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What’s next for Joe Tsai’s ‘other team?’ Liberty readies for WNBA Draft, free agency

Sabrina Ionescu Portrait Shoot Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Even before he bought the Nets, Joe Tsai acquired the WNBA’s New York Liberty from James Dolan. The Liberty was in bad shape. Dolan hadn’t been able to sell it for 19 months after putting it up for sale ... and moved them out of the Garden, exiling them to a 90-year-old venue in White Plains. The financials were atrocious, with Dolan claiming MSG had lost $100 million since the team’s inception.

Then, in January 2019, ten months before he closed on the Nets, Tsai bought the team and announced he was bringing the seafoam-and-black to Brooklyn and Barclays Center. Tsai believed there would a symbiotic affect on both properties, the Liberty and Barclays. (No one’s ever revealed the price tag, but it’s unlikely to have been much. )

Moreover, Tsai and his family believe in the future of women’s sports.

Then, of course, COVID-19 and some bad luck intervened. The WNBA season was shortened, the league moved to a “wubble” at IMG Sports in Bradenton and the Liberty’s overall No. 1 Draft pick, Sabrina Ionescu, went down in the third game with a third degree (the worst) ankle sprain. A couple of key players stayed overseas rather than risk getting COVID and the Libs finished 2-20, the league’s worst record. The team’s seven rookies learned hard lessons.

Things have slowly turned around. In December, Ionescu finally returned to the court and New York won the overall No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft Lottery. The likely top pick is a Texas big who wears No. 35, Charli Collier. Just sayin’.

Now, as Howard Megdal reported last week for the Times, the Liberty are at a crossroads. Do they keep the pick, trade it, etc. Do they use all their cap space to sign free agents. With the new CBA, which went into effect last year, player movement (and empowerment) will increase.

So for the Liberty’s general manager, Jonathan Kolb, that means this off-season is more than just a chance to improve at the margins. A winter that can both define the Liberty’s rebuild and catapult the team into the playoffs is within reach.

“Absolutely,” Kolb said of whether the Liberty could expect a drastic change in 2021. “For the history of the league, up through last season, teams really improved via the draft. And you go back and look: Trades really weren’t much of a thing.”

Does that mean the Liberty will try to move the overall No. 1 and get a star? Kolb isn’t saying, but he obviously has a range of options, but he told Megdal that the organization is going through an “autopsy” of last season.

“The rookies will mature as players, and they’re going to be more ready to step in and be more efficient,” Kolb told Megdal. “And in terms of the system, I mean, of course, we will change things up. We’ve been deep diving into doing an autopsy of our season, and looking at all of it, offensively and defensively. And so I think it will be a combination of personnel and improvements.”

There are also some intriguing free agents and with a ton of cap space, the lure of the big city and the league’s richest owner, fans are excited about the possibilities, veteran players with championship experience, like Natasha Howard, a top defender, or Nneka Ogwumike, a perennial All-Star who was the league MVP five years ago.

The one thing that Kolb believes he has is flexibility with all his young players, the overall No. 1 pick and a few veterans who could be trade pieces. He hopes that the Liberty can get a lot done before the draft which will take place sometime in April.

“I think the most exciting thing is, we’re in position to do something,” Kolb told Megdal. “We’re positioned cap-wise, flexibility-wise, that if they’re interested in coming to New York, we’re in a position to capitalize on it.”