New York basketball is relevant once again. After breakout seasons by their male counterparts, the Knicks and Nets, the Liberty have joined the party.
Following their 91–80 victory over the Washington Mystics on Sept. 17, along with losses by the Mystics and Sparks on Sunday, the Liberty competed in the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2017. They narrowly lost a heartbreaker, 83–82, to the Mercury on Thursday, but don’t let that early exit fool you. The future in New York has never looked brighter.
Before making the playoffs, the 2021 team was considered a disappointment, compared with expectations that skyrocketed after a 5–1 start to the season and a talented young core led by the former WNBA Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and ’20 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu.
For a franchise that has been rebuilding since 2018, a playoff berth for this team meant a little more than usual this season.
“The playoffs are a new season in a way. People show up differently,” Laney said.
In the early part of the season, Laney was making a case for what would’ve been her first WNBA MVP award, averaging 22.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 54.3% shooting from the field and 52.2% from downtown.
She was joined by Ionescu, one of the biggest budding stars in the league. Building off a heavily shortened rookie season in 2020, Ionescu continued her terrific play from last year, averaging 17.8 points, 7.8 assists and 6.8 rebounds during the Liberty’s first six games and even winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors at the start of the season.
Many critics at the time lauded the Liberty’s offseason strategy to surround their star point guard with complementary pieces. New York signed Laney from the Dream, pairing the veteran wing with Ionescu. They infused championship experience into the young group by trading for sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb along with former WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard from the Storm. All three additions raised the stakes for the Liberty, and, early on, they were not meeting the bar—they were exceeding it.
However, on May 24, after a hard-fought 88–81 victory against the Wings, the magic of New York’s early-season run came to a screeching halt. Howard went down with an MCL sprain, taking her out of action for nearly three months (extended due to the Olympic break). The injury was the first shock to the Liberty’s system, and they just kept coming.
New York suffered blowout losses in five of its next six games and won only seven more the rest of the regular season. While that was a major improvement over the Liberty’s 2–20 Wubble campaign, just a week before, they were on the outside looking in on the playoffs, with the Mystics breathing down their necks. It looked all but certain that their playoff hopes would have to wait another season.
Injuries played a primary role in the group’s midseason collapse. In June, Ionescu missed two games due to left ankle tendinitis. Even with her quick return to the court, Ionescu didn’t regain the magic of her early-season play until late in the year, struggling with turnovers and scoring on a consistent level.
Ionescu has said herself that the injury held her back for quite some time throughout the summer months, but as of the post-Olympic break she said that she’s healthy again.
Along with Howard and Ionescu, players such as Whitcomb, Rebecca Allen and Jazmine Jones dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season. Plus, the Liberty returned only four players from last year’s roster. The squad never really had a chance to jell.
The team’s struggles this season didn’t just stop there. The Liberty have occasionally shot themselves out of games with their selection issues and overreliance on the three. An even bigger red flag for this team during the regular season was its inability to protect the basketball: 16.9 turnovers per game with a 20.7% turnover percentage certainly hurts—especially when you lead the league in opponent points off turnovers.
But this group never let its midseason slump define it, and, more important, it was never too focused on its early-season success. This may be indicative of a fundamental change within the franchise, according to Liberty forward Reshanda Gray.
“[Making the playoffs] is important because we are rebuilding and rebranding the culture here,” Gray said. “That indicates that we are moving in the right direction of what we want the Liberty to look like and be like. We want to build on that and set the tone of how we want things to be run.”
While there were many losses late in the season, the Liberty rattled off two pivotal wins in their playoff chase. An upset victory over the defending champion Storm (who were sitting Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart) on Aug. 18 and a victory over the Mystics in their final regular-season game were enough, along with some sorely needed help from other teams, to clinch a playoff spot in a weak Eastern Conference.
The Mystics victory in particular was a clear indication of how good this team can be when it is playing (mostly) at its best. Howard was dominant on both ends (26 points, 10 rebounds). While Laney struggled from the field (10 points, 3-of-14 shooting), she came away with 11 assists, creating opportunities for her teammates all game long.
Before the Washington matchup, coach Walt Hopkins had challenged this young Liberty squad to focus on five specific things it would like to work on throughout the contest. For Laney, she wanted to take on an even bigger role.
“Coming into the [Washington] game, I think I lead the team in the best way on and off the court by being vocal and working hard,” Laney said. “I just want to continue to be that person for my teammates and organization and continue to get the same [winning] results.”
The biggest positive sign was that Ionescu was in her element—not only as a facilitator and rebounder but as a scorer. Whenever the Mystics tried to reclaim momentum in the game, Ionescu always had the answer, whether it was a big-time assist or sinking difficult shots to close out the game. When Ionescu is at her best, the team is tough for anyone to beat. Her facilitating opens the door for good looks for the other primary scorers in Laney, Whitcomb and Howard.
Hopkins believes that the way his team responded in that game was a clear sign of how well this team can handle adversity.
“The Mystics had every reason to win. That was a playoff game for us,” Hopkins said. I didn’t see any individuals out there. I saw players were trying to find the best shot, doing what is expected of them on defense in making sure their rotations were sharp. It seemed like we figured some things out.”
That supporting cast is an underappreciated group. Michaela Onyenwere is currently the lead candidate for Rookie of the Year and was a huge part of the Liberty’s early success. Whitcomb was third in the league in three-point percentage and has been the cornerstone of the arguably the best three-point shooting team in WNBA history. Allen, the last player remaining from the Bill Laimbeer era in New York, is an excellent defender capable of shooting the three-ball at a decent clip.
With Hopkins running a five-out motion offense this season, which spaces the floor for his best shooters, it’s no secret why the Liberty broke the league’s single-season team record in three-pointers made (321).
“In terms of our personnel, we have some great shooters on this team,” Hopkins said. “A lot of players on this team can shoot the three-ball, [but they] are seeking out great shots rather than good ones. Even players such as Sami Whitcomb, who’ve made a career off being a prolific shooter, have seen a jump in their efficiency, and it’s a result of her work ethic. You could say it’s a part of the offensive system, but at the end of the day the players make plays.”
Hopkins has quickly turned things around after inheriting an extremely young and inexperienced roster in his first year. Now, this group is poised to be a playoff contender for years to come.
The biggest challenge for the Liberty will be realizing their full potential. While making the playoffs is a great thing for this franchise, they haven’t made it to the Finals in nearly 20 years. Turnovers and consistency on both sides of the ball will need to improve moving forward, as well as the development of their young stars, Ionescu and Onyenwere.
However, this franchise finally has a team that they can be hopeful for. After enduring one of the worst seasons in team history, New York has carried a chip on its shoulder all year long, and it’s culminated in a playoff berth. If they can carry this underdog mentality moving forward, the Liberty will only reach even loftier heights and, eventually, their first WNBA title.