PG: Cappie Pondexter/Leilani Mitchell
SG: Essence Carson/Kamiko Williams
SF: Katie Smith/Alex Montgomery
PF: Plenette Pierson/Toni Young
C: Cheryl Ford/Kelsey Bone/Kara Braxton
Significant gains: Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith, Kelsey Bone, Toni Young, and Bill Laimbeer on the sidelines.
Significant losses: Nicole Powell, Kia Vaughn.
New York weren’t a bad team for the last two years under John Whisenant. Well okay, they were pretty poor for much of last season, but they were decent in 2011. However, they had become pretty painful to watch, with the ‘white line’ defense that the players never seemed to enjoy, and a bedraggled offense that relied on Cappie Pondexter to do virtually everything. Combined with the exile to New Jersey caused by renovations to Madison Square Garden, it led to a distinct lack of interest and excitement among what remained of the Liberty fanbase. So the franchise made a change. Out went Whiz, and Bill Laimbeer was tempted back into the WNBA fold as the potential saviour. Then Evil Bill quickly started reshaping his roster.
The initial moves led to a lot of jokes about ‘getting the band back together’, as Laimbeer acquired various pieces he was familiar with from his days in Detroit. Plenette Pierson (a key sixth woman on those Shock teams, and New York’s best post player for the last couple of seasons) and Kara Braxton (a talented yet wildly inconsistent center for her entire career) were both already on the roster. Laimbeer added Katie Smith as a free agent from Seattle, and tempted Cheryl Ford back into the WNBA for the first time since 2009. He also acquired the rights to Deanna Nolan from Tulsa, but she won’t be playing in the US until at least 2014. Smith isn’t the player she used to be, but she’s still smart, physical and knows all the tricks. She’ll help show her younger teammates exactly what Laimbeer expects from his players. Ford has been playing in Europe, and been very productive doing what she’s always done – fill the paint, and grab every rebound in sight. She won’t be quite the interior beast that she was in her younger days, but she can still be a significant contributor. The fear with Ford will always be whether her body can hold up under the rigors of the WNBA grind, playing an average of three games a week against top competition. Laimbeer will have to look after her and manage her minutes.
But regardless of the number of Detroit Shock players on this roster, much of their success is going to depend on Cappie Pondexter. She’s still the star attraction, and her ability to score off the dribble and draw defenses to create space for others will be their key offensive weapon. Laimbeer intends to use her as a ‘lead guard’, essentially making Pondexter the primary ballhandler without a true point guard next to her. It’ll be important for Laimbeer to install more varied offensive sets and more misdirection to make things a little easier for Cappie. She’s an exceptional talent, but too often last season the Liberty offense devolved into giving her the ball and watching her try to make something happen. Also, with Leilani Mitchell expected to receive limited minutes at the point, is there enough outside shooting on the team to knock down the open shots that Pondexter creates? Smith can still hit from outside, but they’ll also need players like Essence Carson to step up. Carson will often be playing alongside Pondexter, and she’s shown the ability to create her own shot at times, but she’s also been inconsistent and prone to disappearing from games. She’ll also be expected to defend the primary opposing perimeter threat on most nights. If Laimbeer can coax Carson into being a consistent sidekick to Pondexter, it’ll go a long way to making this a successful team.
The rest of the roster is made up of young pieces that can learn from all of the reliable veterans peppering the roster. Kelsey Bone was the 5th pick in the recent draft, and her true size at center combined with her mobility should allow her to contribute fairly quickly. Toni Young was taken two picks later and is a remarkable athlete, but may take time to adapt to the pro game. She was a power forward in college but the Liberty are hoping to convert her to small forward as a pro (something Laimbeer did successfully with Swin Cash in Detroit), but that’s a tough switch. They also have Kamiko Williams on the perimeter, a combo guard to join the group around Pondexter, and Alex Montgomery, a big physical wing that fits Laimbeer’s style of play to a T.
We won’t be seeing any more of the ‘white line’ defense in New York. Laimbeer will push his team into an aggressive, hard-nosed defensive style, and it’ll be almost exclusively man-to-man. Offensively, there should be a higher tempo this year, but it’ll be reliant on the personnel. Can Pierson stay healthier than last season, to give them a legitimate offensive threat as a swing-forward? Can Laimbeer talk Braxton into fewer dumbass mistakes? Can Carson be the consistent secondary ballhandler they need next to Pondexter and score at a regular clip? Can Cheryl Ford’s knees last the year?
At the very least, the Liberty will be a far more interesting franchise this year. They were a .500 team over Whisenant’s two seasons, and there’s certainly very little that’s downgraded from those squads. They’ve got a superstar to lead them, several reliable veterans, and some promising kids to watch develop. Plus the always entertaining Evil Bill prowling the sidelines. They’re laying the foundations for a refreshed challenge when they return to MSG in 2014, but this team could put a scare into some people while they’re still in Jersey.