January 11, 2021 

Free agency makes or breaks the Liberty’s plans for a ‘hybrid rebuild’

Priorities for New York in free agency remain veteran leadership in the post

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The New York Liberty’s 2020 IMG roster. Photo via the New York Liberty’s Instagram account, @nyliberty.

Uncertainty is the name of the game for the Liberty and their roster construction these days. At this point, there are still more questions than answers, including:

  1. What is Kiah Stokes’ role going to look like in 2021?

  2. Do Amanda Zahui B. and Rebecca Allen have a future in New York?

  3. Which young players not named Sabrina Ionescu really proved they belong on the Liberty?

    And…

  4. Who can help them glue it all together?

In the next few weeks, GM Jonathan Kolb will begin to answer some of those lingering queries. Success for the Liberty this free agency season is dependent upon getting some of these answers before the April draft. Success means that New York has acquired or dealt for pieces that can complement and mesh well with their young talent. Success resembles having a roster that doesn’t revolve around one or two individuals.

In the third season under Joe Tsai’s ownership, the Liberty are in a unique position. New York is in a position to make a leap from an abandoned team in White Plains to possibly competing for a postseason spot, which hasn’t happened since 2017. Before the 2020 season’s end, head coach Walt Hopkins acknowledged the opportunity.

“We have all the money in the world,” Hopkins told The Next on Sept. 11. “We have all of these young contracts … [the players who] are coming back are really affordable and we’re going to be able to go and get a big-time free agent.”

He’s right. With a bunch of rookie contracts and affordable younger players on the books, New York has $467,896 at its disposal. A luxury that many competitive teams such as the Washington Mystics, Seattle Storm, and LA Sparks do not. As Kolb explained in early December, New York’s current circumstances could yield to what he explained is a “Hybrid Rebuild.” Or in other words, New York aims to put together a competitive roster that includes their young core.

The key to nailing the Hybrid Rebuild, however, is leveraging all of what New York has to offer, including and not limited to: the team’s debut at Barclays Center, social justice and community engagement opportunities in the five boroughs of New York City, the opportunity to play alongside Sabrina Ionescu and the chance to win the first championship for one of the original WNBA franchises. Or in Layshia Clarendon’s words, an opportunity to embark on the “path less taken.”

Since the season ended in September, speculation has followed New York, an organization that didn’t face many difficult decisions leading up to the 2020 Wubble season in Bradenton. A decision they did make, however, before the season’s end, was re-signing Kiah Stokes to a one-year extension through 2021.

I questioned how her style of play could help the Liberty execute their five-out system and run with it. The transaction is still difficult to interpret. Does it mean Amanda Zahui B.’s time in New York is set to end? Or is Stokes someone who the Liberty might package in a trade?

Speaking of Amanda Zahui B., the Liberty might core her and look to trade her as well. Although not giving her a chance to reunite with her partner in crime Rebecca Allen is awfully foolish. The numbers do not lie. As for Allen, if COVID-19 is a bit more under control by May 2021, it is expected that she will re-sign with New York, the only team she can negotiate with. The Liberty need someone who can shoot close to 45 percent from three and Allen has done that consistently since her 2019 season with New York and now in her current overseas season with Valencia BC.

In 2020, the Liberty were the worst shooting team in the league. Improving and evolving from that requires New York to begin to make some decisions as to which young players stay and which go. So far the Liberty have extended training camp qualifying offers to the three players they didn’t draft in Joyner Holmes, Paris Kea, and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe.

Both Holmes and Kea were later additions to the 2020 roster after both Allen and Asia Durr opted out and Sabrina Ionescu went down with a season-ending ankle injury. Raincock-Ekunwe, however, is a familiar face from the 2019 roster. While she was extended a qualifying offer last January, she decided to sit out the 2020 season to focus on Tokyo. But of course, she made this decision before coronavirus spread to the entire world, and the Olympics was postponed.

I don’t expect Kea to be ready for training camp coming off of her ACL surgery and recovery taking at least six months. Also, Holmes didn’t prove herself to be indispensable while Jazmine Jones, Jocelyn Willoughby, Kylee Shook, and Neah Odom all did. But Raincock-Ekunwe has had an impressive overseas run, averaging around 12 points and 6 boards a game in France playing alongside Marine Johannès on LDLC ASVEL. With her natural athleticism and ability crash the offensive glass, she could make a splash if she signs the offer and makes it to camp.

Graphic made by Jackie Powell of some of the top free agents with photos via the Las Vegas Aces Twitter account, @LVAces, Ned Dishman and Stephen Gosling.

But going into free agency, the most important objective the Liberty have is they must find their veteran glue. Layshia Clarendon carried too much weight all by their lonesome. Relying on Young Vets won’t get the Liberty over the hump. While New York has more of a need in the post due to their guard and wing surplus, other consequential considerations include landing a superstar talent whose skills can adapt to a five-out system, but also someone who has a selfless temperament. Someone who can lead immediately.

To gain the pulse of Liberty fans and some media members, I created a survey and did some crowdsourcing. I asked which free agents best fit the Liberty, who was most realistic, and assessed the traits New York should focus on which included fit within a motion offense, talent on both offense and defense, leadership, postseason experience, and overall character.

I shared the results and focused on the five free agents included in the photo above: Liz Cambage, Natasha Howard, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Emma Meesseman. I also discussed my findings from this project on Ben Dull’s Floor Game podcast alongside Erica Ayala.

https://twitter.com/ben_dull/status/1345785374363189248

At around 50 minutes in, the three of us examined the top free agents and discussed their plausibility on the Liberty. Also, we broke down another predominant question that New York faces: is this the year to trade the number one pick? The answer: probably. Coronavirus hasn’t done the NCAAW season any favors. The top prospects might not even come out. And if Kolb and Hopkins can’t entice any top-tier available talent in the next two weeks, then why not trade for someone — Myisha Hines-Allen, perhaps?

Free agency for the New York Liberty this season could serve as a litmus test for the league. Can the WNBA become a league with a healthy trade market and consistent player movement? Are “Hybrid Rebuilds” really possible in the W? Hopefully, the answers to those two questions will become clearer in the coming weeks.

Written by Jackie Powell

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