2012 New York Liberty Preview: With few roster changes, Liberty face tough challenges In opening weeks
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- There had been a lot of optimism about the New York Liberty with training camp under way and it came from coach John Whisenant as well as several scribes authoring preseason forecasts about the WNBA season.
"I really like our team," Whisenant, in his second year as general manager and Liberty head coach, had said Saturday prior to the season-opening contest in Madison Square Garden in New York against the Connecticut Sun. Though the Liberty fell apart near the end of Saturday's 78-73 loss in the first of a back-to-back, two-day, home-and-home encounter with Connecticut, Whisenant felt his team had made strides from its 89-57 preseason loss to the re-tooled Chicago Sky several days earlier at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., across the Hudson Rver, the Liberty's temporary home for three summers while the Garden undergoes renovations.
Few Changes to Last Season's Veteran Core Group
At the time, the Liberty's post players -- Kara Braxton, Kia Vaughn, and Plenette Pierson -- had just returned from their offseason overseas commitments.
"It's going to take a while to get everything in place because they just got here," he said after the Chicago game. "The good news is all of them were on championship teams."
The Liberty made relatively minor changes to last year's rosters.
Whisenant's first-round draft pick -- Kelley Cain, the 6-6 center who surprised many when the Liberty selected her as No. 7 overall in thie 2012 WNBA draft -- had earned a place on the roster as of opening day. Cain had left Tennessee prior to her senior season, citing recurrent injuries that had led her to decide on an early retirement from the sport, but was playing in B-league competition in Europe last year. When her name was announced on the day of the draft last month at ESPN headquarters a lot of eyes rolled wondering exactly what was Whisenant up to.
"Though she had been injured (at Tennessee), she has a lot of size and she was playing so we thought she was worth the chance," Whisenant explained.
Cain is expected to fill the vacancy left when former Virginia Commonwealth star Quanitra Hollingsworth, who came in a trade with Minnesota last season to provide more time for her and more help in the New York front court, decided to stay with the Turkish national team where she will be paid a sizeable amount of money.
"We didn't know about that until very late," Whisenant said, adding the Hollingsworth decision as a reason that Cain came into the draft picture. Then the B league decided to start its playoffs 10 days later than anticipated, according to the Liberty coach, depriving Cain of valuable time in training camp.
Only time will tell whether the move was a dud or a stroke of genius: Cain has seen only 14 minutes of action between the Liberty's preseason outing against the Sky and the Liberty's home opener and has yet to net her first WNBA bucket. Besides, from Whisenant's perspective, there really wasn't that much left to pick from after the early selections had been made.
"We weren't looking at guards once we signed Kelly Miller," Whisenant said of the free-agent veteran brought in to play the point and spell All-Star Cappie Pondexter. The former Rutgers standout has brought much-needed firepower to the Liberty for the past two seasons but saw an overabundance of minutes -- many away from her preferred position as the primary shooter.
Miller has seen considerably more playing time than Cain, but has made relatively impact. Coming off the bench for an average of 16.5 minutes in the Liberty's three games (including the preseason contest with the Sky) to date, Cain has tallied at total of six points and handed out seven assists.
"We wanted to trade up and we really couldn't get anything going, given few teams want to make any deals involving picks because of what will be available in the next draft with people like Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins," Whisenant said.
Apart from Miller and Cain, the major addition to this year's roster is veteran post player DeMya Walker, the former Virginia star, who was signed as a free agent in the mid-April. The 6-3 forward and 13-year veteran was brought in to shore up the front and because she knew his system from playing for Whisenant in the glory days of the former Sacramento Monarchs. But this is not the Walker who averaged 14.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in her heyday as a starter for the Monarchs in their 2005 WNBA championship run. Now 34 years-old, Walker spent the last 10 games of 2011 coming off the bench in Connecticut for 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds per game, after an equally uninspiring stint with the Mystics earlier in the season.
In other words, the three new additions may, with time, be solid additions to the bench, but none appears likely to make a major contribution in the foreseeable future. Instead of relying on roster upgrades, whether through the draft of via trades and free-agent signings, Whisenant had been hopeful that with a slew of veterans returning, he had enough talent already on hand to return to the playoffs, where New York was ousted 2-1 in the first round by the Indiana Fever last season.
The returning mainstays include former Stanford star Nicole Powell, who also played for Whisenant in Sacramento; three-point ace Leilani Mitchell; second-year pro Alex Montgomery and former Rutgers star Essence Carson, who blossomed as a defensive ace in the complicated system known as his "White Line Defense."
Additionally, former New Mexico men's coach Norm Ellenberger, whom Whisenant once assisted, has been hired as an assistant coach.
Early Returns Not Promising
But things have already gone astray and may get worse, and by the time everything gets righted, if it does, Liberty fans may be hoping for the right bounce of the ping pong balls in the lottery. The hope was if the East stays in its usual tight competitive mode, New York could not fall far behind and would be in the hunt down the stretch when the late-returning veterans had settled in and everything might be running smoothly.
However, the league has not afforded New York the luxury of adhering to its blueprint. The Liberty was given a back-to-back opener, as mentioned, with Connecticut, which had been in camp with most of its personnel longer than New York. A split would have been wonderful from New York's perspective, but with the Sun older and more mature and apparently figuring out early how to finish games, Connecticut completed a weekend sweep Sunday at the Mohegan Sun Arena, rallying from an 11-point deficit in the first quarter to forge a 26-point turnaround and pocket the sweep with a 92-77 victory.
"They beat us by 18 points at the free-throw line, but we beat them every other place and in the second half it was too much Tina Charles and Asjha Jones," Whisenant said about how it went down against his team in Uncasville. "I thought we were playing pretty well, but there were streaks where there was too much Tina Charles and we couldn’t contain Renee (Montgomery) pretty well -- she had six assists and she would get down there and break us down -- and (Asjha) Jones is the European Player of the Year. They just beat us. I thought if we played with the same amount of energy last night at our home court we might have won that one."
In another dominant performance, Charles led all scorers with 25 points, making it a double-double with 11 rebounds. Her sister UConn alum Jones scored 20 and pulled down eight boards for the Sun.
"There's a reason both of them are on the Olympic team," Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said.
Another former UConn all-American, Montgomery, again in a substitute role, came off the bench and scored 15 points for the Sun, while dishing out six assists.
Pondexter had 18 points, but shot just five-for-13 (38.5 percent) from the field. Pierson added 16 points on far better seven-of-nine shooting and hauled down a team-high five rebounds. Braxton scored 11 points, and Mitchell netted two of her six long-ball attempts to finish with eight points.
The biggest problem for the Liberty, however, was on the defensive side of the ball, especially as the Sun mounted their comeback, and at the charity stripe where the Sun shot 26-for-29 (89.7 percent) as opposed to New York's 15-for-22 (68.2 percent) effort. Elsewhere, the two teams shot the ball on a relative par, the Sun connecting on 44.9 percent (31-69) of its field-goal attempts to the Liberty's 42.6 percent (29-68) and both teams netting four three-pointers -- Connecticut sinking four-of-15 (26.7 percent) to New York's four-of-17 (23.5 percent). And though no one on the Liberty roster came close to the dominance of Charles and Jones on the backboards, concerted team rebounding led to near parity on the glass, with Connecticut holding a slight, 34-32, edge.
In other words, had New York not shot itself in the foot at the free-throw line, this game might have been, at worst, a four-point loss not a 15-point blowout. And had the Liberty put greater energy into its defense during the Sun rally, they might be starting the season at 1-1, not in an 0-2 hole.
Whisenant did his best to put a positive spin on the negative outcome.
“We have gotten better," he stated. "Our players are discouraged obviously, but the fact is until this last Tuesday, we didn’t have our full team together. We can’t give up 90 points like this, but we have more depth and I have to get our combinations down. I have not gotten who fits with each other exactly right and it is going to take time.
“Our players and coaching staff are going to have to keep fighting and clawing and get back in this thing. There are a lot of games left, 32, and we are 0-2 and don’t like it, but the thing is to be there in the end."
There are no nights off in the WNBA and if the opening weekend was challenging enough for New York, which was hopeful of stealing Saturday's game in its regular home, consider what's ahead. On Tuesday the defending champion Minnesota Lynx visit, followed by two games each over the next few weeks with the Indiana Fever and defending Eastern Conference playoff champion Atlanta Dream.
“We just have to improve, right now we are 0-2 and there is only one way we can go," Pondexter said. "We have to win the next few games that we have and Tuesday we have Minnesota and there is no better time to get a victory then."
Game No. 8 will be in Washington and even that one, being on the road, is hard to forecast. The outcome will likely depend on how the Mystics, who also started their season with a loss, develop after a conference-worst six wins in 2011.
Pierson provided her own perspective on the situation.
"We just have to figure out how we are going to stop teams," she said. "It is not going to get any easier from here. We didn’t expect it to be easy, it’s a hard road.”
For better or worse, the Liberty will be trying to navigate that road with the following opening day roster (new additions highlighted in boldface):
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