2014 WNBA Preview: Can Liberty's three Cs - Cappie, Charles and Carson - spell "championship" for New York?
Year two in the reign of Bill Laimbeer, and the Liberty are ready to make their long-awaited return to Madison Square Garden -- and, fans hope, to the top of the WNBA standings. They’ve decided to bring a new friend along this time, one you might have heard of -- 2012 WNBA MVP and three-time league rebounding champion Tina Charles.
The addition of Charles immediately makes this team a favorite to, at the very least, make the playoffs. But as the Connecticut Sun learned to their chagrin, even a player as talented as Charles can't do it alone. A few other players still have to step up as well, but the prospects are certainly there, at least on paper, and you can bet that "Trader Bill" is doing everything he can to make sure that happens. With the final roster cuts now in the rearview mirror, lets take a look at New York, and its shiny new "toy."
Even with Charles back home in the Big Apple, the leader of this team still resides in the backcourt: Cappie Pondexter. Pondexter is one of the most explosive players in the world. Her ability to break players down one on one makes her a threat to score every time down the floor. The problem last year was that she had to break down multiple players in pretty much every game all season. With the team's second-leading scorer, Essence Carson, out of the picture for all but four games and no one else consistently stepping in to fill the void, it didn't take much of a scouting report for opponents to know that their biggest threat was Pondexter. Double and triple teams were the obvious tactic, so opposing teams saw that Pondexter had plenty of company everywhere on the court, with the result that the 2013 Liberty had huge problems putting the ball in the hole.
That's why the addition of Charles has significance well beyond what she can personally contribute in the front court. Charles' presence should give Pondexter many more opportunities to be the playmaker that she is: Double-team one of these All-Stars, and the other should be open to bite you. And in another piece of good news for New Yorkers, Carson is back this season and ready to go alongside Pondexter and Charles (see the discussion of wings below.) Simple math dictates that you just can't double-team three hot hands.
With Kamiko Williams the victim of this year's early season-ending ACL tear, rookie international Anna Cruz has gotten the starting nod in the backcourt alongside Pondexter for the season's first two games. New York is looking to the 27-year-old Spaniard primarily for her long-ball shooting skills -- the Liberty didn’t have anyone who could hit the outside shot consistently and stretch the defenses last season and need somone to add the shooting range the team needs to give Charles & Co. room to operate in the paint. Thus far, Cruz has not come through with many long balls -- no huge surprise since she's taken only three, hitting one of them. But in other departments, she has come up a whole lot bigger than her 5-9 stature would suggest, pulling down nine rebounds and grabbing four steals in New York's opening game victory against Connecticut (75-54), and swatting down two blocks in the Liberty's second regular-season outing, a loss to Chicago (65-79) in which Cruz also doled out six assists.
Coming off the bench in the backcourt are recently acquired Sugar Rodgers, who certainly has the ability to knock down a three (though she hasn't done much to date) and first-year veteran and Colorado product Chucky Jeffrey, known for her dribble penetration, not for her range, another player with considerable potential, but who has seen only limited minutes thus far, without much to show for them.
Carson perhaps the hottest player for New York during the four games in which she appeared last season, appeared poised for a break-through year before being derailed by an ACL injury. Players are coming back more quickly than every from such injuries, but it still typically takes 18 months before a player is truly at 100 percent. Still, Carson should be an effective third option for New York this year, and if she can return to the course she was on in 2013, could be the player that puts the Liberty over the top.
Listed as a "guard/forward," Carson is a bit more forward than guard in style and function but an undersized post at just 6-0. And Carson, currently average 10 points per game, does know how to score the basketball, including striking from downtown, where she has netted two of her four attempts thus far this year.
Coming off the bench, typically at the perimeter, is 6-1 Georgia Tech product Alex Montgomery, more guard than forward, who is has been earning her paycheck on the defensive side of the basketball. As Laimbeer puts it, Montgomery is a player who can “guard the gym,” meaning that she’s capable of guarding anyone on the floor from the point guard to the center. High praise from the defense-minded coach, and the hard-nosed type of player necessary for the Liberty to succeed this season.
The front court is the strength of this Liberty team. While the newly acquired Charles is clearly the star, there is a lot of depth and quality on the frontcourt roster. Two-time WNBA All-Star -- and two-time Olympic gold-medalist -- Delisha Milton-Jones, in her 15th season (she'll celebrate her 40th birthday toward the end of this season), may be nearing the end of her professional basketball career, but has proven herself to be a dependable professional and has drawn the starting nod alongside Charles. The player alternately dubbed both "Sunshine" and "D'Nasty" can be relied on to do some of the necessary dirty work that every team -- and especially Bill Laimbeer teams -- need.
Coming off the bench are veteran forward-centers 6-2 Plenette Pierson (11 years) and 6-6 Kara Braxton (nine years) both of whom have that championship pedigree and tough-minded, competitive attitude Laimbeer loves. At present, however, each is averaging low single digits in both scoring and rebounding in fewer than 10 minutes per game apiece.
That leaves 6-1 forward Toni Young, entering her second year in the pros, who has the necessary physical tools to become the "X Factor" for the Liberty. New Yorkers are hoping to see Young make leaps and bounds this season, and not just figuratively speaking. Though just 6-1, Young, an Olympic-caliber high jumper with a tremendous vertical leap, can dunk, and did so regularly in college until warned off by Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell who feared injury to his star. Still probably a year away from reaching her potential as a pro, Young can learn a lot as an understudy to her New York frontcourt running mates.
Now for what we’ve all been waiting for…the woman of the hour, the rebounding machine, the city’s native daughter comes home, ladies and gentlemen, arguably the best center in the world, Tina Charles. What more needs to be said after that! But it’s true, Charles is easily one of the top ten players in the world and perhaps the greatest women's center currently playing the game, with contenders Sylvia Fowles and Lauren Jackson both on the sidelines and Brittney Griner still feeling her way as a pro. Charles is still young, 26, and is coming into the prime of her career. She was a huge acquisition for this franchise and could pay big dividends immediately.
Both Braxton and Pierson provide back-up at this position (as can Milton-Jones, if pressed) and will likely see time on the floor alongside Charles when height is needed. Braxton, a two-time WNBA champion under Laimbeer in Detroit, brings consistent production, and really came on at the end of last season when New York was making its playoff run.
With all that said about each player and position, the strongest part of this team is probably the head of the snake, head coach Bill Laimbeer. Though this is a solid team, their roster still doesn’t compare to a Lynx, Mercury or Sparks line-up. But with the former Piston "Bad Boy's" commitment, ability to motivate his players, motivation and savviness, both on the sidelines and on the phone orchestrating trades, this team could make some noise in the Eastern Conference. They’re probably still a shooter away from championship talk unless one of the aforementioned guards, perhaps Rodgers, steps up in a big way. But the Liberty should be right in the thick of the Eastern Conference race in the meantime.
- 2014 WNBA Eastern Conference Preview
- 2014 WNBA Draft Preview: Sizing up the needs in the Eastern Conference
- Liberty's Williams out for season with torn ACL
- Eastern conference preview: All signs point to Atlanta
- Charles to New York?
- Sun deal Charles to Liberty
- Lynx send Rodgers to Liberty