December 14, 2021 

Interest emerges for Latricia Trammell, Sandy Brondello in New York

What does the new Liberty head coach need to possess?

One week since the Liberty ended Walt Hopkins’ tenure and the wheels are turning in New York. Our Howard Megdal reported on Monday afternoon that not only the Liberty but also the Phoenix Mercury, who didn’t renew their longtime head coach Sandy Brondello’s contract, are interested in Los Angeles Sparks top assistant Latricia Trammell, a coach responsible for 2021’s third-best team defense.

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The Next can also report that the New York Liberty have expressed interest in Brondello, who last week expressed her mutual interest in the Liberty job, noting that she’s always up for a challenge. And a challenge that role will be.

When Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb introduced Hopkins back in January of 2020, Kolb made it clear that the next step the Liberty needed to take was into the modern era of professional basketball. He wanted his team to play a quicker and more guard-oriented style and Hopkins provided the blueprint to do so. By trading Tina Charles right before the 2020 draft, the signal pointed toward a complete roster overhaul and rebuild.

Then after a 2-20 season in the “Wubble” where the Liberty learned which players could fit Hopkins’ blueprint and which couldn’t, Kolb got aggressive last winter. With a flexible salary cap, he signed players in Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb, who possessed the physical skills to uphold the blueprint. He understood that few rebuilding WNBA teams turn the corner without veteran leadership. It was up to Howard, Laney and Whitcomb to set an example for New York’s younger players. Having more veteran faces to accompany and guide the second year and first year players was what Kolb referred to as a “Hybrid Rebuild.”

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2021 proved that the blueprint that Hopkins proposed at last fit the roster. But what happens now that the author of the blueprint is gone?

New York’s next head coach will need to establish continuity, affirming the identity the Liberty began to execute under Hopkins while also understanding how to coach a younger team that still needs to be focused on player development.

The Liberty are the closest they’ve been to contending and making a deep playoff run since 2017. New York’s new head coach must know how to win, lead at the professional level and have the skill level and experience to make a deep playoff run.

Weeks after former New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon was waived by New York this past season, they explained to the media that their new coach in Cheryl Reeve brought “a level of veteran status as a coach.”

“It’s nice to be coached by a veteran, experienced, dominant coach like her,” Clarendon said. What New York needs now is a veteran and experienced coach. What New York needs now is a basketball mind who knows what it takes to be able compete in this league.

After eight seasons, Sandy Brondello will not return as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Who could continue the Liberty’s modern-style offense?

The Liberty installed a five-out motion offense that’s dependant on all five players on the floor being able to make reads for each other in addition to most of the actions running through a series of pick-and-rolls. After years of Liberty basketball revolving around Charles, what Kolb found enticing about Hopkins’ vision was that the style of play would be selfless, teaching the team to learn how to play for each other.

Brondello is no stranger to a five-out system that spreads the floor. That’s exactly what she swiftly implemented for the Olympics once she knew that Liz Cambage wouldn’t be going to Tokyo. Against Puerto Rico, the Opals shot 12-31 from three, that’s over 38 percent. Her starters were all capable three-point shooters with center Cayla George going 3-6 from beyond the arc.

Brondello has a level of familiarity with Whitcomb and free agent Rebecca Allen — she’s coached both of them on different iterations of the Australian National team. Does hiring Brondello further entice Allen to return to New York?

Speaking of familiarity, Pokey Chatman could be a name that crosses Kolb’s mind. Chatman, a master scout of WNBA talent, drafted Betnijah Laney. Since being let go by the Indiana Fever after the 2019 season, Chatman hasn’t returned to the W, but as of late she’s been involved with another women’s pro league in Athletes Unlimited. She was spotted at their Atlanta Tryouts this past weekend.

When Hopkins was first introduced almost two years ago, he mentioned how a goal of his would be allowing Liberty players to play at their “kill zones” or where on the floor they function best. Brondello would bring the same as that was what defined her career in Phoenix. She found ways to place her players in positions where they could execute their strengths. For example, something like the “elbow” horns flare set that she’d routinely called to free up Diana Taurasi, giving her an open look from the left elbow. Or having athletic power forward Brianna Turner establish herself at the dunker spot, allowing her to be able to use her athleticism to impact the game offensively.

In an episode of The Basketball Podcast from this past January, the former Mercury head coach explained her coaching methodology. “Ball player movement is the most important thing in basketball to get high-quality shots,” she said.

In Phoenix, however, this core belief was adjusted as she understood that one of her best players in Brittney Griner functioned best in the paint rather than all over the floor. But she understands playing to the percentages. She knows that high-quality shots come from beyond the arc.

“For me as a coach, I play to the strengths of the team,” she said on the podcast. “And having a 6’8 dominant player, obviously it means that I should be having some emphasis on playing to those particular players because I think that will also open up for the outside shots and taking more threes as well too. It’s not really a five out, but I mean when she’s off the court you try to do as five out as much as we can.”

Brondello is no doubt a masterful in-game coach and play caller. But, it’s unclear how willing she is to invest in and provide player development. And on a young team like the Liberty, that extra attention and focus on development is still integral to New York’s future success.

When Kolb hired Hopkins, he was between him and top Mystics assistant and player developer Eric Thibault. Many are thinking that Thibault may get another shot to interview with not only New York but for the opening in Phoenix as well. But a source familiar with the situation tells The Next that neither team has expressed interest in Thibault.

For Brondello’s case: who could fill that void, making the case to Kolb that she values player development and has the resources to do so? Look no further than recent WNBA champion and spouse Olaf Lange, who has been coaching since before I was born (1995) and worked mainly on player development when he worked beside his wife when they both assisted Dan Hughes on the San Antonio Silver Stars. His development work has recently gotten a spotlight as it manifested in the emergence of Kahleah Copper, helping her go from a young player with potential to an All-Star and then a WNBA Finals MVP.

Who could get the Liberty playing New York-style defense?

Under Latricia Trammell’s guidance since 2019, the Sparks transformed into a defensive juggernaut. In her tenure as an assistant coach, her teams have been awarded four defensive awards including Candace Parker’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 and Brittney Sykes’ spot on the All-Defensive First Team in 2021.

In Parker’s final season on the Sparks, she credited Trammell specifically as the impetus for her development on the defensive end of the floor. “Coach T has been huge in our team’s development as well as my development defensively,” she said.

In an interview with our David Yapkowitz, Trammell explained her passion for defense, why she believes it matters and how defensive pride leads to success. She explained how fired up and motivated she becomes “any time” the Sparks would do defensive drills during practice. She would often chest bump with her players to celebrate that success on the defensive end. Her philosophy was that the celebration and high energy would lead to execution.

“Not everyone can shoot the basketball,” Trammell said. “Not everyone can take someone off the bounce, even at this level. But defense, there’s no excuse. That’s energy, that’s grit, that’s putting on the work gloves, that’s blue-collar worker type mentality you have to have,” Trammell said. “There’s no excuse not to bring that every day. With that said, I’m going to make sure I have no excuse, I’m going to bring that every day. Once they see that and see how excited I get, hopefully, that translates to them.”

That sure sounds familiar. That sounds exactly like the way the Liberty aimed to but didn’t necessarily execute playing defense in 2021. When the 2021 season began, both Hopkins and his team explained to the media the type of defense they wanted to play. They wanted their opponents to feel them. They wanted it to transition into easy offense. They wanted their defense to remind fans of the origins of New York Liberty basketball. Although injuries can shower some of the blame, New York finished with the third worst defense in the league.

The Liberty’s 2021 roster had players who value defense (Allen, Kylee Shook, Leaonna Odom, Jazmine Jones and Jocelyn Willoughby) and it had some who also have won awards for it (Howard and Laney).

Another name that comes to mind is Curt Miller’s top assistant Brandi Poole, who had also made sense once the Liberty moved on from Katie Smith. Poole understands how elite team defense is implemented. During the regular season, her Connecticut Sun suffocated opponents defensively.

Latest Liberty Ring of Honor Member Crystal Robinson signs an autograph for a fan. (Photo credit: The New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty)

Understanding New York grit still matters

Something that Brondello, Trammell, Poole and Chatman might be lacking is their understanding of what New York Liberty basketball is and what it was built on. When Teresa Weatherspoon visited the Liberty during its 25th Anniversary celebration this past summer, she instilled in the current group of players how playing with a certain grit and passion engages the fanbase and is what playing in New York is all about.

While Weatherspoon has been a candidate on the mind of many, she might not be willing to give up an NBA assistant job that provides the former Liberty Legend with more financial benefits than she got previously when she served as New York’s Director of Player Franchise Development. But someone else of that same ilk also visited the 2021 Liberty this past summer. When Crystal Robinson was honored as a newly inducted member of the Liberty’s Ring of honor, she explained to both the current players and the media the type of swag and toughness that being a Liberty came with.

Her knowledge of New York’s intangibles would make her also an intriguing candidate. Robinson last was an assistant on Dallas Wings from 2019-2020 and previously was on staffs of the Washington Mystics and the Seattle Storm. In 2018, she coached both Howard and Whitcomb.

Hopkins’ vision was the blueprint of Kolb’s and it is now firmly in place. It’s up to the Liberty to hire a coach who can adapt that blueprint to their own principles while having the winning and leading experience necessary to help the franchise compete for a championship, a feat the organization hasn’t accomplished since 2002.

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.

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