2013 WNBA preview: Did the New York Liberty improve enough to move up in the Eastern Conference?

Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

A statistical preview of the New York Liberty based on the season preview framework described in our primer the other day. For those not interested in all these words, the tl;dr version is essentially the first section of 2012 review and the last section titled "key question". For a look at their major offsesaon moves, check out their offseason storystream.

2012 review and offseason summary

Last season, I previewed the New York Liberty's season by wondering whether the New York Liberty could "get beyond average".

Statistically speaking, they didn't even make that last season.

Both their defensive and offensive ratings were below average. And if you look at their expected wins (via Basketball-Reference) their 15-19 record was actually four wins better than their pythagorean win projection. Even more alarming, they were one of two teams in the league to have not one advantage over opponents (the other was the last place Washington Mystics).

eFg%

Fta/Fga

Oreb%

Tov%

TeamFacs

MEV

Adj Synergy

NYL

47.37%

19.96%

29.86%

18.29%

4.87

61.12

0.27

Opp

47.55%

27.92%

31.61%

0.16

5.31

71.56

0.36

Weighted

eFg%

fta/fga

Oreb%

Tov%

NYL

-0.02

-0.17

-0.07

-0.18

2012 statistics for the New York Liberty.

Having squandered draft picks in consecutive years and arguably sinking further below average, a coaching change should probably have been expected despite making the playoffs (due to a dismal season from the Mystics and a mid-season meltdown by the Chicago Sky when Epiphanny Prince suffered an injury). The Liberty were firmly on the WNBA's treadmill of mediocrity by the end of last season, having played their way out of contention for a coveted lottery pick and yet not good enough to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

But the question of whether they'd get beyond average wasn't just statistical - the Liberty looked like a team that without direction.

Then along came Bill Laimbeer, a championship coach with a recognizable personality that the league can use and a proven ability to get the most out of his players. The immediate question was how he would make his mark on the team and he did that before they ever played a game in assembling a roster full of familiar faces from the now-defunct Detroit Shock.

If you're a Liberty fan, that gives hope to at least stop the treadmill from running. But will this year be about catching their breath or actually moving forward?

2013 WNBA Draft: Kamiko Williams one the biggest surprises

Kelsey Bone and Toni Young were rookies who we followed closely throughout the 2012-13 NCAA basketball season, but we discussed Kamiko Williams considerably less.

In short, there's a a lot to like about Williams although her being selected 15th was a pretty big surprise.

She's a long athlete with a versatile skillset and was a glue player for the Tennessee Lady Vols who was capable filling in the gaps for the team. The only major concern about her as a draft prospect was this: although she was very efficient as a scorer (55.3%) and distributor (1.97 pure point rating), she was a low usage player (about 15%), which typically doesn't bode well for WNBA success. The reason is that usually a low usage player is either efficient because they weren't asked to do much or passive and just not the type of player who's looking to do much.

Like UConn's Kelly Faris who was drafted by the Connecticut Sun, Williams has a chance to change the narrative of the low usage draft prospect - there isn't a player remotely similar to Williams statistically who has made a roster in the last five years.

In the preseason, Williams spent some time handling the ball and if she proves she can do that and defend she'll be a major asset for the Liberty.

Balance

What the Liberty essentially did this offseason was to bolster an are of relative strength: offensive rebounding.

By adding Cheryl Ford as well as drafting Kelsey Bone and Toni Young (whose strongest college attribute was offensive rebounding statistically), they'll have a solid interior rotation.

The question marks are about whether they have significantly improved in any other area.

Player

S%

P%

I%

S-P-I style

TS

Turnover%

Oreb%

FTP

Cappie Pondexter

0.92

0.69

0.15

SP

53.78%

11.80%

2.05%

25.13%

Essence Carson

0.90

0.38

0.32

S

47.04%

11.01%

3.73%

10.63%

Plenette Pierson

0.52

0.34

0.59

M

52.25%

14.51%

8.92%

24.05%

Kara Braxton

0.36

0.18

0.76

IP

48.56%

21.79%

13.58%

8.49%

Leilani Mitchell

0.43

0.92

0.26

D

55.47%

14.96%

2.75%

4.66%

Alex Montgomery

0.28

0.46

0.66

M

46.48%

14.92%

9.64%

12.50%

Katie Smith

0.50

0.77

0.40

D

56.32%

15.58%

1.17%

16.58%

2012 statistics for New York Liberty returners and veterans.

Most basketball fans know that Cappie Pondexter can score, but she does so at an efficiency that is only moderately above average for a scorer guard. Two of the three other top usage players from last season (Kara Braxton and Essence Carson) were below average scorers relative to their style of play. In addition, both Braxton and Plennette Pierson were the difficult combination of high-usage, high-turnover rate players. Leilani Mitchell was a 41.1% 3-point shooter, but almost a non-factor in the offense with a usage rate of just 12.4%.

To find a strength beyond rebounding, players are going to have to improve and they'll have to embrace a system that minimizes some of their individual weaknesses.

Versatility

Along those lines, this is still not a particularly versatile roster: the one player who can create shots for herself efficiently without being a turnover risk is Cappie Pondexter.

The only efficient distributor from last season on the roster is Leilani Mitchell. She and Katie Smith both shot 40+% from the 3-point line last season, but the rest of the team is well below average as a shooting team. But both are reliant on others to get their shots.

Turnovers still figure to be a problem unless their post players improve, but both Braxton and Pierson have struggled with turnovers at past points in their careers.

Ultimately, the question for this team is what they do when Pondexter is off the floor and there aren't necessarily any immediate answers.

But defensively, one might hope the Liberty would improve a bit. They should be a better rebounding team and if they don't send opponents to the line so often, they can further limit easy points by opponents. Williams and Young could develop into useful players on the defensive end. Carson next to Pondexter gives them some defensive options. If those perimeter players can pressure opponents into bad shots and turnovers, the bigs should be able to win the boards. Their interior defense might be suspect against some of the league's better post players, but as a unit their rookie additions might be able to help.

X-Factor: Essence Carson

Carson has never really had a problem creating her own shot. The problem has always been whether she'd knock them down.

After a 2011 campaign in which she had a career-high 51.1% true shooting percentage - due in part to a higher free throw production rate and in part due to career-high 38.7% 3-point shooting - Carson returned to her career average efficiency of 47% TS.

The question now is whether that 2011 season was just an anomaly, but the Liberty really need it not to be: Carson is the clear candidate for a second option to take pressure off Pondexter.

Complementarity

Yet in fairness to this roster, putting a bunch of offensive rebounders around Pondexter isn't a terrible idea. And the bottom line is that no matter what the Liberty are going to have to rely really heavily on the strategy and it's not clear what they'll do when Pondexter is off the floor. If Carson can return to 2011 form, it'll be going and getting Carson and Pondexter's shots.

If you imagine that scenario where the primary goal is to get those two perimeter players shot while the bigs rebound, the 3-point shooting of Mitchell and Smith becomes more valuable as defenses scramble to rotate out on second chance shots. Teams can win that way, but an efficient post scoring threat would really help the Liberty. Right now, it's not clear where that will come from without turnovers.

Depth

You can probably imagine where this is going: their one efficient wing scorer from last season was Pondexter. Mitchell is their one efficient point guard, though one might imagine a number of players sharing in ball handling duties. They'll have plenty of options in the post, would benefit greatly if Bone or Young can become efficient scorers in their first year.

So there's some depth in being able to fill out traditional position designations, but they're quite thin in key areas like scoring and passing efficiently.

Key question: Can the Liberty get off that treadmill?

It's obvious that a player like Deanna Nolan could have helped this unit immensely in a number of ways, but alas that's not happening.

They should be expected to improve defensively and win the rebounding battle, which would be a couple of improvements over last season. Where it seems they'll falter is still in presenting defenses with a dynamic offense, but if Carson can get back any part of what she did in 2011 that pressure on Pondexter will be alleviated.

Last season, the issue was really that the Liberty made no recognizable improvements in the offseason. This season, they did improve their rebounding situation but the question is whether they improved enough to get beyond average.

On paper, it's not clear that they've made enough improvement to really make noise in the Eastern Conference. To imagine that they will experience a revival this year is to put a lot of faith in the coaching ability of Bill Laimbeer.

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