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Liberty have improved, but is it enough?

After starting the season 5-1, the New York Liberty are stumbling toward the end of the WNBA season. They have lost six-straight games, jeopardizing a playoff berth that looked to be a sure thing earlier this season.

Los Angeles Sparks v New York Liberty
Can the New York Liberty, relying on inexperienced players like Michaela Onyenwere (jersey #12) and Sabrina Ionescu (jersey #20), make the playoffs and make some postseason noise?
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After starting the season 5-1, the New York Liberty were the toast of the league.

It looked like New York’s all-in offseason moves — trading the No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft for the rights to 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, signing 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and signing two-time WNBA champion Sami Whitcomb — were just what the organization needed to elevate the team from the bottom of the WNBA standings into the playoffs.

Since the calendar turned to June, things have not looked quite as ideal for the Liberty. Month by month, New York’s monthly win total has dwindled. Five wins in May turned into three wins in June, which turned into two wins in July. In August, the Liberty won a single game. Currently, they are a riding a six-game losing streak.

For the season, New York is 11-18, falling out of the playoff picture after Thursday night’s loss to the Seattle Storm.

So, can the Liberty’s season be considered a success?

The drop off from May to September suggests the hot start was unsustainable, a product of incredibly hot shooting more than the team’s structural changes. However, it is important to remember that the Liberty were 2-20 last season, struggling through the wubble season as a noncompetitive cellar dweller. Comparing 2020 to 2021 signals that the Liberty’s season is a clear success, even if they do not sneak into the playoffs.

Taken together — the progress from last season and the stumbles after a strong start this season — the overall state of the Liberty is a bit of a mixed bag. They are successful, but, considering the win-now moves they made, are they successful enough? And, most importantly, are they set up for more success next season and in seasons beyond?

How it started for the Liberty

Even with Natasha Howard playing in only two early season games due to a late arrival from overseas and a subsequent knee injury, the retooled, more experienced Liberty appeared ready to support the anticipated star ascendance of sophomore Sabrina Ionescu.

In the month of May, Betnijah Laney demonstrated that her 2020 Most Improved season was not her ceiling. She was an MVP candidate, scoring 22.3 points per game as she drained nearly 50 percent of her 3.6 three attempts per game. She also added four rebounds and five assists per contest.

Laney paired with Ionescu to form a dangerous, dynamic duo. In May, Ionescu looked like the player who showed some spectacular flashes during her very short rookie season. After nailing the game winner in the first game of the season, Ionescu averaged 16.1 points, 7.1 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game, highlighted by a 26-point, 12-assist and 10-rebound triple-double in a win over the Minnesota Lynx. Like Laney, Ionescu also was on fire from deep, shooting 45.5 percent from behind the arc.

Laney and Ionescu’s opportunities were made easier by Sami Whitcomb, who instantly announced herself as a certified 3-point sniper as she served as a threatening floor spacer by converting almost 47 percent of her more than six 3-point attempts per game. Whitcomb also fulfilled her reputation as a scrappy defender, snagging more than a steal per game.

Things were going so well that the Liberty cut the leader of their 2020 team, Layshia Clarendon.

However, closer analysis suggests that this early success was not sustainable.

Not only were Laney, Ionescu and Whitcomb all shooting better than 45 percent from 3-point range, but the Liberty as a team also shot 43.2 percent from three, an absurdly good percentage. At the same time, their opponents shot less than 30 percent from deep in the month of May. So, while they were swishing almost 12 triples per game, their opponents were making an average of 6.3 treys per game.

The Liberty’s early season success was an illustration of the power of the 3-pointer. Their subsequent steady swoon, in contrast, has highlighted the danger of 3-point dependency.

How it’s going for the Liberty

As indicated by their personnel, the Liberty were designed to be a high-octane offense that did enough to survive on defense. With the WNBA’s tenth-ranked defense, they must be hitting on all cylinders on offense in order to consistently find the win column.

Since June 1, New York has shot 34.3 percent from deep, while their opponents have shot 33.5 percent, thus nullifying the extreme 3-point shooting advantage the Liberty enjoyed in the early going.

While Sami Whitcomb has continued to stroke it, making a league-leading 70 triples at 43.8 percent, Laney and Ionescu’s hot shooting from long range did not sustain. For the season, Laney is shooting 31 percent and Ionescu 32 percent from three. Outside of Whitcomb, Rebecca Allen is the Liberty’s only high-volume above-average 3-point threat.

Turnovers also have undermined the Liberty. They own the league’s worst turnover percentage at 20.6 percent, as they relinquish the rock 16.9 times per game.

A potentially bigger issue for the Liberty has been the struggles of Ionescu. Expected to be the center of the Liberty’s offensive universe, she has not played like the future face of the league.

Seattle Storm v New York Liberty
Sabrina Ionescu attempts to attack the Seattle Storm defense.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Since June 1, Ionescu has averaged 9.4 points per game, shooting 26.4 percent from three and 35.8 percent from the field overall. Although her assist and rebounding numbers have been solid, Ionescu’s shooting efficiency must improve if she is to become the star she has been imagined to be.

It is worth noting that Ionescu tweaked her ankle in early June, an injury that required her to miss three games and possibly has contributed to her subpar shooting since her return. Similarly, Natasha Howard has struggled with her scoring efficiency since coming back from a more extended injury absence.

Thursday night was a positive sign for Ionescu. Although the Liberty lost to the Storm, she had one of her most efficient games of the season, scoring 20 points for the first time since May as she shot 8-of-16 from the field. She also had seven assists to only two turnovers.

What’s next for the Liberty?

Although the trajectory of their season has been disappointing, the overall outlook is still trending upwards for the Liberty.

With a Howard who is ready to play a full season and improvement by Ionescu, in combination with continued excellence from Laney and Whitcomb, New York has a playoff-quality core four. A solid supporting cast further raises their ceiling.

While Jocelyn Willoughby has been out all year with an Achilles injury and nagging injuries have stunted the seasons of second-year players Jazmine Jones and Leaonna Odom, New York’s rookie additions have impressed. Not only is Michaela Onyenwere the front runner for Rookie of the Year, but DiDi Richards also is looking like a keeper, rounding out her pro-level defensive potential with intriguing improvement on the offensive end.