New York Liberty Roundtable: A Free Agency Lookahead
We’re now just a week away from February 1, where WNBA free agency is likely to get spicy. With lots of cap space and a whole bunch of needs, the New York Liberty are positioned to make some noise.
Back in December, after the draft lottery, Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb expressed enthusiasm for the team’s upcoming attempts to improve the roster. “We’re gonna be really aggressive and see how it shakes out,” Kolb said, in response to a question from Jackie Powell of The Next. “But I don’t think tonight is the only night we’re going to be in the news. We’ve been scenario planning every which way.”
Here at Nets Republic, we too have been scenario planning every which way, and we’ve gathered some of our thoughts on the roster construction to come.
What do you think is the position of greatest need for the New York Liberty?
Todd Roman: Clearly center. Kiah Stokes evolved more into a stretch four last season when she developed her outside shot and basically left the paint wide open for other teams to rebound quite easily. With Amanda Zahui B. currently unsigned, you have to imagine they’ll target a center with the #1 overall pick, as well as in free agency.
Geoff Magliocchetti: With the Liberty’s guard situation quite satisfied with Kia Nurse in tow and Sabrina Ionescu coming back with the bubble holdouts, the Liberty’s top concern should perhaps be what’s going on in the interior. The Liberty were second in rebounding last season, but they could use a consistent paint prescience if Amanda Zahui B. leaves. It’s great that Stokes (and, to a lesser extent, Han Xu) has discovered a three-point stroke, but if it comes at the risk of her interior duties, the Liberty have to what they can to plug the hole. It’s possible that Charli Collier could take over via the draft…if she declares and if the Liberty keep the pick, that is.
Myles Ehrlich: Add me to the chorus of voices calling for help down low. As Geoff noted, yes, they were second in total rebounding, but they were just eighth in rebounding percentage, securing just 49.2 percent. These numbers are somewhat skewed due to New York’s second-fastest pace, and no team surrendered more rebounds than the 37.0 per game allowed by New York in 2020. With Zahui B’s return unclear, the situation clearing the boards is even more dire, as she led the team with 8.5 rebounds per game last season, a career-high of her own.
Penny Guevara: They need a few veteran players to guide this young crew. The team cannot rely on Sabrina’s popularity to carry the team. Yes, she is good, young, and talented however she needs help with leadership.
Dani Bar-Lavi: I know there’s been a lot of talk about centers/bigs here, and if we lose Zahui B, yes, there’ll categorically be a need to fill the five. I think the bigger need, however, is for good shooters and defenders. A player who can slot in next to Sabrina Ionescu at the 2 or 3 slot and knock down threes on a consistent basis. And someone who makes life harder for opposing sharpshooters.
Walt Hopkins has built this team to live and die by the three-point shot, and last year, the New York Liberty died by it. New York had the second most three-pointers attempted in the league, and shot the worst percentage from deep in the league. A three-heavy system makes sense when you’re trying to create space for a player like Sabrina, but the Liberty need to acquire the personnel to make a system like this possible.
Who are your top three free agent targets, in order of fit? (You can include cored players here.)
Magliocchetti:Nneka Ogwumike, the Space: A New Legacy star, seems like a perfect fit for the Liberty in the fact she’s an interior presence who can score and loves to shoot. Plus, the WNBPA president would be a stone’s throw away from association headquarters in New York and would perhaps love to work with another member of her “cabinet” in Layshia Clarendon. It would take some convincing for Los Angeles to part ways with her, but Lord knows the Liberty have the assets. From a more realistic, yet still mainstream, standpoint, 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman would fit in with the brand of positionless basketball Walt Hopkins is trying to establish. Former Walt Hopkins/Shelly Patterson compatriots that could be worth keeping an eye on include Danielle Robinson and Ogwumike’s fellow core candidate Natasha Howard, while Kelly Schumacher could go on the recruiting trail for former Vegas protégé, Kayla McBride.
Bar-Lavi: 1. Alysha Clark — If we’re talking about threes, I have to bring up the player who shot over 50 percent from deep last year, right? Clark also brings great perimeter D, as well as leadership from a widely respected veteran with championship pedigree.
2. Kayla McBride — K-Mac had a bit of a downturn in three-point percentage in the Wubble, but she’s also not exactly in a system that’s designed to make her life easy from there. McBride also gives the Liberty room to rest Ionescu’s injured ankle should the need arise, as she’s also capable of creating with the ball in her hand. Other perks: fiercely competitive nature, great locker room presence, veteran leader.
3. Betnijah Laney — At 6 foot, Betnijah Laney slots in as a floor-stretching option at the two, three, or even four in smaller line-ups. Betnijah broke-out as a second-option next to Chennedy Carter in Atlanta last year, she can play on-ball or off, and figures to be a good secondary playmaker next to Sab.
Getting any of these three seems unlikely, but you never know. All three have a strong outside shot and Howard’s one of the best defensive players in the league. Cambage would fit right in to Hopkins’ style of play. And, if Meesseman wants the chance to be a star on a different team, joining the Liberty makes sense here.
Guevara:Riquna Williams, Kia Vaughn, and Sydney Colson. The reason why I think Williams, Vaughn, and Colson are my top three targets is that these three are experienced players that would contribute a veteran presence to the young core in New York. Williams, being a shooter, would fit into their three-point system. Colson can contribute on defense and help tackle the boards for the Liberty. The same, for Vaughn: as a center, she can help the New York Liberty; she is strong and can dominate in the paint.
Ehrlich: All three cored bigs (Ogwumike, Cambage, and Howard) are exactly what the Liberty are looking for, though they fill the frontcourt need in distinctive ways. Ogwumike would be a leader in the court and the locker room, Cambage would solidify their defense and anchor the low post, and Howard would allow them to maintain their athletic pace while also tightening the screws defensively. The first pick could be an asset in dealing for one of these stars, but it would take the players themselves asking out in order for a trade to even became a possibility. For the on-court identity of the team, any of the three would be a major upgrade.
Calculating how a new player would gel outside the whistles would warrant an extensive background check, especially with how much Kolb has preached character fit as the team’s primary desired attribute. (While this could just sound like “front office coach-speak,” Kolb has brought this up in every single presser I’ve heard, while addressing both the current roster and the future.) On that note…
Who is a potential free agency target you have concerns about? (Be it skill set, age, culture fit, etc.)
Bar-Lavi: Natasha Howard seems to me the most obvious example. Back in 2019, Howard’s ex-wife, Jacqueline, lodged a disturbing domestic violence complaint, which the Seattle forward adamantly rebuffed, counter-claiming instances of abuse and theft. Of course, the full truth of Howard’s abuse of her wife is beyond my knowledge, but it seems clear that the relationship was most likely physically abusive, possibly on both sides. Jacqueline did not press charges, instead stating in Twitter messages that she hoped Howard would seek help. In any case, it’s hard to integrate that into a team that has staked its culture on character and progressive social causes.
Roman:Liz Cambage. Her desire to be the star of the team wouldn’t happen in Brooklyn as it’s clearly on Ionescu for the long-term. A’ja Wilson winning MVP puts Cambage as second best in Las Vegas. Cambage could opt to play in Brooklyn for one season and then decide it doesn’t fit her lifestyle and she opts to go elsewhere in 2022. The Liberty would have to give up too much via a trade to obtain Cambage from Las Vegas.
Ehrlich: For a New York Liberty team attempting to rebuild, stability is of paramount importance. Players that may not be willing to commit long-term — like Cambage or Meesseman, as hypotheticals — could potentially be poor fits. I believe this to be an important part of vetting any possible addition, and I’m confident the Liberty would do so before deciding on any free agent.
Magliocchetti: When you’re in the situation that the New York Liberty are in — missing a tournament that two-thirds of your league reaches in three consecutive seasons — are you truly in a position to turn down any form of help? Perhaps the biggest fear, remote as it may be, is giving into the temptation of bringing in marquee talent nearing retirement (i.e., Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird). The Liberty are eager to make a splash this offseason, but going for the instant gratification of a talent like that would defeat the purpose of a “hybrid rebuild.”
Guevara: One potential free agent I have concerns with is Jantel Lavender, only because of her injuries. Can she come back healthy and be back to her old self? If healthy, she can help NY with points, defensively, and with the boards.
Outside of Sabrina Ionescu, which currently rostered play is most important to the New York Liberty’s 2021 success and why?
Bar-Lavi: Layshia Clarendon is this team’s heart and soul. That is so clear. As a WNBPA Vice President and one of the founders of the league’s social justice council, Layshia’s leadership is the tie that binds this team together. Going 2-20 can break a team, but Clarendon kept the Liberty together, and reminded them that there’s more to fight for than a shot at the playoffs. On the court, the Liberty need to hold on to every player with a jump shot that they can.
Ehrlich: I played myself with the framing of this question, because my first impulse was to write in Bec Allen, but she’s not currently rostered, technically. Instead, I’m going to go with Jocelyn Willoughby. She struggled a lot with consistency in the bubble, but is off to a strong start in overseas play. The potential is there, as evidenced by her career-high 21-point performance where she hit all but one of her eight shot attempts. The physicality she plays with shows that she can hang at this level, and she was the only player on last year’s team to clear 40 percent from long range. Strong, athletic wings that can shoot are a must in this system.
Guevara: Kiah Stokes, Amanda, and Layshia. All three key players need to step up this season. On both sides of the court. Layshia adapted well to New York’s system: they played great in the bubble and contributed to the Liberty’s faster pace.
Roman: It’s really hard to pick someone. I don’t think anyone outside of Ionescu isn’t on the trading block. No one stood out last season that was worth building the team around along with Ionescu. If there is one player, you’d have to put Kia Nurse in the conversation. Nurse started off 2020 injured and was never back to where she was in her All-Star season in 2019. but if Nurse can return to her 2019 form, her and Ionescu can be a dangerous backcourt duo for years to come.
Magliocchetti: Kia Nurse. While she didn’t reach the heights of her debut All-Star campaign, Nurse showcased a new brand of confidence in the bubble through Hopkins’ system. The escape from Bradenton should probably help her, but Nurse also found comfort and confidence through the art of meditation. Nurse’s positive impact was on display through scoring in her sophomore season in 2019. The New York Liberty were 5-2 when she reached at least 20 points.
What’s an out-of-the-box trade proposal that you would love to see?
Ehrlich: This is a two-parter, but I want to see Australia well-represented in New York (this proposal doesn’t include Steph Talbot, sorry). First, deal for Leilani Mitchell, and bring her back to the city where she spent the first six years of her career. According to the ever-helpful Her Hoop Stats salary cap sheet, Washington has some heavy roster decisions to make, having a whole bunch of players up for new deals. Help them re-sign their core by taking on Mitchell and her $123,500 in exchange for some of the team’s young prospects. Then, for the second deal, reach out to Liz Cambage’s camp, and she if she wants to pair up with her Southside Flyers teammate in New York, as well as fellow Aussie, Rebecca Allen. Just like that, a quarter of the roster represents the Land Down Under.
Guevara: Alysha Clark for Amanda Zahui B. I hate to say it, because Zahui B is a fan favorite, but Clark will bring shooting and defense to the Liberty. It might be unrealistic as a one-for-one, but building off that framework would be a great deal for NY.
Roman: Everyone seems to want to target the three cored players or even Brittney Griner from Phoenix. I’d love for any of those four to land with the Liberty somehow. However, one out-of-the-box trade I’d like to see is snagging Teaira McCowan from Indiana. McCowan isn’t working under Marianne Stanley’s system. Let Indiana re-sign Natalie Achonwa and Jantel Lavender, then McCowan traded to the Liberty. The New York Liberty would send Amanda Zahui B. (via sign-and-trade), Megan Walker, and their 2022 first round pick to the Fever in exchange for McCowan and the Fever’s 2022 first rounder.
Magliocchetti: The first overall pick for Liz Cambage. Bringing in Cambage sounds like poetic justice from a New York standpoint. She is the perfect balance of talent and character to work in an environment like the Big Apple, but Las Vegas would certainly want more in return. While it’s tantalizing to think a full season of Ionescu would put the Liberty in win-now mode, that’s just not the reality. Trading the top pick is certainly on the table, but making a deal for a renowned name like Cambage…or even Ogwumike or Howard…would require a lot more than just the top overall choice.
(Editor’s note: Thank you, Dani, for opening my eyes to this account. Some of the videos are NSFW, language-wise, but I’m ending the article here so that everyone can go and watch all their videos immediately.)