The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this season. The New York Liberty is one of the original founding teams still in the WNBA, along with the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks.
The WNBA was founded on October 30, 1996. The Liberty played in the inaugural game of the WNBA against the Los Angeles Sparks in the Great Western Forum on June 21, 1997. The Liberty also played in the first ever WNBA Championship Game against the Houston Comets, on August 30, 1997, when the Comets were crowned the inaugural WNBA Champions.
The Liberty has had a heralded existence during its 20 years in the WNBA and their popularity is certainly one of the reasons the WNBA still exists. The Liberty has an All-Time WNBA record of 328-300 with 13 Playoff berths, while appearing in the WNBA Finals three times, the last time in 2002. The only milestone the Liberty has failed to achieve is to bring that elusive WNBA Championship to New York.
Liberty Head Coach Bill Laimbeer returns this season for his fourth year with the New York franchise. Laimbeer is a four-time NBA All-Star, who won back-to-back NBA Championships (1989-’90) with the Detroit Pistons during an illustrious 14-year NBA career.
Laimbeer won three WNBA Championships (2003, 2006 and 2008), as the Head Coach of the Detroit Shock for eight years. Laimbeer has been a Head Coach in the WNBA for 12 years of the 20 years of its existence.
Laimbeer led the Liberty to their best season in franchise history last season with a 23-11 record, while attaining the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2002. But the Ladies of Liberty still could not quite grasp that elusive brass ring and lost to the Indiana Fever 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“A lot went right for us last year but a lot has to go right for us this year as well. We cannot settle for thinking we are a great team. We need to pay attention to detail and build on the chemistry we had last year,” said Laimbeer.
Nonetheless, Laimbeer had plenty of assistance during his successful season last year. Liberty forward Tina Charles averaged 17 points and 8.5 rebounds for the Liberty last season. Charles returns for her third season with the Liberty and is biting at the bit to set right that Eastern Conference Finals Game 2 defeat to the Fever, which for all intents and purposes, sealed the Liberty fate last season.
The Liberty had won Game 1 in New York and could have advanced to the WNBA Championship with a win in Indiana in Game 2. They were leading by as much as 18 points but were outscored in the second half, 41-20 and lost, 70-64 in Game 2. The Fever eventually won Game 3 and advanced to the WNBA Championship last season.
“I think about that it all the time. If we would have handled ourselves in Game 2, who knows what the ending could have been,” stated Charles, at Media Day for the Liberty, at the Madison Square Garden Training Center, in Tarrytown, on Thursday, April 28.
Last season, Laimbeer and then first-year Liberty President Isiah Thomas traded Liberty favorite Cappie Pondexter to the Chicago Sky for two-time WNBA All-Star Epiphanny Prince, which proved to be a monumental plus for the Liberty.
Prince averaged 15 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game last season. Prince also shot 90 percent from the foul line at a rate of 63-for-70 and was the floor general on the court.
The Liberty drafted center Adut Bulgak from Florida State University with the 12th overall pick in the 2106 WNBA Draft. Thomas and Laimbeer are hoping that Bulgak can prove as resourceful as their last year’s first-round pick Kiah Stokes, who was selected to the 2015 WNBA All-Rookie Team.
The Liberty also had two big free agent signings during the offseason, while inking Shavonte Zellous, a seven-year veteran, who played five seasons with the Indiana Fever including last year’s team, who beat the Liberty in the Eastern Finals. The Liberty also signed free agent veteran Lindsey Harding, who has averaged a double/double in all of her eight years in the WNBA.
The Liberty opens their 2016 regular season in Washington D.C. against the Washington Mystics, on Saturday, May 14. The Liberty Home Opener, at Madison Square Garden will tip-off against the Dallas Wings (which is the relocated Tulsa Shock), on Sunday, May 15, at 5 p.m.