October 6, 2023
Can the New York Liberty win the 2023 WNBA Finals?
Liberty compete in finals for first time since 2002
Excitement, shock and surrealism followed the New York Liberty after they punched their ticket to the WNBA Finals on Sunday afternoon; on Wednesday however, it was back to business. The joy was still there, but it was much more subdued. The emotions were much more calm and at bay.
Liberty guard Jocelyn Willoughby, who’s been with the franchise since the 2020 dark days when the Liberty finished with a 2-20 record, reflected on how in just three years, her team is now in the finals. But she was quick to iterate that the “business” hasn’t been completed yet and that she and her team have to stay “focused” on what lies ahead.
“It’s not something that just comes around,” Willoughby said on Wednesday. “And it’s not an opportunity that people get a lot, if at all. So definitely cherishing it but yes, we still have some ways to go.”
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With the 2023 WNBA Finals set to tipoff on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT, the Liberty have spent a few days preparing at home in Brooklyn before taking their charter flight to Las Vegas for Games 1 and 2 against the Aces. The prophecy that was laid out in February when the Liberty’s new team of stars was assembled has now been realized. New York’s roster, one that was designed to directly counter and compete against the defending champions in Las Vegas, has realized part of its potential: a trip back to the WNBA Finals. It’s something the New York Liberty franchise hasn’t achieved since 2002.
In 2002, the Liberty were a franchise that rostered six of their seven current ring of honor members including Becky Hammon, the current coach of the Aces. It’s poetic that Hammon, formerly one of their own, remains part of the road block that the Liberty face in order to win the franchise’s first ever championship. For more context: in 2002, current New York Liberty’s current head coach Sandy Brondello was playing for the now defunct Miami Sol, one of the WNBA’s first expansion teams.
This WNBA Finals will represent even more than just a clash of the titans that displays the best talent in the league. Rather, it will represent how far the perception and respect for the league itself has come. In just a half a decade, the New York Liberty went from a franchise in limbo playing at the Westchester County Center to one about to partake in its first WNBA Finals since some of its founding members were still playing. A similar type of narrative arc exists for Las Vegas, a franchise that used to call San Antonio home as the Stars. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, the Stars had three consecutive single-digit win and playoff-less seasons.
A reason that 2023 MVP Breanna Stewart wanted to make the cross-country move from Seattle to New York was to raise the profile and reputation of the WNBA, and place the best basketball in one of the largest media markets in the world.
She wanted to bring her talents to a place that’s been starved of a basketball championship for almost 50 years. Whenever Stewart sees fans on the street in New York City, she hears them shouting, “Go Liberty!” They chat with her about how they’ve been waiting to watch an excellent basketball team. “For basketball in New York City, this is huge,” she said. “ But this is how it should be.”
Her drive to sign in New York was also about assembling a team that could defeat the Aces, one that both her 2022 Seattle Storm and Jonquel Jones’ 2022 Conneticut Sun didn’t have enough firepower to beat. “I think there’s more parity,” said Jones, who battled against A’ja Wilson and Las Vegas in the finals over a year ago. “I think we’re a better matched team to play against the Aces.”
Maintaining identity and principles
For the Liberty to make history and prevent the Aces from making their own as the first team since 2002 — that year, again — to repeat as back-to back-champions, New York needs to maintain a firm sense of self.
That was what was top of mind for Brondello when it comes to how her team achieves success in Game 1 and throughout the series. Maintaining the Liberty’s identity even when moments don’t go their way is what’s going to propel New York forward. “We need to go in and stamp out how we want to play at both ends of the floor and have confidence,” she told reporters on Wednesday.
What defines the Liberty’s identity and how well have they played to that characterization against the Aces during the regular season? The Liberty were the best three point shooting team this season, the second best rebounding team and had the best assist percentage.
Defensively, the Liberty finished third to Las Vegas and the Connecticut Sun in overall defensive rating. But New York finished the regular season with the top opponent effective field goal percentage. The Liberty limited opponents to a 47.6 effective field goal percentage to Las Vegas’ 48.
According to the graph below, the notable metric that the Liberty struggled to maintain against Las Vegas in their four regular season matchups (excluding the Commissioner’s Cup, won by the Liberty) was their defensive rating. But it’s worth remembering that the Aces had the top offense during the 2023 regular season and remain one of the top offenses in WNBA league history. When it comes to New York’s identity and the way in which they play at their best, shooting the ball at a high clip, maintaining control of the glass, moving the ball and playing focused team defense remain how New York can put themselves in the best position possible during this finals series.
Both Laney and Jones expressed that how the Liberty operate in transition, both on offense and defensively, will determine the Liberty’s success against the Aces in this postseason series. Laney, the Liberty’s defensive savant and leader, explained on Wednesday that the Liberty playing well-executed defense against the Aces, which by default is a tall order, is what will be her team’s best offense. “I think what really gets us going is our transition [play], and you get in transition by getting stops,” Laney said.
What has also been a part of the Liberty’s identity this season is how well they’ve adapted to how other teams have challenged them. While the Aces were battle tested during their run to the finals last season, they’ve faced a lot less adversity getting to the finals this time around. The quality of opponents the Liberty have faced to reach the finals presented a greater challenge than the road the Aces took. The Liberty faced two of the league’s top five defenses in Connecticut (second) and Washington (fifth) while the Aces’ opponents in the Sky and Wings were the seventh and eighth ranked defenses, respectively.
The Liberty have experienced physicality in their two series against the Mystics and the Sun. Both teams tried to take away the Liberty’s three point shooting and trapped New York’s primary ball handlers in Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu. 2023 MVP Stewart was reduced to a less potent offensive player due to how Washington crowded her and how Alyssa Thomas of Connecticut took that individual matchup personally.
“To embrace that physicality, to play through it and understand that however the series is going to be, we’re going to adjust and adapt,” Stewart said on Wednesday. “And we’re going to know that when things don’t go our way, when things get tough — we just tend to get closer together and that we have one another’s back.”
Laney and Jones remain at the heart of the Liberty’s success
Even when their 2023 MVP in Stewart was challenged along with the Liberty’s guard play, part of the Liberty’s identity is having “one another’s back” as Stewart said. But what she also means is that the Liberty have enough high-level talent that can step up when adversity strikes.
Throughout the postseason that’s been the call that both Laney and Jones have answered. In six playoff games, Betnijah Laney has averaged 17 points on a 43.8 field goal percentage, including shooting 43.8 percent from three. This shouldn’t come as a shock as Laney flashed this type of brilliance back when the Liberty played the Phoenix Mercury in a single elimination playoff game that New York nearly won on Laney’s 25-point performance.
But with much more talent around her, Laney can be the two-way threat that she was envisioned to be for New York when general manager Jonathan Kolb signed her prior to the 2021 season. The Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics learned the hard way that the Liberty have a three-headed guard threat of their own, and in the postseason it’s been Laney that’s put on the most impressive and efficient numbers.
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In the one playoff game the Liberty have lost this season, Laney was limited to three points on 1-for-9 shooting, two rebounds and two assists. When she can create at all three levels and even hit spot up corner pocket threes, it puts that much more pressure on opposing defenses to contest her shots. And as a secondary/tertiary ball handler, someone who like Stewart can bring up the ball and begin an action, Laney knows when to move the ball and facilitate.
But it’s not just Laney’s offensive consistency that helped bring the Liberty to the playoffs, according to Jones. “She’s unbelievable,” Jones said about Laney. “She’s been so consistent, so tough throughout these playoffs and we’re gonna need her to continue to do that and we know that she will. But her toughness on both sides of the floor. Not just scoring but defensively and being our defensive leader.”
But Jones herself might be the most important piece of the Liberty’s equation in their quest to dethrone the reigning champs. On the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast with our Howard Megdal, The Athletic’s Sabreena Merchant called Jones someone who can do “so many things” that test the Aces on both sides of the floor.
And Jones admitted to her own versatility being something that she and her team can take advantage of. The Sun got a pretty heaping dose of that versatility in Jones’ 25-15 double-double in the finals clinching game on Sunday. She rebounded the ball at will, scored on the block, scored on the perimeter and made plays defensively that led to offense (i.e., the steal that Brondello called “lit”).
“Just being able to take advantage of whatever the defense is trying to give us and some of the things that they necessarily don’t want us to have,” Jones said. “All together it’s just a hard matchup for anybody to be able to guard somebody that can do more than one thing and be able to do it on both sides of the floor.”
And this was a similar point that Merchant made as well: How will A’ja Wilson have the bandwidth to be not only the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year but also assert her will offensively? Will Kiah Stokes be guarding Jones to give Wilson a breather? But then what about on the other end when whoever is guarding Stokes can help off and apply pressure to another member of the Aces’ core four?
“If there is a limitation in the Aces rotation, it’s that Kiah Stokes is not a threat as a scorer,” Merchant said. “But you have to play her more to contend with [Jones]. And I think that’s why [Jones] is so pivotal to what both teams are trying to accomplish.”
But in addition to the schematic challenges that Jones poses for the Aces, she also presents another challenge to Las Vegas. What Jones and the Liberty have had in common since she was traded to New York was their mutual understanding of what championship heartbreak looks like and feels like. She’s played in two WNBA finals and lost them both. The Liberty franchise has played in 4 finals and lost them all. While everyone on the Liberty’s player roster remains hungry for a championship, it might be Jones who craves holding up that trophy the most.
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How exactly is the bench used after limited opportunities in semis?
The Aces know how much of a problem and mismatch that Jones can be. During the Liberty’s Aug. 17 regular season matchup against the Aces on the road, and then the Aug. 28 regular season matchup against the Aces at home, Las Vegas tried their very best to get Jones in foul trouble. On the 17th, Aces coach Becky Hammon’s strategy worked to a tee. But around 10 days later, it did not. Why?
The advantage the Liberty have had over the Aces all season long has been their bench depth. The hypotheticals all season long ran akin to this: if Courtney Vandersloot was gassed, the Liberty can bring in “little assassin” Marine Johannès; if Betnijah Laney gets into foul trouble, the Liberty can sub in “winning play” machine Kayla Thornton; and if Jones also gets into foul trouble, Jones’ replacement is screening extraordinaire and spacer Stefanie Dolson.
But what puts the Liberty bench’s position in question is the fact that the trio of Johannès, Thornton and Dolson saw limited minutes in the semifinals against Connecticut. While there might have been a schematic reason for Johannès taking a DNP in Game 3 of the semis after playing very well in Game 4, Thornton and Dolson played limited roles last weekend in Connecticut.
And with the ESPN programming windows spaced out in the finals even more than they were in the semis, Brondello might not be as inclined to rest her starters. But if Jones or Laney get into foul trouble, she may have no choice.
But foul trouble is often something that a coach can’t control. Officiating isn’t something that can be prophesized no matter how hard someone might try. But what Brondello knows she and her team can control is the amount of urgency and force the Liberty will aim to have during the first quarter on Sunday afternoon.
“We come away with a lot of urgency and force coming out of that first quarter,” she said. “I think not taking anything for granted. We haven’t done anything yet. We’ve got bigger goals. And know we’re going to have to fight.”
It’s a fight that the Liberty find themselves ready for after years and years of missing out on. “Since we started the season, our goal is the championship,” MVP Stewart said. “And that’s what we plan to do.”
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.