was that obviously near the end. I think those kinds of players will help us, but it’s more about, it’s not just the player too, it’s about the fit with the players that we do have.”
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How are Brondello’s broad answers applied to the numbers? Let’s take a look. When she says toughness, she’s referring to a mindset and a style of play along with excellent defensive intangibles. But also there is one specific statistical measure that connects to toughness. In 2022, New York got 15.5 percent of their points from the free throw line, second worst in the league. Could this be a number due to the fact that players like Han Xu or Ionescu don’t get the calls from officials that other well-respected veteran players do? That could be the case, but that’s also uncontrollable. New York needs players who can impose their will and get to the line.
When she says athleticism, the reference is the lack of balanced offense that New York still had in 2022. At moments the Liberty had the more balanced inside and outside attack that is a part of Brondello’s dogma, but generally New York heavily favored the perimeter.
According to Synergy Sports, the Liberty took 35.1 percent of their shots at the rim, while taking jump shots 57.6 percent of the time. This shouldn’t mean the Liberty ought to go for a more 50-50 split, but rather need to get that 35.1 number a bit higher. Take the defending champion Las Vegas Aces for instance who took a lot of threes, but also had 37.3 percent of their shots at the rim. That number also represents the fact that the Aces had players that could put pressure on the rim in Wilson and Kelsey Plum.
The Liberty were without multiple shot creators and slashers for a majority of 2022. Not only was Laney out for long spans, but so was Rebecca Allen. New York needs more players who can put the ball on the floor and create without a pick and roll or on a catch and shoot.
Now what did Laney, Ionescu and Natasha Howard say during exit interviews about the team’s 2023 needs? Ionescu mostly deferred to the front office, but what she stressed was culture and how that’s incredibly important to her. “I think at the end of the day, as long as we get a really good teammate who’s going to come in and work hard and understand the culture of this team and continue to just kind of grow and we’re going to build together, that’s really what’s most important.”
Howard was the most blunt of the bunch. Her first response was something that Brondello didn’t address, which is a more experienced point guard. Someone who can “balance the floor for us and help Sabrina Ionescu as well.” She does have a point: the Liberty had the third worst turnover rate in the league (17.4 percent). But, is there an argument that a year under Brondello’s system will limit the same type of turnovers that we saw in 2022? Perhaps!
Laney’s assessment of New York’s needs alluded to Stewart without even trying to. ”A big body, somebody who can be physical as well alongside Stef and Han and be able to produce offensively and on the other end…If we need someone to apply pressure defensively, if we need somebody to come in and score and finish around the rim. A variety of different things and I don’t know who or what that will look like per se, but those are some of my thoughts.”
Laney’s thoughts bring me to why I made this decision tree in the first place. The two general and surface level paths are: if Stewart chooses New York and if Stewart doesn’t. But, if Stewart decides to take her services elsewhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Liberty won’t have an opportunity to accelerate their path to the WNBA Finals. That’s why this tree is worth making.
There are sub-paths underneath the main routes, which symbolizes how much more complex free agency has the potential to be for New York this year. The decision tree will be updated and expanded as we move closer toward the negotiation period on January 21 and the eventual signing day of February 1. But its purpose right now is to illustrate all of the options that are right now so uncertain. Now, let’s explain the tree.
Path one- If the Liberty land Breanna Stewart
If the Liberty land Stewart, New York immediately becomes a championship contender. That part of it isn’t all that murky. But what will be is determining how New York clears the appropriate cap space if Stewart chooses Brooklyn.
And this returns me to a question I began asking in October: who exactly is New York’s core? The only sure building block is Ionescu, but uncertainty remains for the rest. Brondello noted that she believes the Liberty have their foundation and won’t have to change all that much personnel wise. But, I’m not sure if that’s the case.
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Does New York engage in a sign-and-trade with the Storm so that Stewart can earn a supermax? Would Seattle or another trade partner in a potential three-way trade want a protected player under contract for 2023 (Laney, Howard, Stephanie Dolson, or Allen)? Would they desire one of the Liberty’s younger players with potential (Jocelyn Willoughby, DiDi Richards and Michaela Onyenwere)? Would they want some of the Liberty’s many unsigned draftees (Nyara Sabally, Raquel Carrera, Marine Fauthoux and Sika Koné) or would they want New York’s No. 6 overall draft pick in the 2023 draft? As Richard Cohen notes at Her Hoop Stats, New York will have to clear space and engage in more complex moves if they want to retain reserved players such as Johannés, Han and Crystal Dangerfield. And there’s also unrestricted free agent Sami Whitcomb, whom I would be shocked if New York re-signs. And most likely New York will only be able to have 11 players on roster, a change from 12 in both 2022 and 2021.
What is currently unknown right now is how exactly does New York value their younger and protected players besides Ionescu? Who is highest on the totem pole and who is sliding down it? This will be explored later.
Path two- If Breanna Stewart does not choose New York
If the Liberty don’t land Stewart, there are still ways that New York can look to speed up its trajectory toward the WNBA Finals. You thought this was a simple binary, well think again! The Liberty could trade for a player that is just as multi-talented as Stewart who is currently on a roster who doesn’t believe she is their best player. (Hint: this is related to one of Alex Simon’s predictions on our year end podcast, all about bold predictions for this year.)
If New York can’t get five star level talent in free agency or in a trade, the next step is to find talented players that fit some of the holes that the Liberty need to address (i.e., a veteran point guard, a big who’s physical or a player who can pressure and defend the rim.) New York will look to improve on the fringes and their belief in developing their young players continues. Signing Stewart or someone of her caliber means that player development, a staple for New York since 2020, will take a firm backseat.
While some might argue that development took a backseat last year, that’s only partially true. Onyenwere, Willoughby and Richards had limited opportunities due to injury and a compressed season. Han and Johannès both made considerable leaps. But that stunt in development was more out of a sense of urgency to turn a 1-7 season around and convince ownership that the organization was moving in the proper and expected direction.
There is also an argument to be made that the Liberty’s 2021 “Big Three,” constructed pre-Brondello, of Ionescu, Laney and Howard have yet to endure a full WNBA season together. All three haven’t been healthy at the same time.
Does Ionescu take another jump? And how does year two under the same system rather than learning a new one on the fly impact New York? There is still optimism in Brooklyn even if they can’t land Stewart.
A laughing stock no more
In 2023, there will be many decisions to make along with many possibilities for the Liberty. It’s a luxury that the franchise didn’t have in 2019. In 2019, a championship was out of the question. Instead, the health and the stability of the franchise were constantly in question.
What if 2019 could repeat itself? What if Cloud had been a restricted free agent for this upcoming free agency period? In four years, the Liberty have gone from being Thibault and Cloud’s pawn during free agency to now a Queen on the chess board of WNBA Free Agency. Let the games begin.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.