Liberty not interested in expectations
Talent-laden Brooklyn squad must prove it on hardwood
The New York Liberty have built a WNBA championship-worthy team, according to the prognosticators, odds-makers, media and Brooklyn fans hungry for our borough’s first major pro sports title since 1955.
But Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello, who led the 2014 Phoenix Mercury to the coveted crown and earned Coach of the Year honors in the process, knows that talk, especially prior to a single game being played, is cheap.
“Winning the championship is our ultimate goal,” Brondello said during the Liberty’s media session at Downtown’s Barclays Center Monday.
“We don’t win championships in preseason, we don’t win them at the start of the season, we win them at the end,” she added.
The offseason additions of 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones via trade, and two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot, the league’s all-time leader in assists, through free agency has evoked talk of a super team here in Brooklyn.
Having All-Star mainstays like Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney on the roster only adds to the mystique of a unit that looks better than most on paper.
But the results have yet to be tallied for a squad that will play a WNBA-record 40 regular-season games this year before entering what it hopes will be its third consecutive postseason run.
“To have expectations means we’ve earned them,” noted New York general manager Jonathan Kolb, who put this team together this past offseason.
“But we know what comes with them,” he noted. “That’s a day-by-day process. … The success will come as long as we’re being detailed in our process. Our goal is to be the last team standing.”
With 10 days to go before their May 19 opener in Washington, D.C., the Liberty are still learning one another’s respective games and figuring out how best to work together this coming season.
The team, which also boasts the likes of sharp-shooters Marine Johannes and DiDi Richards as well as 6-foot-10 center Han Xu, has been working though training camp here for over a week now.
“We’re in the process of doing our culture-building,” Brondello revealed. “(The players) have to drive it. They come up with it. Every team you have — teamwork, trust — they always come up.
“The more more comfortable you are, the more you can just go out there and play and play instinctively. And you know, we’ve got rules for things but we want them to just to feel it by by doing. But communication is a really big part. Communication is not just on the court, but off the court. It’s how our culture is all built, too.”
Kolb believes Brondello, entering her second season after leading New York to its second consecutive playoff appearance last year, is just the type of leader the Liberty need to live up to their high expectations.
“It’s a collection of players that I don’t think has been put together before,” Kolb said. “Sandy doesn’t skip any steps. Every day truly does matter. … I couldn’t think of anyone better to do the job.”
Stewart, who won WNBA championships and Finals MVP awards with Seattle in 2018 and 2020, knows that the Liberty can’t get ahead of themselves, or take their press clippings too seriously in May.
“There’s a fine line. When you look at our overall goals for the year, we want to win a championship,” she said.
“That’s not going to happen today, tomorrow or over the next couple of weeks. What’s going to happen is we’re trying to build a standard.”
Ionescu, entering her fourth season since being selected first overall by New York in the 2020 WNBA Draft, is feeding off the infusion of new talent on the roster.
But the two-time Wooden Award winner out of the University of Oregon is also wary of rushing the long process of building a championship-caliber team.
“That’s been the goal since I got drafted here,” Ionescu said. “Having the backing of an organization that wants to bring a championship to New York City. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Limited to three games due to injury in her rookie season and hampered by rehabbing other ailments the previous two years, Ionescu is coming off what she called her “first healthy offseason.”
Those words heartened Brondello, who has seen the difference in her All-Star point guard as the season approaches.
“She looks great. Last year, she was rehabbing, she had a bit of a calf injury. She’s a shot-maker,” Brondello said of Ionescu. “I think her shot got quicker. She’s a winner, we know that. I think she’s turning a little smarter. Her leadership, you see that. That’s another area she’s improved on.”
Jones, who arrived here from Connecticut following a blockbuster three-team trade, is already seeing how different playing in a major media environment is compared to her first six seasons with the Sun.
“Just being around the city. I feel the energy of the people getting behind this team,” said Jones, who reached the WNBA Finals last year, only to bow out to Las Vegas.
“That’s the big difference between Connecticut and New York,” she emphasized.
Vegas has already booked the home-town Aces as the team to beat again this year. But the Liberty are just behind the defending WNBA champions, according to the oddsmakers.
With its new assortment of star power, New York will also be the team to beat every time an opponent steps on the hardwood at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush.
“Coming into this market, you already know you have a giant target on your back,” Stewart conceded.
The Liberty will begin their preseason slate Wednesday at Connecticut before visiting Las Vegas on Saturday.
New York will open the home portion of its regular-season schedule May 21 vs. Indiana at Barclays Center.
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