The Liberty’s 2-20 document was the worst within the W.N.B.A., and the worst in franchise historical past. But this yr wasn’t imagined to be straightforward for Walt Hopkins, the Liberty’s first-year head coach, or his staff, which included seven rookies and only one participant over age 27 after an low season commerce despatched Tina Charles, the franchise cornerstone for six years, to Washington.
The 2020 Liberty by no means had championship aspirations. Several key gamers opted out of the season due to considerations in regards to the coronavirus pandemic, together with final yr’s No. 2 total choose, Asia Durr, who said she had Covid-19 in June. But it was the early-season injury to Sabrina Ionescu, the staff’s No. 1 draft pick in April, that posed the largest downside.
Just three video games into her rookie debut, Ionescu sustained an ankle sprain so extreme that she left the bubble and by no means returned. How would the Liberty go on with out not solely their finest participant, however the level guard whom the staff’s offense was centered on?
“We had to really sit down as a staff and talk about the long-term repercussions of the choices we made post-Sabrina injury, because we had two options,” Hopkins mentioned. “We could change everything for this season and try to salvage a seven or an eight seed or whatever, and win a few more games.”
“Or, we had the choice to say, ‘You know what, we’re going to stick with this because it’s never been about this year.’”
With so many items lacking, the staff started a rebuild that General Manager Jonathan Kolb in comparison with summer time league, because the Liberty had simply three gamers with 4 or extra years of expertise. The mission was clear: Give as many minutes as doable to younger prospects.
“The goal this year was to learn,” Hopkins mentioned. “It was to learn the people that we have. Who makes sense in the long term, on- and off-court? Who makes sense, system-wise? Who needs to get better at what? It was going to be a year of reflection, a year of growth, from the very beginning.”
The Liberty gamers had been thrown into the fireplace of a model of basketball deeply rooted in analytics. The focus offensively was on 3-point taking pictures and attending to the free-throw line. Defensively, it was on chasing opponents away from the arc, and forcing them to take lengthy, contested 2-point pictures.
That course of was exhausting by itself, however was made tougher by a condensed W.N.B.A. season in a “bubble” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which offered restricted observe time and had groups enjoying video games practically each different day.
By sticking to the staff’s authentic plan, there have been nights the Liberty had been exhausting to look at. In a loss to the Atlanta Dream on Sept. 3, the Liberty scored simply 56 factors and had been 6 of 35 on 3-point makes an attempt. They additionally misplaced to the Seattle Storm by 41 factors. Without Ionescu and a few of their finest profession 3-point shooters, together with Marine Johannes (37.9 %) and Rebecca Allen (38.6 %), the Liberty had been the worst staff from 3-point vary (27.7 %) and the sphere over all (37.2 %).
But the main target was on constructing participant chemistry and a staff id. Even if the staff missed pictures, Hopkins and Kolb prided their group on taking the right ones and making the precise choices.
Of all 12 groups, the Liberty completed with the second-most 3-point makes an attempt (602) and highest 3-point try price (37 percent of their pictures had been from distance). They had been one of many higher groups at stopping 3-point makes an attempt, and, of all 4 lottery groups, locked down the best defensive rating. Per Synergy Sports, the Liberty additionally generated the most unguarded shot attempts of any team (286), although they made them at a league-worst 29.four %.
Consistency was a downside, however when Liberty gamers had been on, they had been on. Kiah Stokes, the 6-foot-3, fifth-year veteran, had attempted just three 3-pointers, and made none, earlier than this yr. Fast-forward to the Liberty’s penultimate recreation of the season, through which she scored 15 factors and made 5 of eight makes an attempt from distance.
“Basically my whole career in New York it’s been Tina Charles’s team, so that’s the only thing I knew,” Stokes mentioned. “So I was a little nervous coming into the season, but I think Walt has done a great job with the system. He’s really put a lot of confidence in me — ‘Just shoot it.’ He’s like: ‘If you miss it, so what? Everybody misses a shot.’”
In a shortened 22-game season through which eight of the 12 groups made the playoffs, nearly each staff was within the operating till the ultimate days of the season. Even by means of an eight-game dropping streak to shut the season, the Liberty caught to their technique.
Hopkins recalled a recreation towards the Indiana Fever through which Teaira McCowan, the 6-7 heart, scored on six of six shot makes an attempt within the opening half. He figured he could be criticized for not making an adjustment to double-team her within the second half, however Hopkins’s protection requires double-teaming as little as doable; he doesn’t need his staff to get into rotations that will enable open seems to be from 3-point vary. So as an alternative, he referred to as for extra physicality and for gamers to not enable straightforward touches across the rim. The Liberty misplaced that recreation, however McCowan acquired just one shot try within the second half, and missed it.
“We weren’t talking about playoffs at the end of the season,” Hopkins mentioned. “Not because I didn’t think we could make it. I very much thought we could make it, but more so because it was never the goal.”
Steadily creating gamers, particularly rookies, was a essential part of the Liberty’s season. In the method, they discovered a few standouts.
“Look how far Jocelyn Willoughby has come,” Hopkins mentioned. “Look at her jump shot. Look at how her 3-point shot, when she got here in the preseason, everything was front rim and flat. Her rotation was crazy. And now she’s shooting over 40 percent from 3.”
He added: “She’s learning how to make better decisions. Her defense is getting better. She’s fouling less.”
Next season, the Liberty anticipate to have Ionescu and Durr again, and so they even have one of the best odds to obtain the No. 1 choose within the 2021 draft. The staff’s roster ought to enhance because the 2020 opt-outs and the brand new free brokers be a part of Hopkins’s system. Then, the stress is on for the Liberty employees to show that the expertise gained by means of the franchise’s wrestle this season wasn’t in useless.