Liberty’s adherence to rebuilding plan proved to be their undoing

New York Liberty players remain upbeat despite losing to the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.
New York Liberty veterans remain upbeat despite losing to the Las Vegas Aces. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

In losing their 16th game of 18 on the season Saturday, the New York Liberty became the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention.

With a group of four returning pros, eight newcomers and most 22 years old and under, their truncated end might have seemed a foregone conclusion. But what lofty goals the Liberty had in their drastic rebuilding plan.

General manager Jonathan Kolb and first-year coach Walt Hopkins explained their goal of building a “positionless” team that would rely heavily on three-point shooting. Apparently, they were hoping to be the former NBA Champion Golden State Warriors.

Unfortunately, the New York team they assembled hasn’t been able to score. They did draft scoring, rebounding and assisting University of Oregon great Sabrina Ionescu with their No. 1 pick. But she lasted just two and a quarter games before losing her season to a grade-three ankle sprain. Even without such misfortune, it would have taken a monumental year by Ionescu to make the Liberty competitive. Without her, they were adrift.

In fact, the team has managed to be the worst three-point shooting team in the WNBA. New York has shot 463 threes (second to Dallas), and made just 133, for a league-worst 28.7 percentage.

For an example of how the plan has not worked: Kiah Stokes, a 6-3 fifth-year player who attempted (and missed) just three outside shots in her first four seasons, is 15-72 from three (.208). That’s 60 percent of her shots. Kia Nurse has taken 103 three’s, but hit just 24 percent. Megan Walker, drafted mostly to shoot threes, is 4-35 (.114).

Game after game, Hopkins said, “we got open threes, we just didn’t hit them.” After a 4-35 performance from downtown in their ouster loss to Phoenix, he was asked whether maybe the shots were open because the Mercury knew no one would hit them.

“I think that’s part of it,” he replied. “It’s gotta be, right?”

Right. So should this Liberty team stop requiring the rookies to shoot the first open three?

Apparently not.

“Looking at a longer view, if and when Stokes and Layshia [Clarendon] – among others – develop the confidence and the consistency from three, they’re going to be an absolute nightmare,” Hopkins said.

He seemed to miss the point. “If and when” ignores “here and now” on the court.

Hopkins rejected “abandoning” the plan, asserting that was a poor long-term strategy, and he may be right. But the status quo is not the solution for this year’s poor-shooting roster.

In 2021, when Marine Johannes (opted out), Rebecca Allen (opted out), Asia Durr (COVID-19) and Ionescu (all fine three-point shooters) return to the squad, the plan may turn New York into a playoff team. Perhaps Walker, when fully recovered from COVID-19 herself, will revert to the 45 percent shooting she had in her final year at UConn. Then, the “shoot-lots-of-threes” blueprint would make sense.

But this year, “the plan” has been a disaster. Liberty players do not have the skills necessary to win, and they are very unlikely to develop them in the final four games of a compact season that features games every other day, and very little practice time.

Perhaps encouraging athletes to do what they do best would build some confidence for the future. Asking them to repeat something they cannot execute is not going to develop his young players’ confidence.

Earlier in the same interview, Hopkins had talked about how effective rookie Joyner Holmes was when she “played downhill.” Near the basket, she was 5-10 on the night, with five offensive rebounds on the way to a 13/13 career night. Yet, in trying to execute the grand New York plan, she shot seven three-pointers and hit just one. She did not grab eight offensive boards starting from 23 feet, nine inches away. At Texas, Holmes shot .198 from three in four years. Why would that magically change just because she has the green light?

So, when a team is built on threes, and they can’t shoot them, what’s plan B? Unfortunately, there isn’t one, and Hopkins doesn’t seem interested in finding it.

“We have a plan that we’ve outlined pretty clearly, and we’re going to stick to it and see it through,” he said Saturday.

Hopkins mistakenly sees his options as a binary choice between shooting a lot of threes and not doing that to “try to win every game right now.”

What he misses is that the Liberty is not in an either/or position. You don’t have to abandon the long-term plan if you see it as long-term and not required of every player, every game. It is not about winning now, but about developing players into professionals.

A step back from dogma would recognize that there actually are some bright spots in this otherwise difficult season. Encouraging those successes is coaching 101. And none of those bright spots have to do with players shooting the first open three.

Rookie Neah Odom has proven to be a defensive marvel, using her length and quickness to force opposing teams’ best guards – including Mercury veteran Diana Taurasi – into bad nights. Her offense is still a work in progress, but it is based on her quickness to the basket – not her outside shooting.

Veteran forward Amanda Zahui B has built on her yearly improvement, averaging career high 9.2 points and 8.7 boards. She has also improved her outside shooting to 36 percent.

Clarendon, the clear leader of this team (and, one could say, of the WNBA social justice movement) has looked like the all-star she was a few years back. Despite having little scoring support and having to run an offense nobody seems to understand, they lead the team with 11.7 points and a team-best 47.1 shooting percentage.

Rookie Jazmine Jones has shown sparks of excellence and scoring ability, and her speed and intensity should be valuable in the future.

Holmes, when fully engaged, has the talent to match her 13/13 night on a regular basis. Perhaps an effort to get her going “downhill” and not shooting threes would have improved her ability to focus. At Texas, lack of focus was the only thing that kept her from being a superstar. Could the coaches have somehow found a way to kindle that spark more often by setting her up for success inside the arc?

There have been reports from inside the bubble that Hopkins seemed overwhelmed at times. Certainly this season-like-no-other was a terrible time to be a rookie head coach, and it must be exhausting.

With just four years as a bench assistant coach at any level, it would not be surprising if the youthful Hopkins was having trouble navigating the challenges created by the coronavirus and the Liberty’s fire-sale approach to rebuilding.

Rookies are rookies, and only superstars can make the transition to the WNBA smoothly. Furthermore, veterans are at least used to changing rosters and using their experience and confidence to become part of a functioning team. Accomplishing that with so many newcomers, without extended practice time to guide them, was a recipe for disaster.

Not even the most seasoned coaches could have molded so many newbies into a viable professional defense without a preseason, or consistent practices. New York has athletes who hold their own one-on-one, but rotational help defense is missing most of the time. The open road to the hoop when the first defender is beaten has been a major factor in their giving up 13 more points than they score.

The “positionless” roster left the Liberty with no defensive rim-protector, which has exacerbated the poor help defense. “The plan” exaggerates that problem, because the emphasis on outside shooting often pulls the two tallest players away from the paint.  Zahui B, at 6-5, is a much improved interior defender, but Stokes has been the same underachiever that coaches keep hoping they can fire up.

The loss of Ionescu, a leader beyond her years, was incalculable.

With all these factors loaded against the Liberty, even the league’s best coaches could not have made them into a playoff team. But an experienced coach might have been more imaginative and designed a system that gave the rookies a taste of success.