Q & A with Liberty General Manager and Head Coach John Whisenant
John Whisenant led the Monarchs to a championship in 2005 Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
The New York Liberty announced John Whisenant as the team's new general manager and head coach on October 13, 2010. While the 2011 season's opening tip-off is still months away, the excitement and anticipation is building around the LIberty offices as Whisenant looks to bring his championship-winning ways to the Big Apple.
John recently sat down with WNBA.com to discuss his newest position and his plans for the season ahead.
WNBA.com: Lets start things off with talking about your accepting the position as general manager and head coach of the New York Liberty. What was the process like?
John Whisenant: I had seen that Ann Donovan was leaving before the season started and going to Seton Hall, so I had an opportunity to think about New York and its obviously the premiere basketball city in the world. This is where basketball as we know it in America came out of going back to the start of NIT and New York University and the NYU teams, so I had thought about that and I had called [former New York GM Carol Blazejowski] and told her that I had interest in this job. That I missed coaching, that I regretted leaving coaching and that I had grown to really enjoy the WNBA and I felt comfortable and knew people in the WNBA and had gotten caught up with trying to build the WNBA and grow with it. Of course, I didnt anticipate that most jobs would be open until they were, at which time Id began talking with [president of MSG Sports, Scott ONeil] and we went through the process and he offered me the job and made me feel wanted. So I took it. Its just a great franchise. The whole franchise is great with MSG, the Knicks, the Rangers, the whole operation is first class and Im just happy to be a part of it.
WNBA.com: Talk a little bit about the 2009 season, your final one with Sacramento, and whats gone on since then.
JW: I was general manager. I hired my own replacement after the 2006 season. People had wondered why, but in a six-month period during that last season and shortly after I lost both my mom and dad and it just felt like the right thing to do at that time. The coach I hired wasnt doing well in 09. We were 3-14 or something like that with much the same team that had won the WNBA championship [in 2005], so I came in and finished the year. We had finished 9-8, but started 3-14 in the first half and going 9-8 wasnt enough to make the playoffs.
WNBA.com: Looking at the staff of players you have to work with in New York, do you find yourself eager to start the season?
JW: Im anxious to do it. We will start looking more closely at the college scene because were drafting 10th. I dont know whether there will be a difference maker and college player that low that will be a factor in their first year, in their rookie year in the year, but well look around. There are three ways to improve our team: Number one is trade. Number two is free agency and number three is the draft. We dont have the mid-level exceptions and the luxury tax exemptions and the Bird Rules and things like the NBA. We have a hard cap and so we have to worry about our salary cap and see how that will work out. Well just look for any opportunities that are out there to improve our team. But with that said, there was a pretty darn good team last year and theres some areas that I think can be improved from a talent standpoint, but its always that way. Theres always a way to improve every team I think. So were happy if we end up with the same team that finished last year. If there are opportunities that we feel will make us better and give us a better chance to win the championship then well try to do those things.
WNBA.com: During your short time away from the league this past season, was there any player or team that really stood out to you?
JW: The Storm have probably the premiere post player in womens basketball in Lauren Jackson, and then they have probably if not the premiere point guard then awful close to it in Sue Bird, so that gave them certainly the ability to win a championship. A well-coached team that avoided injuries. Those [are the] same two players that won a championship in 04. there are so many factors in short seasons, a 34-game season in three months, you know one sprained ankle to a key player can miss a third of the season.
Diana Taurasis awesome. A great player. I like Angel McCoughtry from Atlanta. Shes quick and athletic and made that team. And of course I like some of our players. Cappies not bad. (laughs) I traded for Nicole Powell when she was a rookie and she had the typical rookie year and I traded an all-star in Tangela Smith to get Nicole Powell because I believed she would be a star and she was when we won the championship and the most games in that four-year period than any team in the league. I expect Nicole to have a better season than she had this first year here in New York. The Liberty have several good players. The fact I knew their coaching job was open I watched every game with [LiveAccess] and the games that are available made me able to see and analyze that team.
Taj [McWilliams-Franklin] is 39 and holding. We just visited with Taj. She was here in town. You wonder how long she can continue to play, but she almost had a double-double year. She averaged almost 10 and 10 or slightly under that and thats pretty amazing, but at that age, just like with Brett Favre, you wonder how long a player can continue to go at the highest level.
Wed like to get a little bigger. Atlanta kind of exposed [that], but part of that was Janel [McCarville] was out with an ankle injury in the playoffs, but they kind of exposed and dominated and won that last series. Thats an area you always want to get better in and get better big. You always would like to have a bigger, stronger rebounder and interior defender, but those are hard to come by. To trade for one well have to give up something important, even if we could, or well have to move substantially up in the draft some way to find one that could be a factor out of college. All in all we have a very good nucleus. Its not like were starting with an expansion team. Ann Donovan was a good coach, so we hope to tweak the roster some and improve it. My style of defense, I learned to do it when I was a young junior college coach [when] I couldnt get big guys and I had to play with 6-foot-5 post players back in those days. I came up with a defense that didnt play behind the post and did things a little differently on the defensive end and tried to create some offense. The coaching part to me is like putting a puzzle together. Until you get all the pieces out there in front of you its very difficult to know exactly what it is we have to do. There will be a period there that we will have to go through.
WNBA.com: You have a bit of a resume yourself with the aforementioned championship in 2005 and Coach of the Year honors that same year. Whats it going to take to put the Liberty in a position where they can finally bring home a trophy?
JW: Thats the reason I was hired, to try and figure that out. Itd be easy if I said, Lets go get Sylvia Fowles and Diana Taurasi and Lauren Jackson, but we know fantasy basketballers can do that in their leagues. Unfortunately we have to play with the way the WNBA rules read and so were going to just try and get as good of personnel added to this group as we can and see if we can improve in some areas and make the players a little better on the defensive end, rebounding, running the ball and trying to be better than we were. If we do that were pretty close to championship level.