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2019 Season in Review: Lots to like for the New York Liberty, but again no team execution

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Several key players improved from last season, but injuries and the midseason timing of EuroBasket Women were among the issues that hampered the New York Liberty’s progress in 2019.

Phoenix Mercury v New York Liberty
Kia Nurse (left) and Amanda Zahui B. had career seasons for the New York Liberty in 2019.
Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

The bar was low for the New York Liberty heading into the 2019 season. Last year’s 7-27 record was the worst in team history, and just to underscore that performance, the team lost its last 13 games.

How did the Liberty respond this time around?

They did improve to 10-24, but that’s still the second-worst season outing in Liberty history. Many players notably improved from 2018 to 2019, the outpouring of new players gave the roster a somewhat fresh start otherwise and Tina Charles remained a reliable scoring and defensive presence inside.

However, a team playing in a “loser finishes in last place” game on the last day of the season means something went wrong along the way to get them in this position. In the Liberty’s case, that’s a lot of somethings.

Here’s an overview of what worked for the Liberty in 2019, what didn’t work and what they can expect in 2020:

Pro: Signed two impactful draft picks, Asia Durr and Han Xu

With only seven players from last season’s roster returning for training camp, there was plenty of room for not just those seven, but a bevy of new players to make an impact on the rebuilding Liberty. Draft picks Asia Durr, Han Xu and Megan Huff hoped to be a part of that process, with Durr and Han in particular garnering a lot of buzz.

Of course, Durr and Han went on to make the team. So what kind of impact would a proven scorer for an elite team and an international star who also happens to be one of the league’s tallest players have on a team that sorely needed both?

2019 New York Liberty Media Day
Han Xu and Asia Durr were the Liberty’s second- and first-round draft picks, respectively, at the 2019 WNBA Draft.
Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Con: Neither were as effective as the team needed

It’s not that Asia Durr was bad, but she didn’t end up being the Rookie of the Year candidate that the team (and its fans) might have thought they got. A groin injury hampered much of her progression, and she appeared in just 18 games, starting 15. Her 9.7 points per game came in fourth on the team, but she was tied for the fewest games played, with ...

... Han Xu, who was one of two players to not start a game. She averaged a team-low 7.9 minutes per game, but at 3.0 points per game, was still rather efficient when she did get in. The decision not to play the 19-year-old more might have come down to the desire to develop her more before putting her into big-game situations. But with how quickly the Liberty fell out of contention, why not give Han more experience when game outcomes don’t matter as much?

Luckily, another rookie made a relative impact in her first season: Marine Johannès. Although she didn’t make her first appearance until July 12 due to competing in EuroBasket Women, she quickly established herself as an extra scoring spark off the bench.

Pro: The returning players stepped up

In spite of how the draft night rookies’ seasons went, two other players had an especially positive impact on the Liberty in big ways this season: Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B.

Nurse was the only player to start all 34 games, up from nine last season. As a regular starter, she raised her scoring average from a respectable 9.1 points per game to 13.7 points per game. She also garnered her first All-Star nod, being voted a starter over seven-time All-Star Tina Charles (who came off the bench).

Despite missing several games for EuroBasket Women in June and July, Zahui B. still had the best season of her career. Though she appeared in just 24 games, she started 23 of them; before this season, she’d started just one game in 2016. Zahui B. raised her scoring average from 7.7 to 8.6 points per game, led the team in blocks, and more than doubled her 2018 rebounding average.

Con: Is the reliance on Tina Charles still too high?

That Nurse and Zahui B. improved so dramatically meant the scoring load for Tina Charles was lessened considerably. Charles’ scoring average fell from 19.7 points per game in 2018 to 16.9 points per game in 2019 — her lowest since her rookie season.

Atlanta Dream v New York Liberty
Tina Charles’ wasn’t the overwhelming source of all the Liberty’s offense in 2019, but she remained a make-or-break part of the team.
Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images

Even still, Charles remained one of the Liberty’s most consistent all-around players. She played the most minutes, grabbed the most rebounds and started all 33 games she played. These aren’t bad things! But with the Liberty still more or less in shambles, it’s hard to know where to separate “best player on the team” and “player without whom the team would completely fall apart.”

Charles’ importance to the Liberty cannot be understated, even as she just completed her 10th season in the league. But does the team still see her as someone to build a roster around, or just one integral part of a potential championship roster? Even at this point, it’s hard to say. With so many moving pieces coming into 2019 — and again, only seven returning players — it must have been hard not to say, “Here’s our proven best player. Who can we get that can work with her?” and call it a day.

Pro: Ended the season with a win

What a relief, right? That 13-game losing streak to close out 2018 was seriously brutal.

Con: Losing streaks still plagued them all season

They might not have come all at once this time, but three major losing streaks accounted for 18 of the Liberty’s 24 losses in 2019. But it wasn’t just the losing streaks, but how they lost those games.

First, and most obviously, New York had the worst defense in the league this season when it came to opponent points per game, blocks per game and defensive rating. Opponents also scored 100 or more points against them three times, tied for second-most in the league. All season long, the Liberty not only let opponents sneak through their defense, but gave them wide-open shots, too.

But the Liberty also played in a lot of close games. They lost four games by five or fewer points in 2019, one of which was by one point. In each of these games, they either led late or were within striking distance late and couldn’t get the job done.

Indiana Fever v New York Liberty
The Liberty’s first close loss of the season came in their first game, when the Fever’s Teaira McCowan sank a buzzer-beating shot.
Photo by Matteo Marchi/NBAE via Getty Images

The absolute kicker? All four of these ultra-close losses were at home. Four winnable games, but no last home push to send the team home with a win.

That said, the Liberty’s current home in far-flung White Plains hardly provides the professional atmosphere they deserve, and drawing crowds has been difficult. But while nothing is official, there is speculation that the Liberty could move back to New York City under Joseph Tsai’s ownership. Perhaps that could inspire the team to pull out wins in some of these close games — and their fans to help them get there.

Pro: Some good news heading into 2020

The Liberty have secured the best odds — 44.2 percent — in Tuesday, Sept. 17’s draft lottery. This means the right to select (probably) Sabrina Ionescu No. 1 overall is just one game of chance and, if that goes well, about seven months away.

Plus, on Sept. 8, the WNBA transaction page listed the re-signing of Kiah Stokes. Stokes was expected to be the backup center for Amanda Zahui B., but chose not to play in the WNBA in 2019 for personal reasons after returning from EuroBasket. She has a good relationship with head coach Katie Smith, which not only indicates the type of team atmosphere that Smith hopes to further, but also suggests that Smith’s job is safe for next season.

Plus, at any rate, the Liberty won’t be the team that goes into next season needing a win to re-legitimize themselves.

Con: But what will really change?

Smith is under intense pressure to deliver a winning season. In what will be her third year at the helm of a team centered around Tina Charles, will Smith and general manager Jonathan Kolb be able to put together a team that can be competitive all season long? There were some encouraging signs this season from players like Nurse and Zahui B., but the team itself only improved on its 2018 win total by three games.

New York Liberty v Washington Mystics
Katie Smith is 17-51 in her first two seasons as the Liberty’s head coach.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The midseason timing of EuroBasket Women, during which a league-high four players were overseas, certainly didn’t help things. Durr missing so many games due to injury and the underuse of Han didn’t help things. And with next season being an Olympic year, things won’t be calming down much: The entire league will take a break for the tournament, but players representing their countries will still have their priorities elsewhere.

But things will be changing for the better for the Liberty regardless. So considering these factors, and considering the impact that new players could have, New York stands a decent chance to ascend anyway.