Technically, two weeks is a stretch by a day, and feels like it, considering the New York Liberty have only played four regular-season games thus far. But hey, it sounds better than asking what we’ve learned after “thirteen days” (a great J.J. Cale song, by the way.)
The Liberty are just getting whole, too. Marine Johannes is set to make her season debut this Friday against the Chicago Sky after wrapping up commitments in her native France, where she lead Lyon ASVEL to a French League title. Johannes will, in all likelihood, come off the bench as the third guard in New York’s rotation. Should she share the floor with Courtney Vandersloot, she could be half of the most talented passing backcourt in WNBA history. Seriously:
But let’s not look ahead just yet. Not when there’s four games in the rearview mirror that taught us a good bit about the vaunted Libs, and what to look for as the season moves into its adolescence.
Early ball screens...
...are going to be a huge factor in this offense. Yes, they’re going to kill teams in transition; how could they not when half the rotation is capable of grabbing a board and running a fast break? But offense early in the shot-clock, possessions that blur the line between transition and half-court opportunities? Well, those may be even more fruitful for the Liberty.
Just as there are ball-handlers aplenty on this roster, so too are there screeners. Here’s Stefanie Dolson sending Lexie Hull to the netherworld with a ball-screen, set for Sabrina Ionescu with 21 seconds on the shot clock:
This looks to be a guiding principle of New York’s offense, one which will likely continue all season. High, early ball-screens spring talented ball handlers towards the paint, or at least into advantage situations. No matter where Libs are scattered after a defensive possession, no matter who’s on the court, a dynamic ball-handler should have the ball, and a big should be readying up to flatten somebody:
This is especially true given Head Coach Sandy Brondello’s early insistence on playing double-big lineups - here, I’m counting Stewart as a big, though we've seen her both handle the ball and screen in these actions. She is a cheat code, to be sure. (Brondello hasn’t unveiled any Stewie-at-the-5 lineups yet, a potential game-breaker. Please, Sandy?)
Vandersloot’s aggressiveness getting to the cup is a minor factor in how successful her on-ball reps are. Chalk it up to a wily veteran (34) slow-playing the start to the season, but she’s oscillated between determined, downhill drives and early dribble pick-ups, and general passiveness. When she’s in a score-first-ask-questions-later mindset, things tend to go much better. This is Sloot, though. She’ll figure it out.
I’d assume teams will start to switch as many of these high ball-screens as they can, if they have the personnel to do so. The Connecticut Sun did exactly that in Game #3, and it largely worked for them. Early ball-screens just sort of fizzled out, and the Liberty were unable to target the resulting mismatches. However, in their very next game, New York shredded the Seattle Storm’s switching to shreds. I broke down how they did so, here:
A breakdown of the New York Liberty surgically attacking Seattle's switching defense last night, and how they leaned on Jonquel Jones. Sound on: pic.twitter.com/aPAiqIBVuZ— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 1, 2023
TL;DR: They were much more intentional and patient when trying to post up the resulting mismatches off of switched pick-and-rolls, and used Jonquel Jones as an absolute bulldozer in the lane. She babied helpless guards all night long, and was often the focus of the offense. Regardless, it was encouraging to see the Liberty make such a drastic improvement in just three days.
Brondello called that “the beauty of a veteran team, an experienced team: We can make adjustments and they can obviously do what we’re telling them to do.” Conquering mini-challenges so quickly, so early in the season is an undoubtedly positive sign.
Skilled bigs and spacing...
...are probably going to be frequent topics of discussion, at least from me, this season. Just as the Liberty have a plethora of deadly screeners (I’m still wincing for Lexie Hull), their bigs are skilled when operating from the high post, nail, and perimeter areas. That Stewart, Jones, and Dolson can all act as hubs, executing dribble-handoffs and hitting both cutters and outside shots (to varying degrees) means the Liberty coaching staff has even more ways to skirt rim protection.
Here, Jones connects with Sloot through the backdoor on an improvised action, and there’s nobody at the rim to contest an easy layup:
Having bigs that can operate so comfortably around the nail is a blessing for guards; instead of having to pound the rock to create an open shot, you may just stumble into them from time to time. But for that to happen, the spacing needs to be on point.
New York’s spacing on offense has been somewhat of a mixed bag so far, which is to be expected for such a new team. On the above play, it’s perfect: Breanna Stewart, who nobody would dare leave, as the single-side shooter. A cutter into open space. But it hasn’t been that easy on every possession. Here’s Ionescu making solid back-cuts, but running into help defenders that were just brought over by cutters before her:
Of course, the Liberty have some straight-up hacks at their disposal. What on Earth do you against a Ionescu/Jones PnR with Stewie as the ‘rise’ shooter? Pray?
But to take full advantage of the skilled bigs on the roster (we haven’t even gotten to Nyara Sabally yet), New York’s spacing will have to be more consistent and disciplined. Offensive versatility is the main appeal of this star-studded roster. That’ll happen when you’re stacked with skilled players that can play on the ball, off the ball, inside or outside. To take full advantage of them, the Liberty will have to refine their offensive spacing, a season-long task. Should they complete it, and there’s no reason to think they won’t, watching New York’s hub actions may become just as much of a treat as watching those early ball-screens.
...is just as important as offensive versatility, and New York may be able to offer it. Yes, there’s been some hiccups, despite the fact that the Libs haven’t squared off against any real high-powered offenses yet. (Consecutive matchups with the Chicago Sky, owners of the worst offensive rating in the W, won’t change that.)
Various miscommunications on and off the ball have led to easy buckets for opponents, but it’s understandable why. The Liberty have toggled between coverages consistently, perhaps trying to expedite the process of finding an identity. Jones will trap a ball-screen on one possession, and play drop coverage the next. Stewart, who’s been an explosive defender thus far, may switch or hedge on any given possession. There hasn’t been any discernible pattern for off-ball rotations or switches either, so moments like these are understandable, where the team is unsure what to do against, oh, only Elena Delle Donne:
But the flashes are there. (And it’s not like the Liberty have been bad on that end, either. Their defensive rating is fourth in the league. It’s just, it hasn’t looked that good, and opponents are making less than 30% of their 3-pointers against New York, which will surely change.) Those flashes? A long, switch-heavy defense that will run you off the arc, and force you to navigate two-point land against some big-time athletes:
In both of the above clips, opponents are forced inside the arc after aggressive closeouts and scrambling defenders, forced to either take a pull-up two or finish through Kayla Thornton, who has been a menace with her activity through four games. This seems like the blueprint for a successful New York defense: length, athleticism, and activity.
Of course, such buzzwords are the goal of every basketball team at every level on the defensive end. Whether they have the personnel to enact those qualities is another question. The Liberty, with Ionescu, Vandersloot, and Johannes, don’t have the strongest defensive backcourt. But Laney, Thornton, and Sabally constitute one hell of an athletic trio of forwards capable of closing out to shooters and providing secondary rim protection behind New York’s bigs. Jones and Stewie can oscillate screen coverages themselves, while Dolson is best suited to play drop coverage, where’s she’s held up pretty well through four games.
This is a versatile roster, and not just offensively. I’d check back in at the end of June to see where the Liberty rank in opponents’ 3-point attempt rate. It would not be a surprise to see this team identify as an athletic, chaotic defense that runs shooters off the line and invites them to try their luck inside the arc. Just as New York should always have a screener ready to pancake you on the other end, they should always have an athlete ready to protect the rim.
It’s been just four games for the New York Liberty, but there’s even more we could discuss. Nyara Sabally’s long-awaited start to her WNBA career, Han Xu’s lack of minutes, how Betnijah Laney fits in as a fifth-option, and so on. And we will undoubtedly get to all these topics as the calendar flips into June, and the 2023 WNBA season keeps on chugging.
But for now, the Libs look as advertised: stacked with incredibly versatile players that fit well together; how this team grows is going to be one exciting journey. For all the positive signs that they’ve shown, for all the moments of brilliance we’ve already seen, the New York Liberty have barely scratched the surface.