Liberty hope perimeter changes help franchise win its first WNBA title

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Friday, May 5, 2017

NEW YORK -- The Liberty's formula for success has been pretty simple over the past couple of seasons: dominate on defense, rebound well and stack up victories.

That approach helped win a combined 44 games during the past two seasons, the Liberty finishing atop the Eastern Conference in each campaign.

But the end result always was disappointment. In 2015, New York seemed to be running on empty in the conference semifinal against Indiana. Last season, the Liberty lost in the secondround in a one-game playoff against Phoenix.

"We've been right there," team president Isiah Thomas said. "Hopefully this year we can kick the door down."

If the club wins its first title in franchise history this summer, a few small schematic changes might prove pivotal.

Defense, of course, remains the priority for New York. The offense will still run through Tina Charles. But coach Bill Laimbeer wants his team to play at a quicker pace on offense and produce more from the perimeter.

"It's a little different," Laimbeer said at the Liberty's media day Monday. "... Now we have three guards who can shoot, who can get up and down and can attack, and that's going to be a little bit of a change in style we have this year."

There was plenty of optimism around the Liberty's training camp.

Charles, one of the top bigs in basketball, is back. The former rookie of the year led the league in scoring (21.5 points) and rebounds (9.9) last season -- just the third player in league history to accomplish that feat.

"I don't think there is a better post pivot in the game, men or women," Thomas said. "You may find some players who have one move and two moves, but Tina has every one."

In addition to her post scoring and rebounding, Liberty coaches are counting on Charles to help lead the club in her fourth season in New York.

"Tina is the show right now, make no mistake about that," Laimbeer said. "She has expressed, at the end of last season and the beginning of this season, to coaches and her teammates that she wants to be pushed and she expects everybody in this camp to work as hard as she does. And she is our hardest worker out there and that's great for a coach. When your best player is your hardest worker, it makes everybody else conform."

Charles is the unquestioned leader in New York and Laimbeer believes she's the perfect player to help the staff implement the subtle changes to the offense this season.

Thomas, Laimbeer and the rest of the Liberty hierarchy hope that the personnel changes combined with the improvements of returning players give them the depth to compete this season with defending champion Los Angeles and Minnesota, which has won three titles since 2011.

The biggest change in the offseason was probably the three-team trade that sent guard Bria Hartley and big Kia Vaughn to New York in exchange for Liberty center Carolyn Swords.

Hartley is expected to help the Liberty improve their outside shooting (the club ranked eighth in 3-pointers made and third in 3-point field goal percentage). Vaughn, who along with Hartley, Charles and Prince are New York natives, will give the Liberty depth on the front line and added rebounding. Returning players like Shavonte Zellous, Kiah Stokes, Brittany Boyd and Amanda Zahui B give New York much-needed continuity.

But the health of Epiphanny Prince might have the most impact on the Liberty in 2017. She played in just six games for New York last season due to an ACL tear in November 2015 while playing in Russia.

With Prince healthy for an entire season -- and sharpshooter Sugar Rodgers and rookie Lindsay Allen (Notre Dame) on the roster -- the Liberty feel they have a nice blend of speed and shooting to supplement their half-court attack, which will feature the triangle offense, made famous by Knicks president Phil Jackson.

In Rodgers, the Liberty might have one of the best shooters in the game. The fourth-year guard -- who ranked second in the WNBA in made 3-pointers last season, behind only Diana Taurasi -- talked excitedly on Monday about expanding her already impressive range.

"I feel like why can't I shoot the shots that Steph Curry shoots? I've put in the work," Rodgers said. "I can shoot from the logo if need be."

The Liberty expected to have a little more shooting depth, but guard Shoni Schimmel has been strangely absent from camp thus far. Laimbeer would not provide details on Schimmel's absence, but hinted that the guard's rotation spot was in danger.

"I don't know what is going to happen with Shoni right now," Laimbeer said. "Right now she is not here by choice. It's a very competitive situation. And right now she's probably falling a little behind because we're all going, we don't stop."

Whether Schimmel rejoins the team, the Liberty should have enough talent to improve their outside shooting and pace this season; the club ranked sixth in the WNBA in pace in 2016. But no matter what the club accomplishes on offense, the top priority in New York remains unchanged: Stop the opponent on the other end.

The Liberty led the league in defensive field goal percentage last season (41 percent) and limited opponents to a league-low 50 percent shooting on attempts inside of 5 feet. The club will need to duplicate those numbers -- and get a little more on offense -- if it hopes to hoist a banner in the fall at Madison Square Garden.

Does it have enough scoring prowess to take that next step? We'll find out in the coming weeks and months, but Laimbeer is cautiously optimistic.

"I think we're going to bring it to the next level," he said. "Hopefully."