In an interview with Swish Appeal in February, New York Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowski made it quite clear that she was looking for improvement at the point guard spot.
She was clear that she was dissatisfied with the play of point guard Loree Moore and that something had to change.
Blazejowski On Liberty's 2009 Performance: "Underachieving and disappointing." - Swish Appeal
"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."
To this point in the off-season that hasn't quite occurred.
After waiving Moore last Tuesday, third year point guard Leilani Mitchell stands as the team's senior point guard at 5'5". Certainly, selecting 5'6" point guard Ashley Houts with the 16th pick in last Thursday's WNBA Draft was a need pick, but that would leave a team interested in transition basketball with a small and inexperienced backcourt.
Although the Liberty have acquired dynamic guard Cappie Pondexter from the Phoenix Mercury, who has certainly demonstrated the ability to be an effective floor leader, with Mitchell's somewhat inconsistent play last season and Houts an unknown commodity it might be reasonable to assume that the Liberty are still looking for point guard help.
Enter the Mercury...again...sort of.
For most of the off-season, we've known that the Mercury are facing a very difficult financial situation that led to Le'coe Willingham signing with the Seattle Storm, and possibly contributed to Pondexter being traded to the Liberty. The thinking behind the Pondexter trade was that it would help free up resources to re-sign point Temeka Johnson and forward Penny Taylor, two key parts of the Mercury's core.
However, with the Liberty clearing considerable cap room by waiving both Loree Moore and Kelly Mazzante - who was acquired in the Mercury trade - restricted free agent Johnson could make some sense.
Swish Appeal has learned from multiple sources that there is another potential suitor for Johnson and all signs point to New York: clearing cap room, needing a point guard, and perhaps being able to out-bid the Mercury. Given that the Mercury have still not made the move to re-sign either Johnson or Taylor, it's reasonable to wonder if they are still facing a difficult financial situation.
Although the details of how this deal would work out are still unclear, there appears to be movement. But would it make sense for the Liberty? Looking at the options, yes.
Option 1: Houts + Mitchell at point guard.
Mitchell struggled a bit last year, but sophomore slumps are not terribly uncommon. However, Donovan told Swish Appeal back in Februrary that she has made strides playing overseas during the off-season and they expect improvement from her. So she could conceivably be promoted to the starter with Moore leaving.
Houts, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown commodity and her collegiate numbers don't necessarily suggest WNBA success.
Last year in a pre-season analysis of Chicago Sky guard Kristi Toliver's point guard prospects, I looked at every point guard drafted into the WNBA since 2001 and compared their numbers. Two patterns - not correlations - emerged.
First, having a college pure point rating above 2.5 seems to be the threshold that predicts pro success. The college guards that did have a PPR of less than 2.5 also had a usage rate of above 30%, meaning their lower point guard numbers were explained by the demand to score for their team.
Second, the average college assist rate of the top 25 point guards in the league last year was 23%. Fall below that and you're likely to settle into a role as a shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body rather than a reliable lead ball handler.
As it turns out, Houts falls below both of those key thresholds. And at 5'6" with a career college effective field goal percentage of 44% and a usage percentage of under 20% (meaning she creates less than a fifth of the team's scoring opportunities when on the floor) it's unclear what Houts might offer.
So if the Liberty deem Houts ineffective in camp. They will need to consider other options.
Option 2: Mitchell + Pondexter
The other option is to see Pondexter as the other lead ball handler along with Mitchell. Looking at their current roster, it would make some sense. Pondexter put up among the best point guard numbers in the league in 2009 - one could argue she was the most dangerous lead ball handler - and perhaps New York is leaning in that direction.
After making strides last season, the Liberty could start Pondexter at point, Carson at shooting guard, and Powell at the three. It would give them a much bigger combination of perimeter defenders and makes them a much more potent perimeter scoring starting lineup. Mitchell could come off the bench to replace anyone of those three and run the point with the others filling in the wing spot.
The problem: as the team's primary ball handler, would Pondexter's scoring suffer? Would it be better to have a veteran point guard next to her to allow her to focus on attacking the basket from the wing at times? Perhaps as she did with Johnson in 2009?
Option 3: Johnson + Mitchell
Johnson is undoubtedly the best free agent point guard option, so if New York went that direction she would have to be their primary target. No free agent point guard is any better a lead ball handler than Pondexter so standing pat at point would make more sense financially than looking for someone other than Johnson.
What Johnson would bring is one of the league's top five point guards who has proven that she can run the transition game that Donovan wants to run and play with their newly acquired superstar. It's not a bad combination. Most importantly, compared to the other options available, Johnson shot 41.4% from the three point line last season, which would give the Liberty another perimeter scoring threat to spread the floor along with Powell for Pondexter to drive.
The comparative downside is that adding a starter caliber guard to this rotation does create a bit of a logjam: after drafting Kalana Greene, the team would have 7 perimeter players on the roster who (other than Pondexter, maybe Powell) don't necessarily "play big". Perhaps that could be worked out through another trade or waiving another player.
- What about Taj McWilliams-Franklin in free agency for the Liberty? With Mazzante off the books, they should have enough space to sign Johnson and McWilliams-Franklin (though definitely needing to move someone else at that point).
- On Mazzante's contract status: due to Mazzante's ACL injury overseas, the Liberty are allowed to waive her without her contract counting against the salary cap.
- Neither the Liberty nor the Mercury responded to inquiries requesting input on this story - the Mercury specifically on Johnson's status and the Liberty about point guard options they may be considering.