October 19, 2020 

New York Liberty: Who stays, who goes, who arrives?

Understanding the decisions that inform the next phase of the Liberty rebuild

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The 2020 New York Liberty put their hands in during a huddle. Photo via the New York Liberty’s twitter account.

The New York Liberty’s final 2020 roster excluded personnel that Walt Hopkins’ five-out motion offense was designed for. Rebecca Allen. Marine Johannès. Asia Durr. Han Xu. All didn’t make it out to Bradenton.

General Manager Jonathan Kolb, Hopkins and his staff had a decision to make. Do they alter the system to fit a younger and less experienced roster—seven rookies to be exact—or do they install the system and see which younger players fit it best?

Ultimately, they went with the latter. Hopkins didn’t want to adjust the style of play just to throw it all out a year later. Restarting in 2021 without any foundation in 2020 wastes an entire season, regardless of the circumstances.

Often the result wasn’t pretty. New York finished the season with the worst field goal percentage and three-point percentage.

The unpleasant shooting performances and the questions from reporters about accumulating more points in the paint rather than attempting shots they couldn’t land raised questions over whether Hopkins was stubborn, and someone not willing to adapt to what his roster was giving him. But Hopkins explained that wasn’t the case.

“We’ve had to audible so many things this year,” Hopkins told The Next last month.

While the team’s inconsistent offensive production led a vexed Hopkins to question the decision, he remembered a recent interview with Steve Nash where the Hall of Famer explained his regrets in the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals. The Phoenix Suns didn’t have the size to match up with the San Antonio Spurs and Nash lamented that his team “didn’t go harder on small ball” but instead tried to play to their opponent’s identity rather than their own.

“And he said that ultimately that’s why it didn’t fully work in the playoffs because he felt like they didn’t fully own it,” Hopkins said. While “owning” the system came across as embarrassing and confusing to the outside looking in, staying the course paid dividends. In a pregame presser on the last day of the regular season, Kolb reflected on the plan that he was pitched last offseason.

“I think it’s pretty clear we’ve installed a system,” he said, “Both offensively and defensively that we’re really happy with.”

Kolb rattled a bunch of metrics that are indicators for future success.

  • 98.67 PACE (the number of possessions per 48 minutes), second overall to Las Vegas

  • 21.1 percent in free throw rate, also second overall to the Aces

  • a league-best 41.5 percent of three-point shots attempted

He also mentioned the Liberty’s defense, which improved considerably, noting that New York ended the season fifth in opponent field goal percentage. “You don’t want to be ninth in defensive rating, but when you look, we’re significantly better than the 12 spot,” he said. “We’re the best of the lottery teams [Dallas, Atlanta and Indiana] on that side of the ball.”

In 2019, the Liberty had the league’s worst defensive rating.

In the next few months, the Liberty face decisions that they didn’t have to make after April’s draft. Instead of a typically contentious training camp, including difficult cuts that usually precede the regular season, New York was able to keep everyone who they drafted and even got a look at young players who were on Hopkins’ radar including Joyner Holmes and Paris Kea.

With close to half a million dollars of cap room and 17 players (actually 18 including Stephanie Talbot) that the team is connected to, the Liberty have an opportunity to build a team that best fits their system.

New York’s returners in 2021

New York Liberty guard Rebecca Allen (9) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Washington Mystics at Entertainment and Sports Arena Washington, DC, USA on August 25, 2019. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

In January, Walt Hopkins explained that his vision for the 2020 Liberty relied upon personnel getting to their “kill zones,” or where each player performs best. Six months later, however, with a roster laden with youth, it became more about figuring out who half of this roster could be and whether or not their style of play and understanding of the game could translate into Hopkins’ original vision.

In other words, 2020 was an audition for Brooklyn and for what New York Liberty basketball is going to look like.

“I said it from day one when we were here and I was with you guys, which was: we’re going to identify the players that are gonna roll with us to Brooklyn, and we have done that,” Kolb said on the final day of the season.

Rookies not named Sabrina who proved themselves

Losing Sabrina Ionescu three games into the season was devastating. But in the end, it provided Kolb, Hopkins and the rest of the front office with more information and more opportunities for “other people to step up.” And that description fits Jazmine Jones to a tee.

Making the WNBA All-Rookie team solidifies Jones’ place in the league. Hopkins said that she’s indispensable for the Liberty, not only acknowledging her skill level and athleticism but her hunger and competitive fire.

“The toughness and the hunger and the competitiveness with her are at a really high level and I think that allows her to maximize her other gifts,” Hopkins said reacting to her All-Rookie team selection. “And there’s players who have gifts similar to Jaz in terms of athleticism and things like that, but they might not have the hunger she does, they might not be as competitive.

“It’s a really valuable quality for a team to have a player who’s like that. And I think if you look through any professional team sport, and you see the teams that have had tremendous success throughout the years, they’ve always had those players. I really think it’s hard to win without them.”

It’s also hard to win without players who have a certain level of commitment to their craft. Hopkins spoke of the glimpses of growth he saw from rookies Jocelyn Willoughby and Kylee Shook. During the last week of the regular season, Hopkins told The Next that both rookies sought out extra and optional weight room sessions with assistant coach Dustin Gray.

And then there’s Leaonna “Neah” Odom, who quietly emerged along with Willoughby and Shook as one of the most consistent defenders on the Liberty. She recorded memorable performances while guarding WNBA superstars Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Angel McCoughtry to their least productive offensive outputs. “She’s starting and holding the best players to like their worst games of the season,” Hopkins said of Odom.

Bringing all four back costs New York under a quarter of a million dollars, and their contracts amount to around 19 percent of the total salary cap. But what about Megan Walker and Joyner Holmes, the other two first years not named Sabrina on the 2020 roster? Both didn’t crack the rotation as often as their peers, and were even at times outworked by them.

Paris Kea flashed some brilliance shooting. She picked New York up when others weren’t draining their shots, but her inability to play the one and protect the ball might deter the Liberty from resigning her.

While it’s difficult to judge Walker due to her testing positive for COVID-19 before training camp, I’d be surprised if the trio of Walker, Holmes and Kea returned in 2021. Then again, don’t rule out surprises from the New York Liberty.

If the Liberty didn’t go “summer league mode,” they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to examine Jones or Odom, both overlooked by some media members.

What’s next for the “Baby Vets” and the opt-outs?

Excluding Amanda Zahui B., the young vet core of Kia Nurse, Layshia Clarendon, and Kiah Stokes remains under contract for 2021. Representing around 22 percent of New York’s salary cap, the Liberty have room to resign Zahui B., who is expected to get a salary increase from the final year in her contract.

Allen, who opted out of the 2020 season, is not under contract for 2021. Even if Zahui B. is resigned to a contract north of 200K a year, New York still has over twenty percent of the salary cap to spend on both Allen and another free agent.

New York would be foolish to not pursue Allen, who overseas has already put together a game with six three-pointers made. Amanda Zahui B. and Sabrina Ionescu both only reached that mark once for the Liberty in 2020. Hopkins and Kolb had large plans for Allen, and in Bradenton they realized that the open looks from three that she can make are generated by the new system. Allen’s very game is what allows a five-out motion offense to function.

The other opt-outs: Durr, Johannès and Han remain signed for 2021. Durr and Han are still on their rookie contracts, and Johannès has one year left in her two-year deal. The rookie trio from 2019 represents 14 percent of the Liberty’s total salary cap.

How needs are addressed

The New York Liberty celebrate against the Washington Mystics on September 12, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Excluding unsigned Zahui B. and Allen, the Liberty currently have $467,896 in total cap space, which is almost 35 percent of their total budget. And for both Kolb and Hopkins, that’s pretty exciting. In addressing reporters on the last day of the regular season, Kolb noted that the organization is “excited to be really aggressive” in both free agency and the trade market this coming winter.

“We have all the money in the world,” Hopkins told The Next before Kiah Stokes was re-signed. “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.” 

But what about the draft? The Liberty have the best odds to obtain their second number one overall pick in two years. And while draft boards and the 2020-2021 college season both remain a bit premature, draftsite.com has the Liberty positioned to pick Texas Longhorn Charli Collier, a 6’5 junior who was able to do a little bit of everything last season which included shooting over 35 percent from three.

Above all, the Liberty need a versatile three-point shooting big who has not only size and strength, but athleticism. In Hopkins’ motion offense those are non-negotiables. But also vital for Hopkins is how players function within the team culture and respond to his coaching style.

“The culture piece is a non-negotiable,” he told reporters on September 13. “I know that it can be tempting, when you have a player who’s exceptionally talented. It’s not necessarily a knock on their character or anything like that, it’s more so just about fit…As soon as you sacrifice one or the other, you’re probably not going to be where you want to be.

This offseason, New York will aim to maintain balance, targeting folks who both match desired skillsets, but also people who have selfless personalities and are givers of energy to others.

The offseason New York Liberty Salary Cap Report. Find the rest of WNBA offseason salary cap reports here.

What type of rebuild will this be?

The Liberty haven’t had a postseason birth since 2017. How long does New York have until they are expected by ownership to make a playoff run and one day return to the WNBA finals?

It’s been 18 years since the New York Liberty have appeared in a WNBA finals.

In a discussion with The Next, Hopkins explained that the franchises that have won the two most recent WNBA championships, the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics, went through similar periods of struggle.

For the Storm, their trajectory toward two titles in three years began in 2015 during a season when first-year head coach Jenny Boucek was implementing a five-out motion offense around her future hall of fame point guard Sue Bird and her number one draft pick Jewell Loyd. Breanna Stewart was about to play for her fourth NCAA national championship. After improvement in 2016 during Stewart’s rookie season, Seattle still struggled to put all the pieces together a year later.

After moving on from Boucek, Seattle looked in the mirror and traded for Natasha Howard, an athletic post player who would complement a motion offense and its brightest stars in Bird, Lloyd and Stewart.

Rebuilding for the Mystics required prospect development first. Over a four year span, Mike Thibault drafted and developed Emma Meesseman, Stefanie Dolson, Natasha Cloud and Kahleah Copper. With a surplus of young talent and room in the salary cap, Thibault put together a blockbuster trade of Dolson and Copper that brought Elena Delle Donne to Washington as the Mystics’ new franchise player.

Kristi Toliver signed with the Mystics during that same offseason and a year later, Washington traded for Aerial Powers and drafted sharp-shooting Ariel Atkins.

Back to that $467,896 for a moment. Here are the questions that will remain for the Liberty in the next few months. In future installments of this offseason coverage, I’ll dig deeper.

Do the Liberty cash out now or wait a year? Will the free-agent market be as stacked as it is this winter in 2022? Which path does New York follow, and do they draw a bit of each from both the Seattle and Washington rebuild models? Do talented free agents want to play for a team coming off a 2-20 season?

Sabrina Ionescu can answer that first one. “It’s going to be huge,” she told reporters when asked about free agency two weeks ago. “I mean, [the players that] are listed in that list are great players. And so obviously, we’ll see if we can get lucky and who our ownership decides, you know to bring over.”

And that last question Jonathan Kolb can answer. He’s confident that talent around the league will be drawn to Brooklyn and the Barclays Center (in the case that teams play in market next season). But also, he’s confident in his coaching staff that has built “a true community.”

Kolb has been with New York since the days at the Westchester County Center. Over a two-season span, he’s noticed that the most growth is in the new team culture.

“Communication is top-notch,” he said. “I think that you all will agree that this team fights. They’re relentless, they’re passionate about the game of basketball and they want to play for Walt. They want to play for Walt and his coaching staff that he’s established.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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