The New York Liberty have much to prove and championships to win and under new head coach Katie Smith, that path may have just gotten more clear.
In the final years of the Madison Square Garden era, the New York Liberty wilted in the WNBA postseason.
Over the past three seasons, the Liberty, one of the few charter franchises left in the women’s association, have tallied 66 wins, tops in the Eastern Conference. This regular season success, headlined by the rise of Queens native Tina Charles, however, has yet to translate into the Libs’ first WNBA Finals appearance since 2002.
The past two seasons have been particularly painful, as the Liberty have earned first-round byes…byes that have translated into losses in the single-game second round.
It’s more postseason success than their male New York counterparts have had in the past decade, but the lack of a championship banner looms large headed into the franchise’s 21st season.
“I don’t think we talk about (playoffs) because we’re trying to build up every day in creating an environment where it’s competitive,” head coach Katie Smith told Jeff Weisinger of amNew York. “Hopefully practice becomes harder than games, and we’re demanding more of them, and they’re going after each other and competing so that we can execute.”
Though faces on the court remain mostly the same with 10 players returning from last season’s roster, Liberty culture changed drastically this offseason with the departure of head coach Bill Laimbeer, who left to coach the WNBA’s expansion franchise in Las Vegas.
In his place comes a basketball legend in Katie Smith, a 2018 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee that has overseen the previous success as an assistant coach.
Having the spent the past five seasons entrenched in New York, the first as a player to cap off a Hall of Fame career, Smith could be the breath of fresh air the team needs. Her sense of familiarity with the organization will be vital to getting past the second-round landmark, as the new head coach knows all about the joys of a playoff breakthrough.
After a stellar career at Ohio State, Smith was brought on to the expansion Minnesota Lynx in 1999. Often forced to shoulder the load, Smith found little help in Minnesota but was finally traded to the Detroit Shock in 2005.
With Laimbeer at the helm, the Shock had hit a wall after a surprising run to a WNBA title in 2003, suffering back-to-back semifinal eliminations in the ensuing couple of seasons.
Smith, however, helped pull together a relatively young squad and get over their championship hangover. To close out of the franchise’s Detroit era, Smith guided the team to three consecutive Finals appearances, winning two, and even took home MVP honors after the 2008 victory.
Assisted by Cheryl Ford, Kara Braxton, Deanna Nolan and current Liberty Director of Player Development Swin Cash, Smith spearheaded the league’s second dynasty, after the defunct Houston Comets’ reign ended after their 2000 title.
Queen of Queens
Assisting the veteran Smith on the court will be a series of MSG staples, as the Liberty feature five players with eight or more years of WNBA experience. At the forefront has been interior prescience Tina Charles, who forewent free agency to rejoin New York. Smith, though making her name on the court as a point guard, already shares a vital characteristic with Charles in her durability.
Since joining the Liberty in a 2014 trade with the Connecticut Sun, Charles has only missed two games. Her new head coach started a full 34-game season in each of Detroit’s Finals trips and even played 36 games in 2005 when she went from the Lynx to the Shock.
2017 was another year for Charles to leave her stamp on the league, ranking in the top five in both points per game (19.7, tied for third) and rebounds (9.4, fourth). She also earned Defensive First Team honors for the second time in her career and recorded a career-high 36 points in a June win over Dallas.
Charles, however, isn’t satisfied with the individual accomplishments.
Emerging from the basketball utopia that is the University of Connecticut in 2010, Charles helped guide the Sun back into WNBA relevancy, headlined by a 25-9 season that topped the East in 2012. That season, however, ended in conference final heartbreak, a three-game fall to the Indiana Fever.
A Queens native and Christ the King alum, Charles did her job in returning the Liberty to the league’s elite, but, in this era of New York uncertainty, she’s placing her faith in her teammates, as they collective try to escape the second-round curse.
“In my tenure playing for the Liberty, I’ve never questioned the individuals on the team,” she said to Mechelle Voepel of ESPNW. “I’m with them, seeing them come in on days off, being coachable, listening and committing to our process. And I trust our management to put together the best team.”
That Championship Feeling
Keeping up with the Husky tradition, Smith has a positional contemporary to work with as well in Kia Nurse, one of the most accomplished players in Canadian basketball history.
Though Nurse becomes the fourth Connecticut alum to join the team (the others being Charles, Bria Hartley, and Kiah Stokes), the Liberty have done a great job of adding players who have succeeded at all levels of women’s basketball. In addition to a pair of NCAA titles in Storrs, Nurse led the Canadian national squad to an unexpected championship victory over the United States in the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
“They are definitely some of our top players and they fit right in. They’re pros and there is a familiarity. It’s a really tight-knit group and a culture that they all take pride in,” said Smith, according to Marc Allard of the Norwich Bulletin. “They want to represent it well. It’s fun for them to have the stories and that camaraderie right off the jump.“
Furthering the theme of championship experience, veteran Kia Vaughn and Epiphanny Prince, entering their 10th and ninth seasons respectively, were part of Rutgers’ 2007 NCAA finalist squad.
Wild, Wild Westchester
The team, in the midst of a potential sale, also settles into a new home, as they’ll be welcomed in by Westchester County Center in White Plains (though two summer games will still be held at MSG).
The move, facilitated by the Madison Square Garden Company, proved controversial after an outcry from the Liberty fanbase. Last season, New York was fourth in the WNBA in attendance, but that didn’t seem to impress MSG boss James Dolan, who announced the team was up for sale in November, though he remains the owner for the time being.
Westchester can provide a fresh start, a chance for a team to truly be embraced by New York, just as women’s sports are becoming more popular amongst casual sports fans. The Liberty have made their prescience felt in the New York area.
Despite a rocky relationship with MSG brass, as home games have previously been forced to Prudential Center and even Radio City Music Hall, the Liberty remains one of the three charter WNBA franchises, and the only one in the Eastern Conference, to remain in their original market (the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks are the others).
Though a long-sought championship banner would perhaps be the best way to truly capture the area’s attention, the Liberty won’t let a postseason curse, nor a potentially uncertain future, affect their long-standing franchise.
“What’s been going on still doesn’t take away the two goals I’ve had in my career: to wear a Liberty uniform and win a championship,” said Charles, reiterating her goals to Voepel. “Personally, that means everything to me.”
|May 20||@ Chicago||7:00 PM||MSG+/Twitter|
|May 25||Minnesota||7:30 PM||MSG+|
|May 29||Dallas||7:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 2||@ Indiana||7:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 5||Phoenix (@ MSG)||11:00 AM||MSG+/Twitter|
|June 7||Connecticut||7:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 10||Indiana||3:00 PM||MSG|
|June 13||Las Vegas||7:00 PM||MSG+/ESPN3|
|June 16||@ Minnesota||8:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 19||Atlanta||7:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 22||@ Las Vegas||10:00 PM||ESPN2|
|June 24||@ Los Angeles||5:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 26||Phoenix||7:00 PM||MSG+|
|June 28||@ Washington||7:00 PM||MSG+/NBATV|
|June 29||Chicago||7:30 PM||MSG+|
|July 1||@ Chicago||6:00 PM||MSG+|
|July 3||Seattle||7:00 PM||MSG+|
|July 5||@ Washington||7:00 PM||MSG+/ESPN3|
|July 8||Dallas||3:00 PM||MSG|
|July 11||@ Connecticut||11:30 AM||MSG+/NBATV|
|July 15||Chicago||3:00 PM||MSG|
|July 17||@ Dallas||1:00 PM||MSG+/Twitter|
|July 19||@ Atlanta||7:00 PM||MSG+/ESPN3|
|July 21||Washington||3:00 PM||MSG/NBATV|
|July 24||@ Minnesota||8:00 PM||ESPN2|
|August 1||@ Connecticut||7:00 PM||MSG+/NBATV|
|August 4||Indiana||3:00 PM||MSG/NBATV|
|August 6||Seattle (@ MSG)||11:00 AM||MSG+/NBATV|
|August 8||Los Angeles||7:00 PM||MSG+/NBATV|
|August 12||Atlanta||2:30 PM||MSG|
|August 14||@ Los Angeles||10:30 PM||MSG+/NBATV|
|August 15||@ Las Vegas||10:00 PM||MSG+/NBATV|
|August 17||@ Seattle||10:00 PM||MSG+/NBATV|
|August 19||@ Phoenix||6:00 PM||MSG+/ESPN3|