It was around this time last year that the Liberty embarked on their 2015 season with the most modest of outlooks. They had just traded away a perennial star in Cappie Pondexter after their second straight year of missing the playoffs. All-Star center Tina Charles was surrounded by bright young faces, and no one quite knew what to make of the new look.
Then, the unexpected. They became behemoths of the WNBA, ended up a with a franchise-record 23-11 mark and seemed in position to win their first championship in team history. They eventually fell to the Indiana Fever in the conference finals and the team found themselves in a position no one saw coming: disappointed in not winning a title few expected them to achieve in the first place.
This year, there will be no surprises. If the Liberty doesn’t make it to the playoffs, they will believe they underachieved. And while the goal isn’t quite championship or bust, it’s certainly close.
As Charles noted, this season “is going to be even harder.”
“We have a bull’s-eye on our back,” said Charles, who will represent the U.S. in this summer’s Rio Olympics. “We play at Madison Square Garden . . . We know what we brought last year, we know that we stunned everyone, we know that we didn’t even know what our potential was and we even shocked ourselves.”
One of the keys will be picking up the offense to match their devastating defense. Last year, the Liberty was the most defensively sound team in the WNBA, allowing a league-low 71.1 points in the regular season. They led the league in defensive rebounds per game (26.8) and ranked in the top five in steals, blocks and opponent turnovers.
“We are, first and foremost, a defensive basketball team,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “That’s what we hang our hat on. At the same time, if we can steal easy baskets and have our other bigs like Kiah [Stokes] or [Carolyn] Swords, or Brittany [Boyd] can score easy baskets for us, that creates a separation in point differential.”
There were times last season when the Liberty was forced to rely heavily on Charles for offense, leading to limited chances when teams double- or even triple-teamed her. Charles averaged 17.1 points per game, and while starting guard Epiphanny Prince was second with 15 points per game, she underwent surgery for a torn ACL in December and will miss the beginning of the season, meaning the next active leading scorer is guard Sugar Rogers, who averaged 8.1.
New acquisitions will certainly change the landscape, but offense will still be at a premium.
This season features a number of new players, making it imperative for the Liberty to jell early. Amanda Zahui B, a 6-5 center acquired from the Dallas Wings earlier this week, will add depth to the frontcourt. Veteran guards Shoni Schimmel, Lindsey Harding and Shavonte Zellous will help make up for the loss of Prince.
“I’m looking forward to this season,” Charles said. “ . . . The way I set the tone when I go out, it should be a snowball effect. What I do everyone else follows.”