Rebuilding isn’t fun. It’s a long, arduous process that takes time and requires your favorite team take a lot of lumps along the way. For the New York Liberty, it’s something they’ve had to live with since the beginning of the 2018 season.
Since the start of the 2018 season, the Liberty have gone 17-51, worst in the WNBA across the past two years. They had made the playoffs three straight seasons prior to that. There was a stretch in late June to early July where the team went on a nice streak, but the season was marred by two extensive losing streaks that hamstrung their playoff chances. A nagging groin injury to Asia Durr and losing Amanda Zahui B and Bria Hartley to Eurobasket during the season didn't help matters either.
As we head into what is shaping up to be a monumental off-season for Joe Tsai's team, I wanted to focus on some important questions facing the Liberty.
Who to draft?
If there’s one benefit to stacking losses, it’s that it gives you a chance to get good, young talent quickly. The Liberty won the Draft Lottery, so they’ll be picking first in the draft next spring. All signs point to the Liberty taking University of Oregon superstar Sabrina Ionescu, so here’s Matt Ellentuck over at the big site talking about why fans should be excited by Ionescu:
Ionescu can do everything a team needs at the guard position. When the game calls for her to pass, she can rack up double-digit assist numbers. When they need her to score, Ionescu is strong enough to barrel through any first line of defense to get into the paint. If she needs to create, she can find cutters to the rim or kick out to shooters on the three-point line.
She demands full attention from the defense, which should make her one of the most desired teammates in the W. As the league continues its evolution towards pace and space with a focus on shooting, Ionescu’s skills will only become more valuable.
The Liberty offense has seen its offensive efficiency decrease in back to back seasons as the team has struggled to generate buckets outside of Tina Charles. Having a potential star like Ionescu next to Charles would be a massive victory for Liberty fans and would create some more excitement around the team. That leads us to our next question...
Where will they play?
Like a lot of New York residents, the Liberty were screwed by James Dolan. When Dolan and the Madison Square Garden company put the Liberty up for sale in 2017, their ability to play games at MSG went with them. They were shuttled up to a smaller arena in Westchester, away from a large portion of their fanbase. And while the fans that have made it to games bring a lot of positive energy, the arena itself is not suited for professional players. From a 2018 article by Seth Berkman in the New York Times:
Players observed other challenges. To reach the locker rooms, they have to climb four flights of stairs. The visitors’ metal stalls resemble the kind commonly found in high school locker rooms, and the Liberty players did not have name plates above their wooden stalls for the first few home games.
After the Lynx defeated the Liberty, 78-72, the visiting players slithered around a meal table propped up in the center of their tight confines, trying to find room to eat, get undressed or conduct postgame interviews.
New Liberty (and Nets) owner Joe Tsai is on record saying he believes that the Westchester arena is not ideal and that the Liberty would be perfect for Barclays Center. A new owner, a new star to pair with their home town All Star, and moving in to a state of the arena with a boatload of transportation access? If the Liberty leadership play their cards right, they can create long-term success for themselves as well as the rest of the WNBA. We'll see if they're up to the task.
Will there be a 2020 season?
It's been hanging over the W all season, but once we reach the end of the postseason, all eyes will turn to new Commissioner Cathy Englebert. Last November, the WNBA players opted out of their collective bargaining agreement as they have been advocating for better travel conditions, fair pay, etc. Earlier this summer, I had a chance to chat with Jasmine Brown of ESPN and asked her what Englebert should focus on in her new role:
First thing first is for her prioritize marketing. They need to market the league better in order for people to support and make the league more recognizable and more fun to watch. Second, even though hard, would be to focus on paying the players. It has been the talk for a long time and it’s time for something to be done.
WNBA players have been vocal about the issues affecting the league, and the owners will have to figure out a way to create a more positive working environment for its players. The league has started to take some small steps to improve conditons, and we'll see what they plan to do to ensure the future of a great game.