Are the Liberty on the express track to becoming a playoff fixture? Or are they going to get stuck in the station at Atlantic Avenue on the way to becoming a real contender in the ultracompetitive WNBA?
Last year, the Liberty snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed on the final day of the season despite finishing with a 12-20 record and winning just two of their final 13 games. Then they nearly eliminated the Finals-bound Mercury in a first-round, single-elimination nail-biter.
It was a year of growth and cultivating chemistry on the roster, and the Liberty plan to build off that foundation in 2022. The franchise signaled its aspirations this winter by hiring a new head coach and signing a free-agent center with championship pedigrees.
But it will be a difficult task to make it back to the postseason — the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks, both of whom missed the playoffs last season, made notable upgrades in the offseason, and the usual elite teams remain formidable.
The Liberty will playing a full 36-game schedule for the first time, beginning with Saturday night’s season opener at Barclays Center against the powerhouse Connecticut Sun.
Here is a quick guide to what’s ahead for the Liberty:
Meet the new boss
The Liberty parted ways with head coach Walt Hopkins after two seasons in December, and hired Sandy Brondello, who had been the head coach of the Mercury since 2014 and led Phoenix to a title in her first season there.
Brondello, a native of Australia who played in the WNBA from 1998-2003, also doubles as head coach of the Australian National Team. Her husband, Olaf Lange, is on the Liberty’s coaching staff as an assistant.
This season marks Year 2 together for the Liberty’s Big 3 of Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard.
Ionescu, whom the Liberty selected first overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft, is coming off an up-and-down sophomore season (11.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game) in which she dealt with lingering effects of an ankle injury suffered as a rookie in the 2020 “wubble” season. Now she’s back to full strength.
Betnijah Laney is in her prime. The 28-year-old guard is coming off a breakthrough All-Star season, having averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists and carried the Liberty at times during a surprising first half. Laney underwent left knee surgery last November.
Natasha Howard had a full training camp, following a knee injury that interrupted her acclimation to the Liberty last season. The three-time WNBA champion put up 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in her limited campaign of 13 games.
New York’s new faces
The Liberty signed free-agent center Stefanie Dolson in February, coming off a highly decorated 2021 in which she won an Olympics gold medal with the United States 3×3 team and won a WNBA title with the Chicago Sky. The former two-time All-Star, 30, adds length and size to the Liberty at 6-foot-5, and should be a strong complement to Howard in the frontcourt.
First-round draft pick Nyara Sabally will sit out the season after having knee surgery, but second-round pick Lorela Cubaj, a decorated forward out of Georgia Tech, made the team.
AD returns to the Liberty after missing two seasons due to long-haul COVID. The Liberty’s No. 2 pick in 2019 is set for a reserve role in an uncertain reacclimation to high-level hoops.
Han Xu — the WNBA’s tallest player at 6-10 — is back with the team for the first time since her rookie year in 2019 after the Chinese center did not come over to the States the past two years.
Jocelyn Willoughby, who was emerging as a valuable two-way forward as a rookie in 2020, is back after having missed all of 2021 due to a torn Achilles.