Architecting a Title Contender

2010 New York Liberty
There was a lot of promise surrounding the New York Liberty heading into the 2009 season. The team fell one basket short of advancing to the WNBA Finals the previous season, falling to the Detroit Shock in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference Finals 75-73. So many around the game thought 2009 would be the year the Liberty would once again contend for the WNBA title.

But promise turned to misery as New York finished the 2009 campaign with the franchise’s second worst record and failed to qualify for the playoffs for just the fourth time in team history.

Team President and General Manager Carol Blazejowski, known affectionately as “Blaze,” was not used to losing in her legendary basketball career as a player and executive. She knew changes needed to be made, and not small changes, but major changes to the roster.

“I thought a couple more tweaks with the roster and we would be fine,” Blazejowski said referring to her plan heading into the 2009 season. “But it turned out, last year was a total disappointment and I just thought we weren’t going to get it done with that group so the plan was to make as much of an overhaul as we could.”

The total overhaul began with the selection of Nicole Powell as the first pick in the 2009 WNBA Dispersal Draft. Powell twice led the Monarchs in scoring and was instrumental in Sacramento winning the 2005 WNBA Championship.

Besides adding a proven scorer to the line-up, the Powell acquisition gave Blaze some needed flexibility to make additional player moves to help transform the roster.

“When Nicole came we had two of the same player and one of them became expendable,” Blaze said referring to former forward Shameka Christon. “Shameka was our best player last year and I got many phone calls about her over the years. So I remembered the teams that were interested in her and since I was able to fill her void with Nicole, she became a part of the trade equation.”

December 14, 2009
Liberty select WNBA All-Star Nicole Powell with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 WNBA Dispersal Draft...more
March 30, 2010
Liberty acquire All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter from the Phoenix Mercury as part of a three-team trade...more
April 22, 2010
Liberty sign WNBA Champion and Six-Time WNBA All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin to a free agent contract...more
May 12, 2010
Liberty acquire guard Nikki Blue from the Washington Mystics in exchange for guard Ashley Houts...more
June 14, 2010
Liberty acquire forward Plenette Pierson from the Tulsa Shock in exchange for forward Tiffany Jackson...more
Christon and forward Cathrine Kraayeveld were a part of the Liberty package in the blockbuster three-team trade with the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury that brought three-time All-Star and two-time WNBA champion Cappie Pondexter to New York.

Pondexter’s impact on the Liberty was immediate and game-changing.

The 5-foot-9 guard has been nothing short of sensational in her inaugural season with the Liberty. Pondexter has been named the Player of the Week five times this season and was the August Player of the Month. With Pondexter leading the way, the Liberty finished the 2010 season with the franchise’s best record of 22-12 and secured a second seed in the playoffs.

“She’s better than I even thought she’d be,” Blaze said glowingly of her superstar. “I knew she was great but I didn’t realize how great until I got to see her every day. “

Blaze would round out the roster transformation by signing six-time All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin to a free agent contract, and acquiring guard Nikki Blue and two-time WNBA Champion Plenette Pierson in separate trades.

The new-look Liberty got off to a slow start in 2010. The team went 7-7 after the first month and half of the season and found themselves at the bottom in the Eastern Conference. At that point some wondered if too many changes were made and that the team would never find their stride.

But not Blaze, who pointed to the fact that due to overseas commitments the team did not practice together as an entire unit until a day or two before the regular season began.

“It’s new personalities, it’s a new system, and it’s a new voice laying out the system,” Blaze described. “It’s putting the puzzle together of who complements who well.

“I was anxious that it wasn’t coming together fast enough but I knew it would take time. I thought it would happen sooner but it couldn’t have happened at a better time.”

There was no hotter team in the WNBA following the All-Star break than the New York Liberty. New York won 14 of its last 17 games and was nearly unbeatable in the month of August. The team would put together the longest win streak in franchise history when they won 10 straight games from July 27-August 19.

In her 14 years at the helm of the franchise, Blazejowski has assembled some impressive teams but she puts the 2010 squad near the top of the list.

“One of the best ever and I can say that because we feel we have the best player in the league,” Blaze declared of Pondexter. “We finally have a superstar, who can lead, who is mentally tough and is, without a doubt, one of the most competitive players in the league.”

The story of the 2010 New York Liberty has yet to be fully written but with the playoffs set to begin, Blazejowski is confident knowing she has put the team in a position to do something extraordinary this postseason.

“It’s nice when you lay out a plan and the plan actually works,” she said. “Besides being a great group of ball players, they are a terrific bunch of women. The Garden is alive again. There’s something special about The Garden on its own but then when you put our fans in it, it’s just crazy.

“It’s been a special year and I hope we are just blessed enough to have it continue for a while.”