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Rebuilding Liberty might be in for a long season

The New York Liberty made plenty of changes in the offseason, but they are off to another poor start.  After losing to the Sparks today, they are 0-3 to start the season.  When should fans expect improvement?

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Katie Smith’s job as Liberty head coach appears to be safe — for now.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

We’re just two weeks into the 2019 WNBA season, but things already aren’t looking good for the New York Liberty. New York lost to Indiana on a last-second put-back in its first game of the regular season and was then blown out in the ensuing rematch.

The Liberty lost today to the visiting Los Angeles Sparks, 73-78, in a brunch-time matchup.

It’s become an all-too-familiar pattern: Tina Charles is leading the WNBA in scoring while the rest of her team searches for continuity. The Liberty has been outscored by an average of 9.8 points per 100 possessions thus far — the second-worst Net Rating in the league — while looking sluggish and disorganized.

That this has come against the Fever is particularly alarming given that Indiana is widely considered to be rebuilding and wasn’t expected to be very competitive this season.

Is New York in for another long season? Should changes be made? Will Charles ever get the help that fans have been clamoring for?

Taking the proper perspective

Let’s first take a step back and revisit what the Liberty did this past offseason. They re-signed Charles, Amanda Zahui B. and Brittany Boyd — all logical moves — but let a significant portion of the 2018 roster leave in free agency. Epiphanny Prince, Marissa Coleman and Kia Vaughn all remain unsigned and Shavonte Zellous is now playing for the Seattle Storm.

New York also dealt Sugar Rodgers to Las Vegas and threw an offer sheet at restricted free agent Natasha Cloud, though it was matched by the Mystics fairly quickly.

These moves all point toward one thing: the Liberty getting younger.

With that in mind, New York’s slow start isn’t that surprising. Disappointing, sure, but not surprising. After the massive letdown that was the 2018 season, Liberty management decided to break up its previous core and roll with its youngsters.

That was probably the right call. If there’s one thing we learned from the Liberty’s recent and sudden fall from contention, it’s that the team as constructed was no longer equipped to compete using the defensive-minded model it had carved under Bill Laimbeer. The WNBA is getting younger, faster and more skilled. Asking Charles to carry New York to a title was clearly not going to work.

The solution, then, was to rebuild.

What the Liberty has — and what it still needs

Now, unless the Liberty take the Las Vegas Aces’ approach to rebuilding (that is, winning three straight draft lotteries and having a disgruntled superstar force a trade there), it’s probably going to be a long process.

New York has some nice pieces already. By unloading so many guards in the offseason, Katie Smith and company are placing quite a few eggs in the Asia Durr basket. But 2019’s No. 2 overall pick won’t be alone on this journey. Han Xu is already looking like a steal at No. 14, and second-year guard Kia Nurse plays well beyond her years thanks to her time at UConn and with Canada’s national team.

There are still questions, however. At 6-foot-9, Xu projects to be a great rim protector. But until she develops, New York might struggle on the defensive end. The Liberty allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions across its first two games, which is pretty bad when you consider that the WNBA’s median offensive rating is currently 96.2.

New York also lacks the raw athleticism that other young, up-and-coming teams have. Teams like Connecticut, Las Vegas and Chicago can get up and down the floor in a hurry, but there isn’t as much explosiveness on this roster. That’s not something you need in order to compete, but it would add a different facet to the Liberty offense and allow more room for mistakes on defense.

Is Katie Smith the right person for this job?

It’s doubtful Liberty management foresaw the team taking such a nosedive when it hired her in late 2017. Smith was retained as the team changed direction this past offseason under the new ownership of Joseph Tsai. But she could find herself out of a coaching job if the Liberty don’t show signs of progress soon.

Improvement did not come in the Liberty’s 73-78 loss the Los Angeles Sparks on Tuesday, June 4, at home. Unlike prior outings this season, the team came out hot. But according to Swish Appeal, they could not “keep their composure and execute down the stretch”:

Several missed shots coupled with fouls by [Amanda] Zahui B and Kia Nurse that sent Sparks’ players to the line for extra points contributed to the Liberty picking up a sixth-straight loss for an 0-3 start to the regular season.

How many consecutive losses before Liberty management pulls the plug on Katie Smith?

Lady Liberty

In her 21-point performance on Tuesday, Tina Charles became the all-time leading scorer in New York Liberty history. Congrats!