Blazing a Trail Back to Dominance
After trading the team's iconic star, Becky Hammon, to San Antonio for the rights to Jessica Davenport, the No. 2 pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft, the expectations in New York weren't particularly high heading into last season. But the Liberty got off to a 5-0 start and ended up qualifying for the playoffs, where they lost a hard-fought three-game series to the defending champion Detroit Shock.
Despite the disappointing loss to end 2007, there is plenty of hope in the Liberty camp heading into 2008. WNBA.com's Adam Hirshfield spoke recently with "The Blaze" about her plans for the rest of the offseason and her hopes for the coming year.
Q. You started off with a bang in 2007, went through a bit of a midseason slump, but then rebounded to make the playoffs. What are your thoughts on the Liberty's 2007 campaign?
A. "I attribute our success in 2007 to the players and to the good people in the organization. Even though she had a great season in San Antonio, we helped ourselves with the Becky Hammon trade… I think that worked out well for us. We had some great young production in the post, where previously there had been a void. And another year of experience for Erin Thorn, Shameka Christon and Loree Moore really helped as well.
"I don't think fans really appreciate how long it takes for chemistry to build and to get a team totally in sync. We have such a short season, and as strange as it sounds, probably the worst thing that could have happened for us was to start 5-0, because the bar was set so high. But we knew there would be times when we struggled a little bit, and we hung in there and ended up peaking at the right time.
"For me it was a very rewarding year, a very satisfying year… and it gave me great hope and optimism for the future."
Q. On what do you feel the team needs to improve heading into the 2008 season?
A. "We need to reinforce our wings. We'll probably be looking in the draft to get some perimeter players, and of course, we don't know who we're going to lose over the next few months. We could also use a backup point guard. Erin served well in that role this past season, but she's not really a backup point guard. And, as always, we need to get more solid on the boards.
"We're an up-tempo, very exciting team. Along with Phoenix, I think we're the most fun teams to watch."
Q. Speaking of the Mercury, before last season, a lot of people said that their fast-paced, up-tempo style couldn't win in the playoffs. They proved that wrong. Do you feel that their approach is now a viable game plan for a team looking to win a title?
A. "I always felt that it was a viable game plan. (Former Mercury coach) Paul Westhead had a very unique style and he had a lot of success with that approach at other places.
"We're very defensive oriented, but we like to push the tempo on offense. I think teams will look for a solid balance of the two."
Q. Is there any concern about the possible loss of players in free agency or the expansion draft?
"But beyond that, everyone is still locked up. And I feel really good with where we are now and with the core that will be returning in 2008.
Q. How do you and the coaching staff tackle the offseason duties? With all of the scouting of college players and following the leagues in Europe, it seems like there's plenty to keep you all busy, right?
A. "Sure, we all participate in the offseason scouting exercises. One coach will be assigned to Europe, another will take on a certain territory here in the States, and I'll help out where I can… because a lot of the top college teams come through New York or play at Connecticut or Rutgers. We're all very involved.
"And we make sure to see players live more than once. We like to see them early in the season and then again toward the end of the season. We have a whole strategy in place, and we get together every week or so to discuss our approach, talk about our strategy and share our thoughts."
|"With another year under our belts," says Blazejowski, "with another year of building chemistry, with another year of understanding who we are as a team, we feel really good about our prospects for 2008."|
|Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images|
A. "I think it's a matter of consistency with us and our players. Shameka Christon needs to become a little more consistent in her performance. Tiffany Jackson, too… you saw at the back end of the season the kind of potential she has.
"And if Jessica Davenport really develops as our block player, we'll be very solid. She started off well in 2007, but then lost some playing time when Janel (McCarville) came back. So now we have to regroup with her, get her some of her confidence back and help her become the dominant center we think she can be."
Q. That brings us to the debate down low. Janel had a breakout year and won the league's Most Improved Player award, but Jess was the second pick in the draft, and presumably she'll be a building block for the future as well. How do you see the situation in the paint playing out?
A. "I think we have it all! We have a block player like Davenport, who can dominate down low. That's what she does.
"Janel can do everything. She's diverse in that she can hit a 15-footer, she can play inside, she has a power game, she has a finesse game and she's a great passer. We just need to get her to play a little bit better defense.
"Cathrine Kraayeveld is a 6-4 player who can shoot the 3-ball. That's a premium in our league, so she brings another dimension.
"Then Jackson… she's an athlete. She's tough, she's athletic, she's fast and she's probably our best defender in the post.
"So we have a lot of versatility in those four core post players. And we're very excited about what they'll bring to the table next season."
Q. Looking ahead to next season, what is your hope or expectation? Are you set on taking the next step and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals?
A. "Absolutely! We felt like we were right there against the Shock. We were seconds away from getting to the next round. And with another year under our belts, with another year of building chemistry, with another year of understanding who we are as a team and who we're playing with and against, and with a few new parts, we feel really good about our prospects for 2008. We want to return to where we once were: dominating."