New York Liberty: The Tina Charles Trade, One Year Later

Circumstances make it difficult to grade the Charles trade, but the New York Liberty are near a place where they can say it was worth it.

Barclays Center isn’t the house The House That Tina Charles Built. But she at least put a few walls up.

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Alas, Charles partook in only two games there, one of them a victorious exhibition over the China national team under the grassy roof on Atlantic Avenue. The move to Brooklyn, the most welcome and visible form of stability after the New York Liberty spent the last three years as nomads in Westchester County and Bradenton, Fla., could’ve served as the perfect third act to Charles’ New York career. Born in Queens, Charles was setting Liberty records (including the all-time franchise lead in points) away from the team’s renowned home of Madison Square Garden. But she instead made history at Westchester County Center, a cozy Art Deco-adorned relic in White Plains, N.Y. 

The promises of full-time residency at Barclays Center seemed to be pulled from a New York-based movie script. Charles would be playing her home games just a few blocks aways from Charlie’s Calypso City, a Calypso and Soca music store owned by her father Rawlston. The story was the subject of Charles’ directorial debut, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival entitled Charlie’s Records.

Alas, reality intervened.

It’s been just over 13 months since the Liberty dealt Charles to the Washington Mystics in exchange for draft picks. On Friday, Charles will play a game involving the Liberty in a seafoam-free jersey for the first time since August 2013 (when she was a member of the Connecticut Sun). New York and Washington do battle in the nation’s capital at 7 p.m. ET (YES Network, NBC Sports Washington). 

The Charles reunion hasn’t generated much fanfare, the hype perhaps reserved for when the Mystics visit Brooklyn on Independence Day weekend. Current events have also overshadowed memories of Charles, particularly in a Liberty camp that can’t afford distractions from old friends. Systemic issues necessitate that the Liberty to play three games in four days. The team was booted from Barclays so the Brooklyn Nets can begin their NBA playoff series. Friday’s tipoff will also come less than 48 hours after the Liberty waived veteran guard Layshia Clarendon, a prominent voice in both on- and off-court affairs

Kiah Stokes, a rare remnant of the Liberty’s days in both Manhattan and Westchester, acknowledged the reunion when speaking to reporters on Thursday afternoon. 

“Tina was a great vet to me, especially in my rookie year she was amazing and incredible. I learned a lot,” Stokes, a 2016 draftee, said. “To be going up against her tomorrow is going to be great, it’s going to be a great time. She’s tough.”

Appropriately, the Liberty (3-0) do have much to celebrate when they make the trip to the Potomac. Much of it stems from what has transpired after Charles’ change of address.

It’s not fair by any stretch to “grade” the Charles trade. The UConn alumna understandably opted out of the Bradenton bubble, at a higher risk of COVID-19 due to extrinsic asthma. Further Washington medical issues, such as the back woes of Charles’ Olympic teammate Elena Delle Donne, have stifled the Mystics’ 2019 title defense. Washington squeaked into the 2020 playoffs thanks to a Myisha Hines-Allen breakout, but Phoenix quickly ousted it.

The USA hoops heroines weren’t the only missing Mystics in 2020: Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders likewise chose not to partake, while Kristi Toliver signed with the Los Angeles Sparks. Charles is back on the floor in 2021, but has more or less found herself in the same situation as during her final New York days: putting up sizable numbers with unproven help. With Hines-Allen and 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman fulfilling international duties, the Mystics have dropped their first two contests, including a 91-70 defeat on Tuesday in a playoffs rematch with the Mercury. Charles and Cloud united for 40 points on 14 successful field goals, but the rest of the team only hit nine. 

Washington hasn’t been at full strength since hoisting the 2019 WNBA Finals trophy. Thus, analyzing the Charles gambit is a fruitless exercise, one staged solely for hot take purposes.

In New York, however, there’s a growing sense that they can look back on the Charles trade as one of the cornerstones their contender-in-the-making was built upon.

The Nets’ stake of the shared home court and the emotional (yet necessary) release of Clarendon notwithstanding, the Liberty are off to a perfect start in every sense. Betnijah Laney is busy making an MVP case one season after winning Most Improved Player. It took Sabrina Ionescu hardly any time at all to do Sabrina Ionescu things again. WNBA champion Sami Whitcomb provides an instant boost from Seattle, and fellow former Seattle Storm ring-bearer Natasha Howard will shortly join her. 

But some of the biggest pieces of the Liberty’s “hybrid rebuild” came as a result of the Charles sacrifice. Sure, that departure led to several others—Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Tayler Hill, the original veteran names in the trade, have already left. But it’s hard to quarrel with where the Liberty are in the post-Charles era, even if results required patience after a 2-20 season.

Jazmine Jones, armed with enough energy to power Brooklyn and Tribeca combined, came when the team gained the No. 12 pick of the draft — the one normally reserved for the defending champions. By now, Jones’ story is well known in New York circles. She rose to the occasion when Ionescu suffered her devastating ankle injury in the bubble and earned All-Rookie honors through a point guard role she hadn’t played since high school. Through the picks from the Mystics and the involvement of the Dallas Wings, the Liberty also obtained second-round diamonds in the rough in Leaonna Odom and DiDi Richards. Odom’s defensive prowess might be one of the best-kept secrets of the bubble, while Richards has become a fan favorite after only two games in Brooklyn and figures take on a bigger role with Clarendon gone. 

Speaking on Wednesday, Jones offered a positive outlook for the post-Charles Liberty.

“We have people from top to bottom that are very competitive who don’t like to lose no matter what drill we’re doing,” Jones said. “You’re going to get that energy that deepens that passion. You want to get people down on the floor for loose balls, you’re going to get it. If we get scored on, we’re going to take that personally. And then the next time down the court, we’re not going to let you score.

“I’m blessed to be a part of something special, to have been one of 144 women in this league. It’s just a special opportunity, and not everybody gets this opportunity, so you can’t take this for granted. Every day you have to wake up, and they come with it because your spot can be taken any day. I’m just blessed and humbled that I have this opportunity to be here.”

There’s no doubt that Charles did what she could in New York and fulfilled the character requirement necessary to wear seafoam. The ship had simply run its course, the song finally ended. Charles now has a chance to be a leader in a familiar system (overseen by former Sun head coach Mike Thibault) while the Liberty have started almost entirely fresh (save for Stokes and Rebecca Allen). It’s a hand-picked squad catered to the leadership triumvirate of head coach Walt Hopkins, general manager Jonathan Kolb, and CEO Keia Clarke. 

It’s way too early to fully distribute a report card on this trade. But the Liberty, at least, are acing their tests so far. 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags.