New York Liberty fans have been waiting for the other shoe to drop since Bill Laimbeer took over. His reputation as the best dealmaker in WNBA history promised big changes in New York, which is starved for success after a history of teams that not only contended, but played with grit and flair.
So far, however, all that’s dropped is one very old shoe, as Laimbeer signed Katie Smith, who had great success with him in his title-winning days in Detroit. But Smith will be 39 in June, and is coming off the worst season of her illustrious career. In 27 minutes a game, she averaged just 6.7 points and got to the free-throw line just 37 times in 919 minutes. In 2009, in 894 minutes, she averaged 13.7 ppg and attempted 61 free throws, so it’s clear she’s pretty much become just an aging spot-up shooter. If you doubt that, consider that in 2009, she took 132 three-pointers, and 162 shots inside the arc; in 2012, she launched 110 three-pointers, and tried only 77 two-pointers.
In short, Katie Smith is not going to revitalize the Liberty. She can step in and make some threes, and maybe make up for her lack of quickness with anticipation and basketball IQ, but if this is the best Laimbeer can do, the Liberty’s return to relevance is going to take longer than anticipated.
(And that lack of relevance, by the way, is bad for the league. A strong New York franchise is crucial to the future of any niche league, which the WNBA certainly is, and with the Liberty not only struggling, but away from Madison Square Garden again, it’s hard for the league to gain traction with sponsors and media. If Laimbeer can turn things around, it means a lot more than just a few more wins for the Liberty; it would have an immediate impact on the WNBA as a whole.)
And what exactly will Smith bring that the eight-years-younger Nicole Powell won’t? Powell isn’t a defensive demon, and is known for inconsistency, but Smith has the same package – in a smaller body. And though I’m not a huge fan of Essence Carson, she brings a lot more to the court than Smith does at this stage of her career, so basically Smith is at best a rotation upgrade, without the upside of second-year forward Alex Montgomery. (OK, so the snorts from Liberty fans about the use of “upside” and “Alex Montgomery” in the same sentence can be heard in Atlanta, but really, will the presence of Smith really make the team that much better?)
The rest of the Liberty roster is, well, uninspiring. Cappie Pondexter can be a great player, but plays defense only when the mood strikes her and turns the ball over at an alarming rate. Perhaps Laimbeer’s tough love will light the fire that seemed to be missing last season, and if so, that’s a lot more to get excited about than Katie Smith.
Plenette Pierson is a nice player, and another one who played well for Laimbeer, but she’s 31 and has played more than 850 minutes (25 a game) just twice in her career. Last year, she missed eight games, and her physical style doesn’t mesh well with her slender frame, at least in terms of her ability to stay on the floor.
And after Pondexter and Pierson, well, there’s Kara Braxton – another Laimbeer veteran who’s over 30 and wildly inconsistent. Carson is competent, and potentially better than that, but this roster just doesn’t look like one that can compete with Phoenix or L.A. or Minnesota – or even Indiana or Chicago.
As for Laimbeer’s reputation for brilliant trades, it will be hard to get much for what he has to offers. The No. 5 draft pick might be Tianna Hawkins, who could be a decent player but it’s not going to pry an all-star from another roster, even if Carson is tossed into the deal.
So what the signing of Smith says to me is that Laimbeer is going to roll with people he’s comfortable with (Smith, Pierson, Braxton) and try to motivate the rest of the roster to play at a higher level – and if it all comes together, there’s certainly reason to think a playoff berth is there for the taking.
After all, Anne Donovan has taken over in Connecticut, and she has proven over the years to be at best an average coach. Fred Williams in Atlanta just made two curious moves: Trading for Jasmine Thomas, who was ineffective for a team much worse than the Dream, and then hiring his midseason replacement, Julie Plank, as an assistant. Without Lindsey Harding, Atlanta could easily drop behind everyone but Washington, and someone will have to take the fall.
But unless there’s another shoe waiting to drop – and a Manolo Blahnik at that – it doesn’t appear that Laimbeer has enough talent to get past Indiana and Chicago in the East. Of course, if some unwary GM happens to take his call after one too many glasses of wine, maybe he can pull off a miracle. Most likely, though, he’s going to pull off third place.