Swish Appeal has had the good fortune of speaking to three important members of the Liberty organization over the past two weeks: President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski, coach Anne Donovan, and newly added forward Nicole Powell. With so much more information for the Liberty than other teams, we will break the analysis of the Liberty into three parts. Today, we present the first: a review of the 2009 season based on conversations with Blazejowski and Donovan.
When I first started following the WNBA closely back in 2008, the New York Liberty were one of the first teams to catch my eye.
Although they were the youngest team in the league and didn't really have that one standout star - they hadn't had an all-star since Becky Hammon and Ann Wauters in 2005 - they were also one of the most balanced teams in the league. They weren't flashy and more often than not defined themselves by winning the ugly games. Most of all, it was the little things that quickly made the Liberty one of my favorite teams to watch in 2008.
In a gushing post at Rethinking Basketball in July 2008, I wrote that the Liberty had an "underdog swagger", a nothing to lose swagger and a style of play best described by their toughness and heart. There were two games that stood out in 2008 as defining moments: a 105 - 72 blowout of the Phoenix Mercury at home in which they dismantled whatever defense the Mercury threw at them with beautiful execution and a thrilling 69-68 win over the Los Angeles Sparks at home won with a layup by center Janel McCarville with 6.4 seconds left.
They seemed to have all the pieces for a great team - distributors, perimeter scorers, defenders, post players - and everybody played within their role. From an outsider's perspective, the Liberty seemed to be the perfect team to represent New York - a gritty, tough team that never seemed to give up and played with heart and passion until the very last moment. As I wrote then, the 2008 Liberty had "everything I love about basketball".
So after making the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals and losing to the eventual champion Detroit Shock in three games, suddenly they were no longer the underdog in 2009 and their expectations shifted accordingly.
"We were two points from reaching the Finals," said Liberty President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski in an interview with Swish Appeal last Thursday. "Last year, we come back with the same exact roster -- it doesn't make sense. Now I understand that everybody else got better as well, but with a young club and you're hungry, points away from getting to the Finals a year prior, I expected something different than what we got last year. So we're taking a fresh look at the roster this year."
Worst of all, that "underdog swagger" was gone - rather than rise to the occasion under pressure, they seemed to meltdown.
"Our biggest downfall was that when our backs got up against the wall we just didn't respond," said coach Anne Donovan in an interview with Swish Appeal last Friday. "And it's only natural during the course of a season that your back is going to be against the wall, for some teams more than others. And for us, it was quite a bit early and we just didn't respond the way we need to."
The result - a seventh place finish in the East - was described succinctly by Blazejowski: "Underachieving and disappointing."
Unfortunately, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Liberty underachieved last season.
Although still young in 2009, they returned almost the same core while adding Rutgers University center Kia Vaughn through the draft and shooter Sidney Spencer in what has become a controversial trade.
"When I went to New York to help Patty out, I had assumed -- like most people -- that the two previous seasons, they'd had such success, they'd been a step away from the finals that this team was going to compete for a Eastern Conference championship again and then for a WNBA title," said Donovan. "So that was my expectation coming in. And it quickly became evident that we were going to struggle. And we never seized momentum back and turned that around."
Some fans might have attributed the Liberty's struggles to a lack of heart or effort. It appeared that the underdog swagger had turned into a smug overconfidence. There were games -- most notably a game against the Connecticut Sun last August -- in which they appeared to just give up entirely. However, in that it never occurred to them that they would lose, Donovan described the team as in "shock" when the losses started to pile up.
"It's hard for me to agree that we lacked heart or effort," said Donovan. "I think in my opinion what it was was we were shook -- we were almost in shock. Because we believed like everyone else that we were going to be better than we were performing. And so I just think it was more that than a lack of heart...In New York's case, getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, it was a task: 'How are we going to come back this year?' And I don't think mentally we came back prepared. So that is something that we will definitely try and make sure that we come out fighting."
As much as the attitude and heart present in the nail-biter against the Sparks seemed to disappear, so did the offensive execution present in the Mercury blowout.
Two things stand out statistically in explaining the Liberty’s struggles in 2009.
First, they were second to last in rebounding differential last season and third to last in rebounding percentage. Most importantly, they got beat quite badly on the offensive boards.
"I think just by rebounding the ball better and getting it off the board and out in transition, we're going to help ourselves," said Donovan.
Donovan's point about getting the ball out in transition speaks to the second, and quite possibly the biggest problem for the Liberty. Last summer, the Liberty finished last or near last in multiple scoring categories: in addition to fast break points (last), points off turnovers (last), 2nd chance points (12th), and points per game (last).
On the surface, it was hard to tell exactly what went wrong - although it would have been hard to mistake the Liberty for an offensive juggernaut in 2008, they were at least an average scoring team. From a coaching perspective, Donovan said the problem was that they changed offensive systems.
"We had a new system offensively and I think we just struggled to catch onto it," said Donovan. "It was a system based on reads and I just don't think we ever caught on to what those were and never developed any kind of consistent flow or confidence in the system. So I think that had something to do with our scoring."
However, here's something one could assume is an oddity - the Liberty took exactly the same number of shots in 2008 and 2009 (2,168), their field goal percentage fell about 1%, and they shot about the same number of threes (706 in 2008, 710 in 2009). As a whole, there was very, very little difference in their numbers, giving more credence to the idea that the problem was primarily mental.
However, one big difference is that their scoring distribution shifted in 2009.
A look at the team's SPI player styles from 2008 and 2009 helps to understand exactly what shifted.
The first noticeable difference is that although the Liberty had the same number of players who tended toward scoring in 2008 and 2009, the scoring distribution shifted somewhat dramatically.
Leading scorer Shameka Christon's field goal attempts and percentage stayed about the same, but in about the same number of minutes, she became a far more well-rounded player in 2009: she had a career high 4.9 rebounds per game. Although her perimeter tendencies relative to the league fell a bit, her assists per game increased slightly.
Whereas Christon became less of a scorer on the wing, second-year player Essence Carson became far more of a scorer but far less of an interior presence, falling from the 26th to the 7th percentile in interior tendencies between 2008 and 2009 despite only a small difference in raw numbers.
"Essence Carson is a player -- believe it or not, I've been following her since high school, she's a jersey gal, as am I -- she was really committed but she didn't have the year she thought she might have last year," said Blazejowski.
From there things changed dramatically on the scoring front, most notably a drop off in production from their starting post players, where the Liberty got a bit thinner in 2009.
McCarville didn't take a whole lot less shots last season, but approximately one less shot per game made her fall from the 54th to 31st percentile in shooting tendency. Among the league's most versatile players in 2008, McCarville became what David Sparks labels a "scorer's opposite" 2009. Conversely, Catherine Kraayveld shot considerably less in 2009, but also did everything else considerably less. So while she became "more of a scorer" in terms of percentile, she actually just became less of everything else.
Another interesting shift between 2008 and 2009 was at the point guard position, arguably the spot most directly responsible for the type of offensive execution that the Liberty had against a team like the Mercury.
"We need to take a look at the point guard position," said Blazejowski when discussing free agent needs. "There's an area where we could re-evaluate."
Loree Moore shot more at a slightly lower percentage and Leilani Mitchell shot about the same amount at a lower percentage. However, while much has been made about Mitchell's sophomore slump, the more troubling decline was in Moore's numbers as a distributor. Moore contributed about the same amount of value to the team in both seasons, but in tending to shoot more, she tended to get assists less - her assist ratio fell from 37.97% in 2008 to 29.35% in 2009.
"Loree's been with for five years and she hasn't hit her stride in this league," said Blazejowski. "She's very talented -- she's one of the bigger point guards in this league and very strong. And really a lot of skill. But again, I don't think she's hit her ceiling yet."
As a team, it's almost as though the offensive execution that defined the Mercury blowout in 2008 simply disappeared in 2009. Changing the offense led to three things:
- They got less scoring production from their post players.
- Their starting point guard shot more while setting up players less.
- With the exception of Shameka Christon, most players became less versatile in their tendencies - in 2008 two players fell into the category of "mixed", most notably McCarville who became less of shooter in 2009.
The change in the offense and the ensuing changes in tendencies among their core, but also across the offense could explain the Liberty's scoring problems. Perhaps more important as described by Blazejowski is that while the Liberty kept about the same personnel while struggling with a new offense, everyone else just got better.
Whether changes in the offense, personnel tendencies, or mindset was most responsible for the Liberty "underachieving" last season, the combination led to the dismissal of coach Patty Coyle.
While some fans may have believed that Donovan was hired as an intended replacement for Coyle, Donovan insists that wasn't the case.
"I am absolutely sincere when I say that I would never have come to New York if that were the premise or the idea," said Donovan when asked about being promoted to interim head coach after Coyle was dismissed. "I really truly came to New York first for Patty, to help her with the team. They had an assistant coach position that was vacated, quickly before training camp and Carol called and asked for my help. That was the only thing on my mind -- coming to a new market, learning different things, and getting exposed to a different organization and being among friends, old friends. It was one of the most difficult things in my career to step into that role left by Patty."
Unfortunately, Donovan wasn't able to turn things around last season, but Blazejowski suggests that an immediate change after a coaching change is somewhat unrealistic.
"It was difficult last year," said Blazejowski. "In our league, everyone thinks you can make a coaching change and change things right away. They fail to remember we only have 34 games. We were halfway through the season when we made the change. We had no practice time. So your system cannot change dramatically in terms of what your philosophy is."
With the 2009 experience over, Donovan now has a full season with which to implement her philosophy in addition to a much needed infusion of scoring through the dispersal draft.
"We just had a funky kind of year last year that was totally disappointing," said Blazejowski. "We're gonna look to fix it and my expectation is we'll be right back in the hunt."
In speaking with Donovan about her expectations for 2010, it was hard not to feel the optimism about her forthcoming effort to get the Liberty back in the hunt.
- At least a small sample of fans seem to share the Liberty's optimism for 2010: in a Swish Appeal poll last Friday asking, "Will Anne Donovan be able to turn the Liberty around in 2010?" 60 of 78 voters answered, "Yes."