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New York Liberty and coach Walt Hopkins part ways

Chicago Sky v New York Liberty Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After their first playoff appearance in four seasons, the New York Liberty are in search of a new head coach.

On Monday afternoon, the team dropped this bombshell on Twitter:

Hopkins’ tenure as the New York Liberty head coach started with a sense of optimism, but COVID-19 played a huge role in his time as Liberty coach. The 2020 season was played in the “wubble” in Bradenton, Florida and the Liberty went a league worst 2-20 as injuries to Sabrina Ionescu to Layshia Clarendon and a severe case of COVID for Asia Durr turned what was a hopeful season into a disappointing one.

With the addition of Betnijah Laney in free agency and the acquisitions of Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb via trade with the Seattle Storm, the Liberty saw their win total improve drastically as they made their first playoff appearance since 2017 and gave WNBA Finals runner up, the Phoenix Mercury, the fight of their lives in a playoff thriller. However, the team struggled massively down the stretch as their 2-9 record following the WNBA Olympics break. The stretch almost knocked them out of the playoffs and many of the losses came after the Liberty went ahead early only to lose the lead late.

Throughout Hopkins’ time as Liberty coach, he got the team to expand their range on the court. The Libs were second and first, respectively, in 3-point attempts in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. He leaves the team in good hands with a young team that has star power topped by Ionescu. Liberty jerseys are the top sellers among the league’s 12 teams and Ionescu’s the best among players.

With free agency around the corner, the Liberty will begin their search for a new coach immediately. With that in mind, it’s important to think back to a story Tamryn Spruill wrote for Swish Appeal back in January 2020:

Of the 144 players holding roster spots in the WNBA in 2019, at least 127 of them (yes, that’s one-hundred and twenty-seven), are black or women of color. For those in favor of a percentage, that’s approximately 88 percent of the players. With these numbers reflective of the WNBA’s makeup historically, there has been no shortage of former players to choose from — most of them black, many of them legends and Hall of Famers — when it comes to searching for a head coach.

As the team does its research into candidates, that is something one should keep in mind. It would seem likely that several women candidates of color will be interviewed in the search process.

Among the names being circulated: Teresa Weatherspoon, a Liberty great who’s now an assistant coach with the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA, and Sandy Brondello, who was ousted from her job as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. Weatherspoon has head coaching experience at the college level while Brondello has a championship ring and took the Merc to the WNBA Finals this past summer.

Whoever inherits this roster will be getting a talented team that is on the rise. The Liberty have two All-WNBA rookies in Michaela Onyenwere (Rookie of the Year) and Didi Richards. Laney has been serving as a franchise ambassador as she participated in various events with the Brooklyn Nets and Liberty/Nets co-governor, Clara Wu Tsai, since the end of the W season. Laney is currently recovering from left knee surgery but is expected to be fully healthy by the start of the season.

Asia Durr has been cleared to return to the game following a two-year battle with long haul COVID-19. And with healthy seasons from Ionescu and Howard, the Liberty have a great chance to break into the top tier of the WNBA.

Next season — and long term — Joe Tsai has expressed optimism about both team prospects and attendance, providing some projected numbers.

“Certainly, I hope that in the following season — this will start next May — we should have multiple numbers of what we were getting,” Tsai told NetsDaily in October. “I think we were slightly over 2,000 in Barclays Center, and Barclays Center looks not very good with 2,000 fans. (It was less than 2,000.)

“I think we should at least fill the lower bowl with a view of getting — I feel like we should get 6,000 to 8,000. I hope we can get to that level and we can build on that, and hopefully have like 12,000 at some point. Maybe not next season, but in the future.”

That latter number would exceed what the Liberty were getting in their full season at the Garden in 2017.