For Liberty, challenges abound to start the season

Tina Charles battles the defense. Photo by MSG Networks.
Tina Charles battles the defense. Photo by MSG Networks.

So far, the New York Liberty’s theme for the year seems to be “challenging.”

Already exiled from Madison Square Garden to the suburb of Westchester, the Liberty enters their home opener against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx tonight with a third of its roster – including three starters – unavailable to play.

Reigning Sixth Woman of the Year Sugar Rodgers, who scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in New York’s season opener last weekend, is doubtful after sustaining a left knee sprain in practice. Epiphanny Prince returned from overseas play with a concussion, and is out indefinitely. So is Brittany Boyd, who is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon sustained in the second game of the season last year. Center Kia Vaughn has not returned from overseas, and her due date is unknown.

That leaves eight players to suit up in beginning their quest to top last year’s 22-12 regular-season record, and to overcome a two-year first-round playoff exit record.

Katie Smith helms the team after serving four years as assistant coach under Bill Laimbeer, who left last year to coach the start-up franchise Las Vegas Aces. Smith is a league veteran and a Hall-of-Famer who was honored at the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio in April.

To take that last little step to post-season success, Smith will have to engineer improved guard play, and get more from All-Star center Tina Charles. Smith said it begins with expanding the eight-year veteran’s versatility.

“Tina is phenomenal. . . “ Smith told the NBA’s Area 21 sports program. “Now, you put her on the block, she’ll murder you. She’s quick, she can rip it, she can shoot it. But she’s expanded her game, can shoot the three well. We need to get her to drive, take the contact, and get the and-ones.”

Charles is a great player and is always in the discussion for league MVP – an award she won in 2012. But she may have fallen in love with the jump shot, and thereby diminished her low post effectiveness. Her rebounding is down over the last five years, from 11.7 RPG in 2010 to 9.4 last season. Her blocks are way down, from 60 in 2011 to just 24 last year. Her field goal percentage, just under 50 percent in her MVP season, has not come very close since, hovering around 45 percent. Finally, her offensive rebounds have sunk from 123 in 2012 to just 69 in 2017. That’s a lot of second-chance points and possessions the Liberty have missed.

Kiah Stokes snags a rebound. Photo by MSG Networks.
Kiah Stokes snags a rebound. Photo by MSG Networks.

Charles shares the paint with Kiah Stokes, now in her fourth year. The UConn product is an excellent rim protector and rebounder, but a less-than-stellar scorer. This isn’t optimal, as the league now includes a number of tall fours and a few fives who, like Charles, can score from the perimeter. Those players sometimes force Charles to go out with them, which takes her away from rebounding country.

Smith did not say Charles would “murder” opponents from beyond the arc, and she won’t. Charles should be playing the post, taking contact and finishing with an old-fashioned three-point play, as her coach suggested. If one were to ask WNBA coaches whether they prefer Charles on the block or on the perimeter, a vast majority would prefer she shoot threes. Smith’s comments may indicate that she will encourage Charles to move back into the post, and save the three for situational use.

New York is flush with guards, many of them talented. Bria Hartley is the indispensable point guard and coach-on-the-floor, and has her position solidified. She is very fast with the ball and runs the offense well, but she does not dish a lot of assists, because all the team’s guards share that load. That part is good.

The other guards – Prince, Rodgers, Boyd and veteran Shavonte Zellous – are very alike, and maybe too much so. All are 5-9 or 5-10, all score 10.5-13 points per game, and all have similar assists and turnovers numbers. All grab around 3.5-4 rebounds per game and all are athletic. All can drive the lane or hit pull-up jumpers, and all shoot nearly identical 34 percent from three-point range. Rodgers is a high-volume shooter, second only to Charles last year, and she makes a lot of shots. Yet, she misses nearly two in three.

They are not identical, but except for Zellous’ ability to get to the free throw line and her superior defense, their coach really cannot get different looks on offense from the guards. As the Liberty approach their first home game in the new arena, however, the wisdom of having so many guards is demonstrated, as three are out.

The similarity of the guard corps is one reason Smith is so thrilled that Kia Nurse was available as the tenth pick in the draft, because the Husky standout is different.

The six-foot Nurse is a big guard who is known for her smothering defense and for above-average three-point shooting. In her WNBA debut she scored 17 points, second only to Charles.

Kia Nurse drives to the basket for two point. Photo courtesy of the UConn Blog.
Kia Nurse drives to the basket for two point. Photo courtesy of the UConn Blog.

“Nurse handles the ball well, shoots it well,” Smith said during the preseason. “But the thing that I love most about her, now that I know her better, is her toughness. She’ll guard anybody. She’ll get knocked around, but she’ll get right back up. . . . That’s what you want everybody to have. She’s bringing it every day, and I’m really impressed with that.”

In fact, Smith’s picture of Nurse could easily have described her coach as a player: tough, smart, relentless, and a winner. Nurse, like Smith, is primarily a shooting guard, but she has point experience, and has the quickness and size to guard and to play the three on occasion. The biggest surprise for Smith was her foot speed.

“I didn’t know about her jets,” Smith said. “Her and Bria Hartley are going to have a heck of some races. I don’t think Bria has ever been beaten, but Kia is going to put her to the test. They can just put their heads down and roll. When that ball changes possession, they are out. And that puts pressure on the defense. . . . ‘I’m going to fly, get some easy buckets.’ It’s going to help our team.”

During training camp New York acquired veteran guard Marissa Coleman after she was cut from the Indiana Fever roster. At 6-1, Coleman has better size than the other guards, and she has nine years of WNBA experience. She has been at times a serious three-point threat, though in the last three years her percentage has dropped off sharply from the 40 percent she managed in 2013. Coleman is physically strong and durable, missing just two games in the last 272.

Small forward Rebecca Allen, a 6-2 player who got little playing time last year, is back on the roster for the second year.

Bria Hartley's quickness is an asset for the Liberty. Photo by MSG Networks.
Bria Hartley’s quickness is an asset for the Liberty. Photo by MSG Networks.

Joining Charles in the post are a trio of players who don’t quite seem to have fulfilled their potential. That seems a strange observation given that Laimbeer, the quintessential power forward in his NBA playing days, coached them for years.

Stokes is a 6-4 shot-blocker and defensive specialist who rarely leaves the low post. She has averaged 6.7 boards per game in her three years, playing about 22 minutes. Her shooting percentage is high, but neither in the pros nor in college does she think “shoot first” when she grabs an offensive rebound.

Vaughn is more or less a duplicate of Stokes. At 6-4, she has averaged 20 minutes, 4.5 rebounds and 5.8 points in her nine year career. Does Smith really need two of them?

Finally, 6-5 Amanda Zahui B seems to be an enigma. Although she was the number two pick in the 2015 draft, she has played sparingly and without making much of an impression beyond her unusual name. Last year, she logged just 2.1 minutes per game. She is a bit less agile than Stokes and Vaughn, and it is unclear what her value is to the team.

In Vaughn’s absence, second-round draft pick Mercedes Russell was signed to a 10-day contract. The 6-6 athletic post from Tennessee was cut on the final day that rosters were due, and has thus far filled her role well for the ailing team.

The question going forward is whether the addition of Nurse and Coleman can change the dynamic enough for the Liberty to compete with other teams – particularly the powerhouse Connecticut Sun, who already look like title contenders with two 100-point games to begin the season. Unless one of the Liberty’s core players becomes a star, they may not be in that third spot by September playoff time.

Shavonte Zellous pulls up for a shot. Photo by MSG Networks.
Shavonte Zellous pulls up for a shot. Photo by MSG Networks.

Tonight will mark the 22-year-old team’s first appearance in Westchester, 30 miles from their longtime home, Madison Square Garden.

The Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the franchise, banished the Liberty this year from the Garden (where they will play just two games), to the Westchester County Center in suburban White Plains, N.Y. This move out of Manhattan and a basketball Mecca to a venue more than an hour away from the team’s previous home could be seen as: an attempt to harm attendance and bankrupt the team; an attempt to reach a suburban audience with fewer nearby entertainment options than city residents can select; or merely a reflection of MSG CEO James Dolan’s long-standing animus against the women’s team.

To be fair, the arena is, at best, just over an hour on the Harlem Railroad Line from downtown Manhattan, and getting to the Garden from four of five boroughs probably takes that long now. MSG has been trying to find a buyer for the Liberty for some time now. Their lack of interest in the team is further shown by the fact that most links on the official website are to 2017 information.