Sabrina Ionescu and the New York Liberty are on a stunning trajectory

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images /

The New York Liberty have gone from one of the worst teams in WNBA history to the top of the standings. And it’s not just about Sabrina Ionescu.

The 2021 New York Liberty were supposed to improve, but maybe not this much and this quickly. In six games, the Liberty have more than doubled their win total from a year ago at 5-1, and look nothing like the team that posted the second-worst winning percentage in WNBA history eight months ago.

The time to start bandwagoning the Liberty is right now or maybe even yesterday or a month ago. There’s loads to be excited about watching a group start to get its footing behind one of the world’s most electric guards in Sabrina Ionescu and relentless scorers like Betnijah Laney.

How are the New York Liberty winning games?

The Liberty are rolling because of an offensive philosophy that encourages 3-point shooting while promoting a free-flowing system that lets their two stars — Ionescu and Laney — play to their strengths.

The pair looks the part of an All-Star backcourt with Ionescu averaging 17.8 points, 7.8 assists, and 6.8 rebounds, and Laney scoring 20 or more points in each of her first six games. Laney has also made 54.3 percent of her looks from the field including 12-of-23 3-pointers along with 4.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Those numbers are all bonkers for any players but are especially impressive for a point guard just nine games into her WNBA career, and a wing who was cut prior to her breakout 2020 Most Improved Player of the Year season.

Chemistry has built up in an incredibly short amount of time in New York. Ionescu is the primary ball-handler, crafting passes through layers of defense to cutting forwards and guards inside the paint. If she can’t get anything going, Laney will. The team’s leading scorer is creating looks where they don’t exist, taking defenders off-the-dribble and spinning them into oblivion.

Who else has been contributing on the New York Liberty, besides Sabrina Ionescu?

It hasn’t just been Ionescu and Laney. The Liberty also significantly upgraded their roster from last year.

Sami Whitcomb, a newcomer via trade from the reigning champion Seattle Storm, has been stellar as a starter averaging 8.8 points on 41.7 percent 3-point shooting with 5.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steals. Rookie Michaela Onyenwere is averaging 9.3 points on 45.0 percent 3-point shooting with 3.0 rebounds, and Rebecca Allen, who sat out last season’s bubble, is scoring 7.4 points with 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists.

That doesn’t even include 2019 All-Star Natasha Howard, who is just getting started since arriving late from overseas. In two games, she’s averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.

What have the New York Liberty been really good at?

Shooting. A year after making a league-worst 27.7 percent of shots from 3-point range, New York is atop the WNBA, connecting on 43.7 percent of their outside looks. They’re taking a lot of them, too. At 26.3 per game, the Liberty rank second in the league in attempts per game. Nearly 40 percent of their shots from the field are from long-range and for good reason.

Following the trend of the WNBA’s most recent championship winners, New York has loaded up on multi-level shooters, and it’s paying off. Three Liberty players (Ionescu, Laney and Whitcomb) are in the top-15 in 3-point makes per game.

It is worth noting that New York hasn’t had a tough schedule to start the year off, opening with a back-to-back against the Indiana Fever and then a game against the Minnesota Lynx, who were missing their best player, Napheesa Collier. But regardless of the opponent, the difference in play from a year ago is stark.

It’s difficult to understate how much the Liberty struggled in 2020. They were outscored by 17.2 points per 100 possessions in the bubble, losing 15 games of a 22-game season by double-digits. They were really tough to watch. Now, they’re outscoring opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions, which is the sixth-best mark in the league.

What can the New York Liberty improve on?

New York has a lot to desire defensively, especially against opposing centers. In the opener, the Fever’s 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan scored 22 points with 16 rebounds. Two games later, the Lynx’s 6-foot-5 Sylvia Fowles posted 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting with 11 rebounds, and second-year Sky center Ruthy Hebard scored 15 points on 7-of-14 shooting with 10 boards.

That’s where Howard should help. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best interior stoppers in the world, and was only cleared to play 24 hours before her Liberty debut on Sunday.

Where can the New York Liberty go from here?

It’s super early in the season. The Liberty have only played six games, and anything can happen in the next few months. But the playoffs aren’t an unreasonable goal.

Remember that New York’s roster has seen significant turnover, and though progress is rarely linear, in theory, the Liberty’s rotation could improve with familiarity over time. At the very least, there’s a healthy dose of hope for a fanbase that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2017.

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