February 3, 2023
Courtney Vandersloot completes the New York Liberty’s superteam
Will Betnijah Laney be the Liberty's opportunity cost?
In 2023 the New York Liberty realized that their room for error in roster construction would be much smaller than it’s ever been, and getting Courtney Vandersloot to sign onto create a new superteam in the East proves that. After a mistaken Instagram post where the former Chicago Sky point guard announced she was signing with her hometown team the Storm, Vandersloot reversed course on Thursday afternoon.
Now how did this all come together? Let’s flashback to April of 2022 to get a greater understanding of how the Liberty understood this smaller margin for error and realized that wooing and signing Courtney Vandersloot was part of their plan.
When the New York Liberty began preparation for the 2022 season last April, there wasn’t a true point guard on their training camp roster. Franchise player Sabrina Ionescu is considered a switchable combo guard, AD Durr (now with the Atlanta Dream) was mounting a comeback from long COVID, and Paris Kea was on a training camp contract only to be cut less than two weeks later. Under new head coach Sandy Brondello, there were questions not only about who on this roster was going to pair with Ionescu, but also why the Liberty decided to draft Nyara Sabally fifth overall rather than trying to fill their pure point guard-sized hole. Especially with someone on the board like Veronica Burton, who fell to seventh overall in the 2022 Draft to the Dallas Wings.
Liberty General manager Jonathan Kolb took some criticism for drafting Sabally, who they didn’t expect to play that season due to a knee injury, rather than a backcourt partner and even a backup for Ionescu. His deflection was the fact that the Liberty had non-traditional guards with facilitation skills that could step in and fill that void.
“People asked about backup point guard this and that and we feel like we have the ability to develop players,” he said. “Somebody like DiDi Richards, is somebody that could potentially down the line slide into that role. And…we don’t want to stunt the development of anybody. We also want to expand the roles of some players.” Brondello added that she had confidence in Sami Whitcomb to assume more of a combo guard role as well, someone who prior to the 2022 season averaged 11.7 points per game, 2.7 assists and shot 42.5 percent from three for New York. Brondello had a belief that not only Whitcomb would be able to take a step forward, but that Betnijah Laney would follow her 2021 All-Star season with a similar output. Laney proved in 2021 that she could in fact play multiple positions in addition to guarding them. She was the Liberty’s leading scorer with 16.8 points per game and second on the team in assists to Ionescu with 5.2 per game.
But these calculations were made before New York was hit with some of the worst luck that a team could endure just weeks before opening day of the regular season. Richards suffered a right hamstring injury during a preseason scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun, and this would be an injury that would derail her throughout the 2022 regular season and postseason. She fell out of the Liberty’s rotation even when she was cleared to play, something that both she and facilitating young wing Jocelyn Willoughby both dealt with in 2022. Now Whitcomb was banged up for a portion of the 2022 season, but played through it. She endured a noticeable shooting slump throughout the first half of the season, and began the first five games of 2022 averaging 3 turnovers a game and a 22.46 turnover ratio.
And then there was Laney who injured her knee during a training camp scrimmage on media day, and it wasn’t the knee she had surgery on during the offseason. While Laney also tried to play through it at first, she ended up only played in 9 games during the regular season due to another surgery but this time on the knee she injured in camp.
Besides Sabrina, where was that facilitation going to come from, especially when Ionescu needed to get off the ball to score? Kolb and Brondello had to act fast to attempt to rectify what was a disastrous 1-7 start to the 2022 regular season. And the Liberty weren’t getting Marine Johannès for at least another couple of weeks. On May 21, Kolb and Brondello pulled the trigger and brought pass first point guard Crystal Dangerfield in on a hardship deal that would turn into a permanent roster spot for the season. And the combination of the role she played along with the playmaking and scoring that came from Johannès once she arrived, was the bandaid last season that the Liberty needed to prove to themselves, ownership, their fans and the WNBA that they were ready to take the giant steps they’ve taken in the past few weeks, which included trading for Jonquel Jones, and now getting both Breanna Stewart and Vandersloot to sign on for 2023.
On the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast two weeks ago following the Jones trade, our Howard Megdal referred to this hole that trading Dangerfield left as a “Courtney Vandersloot-sized hole.” That revelation, that there was mutual interest between the Liberty and Vandersloot, broke the internet.
After conducting an offseason review of the 2022 season, New York found that while Dangerfield was a major part of their midseason turnaround, she also was inconsistent and wasn’t always dependable. (Imagine if Johannès hadn’t come over at all!) The New York brain trust pointed toward the fact that Dangerfield only played 1:30 during the Liberty’s final playoff game against the Sky at Barclays Center. Dangerfield’s size was an issue against a lot of Chicago’s larger guards, wings and hedging bigs. The Liberty realized that whoever was going to play alongside Ionescu not only had to be healthy, but also had to be dependable and produce each night. Brondello couldn’t have this person on the bench during high-pressure situations.
And while Johannès is expected to return this season, she won’t be available for the whole season. The EuroBasket Women’s championship runs from June 15-25. She’ll also most likely be arriving late to begin the season as well. New York realized they needed someone who could take on what Johannès provided the Liberty (distribution, playmaking and defense when needed) while she is unavailable. Vandersloot checks all of those boxes in addition to being one of the greatest passers in league history. As it stands, Vandersloot is third on the All-Time Assists list with 2,385 and she holds the record for most assists in a game with 18 during the 2020 Wubble season. This is the level of playmaking the Liberty are getting, someone who in 2022 proved that she can also score when she needs to. She proved just as such when she put up 23 points of her own on 6-10 shooting against the Liberty this past July.
She’s not able to create the rainbow step-back threes that Johannès or Ionescu can make, but she doesn’t have to. And it’s not like Vandersloot can’t shoot from deep either. Last season she made 36.7 percent of her threes and shot 79 of them. That’s not nothing.
Vandersloot’s addition to the Liberty’s backcourt allows Ionescu not only more space to score on offense, but it causes defenses to have to make a choice between guarding Vandersloot’s court vision on first action or Ionescu’s on a second-side action. Dangerfield simply didn’t have the gravity to draw defenses away from Ionescu, but sometimes she did make them pay, with emphasis on the sometimes. Having an above-average playmaker is nothing new for Ionescu as she thrived in college alongside former Oregon Duck Maite Cazorla. Also, during her rookie season of 2.5 games in the Wubble, Ionescu was paired with pass-first guard Layshia Clarendon.
But what about when Vandersloot is off the ball? Our own James Kay pointed out here that even when Vandersloot is running around in the half-court, she finds a way to make her own version of a hockey assist. During this past WNBA Semifinals against the Sun, Connecticut did an excellent job of making Vandersloot uncomfortable on the ball, but off it, they couldn’t always prevent her from setting drag screens to get her teammates open passing and cutting lanes.
Vandersloot comes at what cost?
In addition to being dependable offensively, and Vandersloot is more than dependable, the Liberty also desired competent defense in their backcourt and on the perimeter, because of all their casualties in 2022. It was one of New York’s weaknesses last season. Also, Ionescu’s own defense is still coming along and not quite yet as consistent as it could be. While Vandersloot is taller than the 5’5 Dangerfield at 5’9, she’s not laterally gifted or strong as a defender. Larger guards like the Liberty’s own (as of now) Betnijah Laney have been known to take advantage of the mismatch that Vandersloot creates. New York tried this multiple times in the final first-round playoff game they played against the Sky.
But while Vandersloot isn’t an All-Defensive caliber player, that doesn’t mean she’s a liability on defense either. Last season she was quite far from it. According to PBP Stats, Vandersloot improved the Sky’s defensive rating by a hair under 10 points in 2022 whenever she was on the floor rather than off it. In the clip below, she doesn’t reinvent the wheel while guarding the point of attack but has the right instincts and understanding of defensive angles to prevent Natasha Cloud from driving or passing the ball into the paint.
Let’s return to Laney for a moment. Both Vandersloot and Stewart’s contracts haven’t officially yet been signed. Both stars are still negotiating with the Liberty to try to make this new superteam falls underneath the WNBA’s hard salary cap. Ramona Shelburne reported on Thursday afternoon that Breanna Stewart “will take substantially less” in order to make sure that Vandersloot’s contract can fit on the Liberty’s books. What does that mean exactly? As of now, this means that the Seattle Storm won’t be compensated for Stewart’s departure in a sign-and-trade. But, what about the Sky? Does Vandersloot dictate the supermax of $234,936? If that’s the case, the Liberty will have to give up assets to Chicago and might have to move Laney who will make $201,984 in 2023, the final year of her contract. It’s not imminent as of now, but it isn’t impossible.
Or, do the Liberty give Vandersloot closer to the maximum salary ($202,154) instead which would leave around $175K for Stewart if the Liberty waive or trade Michaela Onyenwere. This scenario would allow Laney to keep her spot on the Liberty’s roster. If the Liberty have to say goodbye to Laney, the Liberty lose a two-way threat who not only guards the perimeter extremely well, but also can create from the perimeter without a pick-and-roll action. If that were to be the case and Laney is moved, I’m afraid New York would have another hole to fill with the same very small margin of error.
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.