PG: Leilani Mitchell/Sydney Colson/(lots of Cappie)
SG: Cappie Pondexter/Essence Carson
SF: Nicole Powell/Alex Montgomery/Sidney Spencer
PF: Plenette Pierson/Jessica Breland
C: Kia Vaughn/Quanitra Hollingsworth/is there anyone in the stands with two X chromosomes over 6-3?
Head coach: John Whisenant
Significant additions: Whiz, and a bunch of projects.
Significant losses: Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Janel McCarville, and Kalana Greene(ish). Oh, and their arena.
My, oh my, oh my. Remember how last year the argument for Cappie as MVP centered around “look at her teammates! She’s doing it on her own!”? Well if you’re looking for a silver lining, Cappie’s MVP argument could be even stronger this season. Taj McWilliams-Franklin may be a thousand years old, but she was the bedrock of the Liberty’s interior defence last season. She walked to Minnesota for nothing (new head coach/GM John Whisenant could’ve cored her, but chose not to). Then news started to filter out that Janel McCarville had never shown up to training camp, ultimately leading to New York suspending her for the season yesterday. Exactly who’s to blame for that mess isn’t 100% clear, but whoever’s fault it is, she won’t be playing. So that’s the starting 4 from last season, and the starting 5, and the replacements are… um… Quanitra Hollingsworth? Jessica Breland? The desperate hope that Kia Vaughn morphed into a cross between Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith over the offseason? Yeah, I’m not holding out much hope either. Rumour had it that Cheryl Ford was heading to New York at one point, and she hasn’t signed anywhere else so theoretically it’s still possible, but that one’s looking like a bit of a pipe dream at this point as well. Whiz was known as something of a defensive guru back in his days in Sacramento – the so-called ‘white-line defense’ – and he’s going to need to pull out all the stops to keep this team afloat considering the state of the roster on opening day.
Before we get to the dispiriting part of the Libs discussion, let’s concentrate on the superstar. Cappie Pondexter forced her way to New York before last season, leaving some people less than impressed by how she went about it, but once she arrived she put all that behind her and carried the Libs to the Eastern Conference Finals. There just aren’t many players in the women’s game that can create their own shot whenever and wherever they feel like it, and consistently make the damn shot once they’ve created it (I always feel like that bit gets left out). Pondexter shot a ridiculous 48% from the field and 43% from three-point range, while averaging nearly 5 assists per game (6th in the league) and throwing in over 4 rebounds just for fun as well. All without a reliable second offensive option on the roster. It was a hell of a lot of fun to watch her do it, too. She’s probably the best pure scoring guard in the game and she’s developed into a better passer and creator for others during her time in the WNBA. She was even voted to the All-Defensive First-team last season (although that was considered a pretty comical choice by many, including myself). If anyone can carry this team in 2011, it’s Cappie.
The rest of the guards around Pondexter aren’t exactly going to set the world on fire. Leilani Mitchell won the Most Improved Player award last season, largely on the back of her exceptional three-point shooting. That had more than a little to do with Cappie creating wide-open shots for her, but she still had to knock them down and verging on 50% from three-point range is no mean feat. She takes care of the ball and makes solid passes but as a creator and distributor she’s unspectacular. The B.J. Armstrong to Cappie’s Jordan, if you will (as long as you’re old enough to remember the early-90s Bulls). Mitchell’s problems come because she’s small and not all that quick, which means certain opposing guards sometimes tear her to pieces. While putting Pondexter at the point is always an option for this team in crunch time, it’s nice when it’s a choice rather than forced upon them by the need to get Mitchell off the floor. When Cappie’s running things, Essence Carson is the most likely option at the 2. After a horrible regular season when she barely played, Carson exploded in the playoffs last year and reasserted herself as an option for the Libs. Considered an excellent defender, Carson should hopefully thrive under Whisenant after spending so long in Anne Donovan’s doghouse last year. The Libs traded Kalana Greene in order to obtain Sydney Colson on draft day, and when Whiz wants a little more speed and size at the point next to Cappie he may turn to her. Whether Colson’s ready to be a pro point guard is still to be determined though.
The other wing spot could be important for New York, because it’s where Cappie’s second option was supposed to be last year. Nicole Powell was pretty awful in her first year as a Lib, putting up only 9ppg after verging on 17 the previous year in Sacramento. Her shooting percentages have never been that great but she was anonymous for much of last season, which was a disappointment considering she was meant to be the ready-made replacement for fan-favourite Shameka Christon. However, Powell’s best years were in Sacramento under Whiz, either as head coach, GM or both. Hope springs eternal for the Liberty that he can draw some of the old Powell from the current version. Behind her, rookie Alex Montgomery, three-point sloth Sidney Spencer and Carson sliding over may find minutes. Yeah, they’re not exactly deep there either.
So on to that post situation. To all but the true Lib believers, it’s looking pretty bleak. Plenette Pierson is a very useful swing forward, and it was no coincidence that the Libs started their second-half push last season just as she arrived. She brings hard-nosed defense and a determined attitude to the table at either forward spot, plus she’ll chip in with 9 or 10 points per game without having to run anything for her. However, she’s always seemed most effective in a 6th woman role, and here she’s an almost certain starter due to the lack of alternatives. Kia Vaughn remains the x-factor that Lib hopes are relying on. She went backwards last year after a rookie season that had shown some promise, but reports that she was playing through injury in 2010 leave some hope that Vaughn can return to 2009 form. She’s big and strong, with reasonable touch around the rim, so if Whiz can get her head on straight he might have something. The problem is that the Libs don’t need the project big who might develop her game any more; they need a starter who can play at least 25 minutes per game. If Vaughn can’t manage that and be effective for the whole 25, New York are in trouble. Off the bench, rookie Jessica Breland had serious health problems in college and had to play limited minutes as a result. While she likely would’ve gone higher in the draft if it hadn’t been for those issues, it seems questionable whether she’ll be able to take the physicality and pace of the WNBA game, especially this season. And Quanitra Hollingsworth, recently acquired in a trade with Minnesota for as close to nothing as the rules will allow, has been useless for the Lynx for two years. She’s on the roster because she’s still young and she’s a long-armed 6-5, not because of anything she’s actually shown in the WNBA.
New York could be one of the most interesting teams to watch this season, purely to see how everything develops. Whiz used to make his teams into more than the sum of their parts, but does he have the pieces to put anything together this season? With Madison Square Garden being renovated, will anyone show up to watch this team out in New Jersey? Can such an astonishingly unproven front line stay afloat in the physical battles of the Eastern Conference? Pondexter may well need to win that MVP award at a canter this year just to drag this team into the playoffs.