2021 Reflections and 2022 Forecast: New York Liberty
The New York Liberty got back into the playoffs in 2021 and have plenty to look forward to in 2022
The New York Liberty had a weird season, but one full of hope. After winning just two games in 2020, New York won five of their first six games in 2021 and the franchise’s rebuild looked to be ahead of schedule. The team would go 7-19 the rest of the way and won just two games after the Olympic break. However, the Liberty made the playoffs in nearly miraculous fashion with the worst winning percentage of any playoff team in WNBA history. No one gave them a chance against the Phoenix Mercury in Round 1, yet the Liberty almost pulled off an upset of the eventual Finals participant. Like I said, it was a weird season but New York has plenty to build on and look forward to.
By the numbers
Record: 12-20 (0.375), 8th seed (first playoff berth since 2017)
Points Scored: 78.5 (10th), Points Allowed: 85.5 (12th), Margin Per Game: -7.0 (8th)
Offensive Rating: 94.3 (10th), Defensive Rating: 101.7 (9th), Net Rating: -7.4 (10th)
Pace: 83.3 (1st)
2021 Season Reflections
The New York Liberty finally got to play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn after COVID-19 ruined their plans in 2020. To complement their new stomping grounds, the Liberty added former Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard, reigning Most Improved Player of the Year Betnijah Laney, and sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb to what was one of the youngest teams in WNBA history last year. Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 pick from 2019, was essentially a new addition due to her ankle injury just three games into her rookie season. New York selected Michaela Onyenwere with the No. 6 pick (after trading back from No. 1) and stole DiDi Richards with the 17th pick (acquired from Washington in the Tina Charles trade).
Despite losing Jocelyn Willoughby to an Achilles injury in training camp, New York jumped out to a 5-1 record and really looked like a playoff contender for the first month of the season. Laney immediately proved that her jump last season was not a fluke and that she was still getting better. Ionescu hit a game-winner to beat Indiana in the first game of the year and put up a triple-double against Minnesota in the third. They did most of this without Howard who was limited to two games due to overseas commitments and an MCL sprain.
However, Howard would not return until after the Olympic break and the team struggled to stop paint scorers without her (or with her for that matter). Ionescu also powered through injuries and faced growing pains. Turnovers mounted as the team finished with the highest turnover rate in the WNBA.
The Libs would finish the first half of the season in sixth place but would win just two games (against a very tough schedule) after the Olympic Break. However, they won the right game by beating Washington in their last game of the regular season to open their path to the playoffs. They almost pulled off a huge upset against eventual runner-up Phoenix. For at least the last two games of 2021, New York looked something like the vision set out by head coach Walt Hopkins and general manager Jonathan Kolb.
The Liberty embodied the pace-and-space ideals by having the most possessions per game in 2021 and taking the most threes in league history. However, the team’s pace didn’t translate into transition points because they were taking the ball out of the other team’s basket too often. Their offense was supposed to flow and feature a ton of movement. At times, the offense did just that but stagnated too often.
By net rating, the team’s best lineup (minimum 20 minutes played) was Laney, Sami Whitcomb, Rebecca Allen, Ionescu, and Howard. That makes sense. Laney finished in the top ten of points per game and assists per game, a distinction she shared with only Skylar Diggins-Smith in 2021. However, her three-point shooting regressed from 40.5% in 2020 to 31.2% and her efficiency suffered. Her shooting from mid-range propped up her numbers early in the year and she struggled when those shots stopped falling. Still, she maintained her production and played great both ways considering the burden she carried.
Whitcomb was a goddess of efficiency. Along with Jackie Young and Riquna Williams, she was one of three players in 2021 to score 10 or more points with a usage rate of less than 18%. She also became the 14th player in WNBA history with an eFG% of 60% on 250 or more shots in a season. Similarly, Allen was doing her damage from deep. She became the first player in league history to shoot worse than 30% on two-point field goal attempts and better than 35% from three (minimum 200 FGA). Congrats! (?) These two propped up New York’s offense with their spacing.
Ionescu and Howard had up and down seasons mainly due to their aforementioned injuries. It’s fair to say that Sabrina has yet to live up to her immense hype, but she eventually got healthy and more comfortable. By the end of the year, she was attacking the basket and playing the best basketball of her young career. Additionally, Ionescu is also one of three players to shoot over 90% from the free-throw line on 70 or more attempts. Howard similarly took time to get comfortable after returning from injury. She showed that she can be exactly what this team needs in flashes.
Overall, New York’s season was a success and a step forward in the franchise’s “hybrid rebuild.” The vision of a 5-out team that embodies efficiency came to fruition at times. Snagging Rookie of the Year Onyenwere with the No. 6 pick and All-Rookie selection DiDi Richards at No. 17 made up for last year’s rookies regressing. New York is still set up for the future, but this team is not that young anymore. They got an idea of what this group can do and they’ll be expected to sustain their flashes of great play for a full season in 2022.
Cap Situation by Richard Cohen
Yet again, the story in New York is more about paring the roster down and trying to work out who to keep than worrying about space, although things are a little tighter than in recent years. There are only three expensive contracts on this roster - the three free agents they signed last offseason - with everyone else on a rookie-scale deal. They'll be hoping to see near-forgotten names like Asia Durr, Marine Johannès, Han Xu and Jocelyn Willoughby back in the fold next year, but if they're around they'll be beating out players like Leaonna Odom and Kylee Shook who have a similar cost.
The one slight complication is that while none of their contracts are guaranteed outside of the expensive three, they all count on the cap until waived or suspended (only first-year rookies or single-season minimum deals count as 'training camp contracts' that would cost $0 on the cap until the opening day of the season). So while the Liberty have $196,560 in cap space - just enough to give one free agent the max - they'd have to cut/trade/suspend people to make any additional signings beyond that. Their one meaningful free agent is Rebecca Allen, who they may well want to re-sign but maybe not until they see who's interested in joining from the free agent pool. The opportunity to make a splash is there again.
2022 Off-season Forecast
In terms of development and talent acquisition, the 2022 offseason may set the course for the Liberty’s future. Ionescu’s growth will likely be the determining factor. She did show flashes of the star that many expected her to be and needs to figure out how to play like that every night. She deserves the benefit of the doubt for now as she’s just turning 24 and played her first full season of professional basketball. Due to Laney’s production, Ionescu won’t necessarily need to be a primary scorer. But she needs to learn how to be aggressive and force defenses to pay attention to her like they did to open the season.
Hopefully, the team can get players like Ionescu, Laney, and Howard to work out together in the offseason. This might be impossible because Howard is already overseas, though. They need to develop chemistry on both ends of the court to fix the team’s turnover issues. New York had too many giveaways and too few takeaways. They need to fix at least one of those stats to contend for a home playoff game.
Willoughby’s return will also be a big part of the offseason. New York has been very high on her and believed she was primed for a breakout before tearing her Achilles. Maybe we even get to see Johannès and Xu in New York? Johannès would not help the team’s turnover issues, but is one of the most fun players on the planet. Xu remains interesting with her size and skill set.
Allen’s free agency will also be intriguing. She helped the team greatly this season and fits well in their system as a stretch four. But the grass is always greener and, based on what this front office did last offseason, it’s a safe bet that New York will swing for the fences in free agency. Their biggest need is a big that can play in a five-out system while guarding the league’s best centers. In short, they’re hunting for unicorns. Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones would be absolutely perfect. However, either player would likely have to force their way to New York due to a core designation à la Howard last year (not to mention Howard being happy with a potentially lesser offensive role going forward). Liz Cambage may be available, but she’s not really a system or culture fit. Tina Charles will not sign with New York. Emma Meesseman would be an amazing fit and is hypothetically available even though it seems most likely that she will play for Washington if she plays in the WNBA. Stef Dolson might be the most realistic big option. She may be a cap casualty in Chicago and would be a great fit in New York’s frontcourt as a starter or off the bench.
New York’s front office won’t limit themselves to need, however. Jewell Loyd could be the biggest fish in the pond and the Liberty will likely go fishing for her. New York’s backcourt is pretty full and her high usage rate (27.6%, 97th percentile in 2021) would change the dynamics of the entire team. However, if you can sign Jewell Loyd, you go and sign Jewell Loyd.
There are a lot of other free agent options that we can discuss in the spring. Regardless of free agency, the Liberty will have elevated expectations for the first time in the Kolb-Hopkins era. They’ll be expected to build on an impressive playoff performance against an eventual Finals participant. With better health, New York absolutely has an opportunity to make noise in a wide open title race and we should get a real idea if the overhaul of the franchise has worked.