Rebuilt Liberty aiming for playoffs

ByMichelle Smith ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In what is shaping up to be a year of transition all around the WNBA, the New York Liberty are proving to be as experienced at the makeover as anyone.

There is but one player left on the roster from the team that New York fielded just two years ago -- forward Essence Carson. Coach Bill Laimbeer was in, then out, then in again with the Liberty during a tumultuous offseason. And even with only Carson back on the roster, Laimbeer has a team that could be a pleasant surprise in the Eastern Conference.

"We made a decision to go in a different direction," Laimbeer said Saturday after his team's preseason finale against Atlanta. "We wanted to go younger. We wanted to bring in energy players. We wanted a different attitude and culture and players that the New York fans could identify with for the long term. They are going to be here for five, six, seven years, growing up. That was our plan, and so far I think we've accomplished that."

After the Liberty reversed course during the winter on their decision to retain Laimbeer as head coach -- the team failed to reach the playoffs under him the past two seasons -- he went to work. Laimbeer traded Cappie Pondexter to Chicago for Epiphanny Prince. He signed Tanisha Wright after her long tenure in Seattle. And then he traded his way into the first round of the WNBA draft, not once but twice, to get Connecticut's Kiah Stokes and Cal guard Brittany Boyd.

Then came the controversial news that team owner James Dolan had hired Isiah Thomas to serve as the Liberty's team president, a move that generated a firestorm because of a female employee's 2007 lawsuit that alleged sexual harassment by Thomas when he was president and coach of the New York Knicks. The employee, Anucha Browne Sanders, won the civil suit and an $11.6 million settlement against chairman James Dolan and Madison Square Garden Inc., which owns the Knicks and the Liberty.

Laimbeer said the team voted that only a couple of players would be speaking to the media about the Thomas situation. Center Tina Charles said the team has tried to minimize the "noise," which she said has mainly come from the media.

"Our team has stayed together as a unit," Charles said. "We just want to win. We haven't made the playoffs in two years, so that's our focus. Stay tight and get a W."

Charles, who was traded to New York last season because she wanted to play in her hometown, hasn't missed many postseasons in her playing career. She wants back in.

"As long as you have a postseason, you have a chance to win a championship," Charles said. "To not have that opportunity is very frustrating."

In addition to an infusion of young talent like Boyd and Stokes, the Liberty shored up their veteran presence with Candice Wiggins, Wright and Prince, who was Chicago's second-leading scorer last season on the way to the Sky's run to the Finals. Prince will miss the first month of the season as she plays for the Russian national team as Russia attempts to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Laimbeer said the Liberty's training camp has gone better than he expected, and he thinks the organization has found its "guard of the future" in Boyd.

"We are putting in a lot of plays, learning a new offense; the coaches are working with me on my defense and my jump shot, and I feel like I'm learning really fast," Boyd said. "But I love the team, and it is really good energy to be around. We are joking around, hanging out together. And it's going to translate on the court. We just need to figure each other [out], learn where we like the ball, stuff like that."

Laimbeer also specifically mentioned excitement about Stokes, the Connecticut product he got with the 11th pick in the draft. Stokes averaged 10 points and 11 rebounds in two preseason games. "She's a solid, solid, fundamental player," Laimbeer said. "She is just always in position, does everything right, and is a much better shooter than we could have dreamed. We didn't know she was this good."

The Liberty also will need contributions from surprising Australian Rebecca Allen, who scored in double figures in both preseason games. "I thought she was going to be a project and she's so far ahead of that," Laimbeer said.

The Eastern Conference, which has produced just one of the past six WNBA champions, has been a predictably jam-packed group of teams that hover near the .500 mark until the very end of the season. That gives the rebuilt Liberty a chance to sneak into the mix in the conference.

But at the end of the day, even the optimistic Laimbeer admits that for all the progress and the pleasant surprises, he doesn't quite know yet about this team. "From a win-loss perspective, I don't have a clue at the moment," Laimbeer said. "I do know how we are going to play, but I don't know how it translates into wins or losses yet. But I think we could be very solid."