Was the first half of the WNBA season a success for the New York Liberty? Well, that depends on the standards you choose to apply to the teal, more so than any other squad in the W. By any measure, the Libs are one of the league’s elite teams, owning the second-best record in the league, first in the Eastern Conference. But is that good enough for a team that went from sneaking into last year’s playoffs by the skin of their teeth to a supposed ‘superteam’ this past offseason? Especially considering their superteam counterpart in the Las Vegas Aces 19-2 at the break; their only challenge that lies ahead is cementing themselves as the greatest single-season team ever.
In any case, it’s hard to think straight when evaluating the Liberty. I think Nicolas Cage called this phenomenon The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, although I don’t know, I didn’t see the movie. If you were expecting the Liberty to immediately transform into an all-time heavyweight, then the first half of the season likely wasn't a success in your eyes. If you expected them to be on the same plane as the Aces, well...
But these Libs were built to be an insta-contender, perhaps the most difficult position possible in team-building. Four of their top six leaders in total minutes are new additions, and three of the four leaders in usage rate are too, in Courtney Vandersloot, Breanna Stewart, and Jonquel Jones. Evaluating this team up to this point is a largely subjective exercise. However, there are some key factors to hone in on as the Liberty resume play in the second half of the season, regardless of where you stand on their first half.
The Jonquel Jones Conundrum
Jonquel Jones has been a very effective player in New York, especially as we move further from the off-season, which she largely spent recovering from a stress fracture in her less foot. The dominant interior force that Liberty fans came to expect when matching up with Jones as a Connecticut Sun has officially arrived in New York — she’s shooting 59% from two, up from the low-fifties as late as mid-June, and blocking 2.1 shots per 36 minutes, squarely in line with her career averages. The conundrum, then, is on the Liberty.
It feels like Sandy Brondello’s staff hasn’t quite figured out how to utilize her properly, specifically on the offensive end. Actually, does it feel that way? Because we’ve seen stretches where New York has worked to establish Jones as the post-up demolition woman we know her to be, and experienced great success doing so. We even saw it as early as May, when the Liberty torched the Seattle Storm’s switching defense by siccing Jones on helpless guards:
Is the problem, then, the Brondello & co. haven’t fully committed to Jones as an interior force? Is that worse or better than the alternative? I’d say better; anyway you slice it, it’s comforting to know that New York can get the best out of the former-MVP, at least for stretches, whether by establishing her in the post or as half of the game’s most lethal high-low duo with Stewart:
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
Jonquel Jones is the most important player when assessing the direction of a Liberty team still in the early stages of development. The offense has a bonkers assist rate of 78.6%, which leads the WNBA by a margin greater than the difference between the second and ninth teams in the category. This is perhaps the most encouraging sign from the Liberty’s first half — they’ve implemented an offense that hums with ball and player movement despite having considerable star power. However, it often requires Jones to space out on the perimeter where, despite the occasional 3-pointer, she often drifts too far out of focus.
Jones can play to the Liberty’s strengths, but they need to play to hers too. Striking that balance offensively is a major key to the second half of the season.
Breanna Stewart’s Workload
If the Liberty are able to strike the aforementioned balance, it may take some of the pressure off of Breanna Stewart, who words cannot describe. She is likely the WNBA MVP frontrunner at the halfway point, but that’s probably not a positive. It has not felt like Stewart has been the beneficiary of an otherworldly supporting cast, but rather, that she’s continually bailed her teammates out to get to a record (14-4) they were expected to coast to. Whether those are fair expectations or not, her load must lighten as we trek towards the playoffs. Stewie is fourth in the whole league in minutes per game - for comparison, the Aces do not have one player in the top 15.
No, the Liberty are not the Aces, and while the comparison may be tired at this point, it is useful in noting that a benefit of having so much top-end talent is to not burn any of it out in the regular season. New York is in danger of doing just that.
After a thrilling July 5th matchup with the Phoenix Mercury, which required 43 points from Stewie to escape with a 99-95 win, Sandy Brondello was asked why her Liberty have excelled in clutch situations this season. She simply pointed at Breanna Stewart and said “Just look at her real quick. That helps.”
The tongue-in-cheek answer illuminated what’s been a lack of late-game identity for New York outside of getting the ball to Stewie, in addition to the heavy load she carries on defense. They have a hell of a plan ‘A’, but can the Liberty develop a plan ‘B’?
- How do the Liberty navigate their poor defensive backcourt? Courtney Vandersloot has been fine on D, but there are moments when her age and size unfortunately shine through. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if she wasn’t playing next to (all-universe shooter) Sabrina Ionescu, who has been relentlessly targeted by opposing offenses both on and off the ball. Brondello can’t exactly hide both of them on defense, so how does she compensate and have her long, agile front-court compensate? Does Kayla Thornton close more games in place of Ionescu, something we saw sporadically in the first half?
- Does Nyara Sabally continue to improve? I mean, we know she will — it’s her real rookie season, after all — but how much will the Liberty be able to rely on her off the bench come playoff time? Sabally had her best defensive game in her final appearance of the season’s first half, New York’s July 12th victory over the Indiana Fever. Playing slightly below the level of pick-and-rolls, she really moved her feet and shut down drives from opposing guards. Between that and some quicker decision-making on offense, she earned passing grades in her two biggest areas of focus. More of that, please.
- How does Marine Johannés get going? After shooting 38% and 44% from deep in her first two seasons wearing teal, she’s at 34% from deep this year, and failing to make on impact on too many nights as the first guard off the bench. She’s split her time fairly evenly next to either Vandersloot (165 minutes) or Ionescu (102 minutes); we could see a more established backcourt partner in an attempt to get her in rhythm. Either way, she’ll be key to the success of what’s been a volatile Liberty bench unit thus far.
Of course, every player has somewhat of a question mark next to their name, even the aforementioned Breanna Stewart, especially as the Liberty play 22 games post-All Star Break, compared to just 18 before it. But, as of now, these are the five areas of concern I have for the Liberty, and the ones I’ll be honing in on as they embark on the second half of their season.
New York starts the back-end of their campaign by hosting the Dallas Wings on Wednesday, July 11th, at 1:00 p.m. ET.