January 18, 2022
How the New York Liberty plan to win 2022 free agency
Some common-sense solutions to the roster's issues
When Sandy Brondello was introduced as the Liberty’s ninth head coach on Jan. 7, she was asked about the dynamic with general manager Jonathan Kolb. How will she adjust to working alongside someone whose sole job is to construct and aid the roster of the Liberty? In Phoenix, the Mercury’s GM Jim Pitman also serves as the Executive Vice President and CFO of the Mercury’s brother team, the Suns.
“It’s going to work perfectly; trust me on that,” she said.
Now that gets put to the test.
The free agency negotiation period has officially begun, so what type of activity should we expect from New York? In 2021, they were aggressive, trading for both Sami Whitcomb and Natasha Howard and signing Betnijah Laney.
Brondello believes the group that Kolb put together in his tenure so far has provided her with a “strong foundation.” But she sees an opportunity this free agency season to add players that “will fit with the core players” New York already has.
Kolb co-signed Brondello’s sentiments regarding New York’s future road map during free agency. He explained that he and Brondello are aiming to be aggressive this winter and will talk to the players who they think will fit New York’s style of basketball and will exude the Liberty’s locker room values. But, just because there’s interest on the Liberty’s end doesn’t mean the interest will be mutual.
“…it takes two to tango and so we’ll see where we net out,” he said. “One thing I want to emphasize though, is that we still have a young roster, we’ve got young contributing players that we still need to develop.”
What does that mean? Don’t expect for the Liberty to trade all of their developing youth for top-tier players like the recently cored Jonquel Jones or Jewell Loyd. Also, don’t expect them to make room for a star like Liz Cambage. After her altercation with Team Nigeria this past summer before the Olympics, Cambage opted out of the Tokyo games and also won’t be playing for the Australian National team in the 2022 World Cup in Sydney. After that situation, it’s hard to imagine a world where Cambage plays for Brondello, who is also the head coach of the Australian Opals.
Kolb and the Liberty’s new head coach want to create what Brondello lacked in Phoenix in 2021: a team with depth. There are players in this free agency class that could upgrade and complement what the Liberty currently have. Unlike in Phoenix, Kolb doesn’t want to be in a situation where 60 percent of the salary cap represents three players. “We want to make sure that we’re never too top-heavy and that we’ve got quality WNBA personnel throughout,” he said.
Who should the Liberty be talking to? How will these free agents address some of New York’s off-season needs? Let’s begin with a familiar face first.
Rebecca Allen’s return should be a priority
After the heartbreak in Tokyo with her Australian Opals, Allen returned to the WNBA and proved in the second half of the 2021 season that she’s a valuable player in this league. After years spent primarily coming off the bench under Bill Laimbeer and then Katie Smith, Allen’s unique skill set— her length, three-point shooting ability, mid-range game and willingness to put the ball on the floor—was valued heavily in the Liberty’s five-out style.
After the Olympic break, she shot 49 percent from three and made 26 three balls, tying for fourth alongside Diana Taurasi league-wide. She registered 17 steals, which tied for 12th most in the league beside her New York teammate Natasha Howard, and blocked 15 shots, which was 7th in the league during the second half of the season. She might have landed on a WNBA All-Defensive team if the type of defense she played in the second half of the 2021 season began earlier.
Allen is one of the two players that were rostered in 2021 who Kolb has known since he began his role with New York. The characteristics that Allen has, selfless and hardworking, were the traits that Kolb paid attention to and now are the values he looks for whenever he drafts or adds players to the Liberty. Barring when she opted out of the 2020 Wubble season, Allen has been playing in New York on the Liberty since 2015. Born in Victoria, Australia, Allen has regarded New York as her second home.
“I know for me personally it’s something I’m proud of, you know like I love that I’m able to call New York a second home for me,” Allen told The Next in September. “ It’s a place that I enjoy living, and also like the fans here. You sort of get to know a lot of people that are at the games and stuff and it’s a nice thing.”
As an unrestricted free agent for the first time in her career, what are the chances that Allen returns to New York? A source familiar with the situation told The Next that Allen would prefer to return but it depends on if New York truly “loves her back.” Does Allen, the player whose disposition mirrors what it means to be part of the Liberty right now, receive an offer that represents her worth from her team of six seasons?
Does Brondello as the Liberty’s new head coach make sure that Allen is a priority? And is Allen even more inclined to return because she would be coached by her Australian National Team coach in Brondello? We’ll have to see.
Potential Salary Cap Outlook: The Liberty offer Allen a 3 year $150K/ season protected contract. New York now has $46,210 of cap space.
Versatile post player that adds size and/or strength
It’s hard to know right now if Brondello is going to keep the Hopkins-ism of playing traditional small forwards at the power forward spot to create mismatches. His idea was: play a smaller forward next to Natasha Howard at the five. The more athletic and smaller guard/forwards would have to guard the larger and muscular posts, but the reverse would also take place. Larger posts, who mostly struggle guarding the perimeter, would have to come out and contest the shooter, which allows for the smaller and more athletic four to blow by her defender. But, is Natasha Howard more a natural four than she is a five?
This is something Brondello will have to ponder before training camp commences in mid-April. But here’s what we do know: the Liberty need an upgrade in their front court. There’s no one like Brittney Griner in New York. As of now the Liberty have signed three post players in Howard, 2020 draft pick Kylee Shook and 2019 draft pick Han Xu. But who knows if she comes over this season.
New York also has Jocelyn Willoughby, who missed the 2021 season recovering from an Achilles tear she suffered during the preseason. Willoughby is another one of those hybrid small/ power forwards, but she’s a bit more muscular than Allen and Michaela Onyenwere. During her rookie season in 2020, she immediately established herself as a solid defender and by the time the season ended, her offense began to come alive.
Amid Willoughby’s return which should help down low, New York ought to look to add a versatile post player during free agency. But in addition to a compatible skillset, expect the Liberty to go after post players who are known hard workers and are self-forgetting. Kolb mentioned that he looks forward to having “a gritty basketball team that wants to play for New York in New York and for each other.”
The three that come to mind that fulfill both the personality profile that Kolb and Brondello will want along with desirable on-court skillsets are Stefanie Dolson, Mercedes Russell and Myisha Hines-Allen.
Dolson was responsible for Chicago’s lead in game four of the WNBA finals. If Dolson didn’t score on those two offensive sets in the fourth with less than two minutes to go, a game five in Phoenix might have happened and Sandy Brondello might still be the Mercury’s head coach. Anyway, let’s remember how Dolson got those scores. Both were on screen-and-rolls from Courtney Vandersloot. The first highlighted Dolson’s awareness and ability as one of the better screeners in the W. The second showcased her ability to finish on a Vandersloot pocket pass. At 6’5, Dolson also can stretch the floor as in eight seasons in the league, she’s a 38 percent career three-point shooter.
Dolson, who began the season as a starter, moved to the bench during the postseason. I don’t remember there being an issue on her end when James Wade decided to start a healthier version of Azurá Stevens for the majority of the playoffs. The gold medalist took advantage of every moment she got during the Sky’s run toward the championship. Not to mention that she told Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times that she’s been expanding her post moves during the offseason. Her skillset’s versatile. She’s selfless. And she’s a hard worker. That sounds like a match.
And it appears that the Liberty realize how compatible Dolson might be. On Sunday afternoon she showed us on social media that she was back in her home state this weekend. The Port Jervis, NY native posted photos on her Instagram which were selfies she took at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, a five star hotel located by the waterfront near Brooklyn Bridge Park. And that’s not all: she posted an Instagram story two hours later of her, Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney and Hamilton and In The Heights Star Anthony Ramos at Barclays Center. She wrote some lyrics from the Hamilton track “Aaron Burr, Sir” on her story.
“I’m John Laurens in the place to be! Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three!”
Negotiations have indeed begun.
What a fascinating story it would be if Mercedes Russell returned to the Liberty. Returned? Wait, what? She was on New York? Yes, before Kolb was hired, Russell was drafted late in the second round by New York in 2018 and was waived after playing in two games. (Is Katie Smith still kicking herself for that move? Maybe!) But anyway, in Russell’s four seasons with the Storm, she’s improved exponentially.
While the Liberty might not love that she doesn’t shoot from beyond the arc comfortably, she can do so much more. Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn called Russell a “point guard in a post-player’s body.” Her basketball IQ as a 6’6 center is unique. That should bring music to both Kolb and Brondello’s ears. Russell’s ability to set effective screens, cut from anywhere on the floor, finish efficiently in the paint and rim protect is what the Liberty will want and at times desperately missed in 2021.
Now Hines-Allen exudes the exact vision that Brondello spoke about during her introductory presser. Hines-Allen is a post penetrator, an initiator, a really skilled roller on pick and roll and a facilitator. Have there been any comparisons made to Alyssa Thomas? Hines-Allen can bring the ball up and control the tempo in transition. I guess the main difference is Hines-Allen doesn’t have torn labrums and has a well established shot from beyond the arc.
While Hines-Allen is a 6’2 post player, her strength and athleticism makes up for her disadvantage height wise. 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones noted in May how Hines-Allen was able to keep up with and challenge her on the boards.
“Even though she might not be as tall as us, she’s jumping and getting up there and getting rebounds … ,” she said. “It showed that we have to get back to the basics in terms of rebounding and putting a body on someone.”
After a down year in 2021 that plagued her with injuries and illness, the 2020 most improved runner up will aim to and will be expected to have a bounce back year in 2022.
Potential Salary Cap Outlook:
While Dolson will be tempted to come home and play in front of her family and friends who will be a car ride away from the Barclays Center, she’ll be convinced the Sky can run it back. Quinn will be bullheaded in her pursuit to make sure Russell is back in Seattle. And that leaves us with Hines-Allen, the Montclair, NJ native who will revel in everything the Liberty have to offer. New York signs her to a 3 year $160K/ season protected contract.
The Liberty will now have to waive and/or trade some of their younger talent. Hines-Allen also is a restricted free agent, so New York will have to outbid the Mystics. I could envision a sign and trade that sends Jazmine Jones and Neah Odom over to Washington for Hines-Allen. It might also be time for the Liberty to move on from Asia Durr. The cap should look a lot cleaner now with around $155,870 left to spend.
A multi-level scorer and ball handler
The final need on New York’s free agency checklist might appear less obvious than the former two, but obvious doesn’t equate necessity. The Liberty need a player who can duplicate and add to what Sami Whitcomb was able to give to the Liberty in 2021.
When Whitcomb went down with a nasty ankle injury after the Liberty played the Sparks at home on August 22, New York struggled immensely from the off-ball guard spot. While Jazmine Jones was injured during some of Whitcomb’s absence, the Liberty couldn’t get the playmaking ability that they needed from a secondary ball handler. Yes, Betnijah Laney established herself as a ball handler and facilitator, but the Liberty still need another multi-level scorer.
It’s been around 28 months since Marine Johannès, the walking highlight reel, has worn a seafoam jersey. She signed a two year deal in February 2020 before the world was stricken by the global pandemic. And due to that pandemic and the postponement of the Olympics to 2021, Johannès never saw the floor in the W during those two years she signed on for.
But what’s the plan in 2022? Is Johannès still committed to the WNBA? Will she ever return? A source familiar with Johannès’ thinking told The Next that she is currently in discussions to solidify her return to the W. And since her contract was suspended and then expired, the Liberty retain her rights.
Defensively, however, Johannès raises some questions. In 2019, her attentiveness to defense was inconsistent. But, I don’t believe that will be a challenge too steep for Brondello. Johannès has the will and Brondello and her staff will have the way. Also, see Skylar Diggins-Smith and her defensive growth in 2021.
Potential Salary Cap Outlook:
When Johannès signed her contract two years ago, it had her earning $68K in 2020 and then $70,040 in 2021. After winning a bronze medal in Tokyo and amid the salary increases as a result of the CBA, I imagine New York signs Johannès to another two year deal where she’ll earn $85K/ season. The Liberty then will have $70,870 of cap space remaining for their fifth overall pick in the 2022 draft.
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.