WNBA

Liberty Looking to Launch Out of Olympic Break

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For a brief moment in time this year, New York looked like it was the best basketball city in the world. In the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets fielded a superteam with eyes on a championship and the New York Knicks were in the playoffs again. Perhaps most impressively, the early weeks of the New York Liberty’s season which consisted of one thrilling moment after another, a true testament to the city that never sleeps.

While the magic has since worn off for the Liberty, the first half of the team’s 2021 campaign brought some exhilarating highs alongside heartbreaking lows. Coming off a month-long break for the Olympics, New York sits sixth overall in the WNBA standings with a 10-11 record. Could it be better? Sure, but it could also be worse.

How Did We Get Here?

On opening night of the WNBA season, the Liberty came out of the gate swinging as Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney erupted for 55 combined points and was capped off by an iconic game-winning three at the buzzer from Ionescu.

Just four days later, Ionescu put up a 26-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist triple-double; just the ninth triple-double in WNBA history. The Liberty won five of their first six games, and fans were thrilled, to say the least. Laney also went on to score 20+ in the first eight games, one of the best scoring stretches in WNBA history.

Simply put, the Liberty played electrifying basketball at the start of the season. However, many Liberty fans may have set their expectations just a bit too high. No hot streak lasts forever, and the Libs’ play soon regressed to the mean. After those first six games, New York went a combined 5-10. The overall record leaves much to be desired, and recent losses to the Sun and Fever almost certainly hit the team’s morale quite hard. Even at sixth place in the WNBA standings, the outlook has slowly grown more bleak.

Putting their Play into Perspective

Not all is lost, though. As we evaluate the first half of New York’s season, let’s keep things in perspective. Look back at the Liberty’s performance last year: their 2020 run concluded with an abysmal 2-20 record. The Liberty have already improved by eight wins compared to last season’s total, and in a near-equal sample size of 21 games at that. Have they not already exceeded expectations by making it this far?

The Liberty are a very young team that is in the rebuilding process. These types of squads aren’t supposed to be title contenders. Their goal should simply be to improve each year and develop their skills while building for the future. They’ve done that.

Also consider the circumstances causing some of New York’s first-half struggles:

  • The Liberty’s most exciting offseason acquisition, Natasha Howard, has only suited up in seafoam green twice this season due to overseas basketball commitments and injury issues. In her two games for the Liberty this year, Howard averaged 14.5 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game and 2.0 assists per game in 22 minutes a game. Her presence was sorely missed on the court.
  • Ionescu has also been inconsistent, but were the expectations for her set too high? She was a stellar college athlete and lit up the WNBA upon entering the league. However, she missed all but three games in her rookie season. She’s shown flashes of superstar potential, but has only played a total of 25 WNBA games. Young players naturally struggle early in their careers – cut Ionescu some slack.
  • They’ve faced a variety of off-court issues such as intense Twitter beef, unexpected problems with travel arrangements before games, and of course the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these situations affect the physical, mental, and emotional health of players in various ways. They’ve performed very well considering the circumstances.

Hope for the Future

Most teams will likely be thankful for the extended break. It allows the vast majority of players an opportunity to rest and recover from a hectic first half of the WNBA season. The Olympic break is a blessing, one that should be even more impactful for the Liberty. Howard will have plenty of time to continue rehabbing an MCL injury, so she should be fully prepared to return when the season resumes. Ionescu will have time to work on her game, and should hopefully become more comfortable facing elite defenses as she gains more experience.

Aside from those two, the Liberty have plenty of other great developments to look forward to. Laney is having a career year, averaging a career-high 19.0 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game, and career-high 5.0 assists per game. The 27-year old earned her first All-Star nod, a huge honor and testament to her work ethic and resilience in the face of hardships. Another standout player is Sami Whitcomb, who is currently scoring a career-high 12.1 points per game on 48.9% from the field and 43.8% from three on 6.1 attempts, along with 5.8 rebounds per game and 2.8 assists per game. That should be enough to launch Whitcomb into the award conversation for Most Improved Player.

As of now, the Liberty are just an okay team… and that’s fine. The goal for the second half of their campaign is simple: win a few games and become better players along the way. Although they may not make a splash come playoff time, they’re well on their way to accomplishing that goal. For now, the Liberty are building a sustainable basketball program, and that’s all that matters. Seafoam season will come soon enough.

About Keagan Smith

avid Houston Rockets fan from the H, writer/social/editor at The Lead Sports Media, sports correspondent at The Orange Leader.

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