Future uncertain for New York Liberty
When he was hired just two years ago as the New York Liberty's coach/general manager, Bill Laimbeer said his aim was "Creating a culture that says, 'What we care about is winning championships. That's what matters.'"
However, in Laimbeer's two seasons in New York, the Liberty did not make the playoffs. And on Tuesday, New York parted ways with Laimbeer and pulled the plug on what New York hoped would be "Trader Bill's" triumphant return to the WNBA. He had led the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles (2003, '06, '08), then exited the league early in the 2009 season, the Shock's last in Detroit.
Laimbeer spent some time in the shark tank of NBA coaching before returning to the WNBA. It was supposed to be a successful merging: Laimbeer's history of success and edgy personality seemed like it might be the right fit for a Liberty franchise in the doldrums.
But after going 11-23 in 2013 and 15-19 this year, the Liberty didn't renew Laimbeer's contract. Now what?
Well, I asked the Liberty if anyone with the organization could address that very question on Tuesday. Turns out, they couldn't. Or weren't ready to. Or just didn't want to. Whatever, right?
Hey, the Lib fans don't need to hear right away what the game plan is going forward. They should still just be basking in joy about the end of the Liberty's three-year exile to Newark. They got back into refurbished Madison Square Garden this season, so surely they'll be docile and patient waiting however long or short it takes for the Liberty to figure out who takes the reins for 2015 and beyond.
Because if there's one thing New Yorkers are known for, it's patience.
I'm being sarcastic, of course, but in truth, Liberty fans have been much more patient than one might expect. New York's last appearance in the WNBA Finals was in 2002. The closest that the Liberty have come since to returning to the WNBA Finals was in 2008, when they lost the deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals to Laimbeer's Shock. New York was swept by Atlanta in the 2010 East finals.
Then in the last four years -- the first two under coach John Whisenant -- the Liberty have gone a combined 60-76 and won just one playoff game. In Whisenant (Sacramento, 2005) and Laimbeer, the Liberty have tried coaches who won WNBA titles elsewhere.
So, again ... now what? Might former Liberty player Teresa Weatherspoon be tapped as the team's next coach? Do the Liberty plan on combining the job of coach/GM as they did with Whisenant and Laimbeer? Or return to the formula of having those be separate jobs? That was the case from the franchise's inception in 1997 through the 2010 season when Carol Blazejowski was the GM.
A Liberty spokesman said that no one from the organization was available to comment Tuesday. So all we have is the statement from Knicks' assistant general manager Allan Houston, thanking Laimbeer and saying the organization will "begin our search immediately to secure a general manager and coach to help us move forward and reach our ultimate goal of a WNBA championship."
Under the Cablevision-turned-Madison Square Garden Company management of the Knicks/Rangers/Liberty, I've always thought the Liberty were a bit like the kid whose rich parents seem only randomly engaged or interested in what she is doing. As if MSG upper management somewhat forgets or ignores the Liberty for a while, and then says, "Oh, hey, wait a minute. What's going on with, uh ... what's her name? Our other kid?"
A quick look back on Liberty history: Blaze had her ups (playoff appearances in 10 of her 14 seasons) and downs (the Becky Hammon trade, some perplexing drafts, taking Nicole Powell instead of Rebekkah Brunson in the Monarchs' dispersal draft, etc.). But it's not as if there has been any real forward progress for the Liberty since she left, either.
During's Blaze's tenure as GM, the Liberty had four head coaches: Nancy Darsch, Richie Adubato, Pat Coyle and Anne Donovan. The Liberty have really never been a star-driven team like, for example, Phoenix or Minnesota are now. They were known for tough defense, a gritty offense, and -- in the best years -- good chemistry.
Whisenant essentially tried to form the Liberty in the Monarchs' image, and Laimbeer was attempting to remake the Libs as the Detroit Shock. Whisenant did get the Libs to the playoffs twice, but in neither case were they a team you thought could win a championship.
This spring, Laimbeer was able to obtain a legit young superstar in center Tina Charles via a trade she essentially forced from Connecticut. Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, averaged 17.4 points and 9.4 rebounds this season, just won a world championship gold medal with USA Basketball, and is definitely the "tent pole" for the Liberty to build around.
But guard Cappie Pondexter had her least-productive season in 2014 and at age 31 did not seem fully healthy, either. The Liberty had the league's second-worst offense -- only Seattle averaged fewer points than New York's 72.2 -- and never seemed to embrace the defensive identity that Laimbeer wanted, either.
Was Laimbeer really given enough time in New York to replenish the roster and establish a playing identity that would hold up over the course of a season? I don't think so, but maybe time wasn't going to make a lot of difference. Perhaps the style that worked for Laimbeer in Detroit just isn't viable now.
Or ... maybe the Liberty needed to stay the course longer with Laimbeer and get help through a key free-agent signing or two, along with the talent-rich 2016 draft. It's not as if any realistic projection of the 2015 Liberty -- regardless of who was coaching -- included title hopes.
Whatever direction the Liberty go now in regard to a new coach and GM, this much does seem sure: It's not going to be easy to get a lot closer to that "championship mentality" very soon.