In the WNBA’s 25th Season the New York Liberty are Back on Top

The Liberty have shown the rest of the league how to rebuild after finishing 2–20 last season.

By Savannah Moore

The Glory Days

The New York Liberty are one of the three remaining original WNBA franchises that were established for the league’s inaugural season in 1997. In fact, they faced off against the Los Angeles Sparks in the first WNBA game on June 21, 1997, and appeared in the first finals series against the Houston Comets later that year.

The Liberty remained one of the best teams in the league over the next decade with teams that featured basketball legends like Rebecca Lobo, Teresa Weatherspoon, and Becky Hammon, but a championship eluded them. The Liberty hold the league record for most appearances in the Finals without a championship.

Teresa Weatherspoon after hitting “The Shot” in Game 2 of the 1999 WNBA Finals
(SOURCE: Coomer/AP)

The Collapse

In 2017, Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer would leave the franchise to become the head coach and president of basketball operations for the new Las Vegas WNBA team. Laimbeer was a decorated coach in the WNBA, but failed to reach the finals in his 5 year stint with the Liberty. Assistant coach and two-time WNBA champion Katie Smith would be elevated to head coach.

The 2018 team regressed under the first-time head coach, only mustering up seven wins, after winning twenty-two games in 2017. Seven wins was the lowest total in franchise history. The team would improve to10 wins in 2019, but that was not enough to save Smith’s job. The Liberty chose not to renew her contract following the 2019 season. In 2019, the team was sold to Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, who would move the team to Brooklyn full-time. 

New York Liberty and Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai
(SOURCE: AP Photo/Mary Altaffe)

Building Back from the Ground Up

Tsai would begin a full-scale rebuild of the team. First, he hired Minnesota Lynx assistant Walt Hopkins to be the team’s new head coach. Hopkins was a member of the Lynx’s 2017 Championship team. Then the team traded former league MVP and New York native Tina Charles to the Washington Mystics, a move that may have ruffled some feathers, but at the time seemed to be important for the future. New York entered the 2020 WNBA Draft with the three first round picks because of the Charles trade, including the first overall pick for the first time in franchise history.

With the first pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft the New York Liberty selected Sabrina Ionescu to be the new face of the franchise. Ionescu was one of the most prolific college basketball players of all time. A true generational talent, Ionescu is the NCAA all-time leader in triple-doubles, and is the only NCAA Division I basketball player to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in a career. The Liberty would also select UConn forward Megan Walker and Louisville guard Jazmine Jones in the first round.

P-A-T-I-E-N-C-E

At the beginning of the 2020 season the Liberty had seven rookies on their roster and by far the youngest roster in the WNBA. The team started off slow, losing their first five games of the season, but Sabrina Ionescu looked promising, especially after she scored 33 points in her second start. In the team’s third game, disaster struck—Ionescu suffered an ankle injury that proved to be season-ending.

The Liberty gather in the huddle during a trying 2020 season, where they finished with a 2–20 record.
(SOURCE: Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press)

Left with a team that lacked both leadership and experience, the Liberty finished the season with a 2–20 record. It was the worst in franchise history. It wasn’t crazy to believe that Coach Hopkins’ job was already in jeopardy after only one season, but it seemed that ownership and fans alike were willing to trust the process. For the second consecutive year the Liberty would hold the first overall pick in the draft. 

All According to Plan

Although the Liberty had been active in the 2020 Draft, they saw the need to invest elsewhere in 2021. New York sent the first overall pick to the Seattle Storm in a multi-team mega trade. In return the Liberty received former Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard and sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb. The pair have both won multiple WNBA Championships and could provide veteran leadership to the youthful New York team. In addition to the trade with Seattle, the Liberty acquired the sixth pick in the draft after sending 2019 All-Star Kia Nurse and 2020 first-rounder Megan Walker to the Phoenix Mercury. 

The Liberty also made a big splash in free agency, signing 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney. Laney had bounced around the league before having a breakout year with the Atlanta Dream. Even with all the moves the Liberty were making, the most important offseason development was that Sabrina Ionescu was at full health and would be ready for the 2021 season opener. 

The Present

The 25th WNBA season began at home in Brooklyn against the Indiana Fever, another young, rebuilding team. It was clear from tip-off that this was not the same New York Liberty team that fans had seen the season prior. In a high-powered offensive display the Liberty scored 90 points, with the final three coming from a Sabrina Ionescu buzzer-beater that gave New York the win. Ionescu was explosive in her return by scoring 25 points and dishing out 11 assists. Ionescu was not even the highest scorer on her team, as Betnijah Laney dropped 30 points in her team debut. Coach Hopkins was also able to pull meaningful minutes out of rookies Micheala Onyenwere and Didi Richards along with second year players like Kylee Shook and Jazmine Jones.

Sabrina Ionescu after hitting the game-winning shot against the Indiana Fever
(SOURCE: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Liberty defeated the Fever again in a rematch a few nights later, matching their 2020 win total in a matter of days. In the team’s third game against Coach Hopkins’ former team, the Minnesota Lynx, Ionescu could not be stopped. She finished the game with 26 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds, registering only the ninth triple-double in WNBA history in the sixth game of her career.

The Liberty are currently #3 in WNBA standing after being the worst team in the league in 2020. Through savvy trades, player development, smart signings, and a bit of patience the Liberty have laid out the blueprint for one of the most impressive rebuilds in the WNBA. And now, with a true generational talent at the helm, they may be poised to finally capture that elusive WNBA championship. 

The New York Liberty will take on the Connecticut Sun on Saturday, June 5th at 7pm ET – you can watch the game live on the YES app.

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