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McCarville, Mitchell & Moore Make It Easy To Root For the Liberty

I never really write about the Liberty directly, but they’re always lingering somewhere in the periphery of my basketball consciousness.

I usually end up referring to them when their play ends up exposing some fatal flaw in an opponent.

As a new fan, I'm always trying to find a team to root for, which is difficult because I have no home team that I have any real affinity to. Although, the Liberty never really end up being the focal point of my thinking, the other day I realized that I actually felt a tinge of excitement as I set the DVR to record their game against the Sun. It forced me to accept a harsh reality -- I might actually like a New York sports franchise.

The Liberty will probably not win a WNBA title this year. They’re not the flashiest team, by any stretch of the imagination, and sometimes their games are downright ugly. And they don’t really have any superstars to speak of, although I would argue Shameka Christon and Janel McCarville would deserve consideration if there was a game this year.

And yet every time they are broadcast, I make a point to watch them.

Last night – against the Mystics of all teams – I realized why I liked them. It’s the intangibles, the little things that won’t show up in the box score and are difficult to describe. They’re tough and they play with heart. Their seemingly endless rotation allows them to play with great energy (usually). Of all the teams in the WNBA, they seem to have the strongest collective personality.

But what I like most about them is that they seem to have a nothing-to-lose swagger. Not much was expected of them at the beginning of the season – while they were expected to make the playoffs, nobody really expected them to make much noise in the playoffs. So in a way, they are the WNBA’s consummate underdog.

And that underdog swagger seems to be embodied best by the play of three players in particular – Janel McCarville, Loree Moore, and Leilani Mitchell.

One of the most balanced teams in the WNBA?

The first thing you might notice about the Liberty in watching is that they have an extremely deep rotation. And coach Pat Coyle utilizes that depth to press and trap defensively.

They are also a well balanced team and that balance is embodied in the playing styles of their starters, based on the Sparks playing style spectrum:

Moore (distributor), Christon (scorer), Carson (scorer), Kraayeveld (interior scorer), McCarville (versatile utility player)

There is no style for "defender", but Carson is probably already the best perimeter defender on the team.

In addition to being extremely deep and balanced, they are also the youngest team in the league. More importantly they have to rely on their young core because nobody on the team has more than 5 years of experience. Given that they’re already playoff contenders, you have to assume that they have a bright future.

But the most interesting thing about their team is that, the playing styles of their bench players also mirrors that of the starters. That’s something you don’t see very often. Here are the playing styles of their most used bench players:

Mitchell (distributor), Thorn (perimeter scorer), Willis (perimeter scorer),
Jackson (post presence), Battle (interior scorer)

The significance of this – and what may put the Liberty in a unique position – is that they are able to maintain a sense of continuity even when their bench players come in. It’s rare that you can make substitutions and not seem to lose anything from your style of play. This is also where their lack of star power oddly becomes an advantage – they can keep coming at their opponents in waves without letting up, as long as they play within their system.

Their lack of star power also means that they are extremely dependent on ball movement and playing within their system to win games. However, that also means that they can’t look to one player to carry the load when they get in trouble, unlike a team like the Silver Stars who has three of the top 20 scorers in the league. But as you can probably tell, I don’t see that as a bad thing…

Despite their reliance on team basketball and depth, it’s three individuals that stand out for me when I watch the Liberty.

J-Mac: Toughness and versatility

It may at first seem that Kraayeveld (post scorer) and McCarville’s (versatile utility player) playing style labels are backwards. But the reason for the labeling is that while the majority of Kraayeveld’s production comes from her scoring, McCarville can score, pass, and defend extremely well for a big player.

McCarville’s label is misleading as she falls in the "perimeter utility player" dimension of the spectrum. But that’s because her versatile skill set allows her to be effective from all over the court – picking up a number of assists and steals in addition to rebounding and scoring from anywhere inside the three point line.

But what seems to stand out about McCarville is her toughness. She’s probably the team’s biggest star after winning the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award last season, but she’s definitely not resting on her laurels. She comes to play and play hard every single night. She establishes position in the post well, she fights for rebounds, and never backs down from a defensive assignment…even if she’s up against Lisa Leslie.

Her physical style of play and intensity is something something that people did not necessarily expect from female athletes when the WNBA started up. She’s another one of those players who seems to defy conventional wisdom women’s basketball.

L. Mo – Pure leadership

There are no doubt more talented point guards in the league than Loree Moore. But it’s hard to find a stronger leader.

I have followed Loree Moore’s statistics quite closely this season as part of my point guard rankings, and aside from being one of the leaders in assists, there’s nothing particularly impressive about her game statistically.

But when she’s on the court, it’s clear that she’s in control of the action and responsible for setting the tone of the game. She doesn’t do anything particularly spectacular and she might still be playing through an early back injury, but her ability to make outstanding decisions allows her to have a huge impact on the game. She just plays smart basketball.

She picks her shots well. She’s not stellar defensively, but picks up a number of steals without fouling excessively. Although she rarely makes a spectacular pass or an advanced dribble move, she rarely makes a bad pass. And for a team that is so dependent on their team concept, having a player like Moore who is clearly the charismatic leader, but can also lead by example on the floor is invaluable.

Leilani Mitchell: The unassuming rookie

About a month ago, there was a thread on Rebkell about Leilani Mitchell in which people suggested that followers of Leilani Mitchell need a name. The name that seemed to have the best ring to it was the Leilanians.

Consider Rethinking Baseball a friend of the Leilanians.

Really, how can you dislike Leilani Mitchell?

Similar to Moore, she’s not the flashiest point guard. She was a second round pick in a deep 2008 rookie class and was almost cut by the Phoenix Mercury before the Liberty offered a 2009 third round draft pick for her.

Think it was worth it?

Mitchell’s combination of quickness, ball handling skill, and court vision is the perfect substitute for Moore off the bench. Over the course of the season, she’s also gotten more confident driving to the basket despite her small stature. Although her size limits her defensive impact – and may limit her to being a career backup – she’s active and is able to pressure opposing point guards into bad plays.

But what she does better than Moore is create opportunities for others. Her ability to draw the defense with penetration into the lane and kick the ball out to open scorers is essential for a team that relies so heavily on teamwork.

What’s most impressive about Mitchell’s game -- especially for a small rookie -- is her increasing efficiency. Prior to July 1st, Mitchell had the second highest turnover percentage of any rotation point guard. Since July 1st, Mitchell has racked up 22 assists and only 1 turnover. She has not had a turnover in the last 4 games, a stretch in which the Liberty have gone 3-1. That’s amazing when you consider that she spends so much time driving through traffic and making tough passes – it’s not like she’s one of those point guards who doesn’t take risks.

She’s not a game changer in the sense that she changes the way the team plays, but for a team that thrives on rhythm, she has a chance to eventually emerge as one of the top backups in the league. She allows the team to confidently rest their starters while remaining efficient.

Everything I love about basketball

In a post game interview after their victory against the Mystics last night, Mitchell said, "When we get teams down we want to keep them down. We kinda let ‘em back in…" All said with her characteristically contagious smile.

That moment more than anything represents what I like about the Liberty and probably basketball in general. It’s about competing as a team, playing with passionate toughness, but most of all enjoying the opportunity to be paid to play a game. For all those reasons, I'd say that the Liberty are probably the perfect team to represent the league in an outdoor game (the Mercury being the other...despite the blow-out they suffered in their last trip to NYC).

Players like McCarville, Mitchell, and Moore make the Liberty one of the most likeable teams in the WNBA because of the intangibles they bring to the court as well as their passion. Of course, it helps that they are also talented players. But in a game predicated on team chemistry and complementarity, the Liberty are quickly emerging as one of my favorite teams to watch.

Transition Points:

Earlier in the season, I said I liked the Sky...and I still do think they have a bright future. But the Liberty have a much better cast of characters to root for in my opinion...part of that could be the loss of Fowles. But I also like the Liberty's style of play better.

The Game Notes of Doom blog points out that Moore looks like she’s still playing hurt.
And Loree? Loree is hurt. She has to be. Either that or this is a Pod Person and the real Loree is in space while aliens figure out how she got those shoulders.
I hadn’t even heard of her before this year so I don’t have much to compare her performance to, but it sounds like it will help for her to get some rest over the Olympic break.

It’s strange that I’m writing this after the Liberty beat the Mystics of all teams because they seem to be among the most dysfunctional teams in the WNBA. From the DC Basket Cases blog last night:
To say that watching this game on TV wasn't much fun would be an understatement. There's a great deal more (none of it good) that could be said about how the Mystics played this evening, but it's late, so we're calling it a night.
Ouch. It’s hard to even pinpoint one thing that’s wrong with them at the moment. They just don’t play well together…at all. And body language has to count for something – it seemed that whether they were doing well or struggling everyone was walking around frowning. You almost start to feel sorry for them. In many ways, they are the polar opposite of the Liberty – they are making the game of basketball look like an unbearable burden.

A side note on the Sparks -- it's the same old story, but last night's game was especially perplexing. They just came off a game in which they won by dominating the offensive boards against the Silver Stars. The Silver Stars then dominated the Mercury inside. So wouldn't it make sense to use the same strategy they used to beat the Silver Stars against the Mercury? Especially since they previously beat the Mercury using the high-low offense? Instead, they got caught up trying to match the Mercury's transition game and lost...and only had 1 assist in the entire second half...which just seems wrong for a team with two strong post players...

Relevant Links:

Liberty Defense And Depth Overpower Mystics
http://www.spmsportspage.com/published/spmarticles/liberty-defense-and-depth.shtml