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. After doing a review of 2009 in part one, today we present part two: looking forward to the 2010 season.
Every time New York Liberty coach Anne Donovan sees someone win a championship - whether it be the WNBA championship or a Super Bowl - she is reminded of what it felt like to coach the Seattle Storm to a championship in 2004.
"Every time I see - I don't know, to the average person it may sound nuts - but watching Drew Brees hoist the trophy and seeing the confetti, it always comes back," said Donovan about her memories of the 2004 title in an interview with Swish Appeal last Friday. "The memories in Seattle winning that championship will always come back when I watch somebody else win it or that kind of championship title."
As a New Jersey native who grew up watching games in Madison Square Garden during the New York Knicks' championship years in the 1970's, it is clear that Donovan would love to bring that championship feeling back to New York. However, when her Liberty team takes the court this season, it's not just childhood or championship nostalgia that she looks to bring, but the mindset that leads to that championship feeling.
"It speaks to the fact that I've been there and that I do have a very good understanding of what it takes," said Donovan when asked what she brings to the team as a championship coach. "That comes obviously from x's and o's, but more than that it's a mindset. And I think clearly we lacked that mindset at times, way too often last season. So I think I can bring that back and as much as I tried to do that last year, it might help to start with the team in the beginning and make sure my expectations are in the forefront of their minds."
After an underachieving and disappointing 2009 campaign in which it could be said that the Liberty had championship aspirations without a championship mentality, hiring Donovan clearly signals an effort to move forward. As a coach who brings experience in the WNBA Finals with both the Storm and now-defunct Charlotte Sting (2001), the hope is that Donovan can lead the Liberty back to the top of the pack starting with this pre-season.
"What happens this year is we take a look and see what we end up with in terms of who are the players on our roster and then what is her philosophy," said Liberty President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski in an interview with Swish Appeal on Thursday. "And then she teaches the game in training camp in terms of how she wants to play. So she'll have her own philosophy and style of play and she brings the experience and mental toughness. She's a very proud woman who believes in accountability."
In a year where redemption seems to be an appropriate theme, that accountability seems to be huge for the Liberty.
"I would think - although I haven't spoken to the players -- the players would understand that there has to be some redemption here in terms of their performance last year," said Blazejowski about the theme for the year for the locker room. "At least that's what I think they should think."
In speaking with Donovan about her philosophy, mindset, and the internal improvement she expects from Liberty players, it's clear that she's thinking about redemption in terms of changing the way things are done on the Liberty in 2010.
What is Donovan's philosophy?
It's difficult not to get excited about the vision Donovan describes for the New York Liberty: a team that not only defends well as the Liberty have traditionally done, but also gets out in transition, with a point guard pushing the tempo, two scoring wings streaking down the sidelines, and post players that are able to score and pass the ball.
"I definitely like to run the ball," said Donovan when asked about her philosophy. "I don't think that's news to the WNBA - I think most teams like to do it, but I think we can do that more than we did it last year. I'd like to pick up defensive intensity a whole lot more and that leads to transition - I think those two go hand-in-hand. And then lastly, my M.O. has always been an inside-out game: get the ball inside and then it creates opportunities for our shooters. So spreading the floor and making sure that we can take advantage of Janel McCarville and Kia Vaughn is important to me - I think it will be important to the success of Shameka Christon and Nicole Powell."
As Donovan alludes to, this is not at all what fans saw from the Liberty in 2009, a team that finished last in both scoring and fast break points.
So the next obvious question is, how well does the Liberty's personnel fit that philosophy?
Actually, she already has her ideal post player on the team.
"What I like is a good inside player -- a smart, heady inside player," said Donovan when asked about her ideal player. "Janel McCarville fits that bill to a T. She is not size-wise one of the biggest back-to-the-basket players, but from a craftiness standpoint and passing standpoint, I don't think there's anyone better than Janel - drawing the double team and drawing the next defender and finding open shooters is her strength. So I go back to thinking my style fits very well."
Although some fans might consider the acquisition of forward Nicole Powell as redundant with Shameka Christon already on the roster, when placed in the context of Donovan's vision it sounds like a thing of beauty.
"For me, I don't get stuck in 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s," said Donovan. "In my system, I have a point guard, wings, and post players. That said, they fit nicely together. Giving us great length on our perimeter. Who wouldn't like to have two shooters and two big wings? I can't think of anybody."
Although she doesn't want to get stuck in rigid positionality, the system Donovan describes also needs a point guard. Whereas Blazejowski said that point guard is "an area where we could re-evaluate", Donovan was quite optimistic about reserve point guard Leilani Mitchell. Both Blazejowski and Donovan spoke to the fact that the sophomore slump is expected from a player like Mitchell. With two years of WNBA experience and a strong performance in France this off-season, they're expecting Mitchell to be much more effective this year.
"When you're unknown - and Lei kinda, her rookie year, was the unknown and really took people by surprise - next year, you're not surprising people and really have to step your game up and I think she struggled at times for us," said Donovan. "Let's not forget, Leilani - when she had a uniform on last year - she was able to push through. She had tremendous personal challenges when coming into training camp. So a great deal of respect for her to get through the season and to recognize that she needed to go off and do well this off-season, which she's doing overseas in France."
Assuming improvement from Mitchell and perhaps Moore distributing the ball more - as she did in 2008 - the Liberty would have a point guard combo able to run this system. Add to that the development of Essence Carson, who Blazejowski says was not satisfied with her performance in 2009, and their perimeter rotation actually looks to be much stronger in 2010.
So as Donovan describes it, the Liberty roster already has some of the key personnel to bring about the vision she describes.
So what might they do this off-season?
Both Blazejowski and Donovan were very clear about the type of players they want: Donovan in describing her ideal player and emphasizing the importance of rebounding to the transition game and Blazejowski in describing the type of players she's looking at in free agency. For a team that got dominated on the offensive boards last season, it's a direction that makes a lot of sense.
"You can never have enough bigs," said Blazejowski in response to what types of players they would like to add. "We love Janel in the frontcourt and Kia Vaughn is gonna be a good one. But boy if we could get - not that anybody's out there as a free agent, I'm talking about trades too - big posts."
The fact that they want more bigs certainly doesn't mean the team is disappointed with their young 6'4" center Kia Vaughn.
To say this organization is excited or enthusiastic about Kia Vaughn might be an understatement - every time anything relating to the post, rebounding, internal improvement, or breakout players came up, her name was mentioned.
"I'll tell you that Kia Vaughn is playing tremendously over in Israel," said Blazejowski when asked about players poised for a breakout year. "Here's a kid who started playing basketball very late in her high school years. She's a physical specimen, she has got all the tools. Now we just gotta refine her skills. Anne is the perfect coach to do that for a big player."
As much as Donovan plans to work with her on her skills, they are also focused on the intangibles - both thinking the game through film work and building confidence in her ability.
"The most specific I would say is just coming back confident," said Donovan on specific things she wants to work on with Vaughn. "There were times last year that she was the most confident player in our post rotation. And then there were times when she miss her first two shots and you could just see her confidence just go down. But I think one it's just the experience of being in the league, of having a tremendous off-season - she's playing extremely well in Israel - will give her that boost of confidence she needs.
"Now remember, she struggled somewhat at Rutgers throughout her career, she had some ups and downs. So it was only natural for her confidence to struggle her rookie year and I just think that she's setting herself up to come back her second year and make her strides."
In terms of adding bigs, Vaughn's improvement might just be the biggest "addition" for two reasons: as Blazejowski says, there are not many bigs available through free agency and they don't necessarily have the roster space to add many players. With 10 players under contract already. The 11th spot, occupied by Ashley Battle in 2009, is in doubt right now.
While Donovan suggested she would like to keep Ashley Battle, Blazejowski was a bit more ambivalent about the prospects of keeping Battle.
"Well Ashley's been a big part of our transition from a rebuilding team into where we are now so I'm very fond of Ashley as a person and as a player," said Blazejowski. "But a little wrinkle this year is really the reduction in the salary cap that all teams took early on, prior to this process of player negotiations. So again, I think I started earlier by saying what we have today may not be what we end with come training camp in terms of personnel. I'm not quite sure where Ashley fits in all of that because you have to take into account cap and personnel. So, I don't know."
If they don't retain Ashley Battle, a restricted free agent, who has been a rather versatile player off the bench in limited minutes, the Liberty would likely have enough room under the salary cap to sign a veteran. So the issue regarding Battle may be more a matter of the roster cuts than the salary cuts.
What free agents might they pursue?
If they were to let Battle go and go after a free agent, the one that stands out as best fitting the Liberty's desires and needs is Taj McWilliams. Aside from the question of whether she would sign for the amount they have remaining under the cap, she's a reasonable fit.
She tends to be more of a utility player than a scorer and wasn't necessarily a dominant rebounder by percentage (12.64% offensive rebounding, 13.03% total rebounding percentage). However, what she does bring is exactly what Donovan described as her ideal post player - a smart, heady player that can pass the ball.
McWilliams had the highest assist rate of any post player in the league at 22.07% and ranked 34th among all players. To put that in perspective, fringe All-Star Tanisha Wright had an assist rate of 23.51% and rookie point guard Briann January 22.43%. Below McWilliams in order from 36-38 in the league: Cappie Pondexter at 21.88%, Becky Hammon at 21.83%, Kara Lawson at 21.46%. This is not to say that McWilliams should be running point for someone next season. The point is that she's as a good a passer out of the post as you can expect to find, especially if you have a team with two potent shooters on the wing.
Candice Dupree would obviously be another really interesting addition as a post player able to shoot reasonably well from the mid-range and pass the ball, but as a young All-Star, she'll probably command more money than the Liberty can afford to give and there's not much reason for the Sky not to match. Other than those two, there's not really another player worth signing given Donovan's stated preference for Battle and the fact that most other players available aren't a whole lot more productive than Battle.
High expectations after a disappointing year
Independent of who the Liberty might add, for Donovan this year will ultimately come down to shifting the mindset that led to the team underachieving in 2009.
"My hope is that we are more competitive," said Donovan. "Number one, that's what I want to change is making sure that we are fighting for that win, no matter how the game is going, we are completely focused on getting that win, period. And then there's all the nuance within that, but that's the first thing I see that has to change."
Beyond the change in mindset, Blazejowski has higher goals in mind.
"Last year wasn't a season to brag about, but four finals and nine post-season appearances is a pretty good start in a young league," said Blazejowski. "So that always was and still remains our goal: to compete for the championship. And the expectation is no different this year."
- Blazejowski on whether they might look to the draft for help: "I don't know. The draft this year for me - and I've spoken to a lot of folks around the league - is very lean. So, anything can happen."
- More from Blazejowski on Kia Vaughn: "Kia's been the first one in the gym and the last one to leave and Anne spent a considerable amount of one-on-one time with her last year teaching her the must-haves: getting the footwork down and not only physical stuff, but skillwork. And a lot of it is film work: how to think the game."
- More from Donovan on Vaughn: "I mean, who can't get excited about a second year for her? I think she just began to show who she could be in the WNBA."
- On the offense based on reads that Donovan said caused some problems last year: "There were some very positive things to it last year, so we will continue to use pieces that I see as valuable. And I think generally, the way the game has gone, I am a fan of the system – I think it’s great – but unfortunately it takes time for players to settle into it and the WNBA season is so short that it’s a tough team to do."