May 19, 2022 

The Liberty face ‘home truths’ in their journey to change course

After starting the season 1-4 what did we learn about who the Liberty are right now

BROOKLYN — When New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello approached the dais on Tuesday night after falling to the Connecticut Sun 92-65 in the team’s fourth loss in a row, she sounded bewildered, moderately frustrated. She was mainly physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

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“I was stunned—why are we turning it over?” she said out into the void, reflecting on the team’s 29 turnovers that created 44 points for the opposition.

She was later asked about her discussion with her team after being blown out of the water twice in less than a week by both the defending champions the Thursday before and then by the team with 2021’s best record on Tuesday night. There weren’t a lot of words spoken, according to Brondello. She left the group knowing that she needed to reflect on the present and on the road ahead. And the same task lied ahead for her players both as a collective and individually.

The players spoke amongst themselves for twenty minutes following Brondello’s departure from the locker room. They expressed their frustrations, admitted to wrongdoing and set a course of action for the week ahead, one void of games.

Following the player-only meeting, the locker room let off an aura of complete weariness, an energy similar to that of their coach. The players weren’t dejected but just needed to breathe, a space to catch their breath before what was going to be a long week of individual and collective work ahead. Natasha Howard sat at her locker calmly looking at her phone. Sami Whitcomb and Sabrina Ionescu were huddled in a corner, discussing and debriefing.

Rebecca Allen was so drained that she apologized for the lack of energy she had during our postgame discussion about how her teammate Asia Durr (who uses they/them pronouns and uses the name AD) scored their first professional points in almost three years.

How did the Liberty get here? After out-toughing the then-short-handed Connecticut Sun ten days prior, what has caused four straight losses and a full on reckoning a week into the season? The way the Liberty lost their two most recent home games against the Sun and the Wings on Sunday afternoon reveals more wholistic issues and the current circumstances that this team faces in the here and now.

The turnovers, the issues finishing out plays defensively on the glass and lack of discipline are all a function of a lot of newnesses and not a lot of time to adapt. But this is why Brondello was hired, right? She’s a championship-winning head coach who took an inconsistent and injured team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. She’s an experienced head coach that doesn’t view adversity with impulsivity. She doesn’t allow adversity to take her out of the job that must be done, something the Liberty haven’t had since Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai purchased the team in 2019.

Adversity and deficiencies hit New York immediately

The turnovers, 19.8 per game to be exact, is an obvious and a natural place to begin. In my analysis of all 29 turnovers from Tuesday night, common themes were present across every single one. The Connecticut Sun and their disciplined defense absolutely deserve credit for forcing the Liberty into turnovers. But the Liberty also struggled to anticipate where their teammates would cut, passed the ball too slowly, and hesitated in making reads.

Why have the Liberty been too slow? It’s a function of their schedule and the beatings their bodies took playing four games in seven days. It’s a function of players not being properly conditioned after not playing an entire overseas season. Players such as Betnijah Laney, Howard, Ionescu, Jocelyn Willoughby and DiDi Richards either weren’t overseas or had an abbreviated season. It’s a function of not enough players being available to come off the bench and contribute during games. Yes, that means injuries.

“We haven’t had a lot of our main players together due to injuries and late arrivals,” Brondello said pregame on Tuesday night. “Stef[anie] Dolson, you know, only had two practices before the first game and Michaela [Onyenwere] as well. So it’s hard when you are new to a group to put it all together.”

On Tuesday, the Liberty’s second turnover of 29 came on hesitation from Howard. She struggled to keep composure with the ball in her hands while a spry Alyssa Thomas was playing the former DPOY quite closely. While Howard was dealing with Thomas, Stefanie Dolson and Laney were in the process of setting up the action.

Dolson set up a brick wall right in front of Jonquel Jones, allowing for Laney to cut to the left wing for an open look. By the time Laney cut to her spot, she noticed that Thomas had her way with Howard and the ball was sailing the other way in transition.

This is the exact reason for the hesitation and lack of crisp anticipation. The entire team haven’t had nearly enough continuity. That’s the reason Howard couldn’t find Laney coming off Dolson’s back screen. That’s why Whitcomb’s pocket passes were not able to hit the roller in rookie Lorela Cubaj at the time they should. Is it the pass, or is it the roller not entering the paint with enough speed and urgency? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is timing is off, something that only comes with more practice time.

This is also a function of the nature of who the Liberty are built around. In the past few days, both Brondello and young franchise star Ionescu have referred to the team as being less athletic and slower. This reflects on Ionescu’s weakness and the concern talent evaluators had with her transition from college to the pro game. How would she counter the speed and athleticism of the W? She’s had trouble navigating the hard hedging from both the Sky and Sun defenses and she’s allowed speedier guards in Natisha Hiedeman and Jasmine Thomas to stay in front of her and just pick her pocket. The Liberty have lacked poise when handling pressure and that begins with Ionescu.

“There are some things that just shouldn’t happen,” Brondello said postgame on Tuesday. “That’s just having a little bit of poise and we don’t have that at the moment. We are not the quickest team, the pressure, we are not able to break people down and that certainly does affect us and their length bothered us.”

That quickness, athleticism and composure, or currently the lack thereof, has also made the Liberty struggle defensively, a side of the ball that this team wants to be focused on and someday known for.

Against the Wings on Sunday and the Fever on Friday, the Liberty were outrebounded and struggled to finish defensive possessions. I asked Ionescu on Sunday after falling to Dallas what the reason was for this struggle defensively.

“That’s an interesting question,” she said. “If I had the answer, I think we would be doing it, but I think part of it is we are not the tallest team. We are not the most athletic team and I think to just figure out what we need to do, how we need to box out. How we need to pursue the rebounds. And credit to them, the teams that we have played attacked the glass hard and those are adjustments we need to make, whether it is the guards continuing to get in there and get rebounds. Our guards did rebound pretty well tonight, but we just gotta figure out a way. We just know that is something that’s going to win us games and we just have to get it done, whether it’s from the bigs, the guards, it’s going to take everyone.”

According to Dolson, defensive improvement is incumbent on chemistry. Chemistry is something the Liberty are currently lacking. She explained that the key to being a better defensive team, in addition to effort and defensive IQ, is trust. “It’s built, it’s not made right then and there,” she told The Next when discussing what is required on defense.

Problem solving and accountability are what Brondello, Laney and Dolson were brought on for

On Sunday, Laney was frustrated. She had a better game individually, scoring 13 points on 11 shots along with five assists. But her team still lost to Dallas 81-71 and she *HATES* losing. Once the buzzer sounded on Sunday, she productively released some of her angst as one of the leaders of this New York team.

Laney was leading the team huddle at center court, speaking expressively and demonstratively. Her lips were easily readable. “We have to box out” was one of the many stern messages she had for her team. This also was the same message she had for me moments later in the locker room. When asked why the team had struggled so much on the glass, she replied that her team needs “to box out,” emphasizing that the Liberty currently aren’t disciplined enough.

Box out. There’s no magic formula for it. We just need to box out.

Betnijah laney on the liberty’s struggles on the boards

Laney is the leader that this team needs and it was one of the many reasons why she was signed to a multi-year deal during free agency in the winter of 2021. Before Tuesday night’s game, Allen explained what Laney’s leadership looks like on the Liberty.

“She’s a great vocal point for us, to bring people together and also be able to say home truths, you know,” Allen told The Next. “So you can’t have someone who’s tapping you on the back and telling you all the good things sometimes, you need someone who tells you to your face, you need to do this and that. So I think that we get a really good dynamic of both.”

Similarly to Laney, Brondello is now faced with a situation that she was hired to handle. Under Walt Hopkins a year ago, the Liberty lost three of their best perimeter defenders to injury in Howard, Willoughby and Leaonna Odom, who is no longer on the team. The coaching staff from last year struggled to adjust their initial defensive game plan amid that adversity.

But this year, New York is now faced with a similar patch of difficulty. Two key defenders and versatile guards will be out for the foreseeable future in Willoughby and Richards. While Brondello noted that Richards could be back from re-straining her right hamstring by the end of May, it looks far more bleak for Willoughby. On Tuesday night, New York’s head coach explained that Willoughby “didn’t even remember how” she sustained yet another injury to her left leg. Could this be the reason for Willoughby’s disappearance in the second halves of both games against the Wings and the Fever after successfully defending each team’s best player? It’s very possible.

And at the moment, AD, who is still getting used to the exertion and mental and physical energy required in a five-on-five live basketball setting, might not be able to give the team what it needs from the guard spot. So what are the Liberty to do?

The French playoffs are still in session and Marine Johannès‘ team will play game two of the semi-finals on Friday. If LDLC ASVEL makes it to the final, Johannès won’t be available until the earliest June 6 and the latest June 11. The need for her services at this point are more urgent than they were many weeks before.

More injuries and potentially more new players flying in, that’s exactly what the Liberty hired Brondello to be able to handle and she’ll be tested immediately. Can she do what she did in Phoenix and throughout her career so well? She alluded to the beginning of that process on Tuesday night. She explained that once she sits down with some game film, her next move will be to figure out how she can counter her team’s weaknesses.

“We need to work out what’s the best way for us to play now that we… got players out,” she said. Her eyes widened out of frustration.

“But we’ve got players now that our main players are here now and what do we need to do to exploit every different coverage and put players in better positions. And that’s on me, so I’ll go back to watch the video and we’ll get to work next week. We’ll rest em up and get to work. It’s solution based. You’ve gotta figure out what’s the best for us moving forward.” 

As for Dolson, this was also why she was brought to New York, in addition to her screening, shooting and size. She’s a WNBA champion, and the Liberty took note of how she became one. She began last season on a team that was 2-7, who then eventually were holding up the championship trophy months later. She’s not new to this type of adversity and chaos.

In the postgame presser on Tuesday, Dolson explained what she believes the next step is for both her and her teammate Laney. ” I think we’ve done a lot of talking, but some leaders show by their actions and I think that’s something that both of us could do,” she said. “I’m just gonna kind of show it in the practices, show that I’m willing to change. I’m willing to do certain things differently to be better and to make the team better.”

When Laney was asked about what she hopes is achieved during this long break the Liberty have, she provided a laundry list of what’s already been said. She referenced turnovers, boxing out and rebounding, but there was one word she used that was particularly telling. She explained that New York must do what it can to alter its verdict. Why did she use that term, verdict?

Aside from the typical legalese associated with the word, the secondary definition of the word verdict is an opinion or a judgment. The shoe fits! This is just the latest chapter in the Liberty’s multi-year quest to reach a level of relevance they haven’t had in at least five years. Laney understands that to change the image and perception of this franchise, she and her teammates ought to get to work.

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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