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THE BIG GAME: New York Liberty are slaying defenses in every which way

Led by a shapeshifting frontcourt, the Liberty’s starting five has become the most unstoppable unit in the WNBA

New York Liberty v Minnesota Lynx Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

“I think we’re playing more instinctively now, because it’s not the set that gets you open...just mixing it up a little bit, and that takes time. We’re still building up that chemistry and we’re getting better and better every game.”

That’s how Head Coach Sandy Brondello answered a question on how her New York Liberty manage all their versatile talent. How do you explore the mouth-watering possibilities that New York’s starting five offers while not getting swept away by your daydreams? For Brondello, the answer is simply allowing said talent time to grow together.

Lucky for her, New York’s starting group — Courtney Vandersloot, Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, Breanna Stewart, and Jonquel Jones — has had ample time to click. Those five have played a total of 350 minutes; only one other lineup in the W has even cracked 300. For a group that was about as unfamiliar as could be entering the season, spending this much time together on the court may be the biggest positive of the Liberty season so far.

Between the five All-Stars, there’s only been three missed games total, and none have come from the Laney-Stewie-Jones frontcourt. If you’ve watched the Liberty in recent weeks, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Remember when Betnijah Laney scored a total of 24 points in May, over New York’s first four games? Remember how unnatural she looked as an offensive bystander, simply waiting in the corner, prepared to shoot a three incase her teammates had exhausted every other option? That’s over. Yes, Laney has cooled off from deep during the dog days of the season, but her offensive output is no longer completely dependent on long-range accuracy.

In their July 23rd matchup, the Indiana Fever thought they could get away with putting smaller, less physical guards like Kelsey Mitchell and Lexie Hull on Laney. Big mistake:

Post-ups, cuts to the basket, and straight-up bully ball are now frequent occurrences for Laney, who spent the early part of the season teetering on forgotten-woman status in a loaded Liberty offense. It’s tempting for opposing defenses to exile their weakest defender over to the eight-year veteran. You gotta stop ball penetration from Sloot to have any hope of stopping the Liberty. Staying attached to Ionescu is a must. And of course, you could never stick a guard on either Stewie or there’s only one option left. Yet, over her past ten games, Laney is taking the third-most shots on the team and nailing over 57% of her two-pointers, wearing whatever hat the Liberty hand her.

Then, there’s Jonquel Jones, and the sense that, despite dominant flashes, New York hasn’t truly optimized the 2021 MVP yet. Fair enough. Some of it is on Jones herself, who is often in foul trouble this season. Sure, Jones hasn’t been able to crack a dozen points per night, but she’s posting up less frequently than she was the last time she missed the All-Star Game half-a-decade ago. It seems as if Brondello & co. just forget about the Bahamian big at times, leaving her out to dry on the perimeter.

And yet, Jones is incomprehensibly skilled behind the arc, particularly for her size. Not a game goes by without the 6’6” big making a sweet extra pass or nailing a tough 3-pointer:

Jones is shooting 39% from deep this season, a number that’s actually dropped over her last couple games but not far enough to affect the spacing she provides. Yes, Jones still dominates on the interior, shooting a career-high 63% on twos this season. Occasionally, the Liberty will force feed their starting center to begin a game, then seemingly forget about her by the second half. Jones’ usage will never satisfy everybody. But Brondello knows that half of an inside-out game is the ‘out’, and Jonquel Jones eats there too.

Diverse skillsets all across the board are how New York stumbles into natural possessions like this, where it’s Laney posting up a mismatch, drawing a double, and then kicking it to Jones, who makes a sweet swing pass to create an open corner trey:

You may think that play contains a backwards order of operations, but such a concept doesn’t exist for the sea foam right now. Your thinking, in fact, is backwards.

Then, there’s Breanna Stewart, who can accomplish all things. In a contest against the Atlanta Dream, in the span of thirty seconds, Stewie handled a pick-and-roll to perfection, putting an easy layup in Jones’ lap, then slipped a screen and dove to the basket for an easy two:

This sequence prompted Brondello to speak on the value of versatile talent, coaching a roster that can seemingly slot players into any role and experience positive results. Stewart, though, is the glue that holds just about any lineup together. She’s played as a small-ball five this season, and accumulated a ton of blocks while doing so. She’s initiated much of the offense this year, in a pseudo-point guard role. Of course, she’s spotlighted as a classic big, posting up and rolling to the rim, yet also as a wing, nailing threes and roasting closeouts.

The Liberty’s starting five has the best offensive rating in the W for any lineup that’s played at least 50 minutes, scoring a hilarious 117.7 points per 100 possessions. Yep, the five that’s played the most minutes is scoring the most points in incredibly diverse ways. This is largely thanks to a frontcourt that, as Bruce Lee taught us, is just like water. Betnijah Laney, Breanna Stewart, and Jonquel Jones are ever formless, ever shapeless, and consistently able to morph into a kryptonite for opposing defenses.

The New York Liberty, despite a 21-6 record, are not a perfect team. The sea foam are third-to-last in bench points. Brondello’s squad occasionally struggles with turnovers and rebounding, though both issues appear to be on the right track. Worst of all, they are not the Las Vegas Aces, who they'll match up with on Sunday, who many fans expected the Liberty to be right out of the gate.

But their starting five destroys teams by lighting the nets on fire, perhaps to be expected after playing so many minutes as a unit. The offensive possibilities are endless, even after over half a season together. Every new wrinkle in the offense leads the imagination to wander, to consider what the next wrinkle will look like. But our imaginations are rarely ever big enough to predict what New York will do next, mainly because we haven’t seen many squads like them. The Liberty don’t have screeners, or ball-handlers, or post players in the frontcourt. They have hoopers that do it all.