The last time I checked in on the New York Liberty with a film study, they were off to a 3-1 start, with some clear ups and downs reflecting the abundance of talent but lack of cohesion on the roster. Ideas and potential over execution, figuring out an identity but not yet establishing it, playing with rotations rather than setting them.
Ahead of Friday’s matchup with the Atlanta Dream (the third in five games), the New York now sits at 7-3 with more ups than downs, but certainly a mixture of both. Scoring triple digits in back-to-back games for the first time in the franchise’s history was a major up, and a scary reminder of the team’s offensive potential. An ugly loss to the Dream where the Libs were severely outbound and shot 39% from the floor? Not so much.
While ten games of basketball certainly doesn’t fully capture a team, it does mean we’ve reached the quarter-way point of a 40-game WNBA season (the first of its kind). No, the New York Liberty, with the third-best record in the W, are not a finished product just yet. But they’re not a complete mystery either. Here are some takeaways from the Eastern Conference favorites over the last couple weeks.
The Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones connection
It’s real. Which is unsurprising, considering the Liberty’s frontcourt comprises two athletic bigs who can shoot and pass. (Stewie, of course, can seemingly do all things.) In particular, the high-low game between Stewart and Jones has blossomed over the past couple of weeks, and has become a focal point of the Liberty offense. If one of the two bigs gets a switch, each is determined to seal hard, and the entire team is wonderfully intentional about attacking the mismatch. Normally, this ends with some high-low action that can go either way. Stewart, often parked at the top of the key, has been proficient feeding Jones underneath the basket. And Jones, for her part, has been diligent about replacing Stewie at the top of the key and creating an opportunity for an entry pass. Here’s a quick video illustrating this phenomenon:
Talked Liberty on my YKB debut, discussing the synergy between Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart! pic.twitter.com/HtRGMrileC— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) June 22, 2023
It’s been fascinating to watch the Liberty experiment with various schemes, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t say they have a base identity yet, like switching all screens or playing conservative drop defense to shut off the paint. Their defensive strength may eventually come from their ability to adapt to any situation and play a variety of coverages depending on the situation. However, there are currently some tactics Sandy Brondello and her staff have been trying to implement.
As the season has progressed, we’ve seen more jump-switching across gaps from the Liberty, or, in short, ‘nexting’. What does that mean, you ask? Well:
The goal here is to avoid having players make long closeouts. Instead of a simple stunt by Courtney Vandersloot to buy time for Kayla Thornton, she just takes KT’s assignment. By “nexting” rotations, the Liberty would rather put themselves in scramble mode a little more frequently, trying to prevent opponents from dribbling into advantage situations. In the above clip, it works, even with Thornton making a slow cross-court rotation, which the Dallas Wings could have capitalized on with quicker ball movement.
The Liberty have frequently paired this defensive action with aggressive ball-screen coverage, particularly when Breanna Stewart is on the court. Not a bad idea, considering Stewart is often an absolute nightmare for guards coming off screens:
Terrifying. And effective, especially as the Liberty often have the comfort of having Jones/Stefanie Dolson in the paint, even when Stewart is trapping on the perimeter, or vice versa. An aggressive scheme against ball-screens also has the benefit of creating more turnovers and allowing the Libs to run more on offense, something that Brondello has preached.
However, for all the possessions like the above, or this one, where Marine Johannés tricks an opponent to committing a turnover on her ‘next’ rotation...
...the Liberty have run into two main problems with all this activity on defense. Sometimes, it’s just too much to ask on one possession, and a rotation will get lost in the shuffle. Here, there’s a trapped ball-screen following by a full ‘next’, not just a stunt, from Johannés. However, nobody rotates to her original assignment, and it's an open 3-pointer:
More often than a broken assignment, though, is New York having difficulty rebounding after a trapped ball-screen. It’s certainly not that they trap or even hedge every ball-screen, because they don’t; but I sense that Brondello & co. would like to trap more often, if they didn’t have to worry about the glass.
It often goes something like this, roughly:
- Stewie (or Jones) traps a ball-screen, and the ball-handler immediately gives it up to the screener.
- Jones (or Stewie), often waiting in the paint, goes to offer a solid contest on the screener’s shot, forcing a miss. Success!
- However, that often leaves a guard and a wing to box out the other three opponents, which does not go their way.
All in all, it’s a push and pull for the Liberty defense right now. There are more good moments than poor ones, as evidenced by their slightly above average 98.1 defensive rating, good for fifth in the league. They are third in the league in opponent FG%, despite ranking just eighth in opponent 3PT%, suggesting this has little to do with shooting luck and more with constant length and mobility inside the arc. They allow the fewest assists per game.
However, they have the third-worst defensive rebounding percentage in the W, and force a pedestrian amount of turnovers, issues likely related to each other. Surely, Brondello would love to play more aggressive defensive coverages, but that pesky rebounding business. As it turns out, it matters. Either way, it is fascinating to watch the Liberty conjure up a defensive identity on the fly.
Marine Johannés is back
Shame on me, taking this long to mention the return of one of the WNBA’s most aesthetically pleasing hoopers. After missing the Liberty’s first four games, she’s been in the lineup for the previous six contests, even starting two of them amid Sabrina Ionescu’s brief absence.
Johannés completes, perhaps, the W’s most electrifying backcourt, alongside Vandersloot and Ionescu. If the Liberty have enjoyed success playing the latter two together, weaponing Ionescu’s awesome long-range shooting next to Sloot’s playmaking and IQ, Johannés bridges the gap between those two skillsets, able to both shoot and dish the rock herself.
Next to Vandersloot, where the Frenchwoman has played most of her minutes, Johannés is frequently off-the-ball, taking 5.5 3-pointers a game so far this season. And while the shooting is certainly useful, it’s the value of having two plus-passers share the backcourt that really makes the Johannés-Sloot pairing shine. Just take this fast-break opportunity that results in a (smoked) layup attempt for Stewie:
Sloot gets the board and pushes it up the court before kicking it ahead to Johannés, who then caps off the opportunity by dropping a dime to a streaking Stewie. With two great passers on the court, and with the Libs focused on pushing the pace, the threat of one of them creating a clean look is ever-present.
Next to Ionescu, Johannés takes on more of a traditional point guard role, which she’s more than equipped to handle. How about this pick-and-roll, where she takes the backline help completely out of the play with her eyes before creating an open corner three:
We briefly saw the three-headed-guard monster of Sloot-MJ-Ionescu in New York’s June 4 loss to the Chicago Sky late in the game, but not much of it since. It’s an all-offense bet, as it shrinks what is already a small defensive backcourt with subtraction by addition. But those three sharing the court is too mouth-watering of a concept to ignore, especially if Stewart is also on the floor. Here’s to hoping we see more of that foursome, purely from an entertainment perspective, going forward.
- I find it interesting that Sandy Brondello’s team seemingly has no interest in utilizing the dunker spot on offense. Either the ball is entered to the post, or pick-and-rolls and isolations are ran with a 5-out alignment. Take this play for example, where Sloot drives the lane, but has nobody to dump it off to down low:
Check out Nyara Sabally totally vacating the area, back to the 3-point line, rather than cutting to the rim. It’s clear that Brondello & co. want off-ball rim pressure to be generated by cuts from the perimeter to the paint, rather than park a forward or big on the block. Yes, drivers have more room to operate without someone crowding the dunker spot, that’s for certain. But right now, it feels like NY is occasionally leaving points on the table due to their rigid, perimeter-oriented spacing.
- Kayla Thornton, 3-point shooter? No, I mean like, a threatening shooter. It’s not as far-fetched as it seems, even though she’s only attempting a shade under two per game. After all, KT’s made half of her triples this year, and they have not all been stand-still, wide-open ones:
Off some slight movement, off flare screens, against hard closeouts, even jab-stepping into a miss after realizing she should’ve taken the first one. Sure, that last clip is a classic “shoot the first one!” moment, but it tells me Thornton is eager to shoot the rock, and not shy about it either. Just because the volume isn’t anything to gawk at doesn’t mean the confidence isn’t there; just look at how defenders are closing out to her. If KT keeps shooting the deep-ball like this, we could see a bump in her 18 minutes a game.
The New York Liberty are good, maybe even great team with pathways to being as dominant as we all thought they might be during the offseason. That they haven’t quite bloodied the competition to a pulp yet is far from a disappointment, given we’re just ten games into this thing. But those ten games are more than enough to draw real conclusions about the identity of the Libs, and for the intrigue about what this team could become to settle in. After all, they’ve played the fewest games of any WNBA team this season, having completed just a quarter of their schedule thus far. I can’t wait to find out what’s in store for New York going forward.