PG: Brittany Boyd/Lindsey Harding/Shoni Schimmel
SG: Tanisha Wright/Sugar Rodgers/Ameryst Alston/(Epiphanny Prince)
SF: Shavonte Zellous
PF: Tina Charles/Adut Bulgak
C: Kiah Stokes/Amanda Zahui B./Carolyn Swords
Presumably, Prince will be temporarily suspended, allowing the Liberty to carry 12 players plus her. They have the cap space to manage that, thanks to the youth of much of the roster.
Significant additions: Zellous as a free agent from Indiana, Harding as a vet option to help at the point, and both Schimmel and Zahui B in trades for minimal cost during training camp.
Significant losses: Prince tore her ACL overseas and is far and away the most meaningful loss. Essence Carson left for LA and Candice Wiggins retired, but neither will be hugely missed. Swin Cash was a late cut when the roster crowding forced a tough decision.
The Liberty were a surprise last season. After a couple of years in the lottery, then an offseason of turmoil where head coach Bill Laimbeer was fired and re-hired, and Isiah Thomas joined the front office, few were expecting such a dramatic turnaround. But Laimbeer finally got his squad playing as a unit, hit a shock home run in the draft with Kiah Stokes to help knit together a league-leading defense, and somehow they finished with the best record in the entire WNBA. It all ended in disappointment when Indiana upset them in the Eastern Conference Finals, but overall it was a dramatic step forward from where they’d been. Now the question is whether they can repeat the trick, and how much damage Prince’s injury will do to their prospects.
Tina Charles remains the fulcrum for everything New York does offensively, and while she still had her moments of drifting too far away from the basket and firing bad shots last season, it was better than in the previous couple. But the loss of Prince could hurt her, allowing defenses to pay even more attention to collapsing around her and forcing her teammates to make shots. Zellous was the best replacement they could’ve hoped for in free agency, with players of her calibre rarely available on the open market in this league, but they’ll need the Zellous of a couple of years ago to return. Last season she was limited by injuries and an aborted trip overseas, and never really got going.
Elsewhere on the roster it’s a collection of youngsters that they’ll hope to see develop, reclamation projects being given a second chance, and veterans on-board to keep things ticking over while teaching the kids. Boyd will be given more of a chance to make this her team at the point this year, but if she’s not ready Harding and Wright are still there to calm things down. Stokes and Swords showed last season that they can do a solid job at center, allowing Charles to take less pounding on the defensive end. They’ll be hoping that Stokes’s offensive game develops a little, so that teams can’t completely ignore her on that end of the floor. Bulgak gives them another young option to work into the post rotation.
Then there are the recent additions, low-risk/high-reward fliers that might eventually pay off. Schimmel showed up out of shape for the second consecutive year in Atlanta, so they gave her away for virtually nothing. We’ve seen in the past that she has outstanding court vision and on her day can hit shots from anywhere. If Laimbeer and his team can sort out her conditioning and get her head on straight, she could be an exciting injection of energy and creation. Dallas giving up on Zahui B was shocking, especially as it presumably means she was being outplayed by the likes of Theresa Plaisance and Ruth Hamblin in their training camp. That’s troubling, to say the least. But she was the #2 overall pick barely 12 months ago. Even if she’s not ready yet, New York will hope to bring out the talent that led to her going that high in the first place.
Best Case Scenario
After how well last year went, this isn’t too hard to envision any more. Zellous works out as a solid replacement for Prince, the combination of a maintained core with a few fresh pieces keeps their defense excellent while adding a little scoring, and they roll their way to another very good year. Maybe Prince even returns late in the regular season to give them an extra boost heading into the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario
Obviously, an injury to Charles would be a big problem. Even assuming that doesn’t happen, there could still be issues. With Prince out do they have the perimeter shooting to stretch the floor around Charles? A lot of the vets have had injury issues in the past (Wright, Zellous, Swords) while most of the kids are yet to prove that they can score with consistency and/or efficiency (Boyd, Rodgers, Stokes). Do the raised expectations put pressure on the team that they struggle to cope with? But this is a pretty deep and interesting roster. If Charles is in one piece, they should be able to handle injuries here and there to other pieces.
The only real question I have around this team for 2016 is whether they can capture the same intangible elements that made them so successful last year. Which is obviously rather hard to predict. There was a unity about them that had been conspicuously missing in the previous two seasons under Laimbeer, which led to victories. There’s no real reason why they should lose that, and the pieces are there to keep it going, so they should be strong again this season. But chemistry can be such a fleeting and tricky thing to grasp, and some teams have been known to lose it as quickly as they found it.