The New York Liberty enter the 2017 WNBA season rejuvenated, looking to stay healthy, and win the franchise’s first championship.

The 21st season of the WNBA tips off this weekend and on Saturday at Madison Square Garden; the New York Liberty will begin the new season and continue the quest for the team’s first championship. The home opener will be played against the San Antonio Stars. This game will feature key debuts of the number one pick in this year’s draft Kelsey Plum and the head coaching debut of Vickie Johnson who played for the Liberty from 1997-2005.

Last season, the Liberty finished in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 21-13 record and lost to the Phoenix Mercury in a single elimination playoff game last September. To remind those who aren’t aware, the WNBA introduced a new playoff format last year in which of the 12 teams in the league, you were seeded regardless of what conference you play in whether it is East or West. In this situation, finishing with the top seed in the East led the Liberty to a No. 3 seed and an opening round BYE. The playoff loss came in the second round when they faced the Mercury at home.

The Liberty moved past that loss as they hope to improve on that 21-13 record and aim for a top two seed in the league this season. That would gain them a spot in the league’s essential final four of the playoffs in what is played as a best of five series before the championship round. The games are even more crucial than in the past when you play teams in the Western Conference especially late in the season when seeding will be on the line.

As for the team on the floor in 2017, the Liberty are coached by Bill Laimbeer, who is entering his fifth season with the team. After missing the playoffs in his first two seasons with the team, Laimbeer has led the Liberty to back to back postseason berths in 2015 and 2016. Those teams finished with the top record in the Eastern Conference and it also saw Laimbeer winning the Coach of the Year award in the 2015 season. His resume in the WNBA speaks for itself in big games having won three league championships while coaching the Detroit Shock as he looks to bring a title to New York.

Aug 16, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer questions officials call during the second half against the Washington Mystics at the Prudential Center. Washington Mystics defeat the New York Liberty 66-57. Mandatory Credit: Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports

The Liberty roster over the past two seasons has been solid from top to bottom on paper led by MVP caliber center Tina Charles. During the 2016 season, Charles became just the third player in WNBA history to lead the league in scoring and rebounding. She averaged 21.5 PPG and 9.9 RPG and finished second in the league MVP voting. While Charles has been the most stable piece of the group, health of the rest of the roster has been an issue and they look to maintain consistency in that area in 2017.

Epiphanny Prince and Kiah Stokes are two other key pieces of the starting lineup for the Liberty but they both missed a lot of the 2016 season with injuries. Tanisha Wright also announced earlier this offseason that she will be taking the 2017 season off in order to rest. In addition, Shoni Schimmel announced last week she was taking a leave of absence from the team to deal with personal issues and will not play this season.

The return of Prince and Stokes to full health will help take some of the workload of scoring away from Charles. A number of role players for the Liberty in the backcourt led by Sugar Rodgers will need to step up to score if they want to be at the top of the league.

The most notable additions this offseason was the trade that sent Bria Hartley and Kia Vaughn to the Liberty and those two veterans add depth to an already talented roster. This trade was a homecoming for Hartley who grew up in North Babylon, NY and played for Geno Auriemma at Connecticut.

She will join an experienced backcourt and brings valuable minutes to the lineup. Vaughn also returns to the Liberty where she spent the first 4 seasons of her career. She will add to the depth up front that is needed after Swin Cash retired at the end of last season.

Aug 30, 2012; Newark, NJ, USA; New York Liberty center Kia Vaughn (15) during the first half against Indiana Fever center Jessica Davenport (50) and guard Shavonte Zellous (1) at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that the team has done well in recent years is drafting. Isiah Thomas, who serves as the team President along with Coach Laimbeer and GM Kristin Bernert, added strong talent each April that has become key pieces to the team. The recent draft picks on the current roster include Rebecca Allen, Kiah Stokes and Brittany Boyd all played key roles over the past two years. This year they drafted Lindsay Allen who played at Notre Dame and Kai James from Florida State.

“Lindsay Allen fits the mold of what we were looking for, a very high basketball IQ, a solid competitor, athletic, and a great example of what a good quality teammate is,” said coach Laimbeer in a team release after the draft. “In Kai James, we wanted to bring someone in that had size, could bang in the post and give us some strength, especially in the preseason,” Laimbeer said. “She’s working on her game all the time, has shown great improvement, and now it’s time to see if she can make the next level.”

As for the competition they will face in the WNBA this season, the Liberty will see improvements amongst the teams in the East. The Washington Mystics had a very busy offseason which included adding Elena Delle Donne, one of the WNBA’s top players and the Mystics are expected to be a serious contender this season. The Western Conference is where a majority of the playoff teams could come from this season as the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, and Seattle Storm could all return along with an improved Dallas Wings team.

In order for the Liberty to reach the ultimate goal of bringing home the first WNBA championship to the franchise, they need to stay healthy and score the basketball consistently. As good as Tina Charles has been, she will need help from the entire group. “We think we’re going to go 12 deep and every position will be covered,” Laimbeer said when asked how the Liberty will stack up at media day. “We have a couple youngsters, but I think, overall, our depth and leadership … We’re going to try to wear teams down. We’re just going to bring wave after wave of quality players and expect our players to play as hard as they can any minute.”

It should be another exciting summer of WNBA Basketball at Madison Square Garden as the New York Liberty begin the 2017 season and work toward the goal of a championship. You can tune into their games all season long on MSG, NBA TV or ESPN/ABC.

John Santamaria joins as a writer in March 2017. He is a graduate of New York Institute of Technology with an M.A. and B.F.A. in Communication Arts. John currently is a Technology teacher and prior to that was employed at MLB Advanced Media and CBS Sports Network. He also works as a Public Address Announcer for various colleges including his alma mater NYIT. John is a lifelong sports fan rooting for the Mets, Islanders, Jets, and Knicks.