January 11, 2022
Hiring Sandy Brondello raises the Liberty’s ceiling
How Brondello helps New York move past its “Hybrid Rebuild”
The Hybrid Rebuild is over. Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb confirmed that on Friday when the team introduced their new head coach Sandy Brondello, the ninth head coach in franchise history.
“So if you’re asking to retire it, I think you can,” he said of the term he used to describe the Liberty leading into and during their 2021 season.
Both the Walt Hopkins era and the Hybrid Rebuild are over for New York, but what can we expect from Brondello’s tenure at the helm of the Liberty? And why did she beat out LA’s defensive wizard Latricia Trammell and former Liberty legend and now Aces head coach Becky Hammon for the job? In her first address to the WNBA media circuit ever, Liberty Governor Clara Wu Tsai laid out her expectations for Brondello.
“She’s not only going to be able to elevate our existing stars, but she’s also a really good developer of young talent,” Wu Tsai said in her opening remarks on Friday. “And as we all know, we have a really strong set of stars but also a young core that we’re developing.”
When the Liberty first announced that Hopkins was no longer the head coach of the team, unresolved questions about the sudden change loomed. Why was the decision made, where did that leave the rest of staff that played a role in developing New York’s young core, how will the Liberty play in 2022 and what intangibles would be needed in the Liberty’s next leader?
Most of these questions have now been answered. Former player Jacki Gemelos transitioned over to working on the agent side of the game, Shelley Patterson has been linked to the Phoenix Mercury opening and the Liberty wiped the entire coaching staff from their website besides their new head coach in Brondello. The Liberty are moving forward rather than back and are giving the team that Hopkins developed and Kolb assembled to Brondello, the former Phoenix Mercury head coach who won a WNBA championship in 2014 and led that team to a playoff appearance in every year of her eight year tenure.
When The Next learned of some of the candidates the Liberty had interest in, it became clear that New York was looking for an experienced head coach that had the tools to establish a consistent winning record, and a habit of winning that could yield to the first championship in franchise history. With a roster mostly constructed which consists of a mix of veterans and younger players drafted in both 2020 and 2021, New York needed a coach who could adapt to the cards she was dealt while putting the team in a more formidable position for sustained success.
Kolb confirmed on Friday that one of Brondello’s strengths is her ability to adapt. “The big thing about her, she’s very adaptable,” he said. “And she’s had you know, generational centers in Phoenix and Australia, but then also went through a situation where she didn’t and adapted her system to play a different style.”
The type of basketball that the Liberty will be expected to play will build on what they were known for in 2021. But Brondello won’t only adapt, she’ll also set an example for a team still growing, showing them how to successfully approach and navigate team adversity. And while Brondello didn’t play on any of the early Liberty teams during her playing career in the late 90s through the early 00s, she understands who the Liberty need to be for the WNBA and for their loyal and expanding fan base.
How the Liberty will play Brondello basketball
When Brondello was introduced, she addressed in her opening statement a part of her coaching methodology that she believed may have gone under the radar during her years in Phoenix. “You may not have thought it, but I am a defensive coach first and I think that’s an area that will be the focus from day one for this Liberty team,” she said. “You know, we have to be a better defensive team if we want to win championships.”
When 2021 began for the Liberty, the message in training camp revolved around defense. New York wanted to play with a grit that reminded fans of the franchise’s beginnings. As the season went on, the Liberty didn’t stick to that promise as they finished the regular season with the third worst defensive rating (104.3). After Brondello’s former team the Phoenix Mercury escaped the Liberty narrowly in the first round of the playoffs 83-82, she noted in her postgame presser how effective the Liberty’s defense was in doubling and limiting the touches of Brittney Griner. “We got stagnant,” she said. “We haven’t seen a defense like that in a long time.”
The Liberty had the potential to play better defense and have the personnel who can do it. Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard have established themselves as two-way players in this league, earning spots on WNBA All-Defensive teams. And their young core consists of players who in college were known to be solid defenders including DiDi Richards, Kylee Shook, Jocelyn Willoughby and Jazmine Jones. And who can forget about current unrestricted free agent Rebecca Allen, who proved in 2021 her commitment to development on the defensive side of the ball.
As for Brondello, her defensive acumen is understated. In her eight years as the head coach of the Mercury, at least one of her players made it to a WNBA All-Defensive team. In 2021, both Griner and Brianna Turner were honored for their defensive contributions with Turner making the first team and Griner making the second. During those eight years in Phoenix, Brondello’s teams always finished above 9th in defensive rating, a feat the Liberty haven’t achieved since 2017. During the Mercury’s championship season in 2014 under Brondello, Phoenix finished with a 94.1 defensive rating, the best in the W that season.
“I think the biggest thing I think we all know, they just need to have more of an identity on defense,” she said when asked about what challenges she’ll face with the Liberty’s current roster. “You know, they showed it at times, but that’s the biggest area I think, you know, that they can get better at and I think I can help with that.”
Offensively, the name of the game for Brondello will be maximizing the Liberty’s talent and running a system that puts New York’s star players and role players in the most optimal positions to contribute. What exactly does that look like? It means using the Liberty’s athleticism more by getting out in transition and scoring the easiest offense via better defenses. It means having a “balance of in and outside attack” where post and paint penetration matter in order to get open looks beyond the arc. It means limiting isolation style basketball unless it allows the Liberty to get the best open look.
“This is a team that really, it was I think 11th or 12th and free throw attempts,” she said. “You know, we got to make sure that we play a style of basketball that we’re hard to guard. I mean, great three point shooting team. I think we saw that. That was fantastic. But you know, you need that inside presence as well because that will probably create a higher percentage out outside shots to even better shots. Great shots.”
Before Brondello’s introductory press conference, I questioned her willingness to invest in developing the Liberty’s young core. Bringing in a veteran coach can often lead to abandoning the development stages and getting on the fast track to winning and contending now. But according to both Kolb and Wu Tsai, the Liberty aren’t giving up on their younger players and it is part of Brondello’s job to employ the proper resources to develop them.
While she couldn’t say yet if there is a possibility that her husband and Chicago Sky assistant Olaf Lange might join her staff, Brondello and Kolb made it clear that when her staff is determined, working individually with players and expanding their games will be integral to the Liberty’s future success.
Brondello spoke about how in Phoenix she and her staff were able to elevate the game of star Skylar Diggins-Smith. She explained that the key to Diggins-Smith’s development and success last season was her willingness to work. Brondello believes that the current crop of Liberty players exude that same level of drive, making it easier for her and her staff to approach individual and collective growth.
What Brondello provides that Hopkins could not
When Kolb was asked about the decision to move on from Hopkins amid the team’s progress from 2020 to 2021 and its first playoff appearance since 2017, New York’s GM explained the type of person he believes the Liberty need at the head coaching position moving forward. “It’s somebody that’s proven,” he said. “It’s somebody that’s battle tested because no longer are we in a situation where the eight seed is our goal.”
Brondello is proven. Her resume speaks for itself.
She won a WNBA championship in 2014. She has coached the 5th-most playoff games in league history. Currently, she is tied for 5th-most playoff games coached and won in league history. She has the 8th best winning percentage out of all coaches who have coached 150 games or more. Brondello is a distinguished coach in this league and has demonstrated she knows how to win at a high level.
On the Cheryl Reeve Show, former Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon (who uses he/she/they pronouns) was asked about the decision to move on from Hopkins. They believed the decision was the right one for the Liberty. “I think New York deserves to be a really well run organization that should have very high level people doing that job,” he said.
Brondello is battle tested. She holds herself accountable when facing adversity.
When the Liberty fell 106-79 at home this past season to Brondello’s Mercury in the middle of the team’s eight game losing streak, Hopkins expressed frustration.
“I’m really frustrated,” he said postgame. “Because it’s controllable. They have the tools. They have the capacity to do it. They just chose not to in the first quarter. They chose not to…
“…The frustration comes from the fact that they know. Our players know. They know what they needed to do and they just didn’t do it. And they are more than capable of doing it.”
Brondello’s approach to similar situations is different. When the Mercury fell to the Lynx at home 99-68 in July, there were questionable calls that played into the collective frustration.
“Without a doubt, and me too — I got too emotional, too involved in that,” Brondello said. “Regardless of they’re good or bad, we’ve got to make sure we stay even-keel. That took us out of any kind of rhythm, it gave them a lot the momentum. Obviously, they got all of the calls, didn’t really affect anything and it took us out of the game. I’ve got to do a better job and we’ve got to control our emotions a little bit better.”
For Brondello, adversity is expected rather than dreaded. She’s been in the league long enough to understand that every team in the W will face some sort of adversity during the regular season or the postseason. “And the difference between a good and a great team is how quickly they come out [of it],” she said on Friday. “How quickly can they learn and stay together? So that’s the stuff that I’ll be preaching.”
Brondello is also flexible. When a player goes down injured, she’ll adjust to the personnel that is available. She wants her players to be who they are and not try to fit into a box and be someone they aren’t. If something she tries doesn’t work, she won’t “hit her head against the wall.” She won’t force something that isn’t working.
“I’m a former player, you know, if it doesn’t work, don’t kill it,” she said. “Just go to the next.”
Understanding the WNBA is knowing New York Liberty basketball
Brondello has been involved in the WNBA either playing or coaching for 88 percent of its total existence. She has a barrel of memories and experiences that she’s acquired from her decades in the W.
When discussing what league rivalries existed in the WNBA’s early days, Brondello remembered exactly when she realized how unique and passionate the New York fan base was when she was playing for the now defunct Miami Soul.
“Joan Jett used to sit behind the bench and then poke this voodoo doll,” she told The Next. “I thought that was amazing. Coming from Australia, I was new to Madison Square Garden. You think, wow, okay people are pretty passionate here. That’s on another level.”
She played against the Liberty legends in Teresa Weatherspoon, Hammon and Vickie Johnson, the people who defined the gritty basketball that the Liberty have tried to bring back to Brooklyn. She knows what it means to wear the seafoam and black and the words New York and Liberty across her chest. And she’ll make sure her players know what this is all about at the end of the day.
“I want them to enjoy the journey,” she said. “I mean, that’s important. I mean, we do this, yes, we get paid but, you know, for as many years as I’ve been involved, this is our passion.”
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 and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.