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New York Liberty getting kudos for its unique performance team

Keeping superstars healthy has long been an NBA priority. Now, it’s one in the WNBA, led by the Liberty. Considering the Tsais’ donations to academic study of performance, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

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Washington Mystics v New York Liberty - Game Two Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If the WNBA is going to make the next big step, that stairway to success can be found at Barclays Center. The New York Liberty is one of the original teams in the league and plays in the country’s largest market. It has both a rich past and a superstar-driven present. The national media is noticing. In the past week, all five Liberty’s starters were on the cover of SLAM magazine. They were the subject of a photo gallery in the New York Times; their athletic and financial success featured in both the Financial Times of London and New York Magazine and its emphasis on performance profiled by The Athletic.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece is Ben Pickman’s story on the performance team and how it’s being used to attract free agents. While NBA teams, particularly the Nets, have put great emphasis on performance, it’s a new thing for the W:

Among the ways that Liberty team owners Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai have helped improve their players’ experience has come by way of growing its performance staff. There is some variety as to what other WNBA performance staffs look like, but the Liberty’s is one of the largest — if not the largest — in the league. Eight full-time employees are on their performance team.

Indeed, there is a great disparity across the WNBA. Jonathan Kolb, the Liberty GM and newly minted WNBA Executive of the Year, said he understood that from his time in the league office. He understood its value as well, not just in keeping players on the court during the season but also during negotiations with free agents in the off-season.

Trainers, he says, were sometimes just seasonal. Medical staff followed an athletic trainer-led model instead of a performance-team model. But as Kolb and the revamped New York front office started to make changes within the organization, they wanted to create a robust full-time staff, recognizing that treating players was imperative.

And it worked, as Pickman writes:

As free agents take calls from the Liberty and weigh where to play next — some from those faraway places — the topic of New York’s performance team is bound to come up. “They use it as a selling point, as they should,” (backup center Stephanie) Dolson says, “because it is not like any other team that I’ve been a part of.”

Indeed, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot have said ownership’s emphasis on performance was a selling point for them when they decided to leave the Seattle Storm for the Liberty.

Among other things, the presence of such a large staff permits Liberty players to get individual attention, something you don’t see many other places in the league, and keep the doors open all-year long, not just during the WNBA season. The investment isn’t just in staff. it’s in the performance technology, according to The Athletic.

Investment has come in the form of hires, but also in the use of technology. Kinexon player tracking helps understand player exertion levels and is important in mapping out return-to-play protocols, Kolb says. And regular post-practice force plate testing helps minimize injury risks, Chandler says, by gathering information about if a player is jumping as high or fast as before. The data is then used to make more informed training decisions

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Tsais are pushing performance at the training centers of their two basketball teams (and their two National Lacrosse League teams as well.) They’re investing literally hundreds of millions of dollars in studying performance on a macro level.

The Tsais, in part because of that familiarity with professional athletes on the Nets and Liberty, have set up and funded the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance to “reverse-engineer” health advances by studying humans at their peak — particularly elite athletes. The Tsais, through the Joe and Clara Wu Tsai Foundation, have earmarked $220 million over the next 10 years to fund the alliance. Wu Tsai spoke about it in this video posted at the launch of the alliance two years ago...

They’ve also funded neuro-science centers at their alma maters — Yale for Joe Tsai: Stanford for Clara Wu Tsai — with 10-figure donations. The centers hope to help unlock the potential of the human brain, including in improving health.

Indeed, the Tsais’ investment in the Liberty has few competitors in the W. The league’s other top team, the Las Vegas Aces, is one. The Aces are now practicing in a bew 64,000-square foot facility. The Liberty has its performance staff offices, weight room and a training room deep in the bowels of Barclays, Pickman notes.