July 23, 2023 

New York Liberty still working through growing pains at halfway point of 2023

Even with tying best 20-game start in franchise history, plenty of work remains

Over five months ago, Breanna Stewart prophesied what signing with the New York Liberty, a franchise looking to propel itself into the upper echelon of the WNBA, was potentially going to look like. On that cold winter day in mid-February, she, Courtney Vandersloot, head coach Sandy Brondello, general manager Jonathan Kolb and governor Clara Wu Tsai were mostly in a state of euphoria, taking in the fact that the idea that was once just an idea was now reality.

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But alongside the smiles, Stewart made it a point to throw in a dash of reality into what was generally a celebratory time. “It’s gonna be hard, but also, it’s going to be great,” Stewart said back in February. “And there’s going to be a lot of experiences that us as players and really everyone else has never had.”

That simple sentence — “It’s gonna be hard, but also, it’s going to be great” — illustrates where the Liberty are right now. The Liberty are the second best team in the WNBA as it stands with a 15-5 record at the halfway point of this season. That record is tied for the best record after the first 20 games of a season in franchise history, with 1997 and 2001.

But even a record like that comes with some less-than-stellar comparisons in the background. Their budding rival and the best team in the league, the 21-2 Las Vegas Aces, are well on their way to a historic season on league standards, not just in their franchise history. The Aces have a 19.2 net rating, to New York’s 6.9.

And the Aces have often blow out opponents without a ton of adversity to get to the finish line — which stands in stark contrast to the Liberty, who haven’t been able to close out teams that they are miles better than definitively. New York struggled to keep leads in their final games before the All-Star break, and though they beat the out-of-the-playoffs Mercury, Storm and Fever, they needed late heroics from their plethora of clutch players in order to so do.

The group stayed together and dug deep to achieve those wins, but their struggles and weaknesses have been revealed and are out in the open.

Defending the perimeter and specifically their one-on-one defense is still a work in progress. While the Liberty average 37.4 rebounds per game, second in the league to the Wings, they haven’t been as dominant on the boards amid their length and size inside in their five losses. Taking care of the ball is still a common bugaboo, as New York turns the ball over 15.2 times per game, third worst in the WNBA. And their much-lauded bench unit has struggled to find its footing.

“We’re just continuing how to play well with one another, but not using that as an excuse when things aren’t going well,” Sabrina Ionescu said about her team’s knack for losing leads. “It’s a big factor into why some of our games end up the way they do. But we understand it’s happened one too many times, and we have to look inward and continue to build that chemistry. I think we will.”

All of those issues shone through following the All-Star break, when the Dallas Wings came to Brooklyn and knocked off the Liberty. But just two days later against the Washington Mystics, there were significant signs of growth and solutions implemented to counter those weaknesses.

The Liberty are working through their growing pains, but can they sustain that work and come out on the other side? We’ll have to see.

Betnijah Laney hi-fives Sabrina Ionescu while alongside the rest of the starters in Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot on July 21 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

Why have the Liberty struggled to hold onto a lead?

A Turnover, a foul, a miss without a pass, another miss without a pass, another miss without on and off ball movement. That cycle of results in succession are exemplary of what happened in the final two games before the All-Star break against the Mercury and the Fever.

“When we lose them, we start missing shots that I reckon,” Brondello said about why the Liberty have lost leads this season. “Teams get more aggressive and we can’t flip the switch there, but that’s a mindset thing.”

That is a result of “complacency,” the term that Brondello has used all season long to refer to the moments when the Liberty drop in intensity. This is a team where a large constituency of its players are fueled to defend by their offense succeeding rather than vice versa.

“In that particular game against Indiana, we didn’t make shots,” Assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next. “We got good shots and a bunch of them we didn’t make and then our defense lacks and we also didn’t rebound and they made shots.”

But complacency is not just a smugness or a lack of effort, but is also a sloppy looking process. So what is happening exactly? Is it just as simple as missing shots? Lange explained that when the Liberty get into these situations, it’s often a result of getting “trigger happy.” If one player doesn’t make a shot, then on the next offensive set, another player tries to make a shot without much thought or process.

“And then at the end we have five possessions in a row and we don’t score,” he said. “We have to get better at reading the room so to speak and the momentum. [A player] may not have a shot for a while, but let’s get into the movement, execute to the second side, third side and get a really good shot or you can even get to the foul line. We have to do better especially when we don’t make shots, not to keep shooting, finding other ways to find some success, preferably at the rim or get to the free throw line.”

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Brondello added that a lot of the times leads slip is when she goes to the bench, which has become one of the Liberty’s chicken-or-egg type situations this season: the lack of success from the bench. In Brondello’s eyes, the struggles partially come from not having the necessary opportunities to play with the starters and build that chemistry.

The Liberty often practice in units (starters and reserves), and sporadically have intermixed the bench in with the starters. But if they don’t have a lot of opportunities to work with the starters in practice or during games because of the dissipating leads, then how exactly can they get better?

But following the All-Star break — and especially amid the Liberty’s stretch from July 19-Aug. 1 of eight games in 14 days — Brondello knows that the bench needs to be integrated more. She’s played the starters over 257 minutes together because the coach felt they needed their chemistry to be built up quickest. But given that the next most frequent lineup has only played 54 minutes together, now is the time to expand New York’s rotations.

In addition to just getting those reps, the bench players have also been without their leader Stefanie Dolson, who has missed a month with a right ankle injury. The experienced and poised Dolson doesn’t often put up gaudy individual stats, but her ability to facilitate makes her one of the most important players on this roster — and has been sorely missed as she recovers.

Dolson’s facilitation is more than just her passing, though. She’s one of the best communicators on the team, helping coordinate defensive schemes and rotations. And while Stewart and Betnijah Laney are the Liberty’s best defenders, their roles defensively aren’t always focused on telling teammates where to go and where to be. Their roles are to lock down their individual assignments and roam to provide help when necessary.

On top of that, the bench (and in particular Marine Johannés) misses how much space that Dolson is able to get via her screening. While rookie replacement Nyara Sabally is very skilled and has sharp instincts, she isn’t the communicator or the screener that Dolson is.

Without Dolson, Johannès has often looked stagnant, uncomfortable and passive in the flow of the Liberty’s offense. And that’s led to missed shots and a dip in her confidence.

“I think we know she’s trying to figure out the players around her as well,” Ionescu said of Johannès. “It’s not an easy adjustment for anyone. It’s a pretty new team with everyone having a new role. And you know, it’s tough when you have MVP players out there and you’re still trying to do what you do, but understanding that we need to get them the ball as well. And so I think it’s a balance of knowing your worth, but also making sure that you’re making the right basketball plays. And for us, Marine scoring is the right basketball play.”

Jonquel Jones puts a hand up while defending Brittney Sykes on July 21 in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

How did the win in Washington provide a path forward?

The Liberty came into Washington on Friday night having been exploited and outplayed by the Dallas Wings. New York was outrebounded, didn’t box out, turned the ball over, didn’t move the ball and failed to play aggressive defense. The Wings only had two turnovers against New York, which broke WNBA league records.

“I think we just have to play more physicality against the opposing team,” Johannès said following the loss. “We know that Dallas is a good team. They’re playing really well right now. And I think we didn’t have a lot of assists today, like compared to other games. So I think it’s something like we have to improve too.”

The Liberty got trigger happy once again but this time against a much more talented Dallas Wings squad. A film session led Kayla Thornton to remark before Friday’s game that she didn’t recognize the team that played on Wednesday afternoon.

“That game just wasn’t New York Liberty ball and you know we have days like that,” Thornton said. “So just watching that, it’s kind of hard, but first you have to critique yourself and then critique the team. We just didn’t play with effort and we didn’t play with a sense of urgency and we weren’t aggressive enough.”

But against a Mystics teams without Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin on Friday night, the Liberty exploited a major mismatch. Jonquel Jones was leaps and bounds taller than all of Washington’s available post players, leading to her most complete performance of the season. Jones’ teammates found her in transition, beyond the arc and on the block and put up a 27-point, 11-rebound double double along with three assists and three blocks to boot.

“It was fun for me to see her go out there and just dominate and have such an efficient game,” Brondello said postgame. “Every game is different, and we got better from last game, but we needed every bit of her 27 and 11 tonight.”

The Liberty also needed every bit of Jones’ rim protection and ability to contain guard penetration from the perimeter. One of the Liberty’s main weakness on paper and in reality was the shortcomings of their backcourt defense. A way to remedy that shortcoming is having Jones and Stewart roaming, altering and blocking shots in the paint and at the rim. Jones and Stewart were in a lot of the right places at the right times on Friday night and provided the necessary help when Washington’s slashing guards got past the first line of defense.

Also, the Liberty put the ball more in Ionescu’s hands on Friday night, and as a result she came just one assist short of her first triple-double of the season. Brondello felt Ionescu played her best game of the season on both ends of the floor on Friday night, helping get Johannès involved, comfortable and playing in space.

On the defensive end on Friday night, Johannès began communicating more on defense, pointing to Vandersloot that they needed to switch. It was a sign of growth from the French guard and a sign that she’s less afraid to make mistakes rather than just playing hard.

Where questions remain as dog days of August near

Brondello started to experiment more with the lineups on Friday night, playing eight players for significant minutes. That included subbing in Jocelyn Willoughby to guard both Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud while Betnijah Laney took a breather.

The Liberty will need to keep throwing teams different looks as the calendar nears August — and if there isn’t a lot of practice time to do so, then this ought to become more of a practice during games. Brondello told The Next that she doesn’t prefer all bench lineups, and that’s not what she ought to try. But, an incredibly intriguing lineup of Ionescu, Johannès, Laney, Thornton and Stewart needs more than 10 minutes of in-game reps.

Can Johannès continue to take more steps toward feeling more comfortable alongside the Liberty’s core starters? Brondello was deliberate against Washington in subbing in Johannès at moments when Vandersloot needed a breather so that Johannès could get some time alongside Ionescu, someone she’s shown to be much more comfortable playing alongside.

When Johannès is playing the three alongside Ionescu and Vandersloot, she often isn’t playing in movement, and Vandersloot still seems unsure how to play best with the French guard. She often is an afterthought in the offense when Vandersloot runs the point — which isn’t deliberate, but rather as a result of the lack of on-court time together. (Vandersloot knows how vital Johannès and the bench unit are, and she’s said so.)

Other big questions include: Can Nyara Sabally step up, continue to grow and be a net positive while Dolson continues to recover? Can Jonquel Jones continue to find her spots in this offense while also reminding opponents why she’s been on multiple WNBA All-Defensive teams? And can the team’s superstars find the right blend of carrying this team themselves and sacrificing for others?

What could some of that sacrifice look like? Getting Johannès and Jones involved when they are on the floor. It looks like substituting starters out when they look gassed and struggle stopping the ball. Sacrifice is also about the team continuing to commit to doing the dirty work.

“When shots aren’t falling, to get to the basket, put pressure on the refs to make a call,” Stewart said following New York’s loss to Dallas. “Small victories that can lead to bigger things.”

There is still plenty for New York to work on, which was clear in their win on Friday night. Even with the Mystics’ best players out injured, the Liberty let their opponent get within three points in the fourth quarter in Washington.

But New York kept their lead the entire way to pull off the win. They moved the ball rather than got trigger happy. Johannès looked more comfortable.

Those things have been harder to attain than many might have expected. But to emulate what Stewart said back in February, it may need to be hard for the Liberty in order for this season to turn out great.

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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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