As WNBA fans contemplate the possibility of a trade that would send All-Star Cappie Pondexter to New York, it's worth considering that the Liberty would almost certainly have to include All-Star Nicole Powell in such a trade.
This is not to suggest that the Liberty value Powell more than Pondexter. However, before assuming that they took her in the dispersal draft merely as the best available player or took her as a potential trading chip, it's worth noting President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski has actually coveted Powell for some time. She's someone they look forward to having on the court.
"Jeez-well look: she's an all-star," said Blazejowski in an interview with Swish Appeal last Thursday. "Believe it or not, I've always called John Whisenant every year and it's a perennial conversation: ‘Alright, well, what can we do to get Powelly?' If you call him and talk to him he'll tell you that's true. So I've always liked her as a player."
So before looking ahead to moving Powell, perhaps it's worth considering what Powell brings to the Liberty. Although many people assume she's just a scorer, both Blazejowski and head coach Anne Donovan suggest she's more than that.
"Nicole is just such a great addition for us," said Donovan in an interview with Swish Appeal last Friday. "The beautiful thing about Powell, when you really look at her history in the league - where she was when she started, just out of Stanford, and where she is now - is she's completely changed her body. She's committed herself to being a true pro. She's an all-around player now, not just a shooter. She's more than that - she's a scorer and can get it in a number of different ways. And then defensively, she's worked to be a good defender in the league. So she will help us at both ends of the floor and I expect her to make immediate impact."
Although the team definitely needs scoring after scoring the second lowest points per possession in the league, Powell almost seems redundant in two ways: first, she is one of the better three point shooters in the league, but New York was already third in three point percentage and made among the most three pointers in the league. Second, she seems like a duplication of what New York already has in Shameka Christon, also known as a scorer and strong three point shooter.
So what exactly does Nicole Powell bring to the Liberty?
"Look, she gives you terrific size, she's really become a consummate professional and worked to improve her game in terms of having a complete game and not just a shooter," said Blazejowski about the addition of Powell. "She plays good defense. She knows how to get the ball into the post. She goes to the glass. She's really made herself a more complete player. And the size on the perimeter she gives us - and she's very versatile: she can play the 1, 2, 3, or 4. That's not where we would play her but she could play those positions."
Statistically, for a team that struggled to rebound last year, Powell will help with rebounding from the wing position - she had an offensive rebounding percentage of 9.27% last season, among the best of any wing player in the WNBA. While her passing numbers don't necessarily scream "point guard", for a player with a relatively high usage rate of 25.63, she didn't turn the ball over that much. So she's definitely a more complete player than one might imagine a spot up shooter being.
"I think it's easy to get enamored, especially our fans who saw her in the Garden last year - I don't recall her statistics but it was pretty impressive," said Donovan, referring to Powell's 32 point performance against the Liberty in which she hit 5-8 threes. "But I think it's easy to get wrapped up in the threes and the deep threes that she takes. But the best part of her game too is that you have to get out there and play her and she's capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim and, more importantly, getting to the free throw line. That is something I definitely wanna fix - we have got to be a team that gets to the free throw line more than we have. So she can do that."
While it is true that free throw rate was a problem for the Liberty in 2009 - opponents got to the free throw line more often than they did - it's not clear that Powell necessarily helps that significantly. Her free throw rate in 2009 was 19.74% (89th in the WNBA) and five Liberty players had higher free throw rates than her. However, assuming she's the starter, she adds another high usage player who can get to the line in that first rotation.
But perhaps usage rate is a good place to start in considering Powell's fit with Christon.
Both Christon and Powell are high usage players, meaning they tend to have the ball in their hands a lot and look to score. So in a sense, it seems like there's a tension -- if there is only one ball on the court and they're both players who tend to score with the ball in their hands a lot, something has to give.
When asked about how she would fit with Christon, Powell suggested that they definitely have similar strengths, but also complement one another.
"Well I think we definitely have similar strengths, but I also feel that me and Shameka are different and that we can be a good complement to one another," said Powell during NBA All-Star Weekend. "Coming down on the wing she has great athleticism, she does it all. So I think it's gonna be a tough matchup for teams to guard to tell you the truth."
WNBA fans should know that two high usage players on the wing can in fact complement one another - the Phoenix Mercury has won championships in 2 of the last 3 years with two of the highest usage players in the league on the wing in Pondexter (25.64%) and Diana Taurasi (25.97%). The difference is that they are players with point guard skills - while their assist rates don't stand out, Pondexter's pure point rating was among the best in the league and Taurasi was in the top 50. If nothing else, Pondexter could become a lead ball handler truly complementing Taurasi.
Of course, having two big scorers is not necessarily a bad thing.
"I've always been one where you can never have enough scorers," said Blazejowski. "When you can spread the floor and every one of your players can score you're at an advantage. She also brings us size. And everybody in our league - and even in the NBA -- is looking to get bigger. You want length, across the board. So that's a very, very, very big factor for us."
The difference with Christon and Powell is that they are not quite the ball handlers that either. Not only are their assist rates are about half that of Pondexter and Taurasi, but their pure point ratings are far below that which we'd consider playmakers. So despite claims to the contrary, it would still seem that what the Liberty have done is add another player who needs to be shooting the ball in order to be effective.
However, it's also interesting to note that these two players are also more versatile than one might think.
As noted by Blazejowski, although both Christon and Powell tend to look for scoring opportunities more than anything else, they are not pure scorers at the expense of everything else. As pure scorers go - there are 35 in the league based on the SPI typology -- they are among the top 10 in the league (Powell #5, Christon #7). In addition, they are among the most well rounded scoring wings in the league, both in the top 5 in terms of perimeter orientation among scorers. So the Liberty not only have two pure scorers, they have two of the best and most versatile.
However, it's also worth noting that they are among the least perimeter oriented (in terms of SPI's categorization by assists and steals) in the league. Which is an interesting point - it means the Liberty have point guard play that is admittedly suspect and then two wing players who aren't necessarily playmakers. Yes, if center Janel McCarville can establish herself as a post player worthy of a double team, she has the ability to kick out to those potent scorers on the wing. But last year she tended to be more of a utility player than a scorer inside, so if people don't see her as someone requiring a double team, how exactly will this offense work in the half-court?
This is why Donovan's plan of running a strong transition offense is important. Otherwise, the Liberty could very well be heavily reliant on one-on-one play and drives to the basket with players who tend not to drive and kick. Even with the transition offense though, that requires playing strong defense and the other concern with Christon and Powell on the wings is who will guard shooting guards. But both Blazejowski and Donovan have suggested Powell is a better defender than we think.
"Defensively, she's a very solid defender with good size on the perimeter, good length," said Donovan. "She can lock down players. Often times you get a scorer that's not interested in that end of the floor and that's where I go back to Nicole is such a complete player - she has really worked as a professional at her game and developed more than just the scoring."
A fun statistical inquiry for this WNBA season is whether two high usage scorers that aren't necessarily great at facilitating for others can co-exist. Or whether one of them will have to substantially shift their tendencies to make this work.
"I'm not sure," said Powell when asked if she'd have to adjust her game at all. "It will probably take some time in training camp just to know how to play with Shameka...They've got a great nucleus there and they really seem to understand the game well. It seems like a real team-oriented system, so that's always easy for me to join into. I'm just looking forward to joining and doing what I can to add to it."
Ultimately, deciding whether they should trade Powell may depend on how you think about how well she'll fit with Christon.
On the one hand, having Powell and Christon on the wings in transition does make the team really difficult to guard. On the other hand, it might be said that both Christon and Powell are limited in terms of their ability to create for others on a team that may or may not be able to establish a true post scoring threat. Pondexter would bring exactly that - a player on the wing who can score and create for others as either a secondary or primary ball handler.
The question is just how to work out such a trade...