2012 WNBA Preview: Can The New York Liberty Get Beyond Average?

The New York Liberty were exceptional at creating turnovers and scoring in transition in 2011, but other than that they were decidedly average statistically. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

Every year I've used this statistical framework for evaluating teams in the preseason, there's one team that is sort of a wild card, a team that could either win their conference or finish in the lottery.

A large part of that is simply the shortcoming of using statistics to say anything about a fluid sport like basketball, but part of it is telling - it's a team that is solid, but maybe not particularly outstanding in enough ways to be considered dominant.

Two years ago, that was the New York Liberty. Last season, that was also the New York Liberty. This season the Liberty are sort of the wild card, but in a different way - their chances of making the 2012 playoffs might depend on others.

2011 Season Review

Click here for an explanation of this framework and here for our statistics glossary.

eFg% Tov% Oreb% FTRt
NYL 47.59% 16.62% 31.13% 21.86%
Opp 47.26% 19.11% 28.92% 29.99%
Weighted Diff 0.03 0.21 0.09 -0.17

2011 Four Factors summary for the N.Y. Liberty.

When you look at the Liberty on paper, what immediately stands out is a lack of glaring needs - they were better than their opponents in three of the Four Factors in 2011. Their one dominant strength was forcing and scoring off turnovers, finishing the season second in the league in points off turnovers (18.74). The problem was that after that dominant strength, the Liberty's other statistics were somewhat misleading.

For example, the Liberty were quite a good offensive rebounding team, ranking 4th in the WNBA in both offensive rebounding percentage and second chance points. But they also gave up a lot of offensive rebounds to their opponents, tying for fourth from last in defensive rebounding percentage and thus narrowing a margin that could have been a major advantage. So while they were an above average total rebounding team by percentage, their poor defensive rebounding almost helped to mitigate their strong offensive rebounding.

Overall, the Liberty were quite solid defensively, both in forcing turnovers and limiting fast break points - they sat among a cluster of three teams jockeying for second-best defensive rating in the Eastern Conference. However, their own offensive efficiency was only average, with the Liberty's shooting efficiency barely better than their opponents'.

And as you look across the most significant statistics for the Liberty in 2011, that's sort of what begins to stand out: this team was average. Good enough to get into the playoffs as the fourth seed with few really significant injuries, but making it tough on themselves to advance.

Key personnel losses

So one way to look at the Liberty's 2012 season is to say that with no changes to their rotation and the presence of center Kara Braxton - who helped on the defensive rebounding front - set to play for a full season is to say that this team should be able to maintain their level of play from last season and continue coming together as a unit under coach John Whisenant. Their two losses were Sydney Colson and Ta'Shia Phillips who played about 100 minutes per game combined last season. Perhaps the rookies needed more time to develop, but it's difficult to make a case that it will impact how they play this season.

The most significant "loss" is really the absence of 6'5" center Quanitra Hollingsworth, the best rebounder - offensive and defensive - to finish the season with the team, who will be helping the Turkish national team in their effort to qualify for the 2012 Olympics during June. She has been placed on the suspended list and the Liberty will retain her rights. Certainly having Braxton acclimated to the team and Whisenant's style of play helps, but in the meantime they could struggle against the league's stronger rebounding interior players.

Key personnel additions

New veterans SPI Style Min/G VCR TS% Tov% Oreb% FTR Usg% Value Added 4-yr RAPM
Kelly Miller D 27.74 < 0.76 < 51.91 > 15.33 =2.74 < 16.88 14.56 -0.93 -1.65
DeMya Walker IU 16.30 < 0.68 < 45.30 < 19.18 > 11.05 = 34.02 19.54 -1.02 -1.2

2011 statistics for the New York Liberty's new additions.

The other way to look at the Liberty's 2012 season is to say that with no changes to their rotation they didn't exactly get a whole lot better than the average levels they were at last season.

With Hollingsworth out, Walker's rebounding ability becomes significant for the Liberty as she comes to the team with a 2011 offensive rebounding percentage higher than anyone's except Kia Vaughn, who had a breakout season last year. But her minutes can be expected to decline if she remains with the team when Hollingsworth declines.

Kelly Miller is likely to see more time at point guard than Colson did last season, which could help increase their offensive efficiency just in terms of adding another distributor with a positive pure point rating. With Miller in the fold, it's quite likely that Cappie Pondexter will also see less time as the lead ball handler, which is probably a good thing - although Pondexter is a capable ball handler, she's clearly a scorer first and the Liberty's offense was much more fluid when she was on the wing looking to score instead of bringing the ball up to initiate the offense for others. And with Miller shooting 44.44% from the 3-point line last season, she could help spread the floor for players like Braxton and Vaughn to work inside or Pondexter to drive.

That could help address the scoring efficiency problem, but given that Miller is a low usage point guard it might be a somewhat lateral move in that regard - Leilani Mitchell is a career 40% 3-point shooter and was a more efficient ball handler than Miller, even in a down season. Again, it's a solid addition but doesn't move them a whole lot more beyond average because they were already a decent ball handling and 3-point shooting team.

Rookie projections

Rookies S P I Projected SPI StyleWNBA Style
Kelley Cain 4.10% 3.40% 99.20% IU

NCAA SPI tendencies from Cain's 2010-11 season at Tennessee, her final year there.

All of the above helps to put Liberty fans' frustration with the selection of Kelley Cain in context.

Cain could end up being a solid rebounder in the WNBA, but it remains to be seen whether she can earn enough minutes to be a major factor - based upon her numbers from her last season of play at Tennessee, she projects into an interior player who could make an impact on the boards but struggle to do much else.

Given that the Liberty needed rebounding help, Cain isn't necessarily a bad pickup for them with the 7th pick in the draft. But again, given that they were picking #7 it's not exactly a great pick either, at least strategically - Sasha Goodlett, who projects as the better player at the same position, was still on the board at that point.

Ultimately, when we look back on their draft at the end of the year, we might say the pick ended up being average in a weak draft.

Preseason highlights

  • Leilani Mitchell has played extremely well in every other year of her career thus far and after a down year last year, perhaps this will be her good year. In two preseason games she 9 assists and 1 turnover in about 45.5 minutes (4.39 pure point rating), which is very good for a point guard and more in line with her rookie year ball handling efficiency. The Liberty could use her 48.6 3-point shooting again, but even the ball handling efficiency would help considerably.
  • Kara Braxton turned in a dominant defensive rebounding performance in their first preseason game, which - as stated previously - is something the Liberty will need this season.
2012 Outlook

Returners

Returners SPI Style Min/G VCR TS% Tov% Oreb% FTR Usg Value Added 4-yr RAPM
Braxton IP 16.84 > 1.21 > 53.56 > 16.40 > 10.49 < 25.61 23.96 -0.11 -0.95
Carson SP 22.64 > 1.18 > 51.10 > 10.17 > 5.09 > 25.15 24.90 -1.73 0.45
Hollingsworth IU 16.91 > 0.83 > 56.99 < 24.40 > 12.26 > 51.45 14.68 1.00 -3.6
Mitchell DU 25.41 < 0.77 < 50.15 > 12.97 =2.34 < 5.43 12.10 1.42 -0.3
Montgomery IU 9.02 < 0.68 < 40.54 > 14.34 < 6.60 < 20% 18.61 -0.21 -1.6
Pierson S 28.64 > 1.18 > 52.70 < 12.10 > 7.81 > 27.07 22.33 -0.61 3.6
Pondexter SP 33.87 >1.16 > 50.34 =11.07 < 2.27 > 25.37 26.68 -3.75 -0.1
Powell P 28.32 > 0.93 > 52.80 > 14.67 =4.07 < 11.11 17.75 -0.32 -0.4
Vaughn IP 28.10 > 1.15 > 52.67 > 14.36 > 11.97 < 18.66 18.24 2.27 -2.55

Strengths
  • So for all that talk about the Liberty being average, one thing that does stand out about their roster is that they do have some versatility in terms of style of play - assuming Cain can contribute on the boards, they have a good mix of interior, perimeter, and scoring types.
  • All but Mitchell were more efficient scorers than average relative to similar types of players and if Mitchell does get more efficient again, they should be able to increase their offensive efficiency.
  • Obviously, Cappie Pondexter is a strength as someone who is becoming a perennial All-WNBA, MVP candidate.
Questions:
  • Will Pondexter need another All-WNBA, MVP-caliber season just for the Liberty to make the playoffs? I have no answer for that and am only left wondering what the most reasonable alternative scenario would be.
  • Which point guard will give them more offensively? Neither Miller nor Mitchell is coming off a particularly strong point guard year. Mitchell gets the edge because of her ball handling efficiency, but Miller's 3-point shooting has to count for something on this team. Last year, with Colson not earning minutes, point guard minutes went to Pondexter and Alex Montgomery in addition to Mitchell. If either of the team's two distributors can become more efficient players in starter's minutes, the team should be better offensively.
  • Does the negative free throw rate differential really matter? A number of very good teams have been very successful with a negative free throw rate differential. In fact, it's almost like the statistical weakness of champions. But the one issue it does highlight with New York is that they have a roster with 6 players with below average free throw rates for their style of play - including Mitchell's extremely low 5.43% free throw rate - which is generally indicative of a lot of jump shooting players. Obviously Pondexter is capable of driving to the basket and Carson's continued improvement on offense might include more of that, but they're not just losing that free throw rate battle because they're fouling a lot or moving the ball extremely well to find open shots; they're just not drawing that many free throws.
  • Can they improve their rebounding situation? Having Braxton for a full season as well as adding Cain and Walker should give them some bulk to help them better compete on the defensive boards this season, which could also help them score in transition more often. But figuring out a rotation that accommodates that will be tough with Vaughn and Plenette Pierson being the better scorers and generally more productive players as of last season.
Breakout player
  • Given that Essence Carson was an All Star last year, it's hard to call her a breakout player. Given that Leilani Mitchell has already won the Most Improved Player award, it's hard to call her a breakout player. Given that anyone else on the roster who has shown promise in the league has already been an All Star, a significant contributor to a WNBA championship team, won a Most Improved Player award, or declining, it's sort of hard to identify any Liberty player as a potential "breakout player". But if we're just looking for players who could improve over last season, both Mitchell and Vaughn could improve - Vaughn because she had a strong VCR for her style of play last year and could probably play an even more significant role for the team and Mitchell because we know she's capable of more than what she did last year.
Projection: Playoff contender

Any time a team makes the playoffs in a close race and then does little to improve, you have to assume they could make it back. Any combination of another team struggling due to injury (or Olympic absence) or someone just having an off year could help the Liberty get back to the playoffs.

But the problem is that this was also an average team statistically that really didn't help themselves in any significant way whereas you could argue that other Eastern Conference teams did or at least tried to. Maintaining the status quo might not be enough to make the playoffs when Chicago made big moves to make themselves a real player this season and the Atlanta Dream still have Angel McCoughtry.

So it's very possible that the Liberty find themselves missing the playoffs but also playing their way out of the probability of landing the first pick in the highly-anticipated 2013 WNBA Draft. It's also possible that everyone plays to their full potential and ends up riding Cappie Pondexter's coat tails to the playoffs, thus missing out on a lottery pick in the highly-anticipated 2013 WNBA Draft and remaining about average.

If there is a team that should be looking to shake things up via trade this season, it might be the Liberty.

Click here for an explanation of this framework and here for our statistics glossary.

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