As a part of a WNBA.com offseason series, we’ll be taking a look at the seasons of all 12 teams in the league and touching on some of the top reasons to look forward to their 2016 WNBA campaigns.
Expectations for the New York Liberty were unknown prior to the 2015 WNBA season. Head coach Bill Laimbeer returned to the fold and a retooled roster left many unsure what to expect in The Big Apple.
The Liberty brought in Epiphanny Prince and said goodbye to Cappie Pondexter. And on draft day New York moved into the first round with two picks – Brittany Boyd and Kiah Stokes. Both draft moves seemed like head scratchers at the time, but as the season played out, it was the Liberty front office that looked like the geniuses.
Boyd immediately made her presence known in the backcourt, providing a spark of energy that endeared itself to the crowds inside Madison Square Garden. Her ability to take opposing guards off the dribble and create good looks for herself and her teammates opened up a new dimension of the Liberty offense. Meanwhile, Stokes quickly became revered as a defensive savant, swatting shots at a rate that put her in elite company. Stokes set the Liberty single-game record for blocked shots (8) in a game against the Connecticut Sun in mid-July. All season long Stokes was in the top five in the league in blocks.
Laimbeer spoke highly of the University of Connecticut product, noting her ability to block shots but also adding that Stokes was a capable scorer, although she wasn’t asked to score often for the Huskies. But she added that aspect to her game with the Liberty, and it paid dividends.
One of the beneficiaries of this influx of young players was 2012 WNBA Most Valuable Player Tina Charles. The 6-foot-4 center, with more talent around her, was her typical dominant self in the frontcourt, bruising opposing forwards on the block, crashing the glass and even expanding her range to 16-23 feet.
Laimbeer’s team quickly turned heads and by the All-Star break the Liberty were 12-5 and first in the Eastern Conference. Charles’ first half performance earned her a fourth All-Star nod and her third in a row. Simply put, Laimbeer had his team rolling.
And like any team coached by Laimbeer, they were getting it done with ferocious defense. Center Carolyn Swords was inserted into the starting lineup, which allowed Charles to step out and match up with power forwards. The frontcourt length gave opposing teams fits, and it turned out to be a recipe for success for New York.
By the end of the season, the Liberty had secured the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Finally, at long last, playoff basketball was back in New York City.
The first round paired the Liberty against the No. 4-seeded Washington Mystics, a team that had the Liberty’s number during the regular season (3-1). In the first game of the series, the Madison Square Garden faithful were loud, but it was the Mystics who moved out to a 1-0 series lead.
Suddenly, the Liberty’s magical season was on the line. They would have to take care of business on the road to get a third and final shot at moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tina Charles went berserk in Washington D.C. and the Liberty evened the series, forcing a decisive third game — a game which the Liberty also won.
That set up a matchup with the Indiana Fever. The Liberty held serve with a win in the first game of the series, setting up a close-out situation on the road at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But WNBA legend Tamika Catchings wasn’t about to let the Fever go down without a fight. A strong second half from Marissa Coleman and Shenise Johnson forced a final game in Madison Square Garden.
In the end, the Fever’s shooting was just too much for New York. Coleman silenced the MSG crowd and the Fever clinched a berth in the WNBA Finals, ending New York’s season abruptly.
Laimbeer, however, remained optimistic in defeat. With zero expectations before the season began, his team learned how to win, did it in quick order and set that stage for core’s future.
Reasons To Look Forward To 2016
New York will likely return a good young core with Stokes, Boyd and Charles. Epiphanny Prince’s unfortunate ACL injury could hamper their backcourt, but New York will likely look to add talent via the draft or an offseason acquisition.
And they understand what it takes to win. Much like Laimbeer’s message was after the season, 2015 was as much of a learning experience for his team as it was for him. Now, they have a year of success under their belt and should look to capitalize on that in 2016.