The Liberty: Breakin’ it Down – May 2005

New Coach. New Faces. Different Results?

If you were looking for one word to describe the New York Liberty, “over-achievers” would fit. True, some might consider it an odd choice since the Liberty have made the playoffs six out of the last eight years. But New York has always been dismissed as too short, too old and, to put it bluntly, too average to succeed. Yet, year after year, the Liberty have proven the experts wrong, and the 2004 season was no exception.

Early season-ending injuries to centers Tari Phillips and Liberty newcomer Ann Wauters, coupled with a mid-season coaching change, more injuries and an end-of-the-season venue switch from Madison Square Garden to Radio City Music Hall could understandably have spelled disaster. Instead, the Liberty reached the Eastern Conference finals, defeating the 2003 champion Detroit Shock in the process. The victory over Detroit came on a thrilling, buzzer-beating shot by, appropriately enough, third-string center and New York native, Bethany Donaphin.

“It’s a great excitement, knowing that we had so many injuries last year, and now the core group is coming back with some young players,” said veteran guard Vickie Johnson as training camp opened. “Just imagine the things we could have done if we could have stayed healthy.”

With “staying healthy” being the team’s mantra, the 2005 season looks to be an intriguing one, full of shifts and possibilities. While the veteran Phillips was not re-signed, the 6’4″ Wauters appears to be at full strength, playing championship level off-season ball in Russia. It’s easy to forget Wauters, who’s been playing professionally for seven years, is only 24. Pairing her in the paint with the veteran Elena Baranova, 33, could make for an impressive combination. Both are face-the-basket type players, and the 6’5″ Baranova is a legitimate perimeter threat, leading the team in three-point shooting last season at 42%.

Second-year player Donaphin spent the off-season playing in Italy and has put up impressive numbers. Undersized and far too tentative, she need to become fearless if she wants to translate her quickness into a position as a back-up center or, perhaps, power-forward. More likely is that mid-season signee La’Keshia Frett will come off the bench to fill the four spot. An 8-year veteran, Frett quickly earned the respect of her teammates and fans with her calmness and timely scoring. Frett and second-year player Detrina White will share time. At only 5’10”, White became an instant fan favorite with her ability to elevate and her ruthless pursuit of rebounds. Her off-season in Israel, where she averaged 17 points and 12 rebounds per game, proved she knows how to score – doing that against WNBA talent will be her next challenge. With space at the post at a premium, and it’s unclear if third round draft pick Rebecca Richman can crack the roster. Sure, you can’t coach 6’5″, but with the short, intense WNBA seasons, coaches aren’t often afforded the luxury of developing players.

Last season the Liberty were forced to rely on their outside shooting, especially after losing their two centers. Along with Baranova, guards Becky Hammon and Crystal Robinson were all among the top 10 in the WNBA in 3-pointers made. Robinson, who is small for the three-spot, is one of the league’s fiercest defenders. This off-season, Robinson played in Israel along side Liberty teammate Shameka Christon, where they helped their team win the Israeli Championship. Robinson posted 14.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while Christon logged in 17.7 points and eight rebounds a game. The 6’1″ Christon showed flashes of brilliant potential during her rookie season. In what may very well be Robinson’s final season, if Christon is wise, she’ll continue to reap the benefits of Robinson’s example and make her sophomore season a memorable one.

Guards Robinson, Hammon and Johnson are the triumvirate at the heart of the Liberty. It was clear that last season Johnson was off her game, and it was not just because her scoring output dropped from 13.4 to 9.4 points per game. The sole remaining member of the inaugural Liberty team of 1997, Johnson quietly battled injuries that limited her effectiveness at both ends of the court. Though she did spend some time playing in Italy, for the first time since entering the league, she took time off and comes in to this 2005 season as healthy and relaxed as she’s been in years.

Last year, both Johnson and Hammon suffered from a lack of a true point guard. Coming off of knee surgery in 2003, Hammon was moved from shooting guard to the point position, but it was a difficult transition. While she led the team in scoring with 13.5 points per game and shot 36.8 percent from three-point range, she also led the WNBA with 3.47 turnovers per game. Back up point guard K.B. Sharp struggled with her confidence and her shot, so the Liberty hope drafting Tennessee point guard Loree Moore will ease the pressure on Hammon. “Last year I didn’t ever run anything from the two,” explained Hammon. “They want to run me off of screens occasionally and not just have me locked into the point.” Of course, releasing Hammon will depend on how quickly Moore adapts to the pro game.

While it’s hard to deny that the elite of the WNBA lives in the West, the East has a blue-collar, hard-hat reputation that suits the Liberty. With their workman like mentality, there’s no reason to believe the Liberty shouldn’t once again be in the hunt for the Eastern Conference title. Making that happen will depend on reducing the number of minutes the starters play and getting a balanced offensive attack. “With Ann Wauters healthy now, and Bethany Donaphin getting the experience she got, we want to throw the ball in the paint,” said first year head coach Patty Coyle. “We’re not just going to be a strictly perimeter team, and we’re not just going to throw it in the paint. It’s probably going to be a 50-50 thing.”

As an assistant under previous coach Richie Adubato, Coyle was around for three Liberty trips to the Finals, all of which ended in disappointment. She knows first hand what the Liberty need to do to reach the ultimate prize, even if it’s uncertain which of the new players are up to the task. “We really need help rebounding the ball, whether that’s through size or athleticism,” Coyle said. “We have to shore up our bench. Players like Becky, V. J. and Elena, they can’t continue to play 35 minutes and be what we want them to be at the end for the playoffs.”

Suggesting the Liberty are front-runners in the race for the WNBA championship would be premature, to say the least. But in a town suffering through a severe case of championship withdrawal and an overabundance of outrageously paid superstars, the Liberty may be just what the doctor ordered.

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