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Season Review: Despite the disappointing end, the New York Liberty were a stunning success in 2023

Although the Liberty came up short in the season’s most critical moments, New York’s 2023 season was an unquestioned success, as a Brooklyn basketball culture blossomed alongside the team’s on-court growth.

WNBA 2023 Playoffs - Washington Mystics v New York Liberty
Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones exchange high fives during pregame introductions.
Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

At the moment, it is hard to muster much excitement about the New York Liberty’s 2023 season. As Alexa Philippou wrote for ESPN, “[T]he Liberty never backed away from explicitly stating their ultimate goal for the 2023 campaign: winning a championship. By that standard, New York fell short in 2023.”

New York’s failure to not just win a title but also to force a Game 5 against the underwomanned Las Vegas Aces makes it easy to agree with the Aces’ Kelsey Plum (regardless of the intention of her comment) and cast the Liberty as an overhyped, inauthentic super team that lacked the grit and “give a damn” needed to win a championship.

Yet, such an assessment is way too harsh. Here are the top takeaways from an undoubtedly successful season in New York:

The superteam experiment exceeded expectations

New York Liberty Press Conference
Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot.
Photo by Mike Lawrence/NBAE via Getty Images

Just five seasons ago, the Liberty franchise was wasting away in Westchester, an embarrassment for the league due to the brutish incompetence of former owner James Dolan. Under the leadership of the Tsais, who took over after the 2019 season, the Liberty began to steadily re-emerge as a professional outfit, playing in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and enjoying first-class amenities. Yet, success on the court was slow to come. The Liberty made the playoffs in 2021 and 2022, albeit with sub .500 records and first-round exits both times. While New York had elevated to an averagely respectable WNBA team, they remained far removed from the league’s championship-contending elite.

Thus, last offseason’s plan to become elite—immediately. Two MVP trophies and three championship rings arrived in Brooklyn via a trade for Jonquel Jones and the free agency signings of Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot. Although they brought championship-caliber credibility to the organization, they also brought the pressure to actualize such lofty ambitions. While that one, big overarching goal—a title—went unfulfilled, the Liberty otherwise met or exceeded expectations. A 32-8 record not only marked the most wins in franchise history, but also a franchise-best winning percentage of .800. The team also triumphed in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship, one of three times the Liberty would defeat the Aces before the postseason.

A season of accelerating excellence

2023 WNBA Finals - Las Vegas Aces v New York Liberty
The New York Liberty starting five.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Impressively, the Liberty’s accomplishments referenced above were the product of season-long progress. Things began a bit bumpily in Brooklyn, with an opening-day loss to the Washington Mystics, the uneven integration of Jones and an overreliance on Stewart’s individual brilliance all suggesting that it might be a season of relative struggle in New York.

Not so. The Liberty spent the first half of the season steadily smoothing out their kinks on both ends of the floor. After All-Star weekend, everything clicked. New York was operating at peak capacity, especially on the offensive end. Players accepted, and then became optimized in, their respective roles.

No longer required to carry the offensive load expected of her when she was with the Connecticut Sun, Jones dedicated herself to doing the dirtier work, reeling off double-doubles as she averaged 10.3 rebounds per game after the All-Star break. With Courtney Vandersloot orchestrating the offense—and once again earning the WNBA’s assist crown—Sabrina Ionescu was able to blossom as the best version of herself. Freed from primary playmaker responsibilities, Ionescu became the W’s most dangerous markswoman, draining a league-record 128 3-pointers as she fired off almost eight shots from behind the arc per game and hit them at a 44.4 percent rate. Betnijah Laney also settled in over the course of the season, going from an inefficient 5.8 points per game in May to a hyper-efficient 18.2 points per game in September. Stewart, of course, remained her reliable self, scoring a career-high 23.0 points per game on her way to a second MVP trophy.

The Liberty offense hummed to the tune of a 112.2 offensive rating after the All-Star break. In August, the team suffered just a single loss to Las Vegas, going a league-best 9-1 with a net rating of 17.7. In short, New York didn’t just improve over the course of the season, they became one of the best teams in the league history by season’s end.

A basketball culture is building in Brooklyn

2023 WNBA Finals - Las Vegas Aces v New York Liberty
Big Ellie.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty are the best basketball team in New York and Barclays Center was the place to be during the playoffs.

After 17,143 attended Game 3, a WNBA Finals-record attendance gate, more than 17,000 witnessed Game 4. When time, money and effort is devoted to putting together and promoting a high-quality women’s basketball product, people will follow with emotional and financial support. That the Liberty quite quickly went from the woes of the Westchester days to to a sea of seafoam faithful filling the stands suggests that, with similar such investment and intention, other franchises can construct a sustainable, profitable team and fan culture.

As Stefanie Dolson aptly put it during her exit interview, “We didn’t get the win on the court, but we won in terms of building an amazing basketball environment and buzz around the WNBA.” In her exit interview, Stewart likewise emphasized the cultural impact of the 2023 season, saying, “The biggest takeaways from the highs of this season is that people have been waiting for this to happen, and now it’s like, how two we build from it. This is happening in New York City, in the biggest media market of the world.”

How aggressively will New York chase the 2024 title?

2023 WNBA Playoffs - New York Liberty v Connecticut Suns
Sabrina Ionescu and Jonathan Kolb.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The Liberty’s 2024 mission is clear: a championship. How will they go about getting it?

At exit interviews, general manager Jonathan Kolb, made it clear that Stewart will be back in black, white and seafoam. After signing a one-year contract with New York last offseason, Stewart, who was slated to be an unrestricted free agent, will be cored by the franchise, meaning she and the Liberty will agree to the terms of her contract during the offseason signing period. With Stewart receiving New York’s core designation, Jones will be an unrestricted free agent. During exit interviews, her teammates made it clear that they consider her return a top priority, while Jones indicated she is “definitely trending towards coming back here.”

New York has an estimated $703,803 in salary cap space, plenty to give Stewart and Jones the rich contracts they deserve and still make other significant moves. Stefanie Dolson also is an unrestricted free agent. Coming off an injury-riddled season where she played a career-low 11.9 minutes per game, will Dolson look for an expanded opportunity elsewhere or is she satisfied with a smaller role on a championship contender? It seems likely that the Liberty will be without the services of Dolson’s bestie, reserved free agent Marine Johannès, in 2024 due to national team obligations ahead of the Olympics.

The comments from Kolb and head coach Sandy Brondello suggest that, as long as Jones elects to resign, New York intends to build on this season by improving the team around the established starting five. Brondello indicated there will not “be a whole makeover” and that “continuity will help” her team find “the one percent we need to do better,” while Kolb cited “stability in terms of roster spots” with the exception of “look[ing] to augment” the bench.

Yet, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Liberty brass eventually opted for a bigger, bolder approach. Although essential to the team’s regular season success, Vandersloot was a weak link for much of the WNBA Finals due to her offensive hesitancy and defensive deficiencies. It would be quite cutthroat to seek an upgrade, especially since she was central to last offseason’s transformation. But a player who thrived under Brondello for the Phoenix Mercury is an unrestricted free agent. With Skylar Diggins-Smith as the starting point guard in New York, the Liberty-Aces battle for the 2024 supremacy would get even spicier.

Whether or not Diggins-Smith makes her way to Brooklyn, the Liberty could receive a boost by way of the Valley. As Winsidr’s Myles Ehrlich noted on Twitter/X, New York can swap 2025 first-round draft picks with Phoenix, which the Liberty received in exchange for Michaela Onyenwere. (A savvy transaction from the 2023 Executive of the Year.)

If bringing in the WNBA’s highest-paid coach doesn’t immediately pay off for the Mercury and a number of the most-talented players eligible for the 2024 WNBA Draft choose to extend their stay in college, then the Liberty could be in prime position to replenish their talent ahead of the 2025 season—when they just might be the reigning WNBA champions.

Much appreciation to @MylesEhrlich for his thorough chronicling of key quotations from the Liberty’s exit interviews.