September 8, 2022
2022 New York Liberty finally ‘touched the surface’ of their potential
'We're going to be a tough team to beat'
BROOKLYN — New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu embraced her former Oregon teammate Ruthy Hebard after losing her first playoff series as a professional basketball player. Waiting for Ionescu, following the hug with Hebard, was none other than Candace Parker, whose facial expressions communicated the phrase “bring it in” without even having to say it. Parker enveloped Ionescu with both of her long arms, squeezed the third-year player, rocked her back and forth, and then sealed the embrace with a couple of pats with her left hand right on the name of Ionescu’s jersey.
It was hard to read Parker’s lips exactly, but her body language communicated immense respect between the two. Following a quick embrace with Chicago Sky forward Emma Meesseman, Ionescu walked away from the court alone. But as she walked past the Liberty bench and about to reach the Liberty’s tunnel to head back to the locker room, two fans from the aisle reached their hands out. They weren’t sure if she’d slap theirs back because of the 90-72 Game 3 loss. It’s something Ionescu often does after wins, a moment that she posted to her Instagram following the Liberty’s three straight wins at home during the first week of August.
There was a slight hesitation, but Ionescu slapped their hands back leaving the two young men, one with an Ionescu jersey on, absolutely shell shocked. After a loss, Ionescu was willing to engage. And following a short locker room speech by head coach Sandy Brondello and Liberty governor Clara Wu Tsai, Ionescu was ready to engage again, focused on reflecting.
“If you want me to be honest, I’m happy,” she told a group of reporters when asked about what she’d remember most from the current moment.
“I never thought I would be able to complete a full season. I was at my lowest point a year ago. And so obviously, I hate losing more than I love winning. But at the end of the day, I just have to look big picture and kind of understand that a lot of people kind of counted me out and didn’t even think that I was going to be able to play at this level. And so being able to come back in my first year healthy and kind of show everyone that this isn’t even the full player that I am, but I’m able to still do it is something that I’m excited about. I know I’m going to take it into the offseason and just fuel to the fire.”
Ionescu was not the only one at a low point a year ago. On August 25 and 27 of the 2021 season, the Liberty found itself in the middle of an eight-game losing streak. They were blown out twice in that span by the Phoenix Mercury, a team coached at the time by Brondello.
Attendance in the arena was also much lower than expected for the team’s first season playing at the Barclays Center. While the more strict COVID-19 restrictions in New York may have played a role in this, the Liberty had the third worst average attendance according to Across the Timeline.
While the Liberty made the postseason in 2021, that fact shouldn’t have hidden the massive flaws the 2021 team had. New York finished with a 12-20 record, one that any other season before it, besides the Wubble season, would have put a team in the draft lottery. After the team initially focused on defense in its 2021 training camp, it also finished with the third worst defensive rating (104.3). Sure, the team made the postseason, but it wasn’t super clear that this franchise was moving considerably in the right direction.
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But just like Ionescu, who had taken a leap and a bound of a step forward in 2022, so did the New York Liberty franchise. The average attendance hiked up to 8th in the league and it was within hundreds of matching the two franchises in front of it, the LA Sparks and Connecticut Sun. On August 23, the first playoff game the Liberty had hosted since the Mystics and Kristi Toliver eliminated New York at Maddison Square Garden in 2017, thousands of fans were waiving seafoam green rally towels that said Ionescu’s 2022 season catchphrase “Why Not Us.”
Rebecca Allen, a player who was at MSG back in 2017, has been with this franchise through some of the toughest of times. But amid losing to the Sky in a decisive Game 3, Allen wasn’t going to let go of that feeling: looking up at that crowd at Barclays Center, seeing the rally towels and absorbing the energy of the fans. To her, that is a massive accomplishment.
“The crowd we played in front of for that final game just showed and spoke in volumes of just how much this organization has taken a step in the right direction,” she said a couple of days following the loss.
Back in late April, I asked multiple Liberty players what they wanted this season to represent for their team. In addition to Ionescu’s “Why Not Us” energy, Jocelyn Willoughby mentioned that this would be the year that the Liberty would lay down their foundation, (something they’ve been yearning for since 2020) and march toward sustainable and consistent success. “I feel like we can really turn the corner and become a good team and a great team,” she said during training camp.
Now in late August following their first-round playoff exit, I asked both a similar question: what did this season represent? Ionescu described 2022 as “just touching the surface” of who New York could be and Willoughby believed this season was a firm “step in the right direction.” The Liberty made the playoffs on their own terms for the first time since 2017. That did not happen a year ago.
How did the Liberty hop from being a team that couldn’t control its own fate to one that could? It happened as a result of goals that were set out for this 2022 team, goals that at certain points of this season appeared difficult to attain. They began the season 1-7, were 7-4 in June, had a 5-game losing streak in July and then finished out August 5-2 to punch their ticket to the postseason. There were multiple occasions this season when New York appeared to be bound for the draft lottery yet again, but led by first-year head coach Sandy Brondello, the team stuck to its goals and achieved them all in a way that was far less linear than originally imagined. The Liberty’s 2022 season operated like cosine curve (down-up-down-up) rather than the half of a sine curve (up-down-up) of a year ago.
How did the Liberty lean into pre-determined expectations and check each box with loads of adversity along the way?
Becoming Sandy Brondello’s team
When 2022 free agent signee Stefanie Dolson was asked to reflect on her first season in New York, she revealed that there was a whole lot of new and that didn’t just apply to her. “Having a new coach is the biggest challenge a team could have,” she said.
And that proved to be true for the Liberty leading into training camp and the beginning of the 2022 regular season. Not only were the players getting used to Brondello’s playbook, but Brondello herself had to adjust how she had typically run business. She was no longer in Phoenix with veteran players that had over eight years of WNBA experience. In New York, there were only two players in Dolson and Natasha Howard that had eight years in this league.
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Brondello had to remember that both she and her players would have to be patient and that picking up her style of play would come with time. The Liberty couldn’t necessarily hit the ground running with veteran players late to training camp, and a boat load of injuries and illnesses throughout training camp and the first weeks of the season. At one point prior to the start of the season, New York only had five players that were healthy and conditioned enough to practice and for this reason, a preseason game against the Mystics for season ticket holders became a scrimmage amongst New York and their male practice players.
But amid a really disruptive training camp and then a 1-7 start to follow, Brondello was headstrong about what she and General Manager Jonathan Kolb wanted to accomplish. Before the disruptive training camp, Brondello made it clear that there were three main objectives and an additional given that came with her first season at the helm of the Liberty being a success.
- Back in January when Brondello was introduced, she proclaimed that based on the roster that Kolb had put together and intended to bring together that New York “will be a better team in 2022.” What did that mean? It meant more wins than 12 and a better output on both sides of the ball. According to Basketball Reference, Brondello succeeded. The Liberty posed their best record, offensive and defensive ratings and best SRS (a rating that combines net rating and strength of schedule) since 2017.
- In Brondello’s introductory press conference, she reminded reporters that she is in fact a defensive-minded coach, or rather that she understands the value of being a competent defensive team. “You may not have thought it, but I am a defensive coach,” she said with a smile. (Was this a rebuttal to my assessment of her strengths back in December? It’s possible!) When Sami Whitcomb was asked about the growth she saw between the Liberty of 2021 and of 2022, what stood out to her was New York’s new defense. “I thought defensively we could, more so than last year, especially for longer stretches, I thought we could rely on our defense to get stops when maybe things weren’t going as well offensively,” she said. Assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next a day before the start of the regular season that defensive improvement was going to take time. “We will not be able to turn the defense around on the first game,” he said. “It will take us 10-15 games to have significant statistical improvements.” The Liberty’s new defense was built on a lot of thinking and attention to detail. It was quite cerebral. This was something Brondello acknowledged before New York’s final game of the regular season. “I think last year, they say that they had a very basic [defensive] system, but ours is not so basic,” she said. “So it involves a lot of movement, reads and there’s rules, principles of play and I just think it takes time to get it in everyone’s [head].”
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- When governor Wu Tsai addressed reporters for the first time back in January during Brondello’s introductory press conference, she stressed that she was confident in Brondello’s ability to develop young talent. Valuing player development, especially with most of the roster having less than four years of WNBA experience, was vital. The player development objective might be the most difficult to quantify or see. Let’s begin with the obvious: Han Xu. Brondello and her staff invested a lot of time into Han’s development and had enough trust in her to bring her off the bench for valuable minutes. When Han reflected on the season, she spoke about how assistant coach Lange made her development and growth a lot of fun, which was something she wasn’t used to. “I feel like coach Olaf made the process fun for me,” Han said via her translator Kevin Zhang. “That’s something new for me and I really appreciate him.” Now what was less obvious came from the younger players in Willoughby, DiDi Richards and Michaela Onyenwere. First of all, both Richards and Willoughby were hurt for the majority of the season and returned to action when there wasn’t enough practice time for them to carve out reps and trust within Brondello’s rotation. And then there’s the 2021 Rookie of the Year in Onyenwere who couldn’t really participate in training camp because of an injury and then once healthy, she had difficulty establishing a consistent role coming off the bench. What Brondello’s offense needed of her was drastically different compared to Walt Hopkins’ smaller-only approach in 2021. But according to Onyenwere herself, Brondello and her staff equipped her with tools that she didn’t have in her rookie season. “It was new for me,” she said. “It was a new coaching staff, different than last year where you know, I was mainly a shooter, kind of open the floor kind of thing,” she said. “Whereas here you had to really learn the game, know the game, know the reads. Setting ball screens, which was something that I wasn’t doing last year.”
The additional given was making the postseason, something that the Liberty accomplished on their own terms and without any asterisk. The Mystics and the Sparks didn’t have to lose on the final day of the regular season. All the Liberty had to do was win. New York’s road to punching their postseason ticket was something that Allen thought came with the Liberty finally realizing their identity on the court. The Liberty didn’t just talk about who they wanted to be this year; they finally found it. They finally executed it. “You really saw this grit, “Allen said. “You saw this of us really coming together and showing that we have our style of play and our identity.”
And that’s exactly the type of foundation that Brondello was brought in to achieve and through adversity, a lot of bad luck and some good luck, she and her staff were able to deliver on a majority of their promises. Whitcomb believes that in year two Brondello will be much more comfortable with the Liberty’s 2023 roster, which will allow her and her staff to “hit the ground running a little bit more” without that large learning curve that was required to begin 2022.
The bumpy road to accomplish Liberty preseason objectives
It’s incredibly difficult for a team to accomplish what isn’t expected of them (i.e. what Tanisha Wright was able to do with the Atlanta Dream in year one), but it’s just as difficult if not more for a team to accomplish exactly what is expected of them. When Brondello exclaimed with quiet confidence back in January that the Liberty were going to be a better team under her guidance in 2022, she coupled that sentiment with an important caveat: “it will take a lot of hard work and commitment.” She believed that the roster was ready for that type of challenge and she also added that “having good health will help.” Oh, the irony.
The Liberty didn’t have their full 12 players available for a game until August 6, the last week of the regular season. The only two players who played in each of the Liberty’s 36 regular season games were Ionescu and Dolson. Everyone else on the roster throughout the season including AD (who was traded) and Lorela Cubaj (who was waived) had missed a game for an illness or a late season arrival. The two most impactful injuries this season were in veterans Betnijah Laney and Allen, both of whom missed extended time during the 2022 season.
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For Allen, she only played in 25 games this season due to a concussion from a June 10 game against the Indiana Fever. Because of the unpredictability of concussions, Allen’s symptoms weren’t immediately present and she dealt with nausea and dizziness many days following the initial day of contact. She returned to play on July 3, but then was taken out of the game following a nasty hit from Chiney Ogwumike. The Liberty then rested Allen until after the All-Star break just to make sure those concussion symptoms didn’t resurface. But then on August 2, Allen was whacked by Ogwumike again. AGAIN! Allen’s productively, most notably her shooting splits, were the lowest they’ve been since 2018. But how can that be a fault of Allen’s when multiple hits kept her on and off the floor all season?
“We can’t go through the injuries that we had this year,” Brondello said reflecting on 2022. “So many people in and out and that included Bec Allen and you know, it’s just ridiculous.” The ridiculousness didn’t stop there. Betnijah Laney, a 2021 All-Star, only played in 9 games in 2022 due to an arthroscopic partial meniscectomy on her right knee. She had surgery on June 1. This was the second surgery Laney underwent on one of her knees in six months, with the first taking place on her left knee in November a couple of months following the Liberty’s single-elimination playoff loss to the Mercury. Laney went hard in training camp. I saw it with my own eyes, but could it have been a bit too hard? Could the 2021 All-Star have favored her opposite knee in camp, leading to that second surgery? Those are questions worthy of pursuit when examining how the Liberty should aim to control their health in 2023. A lot isn’t controllable, but the reflection from Richards on her own health journey in 2022 makes me believe otherwise.
“I think that’s the first thing for me is just to stay healthy, be healthy and like sort of at least have an opportunity to get on the court,” Richards said during exit interviews. “I don’t think I gave myself that opportunity this year and I kind of regret it. So just being able to be a pro off the court as well whether that be in the training room, ice tub and doing things like that to keep my body healthy.”
For Laney, this adversity was difficult, but she had been through it before. She’s missed large portions of seasons due to knee injuries. For a player like Willoughby, who returned this spring after rupturing her left Achilles in the spring of 2021, dealing with another injury in 2022 was beyond frustrating. Willoughby only played in 11 games in the 2022 regular season due to suffering a partial tear of her left quadriceps, and while her development and the development of Richards weren’t as apparent as expected in 2022, Willoughby walked away with a perspective that could apply to the entire 2022 New York Liberty. This season she had to learn about patience and about how mental and emotional steadiness is vital for success in the W.
“I have a saying: comparison is the thief of all joy,” Willoughby said. “I could look at myself and compare my journey coming back from different injuries or setbacks to how different people respond and that’s not necessarily the most helpful way to go about the process. And I think for me, I’ve learned to really be grounded in my own process and my own experience and focus on growing a little bit in that each day, not necessarily seeing how other people are growing in their own process or in their own ways because that’s not necessarily going to be my own journey and my experience.”
While the Liberty were going through their growing pains throughout the 2022 season, Brondello often re-centered the team when there was discussion of the playoff race and wanting X,Y,Z teams to win or lose. The Liberty couldn’t compare themselves in order to control their own destiny, and that was a lesson that Willoughby took to heart in the context of her own career.
To fix some of the Liberty’s health woes throughout the 2022 season, the team brought on waived 2020 rookie of the year Crystal Dangerfield. She brought steadiness, athleticism and informed defense to the point guard position. Dangerfield revealed how truly difficult the 2022 season was for her as a player who was struggling internally while trying to salvage her WNBA career. Dangerfield’s sentiments complemented Willoughby’s. In the video above when Dangerfield speaks out about the “vision” she had for her career, watch Willoughby, she feels seen and heard by Dangerfield’s comments. She bobbed her head up and down while watching her teammate bare her soul in an incredibly vulnerable moment.
Liberty learning “the art of war”
The Liberty’s growth as a franchise can also be measured by its digital footprint. Let me first say that the amount of Instagram followers someone or something has isn’t indicative of their worth. But, the Liberty’s reach on Instagram speaks quite loudly and operates on a parallel plain to the franchise’s upward trajectory. New York has come a long way since fans cheering for Han almost brought down the entire structure of Westchester County Center. In 2019, New York had the 10th most Instagram followers amongst all of the league’s franchises with 39.19K, but in 2022, the Liberty have moved up to 8th with 101K.
That same type of growth has occurred on the court and some of the league’s greats believe the Liberty are a team and a franchise that ought to be feared rather than underestimated. When Sue Bird was asked about the Storm’s objectives for finishing the rest of the season back in June after defeating the Liberty 81-72 during her final WNBA game in New York, Bird began her answer by showing respect for her opponent, something that she didn’t have to do. “This is a really good Liberty team,” she said when addressing the road trip the Storm had been on.
Months later after the Liberty’s Game 3 first-round loss, Parker was interviewed after her team defeated New York 90-72. She was asked about how her Chicago team was poise enough to grind out the win when the Liberty had cut the Sky lead to just three points in the fourth quarter. “This is a great New York team, you know, they’ve got a young core, they shoot the three well, so we really have to be disciplined,” Parker said.
For the Liberty, earning that respect is appreciated but isn’t enough. It’s not the goal for 2023. It’s not even the ultimate goal. The conclusion of the 2022 campaign ends a chapter of the franchise’s growth and the beginning of a new one. For next season, Brondello proclaimed loudly and clearly that the Liberty not only want to be in the playoffs next year, but want to compete as one of the top four seeds. “You want to be in the top four, she said. “The top four just made it through.” Yes, the top four seeds advanced to this year’s 2022 semifinals, a place where the Liberty want to be by the Fall of 2023.
Ionescu was asked about the franchise’s growth immediately following the loss. She mentioned how her team has been in the playoffs and in that playoff conversation two seasons in a row. But, that’s still not enough. In accordance with Brondello’s assessment for the future, Ionescu believes that the Liberty’s next step is to get out of the bottom two seeds and not have their backs against the wall to make the postseason. “Not to have our backs against the wall and hoping to make playoffs and making a statement from the beginning,” she said. “We’re going to be a tough team to beat and a tough team play every single night.”
How do the Liberty get there and be feared and revered every single time they step on the floor? Besides tweaks in player personnel and expected aggressiveness that New York aims to bring to this Winter’s free agency period, the Liberty will need to expand upon that feeling of pressure they experienced to make it to the playoffs. That sense of urgency will need to become constant. According to Lange, championship-level teams like the Sky, and the franchises that are currently competing for a spot in the WNBA Finals, all have a certain level of focus, one that the Liberty lost in Game 2 when the Sky blew them out 100-62. It’s a level of focus that could have prevented the Sky from going on a 16-0 run to seal the deal in Game 3. It’s a level of focus where nothing else in the mind penetrates and disturbs that focus.
Lange equated it to the art of war. “There’s a famous quote, it’s said every battle is always won before it’s ever fought,” he told The Next. “That’s the same, same concept. If you go into mind, you expect the hardest game ever, you’re ready to go, but if you get in the game and you think it’s gonna be easy, then you just are not prepared.”
That concept is what the Liberty have to learn.
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.