The offseason will be a long one for the Liberty players and their die-hard fans, and the pain of the disappointing postseason series loss is probably still fresh in their minds. But for many of us, most of the dust from the early playoff exit has settled, meaning that the second guessers, naysayers, critics and folks like me can put a cap on the season.
After an outstanding run through the regular season and playoffs last season, the Liberty were expected to have a banner year in the summer of 2011. At least that’s what many of us in the media believed. And why wouldn’t that be the case? The team returned dynamic scorer and WNBA first teamer Cappie Pondexter, the league’s most improved player in Leilani Mitchell, and a new head coach whose hallmark of defense and rebounding were key areas that previous Liberty teams lacked.
But we should have looked beyond the flowery positives. And although many fans and skeptics did so, the team’s burning question marks at the beginning of the season were quickly defused by unsubstantiated claims: the veterans will regain their form of yesteryear; the rookies will develop into solid players; Pondexter will always be there to bail out the Liberty; John Whisenant is Coach Whiz.
Unfortunately, the WNBA isn’t the perfect world, and the New York Liberty didn’t have the perfect season. Though some of the solutions that were drawn up before the season started actually came through – Plenette Pierson had an All-Star caliber year, and Essence Carson actually was an All-Star – the Liberty’s reliance on unknown factors came back to haunt them. In the end, there just wasn’t enough scoring to back Pondexter, particularly when she didn’t have her A-game.
So now, let’s look back on the 2011 campaign, or what I like to think of as the season of what could have been. Let’s see exactly who brought their A-game and made the grade through the course of the year, one in which the Libs went 19-15 overall. I present here, the 2011 New York Liberty final report card.
Kara Braxton: The 6-6, sixth-year pro came over from Phoenix in a trade that sent much-maligned Sidney Spencer packing. Braxton only played in 13 games for the Liberty, looking out of sync with her new team but also appearing sluggish moving up and down the court and vertically for rebounds. She averaged 3.9 points and three rebounds for New York in the second half of the season but was not a regular contributor game in and game out. Midseason grade: N/A; Final grade: C
Essence Carson: After an All-Star effort in the first half, the Rutgers grad fell off dramatically on the scoring end in the second. Averaging nearly 14 points per game in the first, she finished the season at 11.3 ppg. Her field goal percentage also suffered, perhaps because she was relied upon this year more than any other previous season. Her defense didn’t tumble, however, and she came up with one of the most memorable plays of the year when she preserved a win over Seattle by blocking Sue Bird’s wide-open look at the basket. Midseason grade: A+ ; Final grade: B+
Sydney Colson: Colson was supposed to be the reliable backup point guard to Mitchell, and she served in that capacity in the first half. Whisenant’s confidence in Colson all but vanished in the second half because of her consistent inconsistency, and he used the rookie sparingly. Instead, he opted to use Pondexter and Carson to run the point when Mitchell sat, taking away the ability for those two players to roam the floor freely. Colson finished the game playing in only 16 games while averaging 1.4 points and less than one assist per game. Midseason grade: C+ ; Final grade: C-
Quanitra Hollingsworth: She was clearly the Liberty’s steal of last offseason’s free agency, as Hollingsworth came on to be one of the most reliable bench players in the rotation. She effectively served as Kia Vaughn’s backup at center and Plenette Pierson’s substitute at forward. She was strong on the boards on both ends of the floor and offered points when needed. She averaged the most impressive 4.4 boards and 4.6 points ever recorded. Midseason grade: B; Final grade: B
Leilani Mitchell: Oh, Lani, Lani, Lani. I don’t even know where to start. So much was expected of Mitchell this season following her most improved award last year. To say she didn’t meet those expectations is an understatement. She shot a lowly 36 percent from the 3-point arc, one year after she led the WNBA in that category. Mitchell also played an inconsistent point guard, and was often removed from the game too early, forcing Pondexter to pick up the handling duties and out of her usual position. But it won’t be fair to not mention that when she was on her game, she was lights out (4 of 6 from 3-point land against Atlanta on Aug. 2; 7 of 14 from the floor and 18 points versus Washington on Aug. 12; and 6 of 8 from trifecta and 24 points against Minnesota on Sept. 2). You can even throw in the playoff win over Indiana (Mitchell dropped nine points) as one of her best games. But when you add up the good games, you can count them on one hand. Midseason grade: B- ; Final grade: C
Alex Montgomery: The ability to move between the forward and guard spots earned Montgomery more minutes than any rookie on the team, including those who were cut during the season. She had moments when she shined on offense and defense, but she also played like someone who did not get regular minutes. Montgomery appeared in 30 games for the Libs, averaging 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds in nine minutes a game. She can’t put up better numbers if she doesn’t play, and I definitely thought she deserved more minutes during the season. Midseason grade: C+ ; Final grade: C
Ta’Shia Phillips: After starting the season with Washington, Phillips was cut after 10 games and joined the Liberty to bolster a depleted front court. At 6-6, Phillips could have made a difference but she never got on board with the system. Instead, she played in just five games and became the big body to put on the floor during blowouts or for emergency purposes. Midseason grade: N/A; Final grade: Incomplete
Plenette Pierson: Pierson’s scoring averaged dipped just a bit from the 13.3 points she averaged at the All-Star break. She finished with a second-best 12.9 ppg and was a fierce rebounder (5.2 rpg). Her aggressiveness, however, got her and the team into trouble at times. She was second on the team in fouls committed during the regular season and led the team during the playoffs. Free throws against was the team’s Achilles’ heel this year. Midseason grade: B+ ; Final grade: B
Cappie Pondexter:Pondexter’s stock took a dive this season after her All-WNBA campaign last year. She was still one of the league’s top players, but Pondexter fell from MVP consideration as her team continued to lose and as her scoring numbers fell. She became the victim of her own game – surrounded by a cast of underachieving players and inconsistent shooters, Pondexter was forced to do too much, forced to shoot the ball even with defenders in her face. Though she still scored her points (17.4), they came with a price. In the playoffs, Indiana exposed New York’s weakness: shut down Cappie Pondexter and you’ll have a chance. The Fever proved that Pondexter was human and ultimately won the series. Midseason grade: A; Final grade: B+
Nicole Powell: The Liberty small forward had been one of the targets of blame for the team’s underachievement, but Powell came on the second half to play some of the best hoops. After she was slowed because of her own inconsistency in the beginning of the season, Powell played reliable basketball the rest of the way. She was hampered by injury, but she returned and became a third scoring option behind Pondexter and Pierson. She averaged 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds while leading the team with 1.36 steals. She came up big in the playoffs when Indiana put the clamps on Pondexter. In three games against the Fever, she averaged a team-best 16.7 points and shot 50 percent from the floor (57 percent from 3-point land). Midseason grade: C+ ; Final grade: B-
Kia Vaughn: The Rutgers grad came back to Earth after a tremendous first half that garnered some All-Star consideration. That tumble was expected considering Vaughn logged career highs in starts, games and minutes played. With that though, she also registered career bests in points and rebounds, and the league recognized her efforts and named her the 2011 WNBA Most Improved Player. Midseason grade: B+ ; Final grade: B
Head coach John Whisenant: Coach Whiz took over the vacant head coaching spot, inheriting a team that had played itself into the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. He has an impeccable resume, including the 2005 WNBA Championship while with Sacramento. He was supposed to bring a new focus on rebounding and defense to the Liberty, two areas that had faltered in previous seasons for the Libs. Using the much-ballyhooed white line defense, the Liberty struggled in the beginning under the new philosophy. But as the season grew older, the players seemed to adopt the game plan. In that respect, Whisenant did good. What hurt the Liberty in 2011 was the lack of the proper player personnel, and as team general manager, this falls on Whisenant. The rookies that were brought in weren’t a factor, neither were the midseason acquisitions of Braxton and Phillips (which were key to giving Vaughn a quality backup). Yes, the loss of Janel McCarville hurt the team, but Whisenant was so certain that the team would work around it. I credit him with the find of Hollingsworth, but Coach Whiz will surely be busy this offseason. Final grade: C