Fast-forward two seasons: the 2016 WNBA Playoffs.
Bill Laimbeer is stomping up and down the sideline inside Madison Square Garden, Tina Charles is dominating the interior, a couple of smooth-shooting guards are lighting up from the perimeter, the arena is filled just like in the late 1990s, and the New York Liberty are back at the top of the Eastern Conference, heading to the WNBA Finals.
This image is not some alternate universe, some delusion daydream. It's likely similar to what will happen two years from now if the folks running the Liberty -- specifically the team's ownership, spearheaded by James Dolan -- don't make any impulsive, knee-jerk decisions between now and then. (Of course, taking the long view has rarely been Dolan's forte, especially when it comes to the Knicks.)
An example of a rash decision the Liberty absolutely should not make: firing Laimbeer.
Doing so would unravel the fabric of what the franchise is building. Perhaps it appears, at a quick glance, as if the team has regressed more than grown. During two seasons with the former NBA star at the helm, the team posted an overall record of 26-42, with zero playoff berths. Yes, those results are well below the standard the 57-year-old set during his time coaching the Detroit Shock, where he won three WNBA titles in six full seasons. In fact, in the two seasons before his arrival, the Liberty were actually significantly better, with a win percentage of exactly .500 and back-to-back playoff appearances.
But guess what?
Laimbeer was not hired to guide a mediocre roster. He was hired to first help shape, then eventually motivate (his strength) a roster equipped to win a title. Truth is, that previous version of the Liberty was built for playoff appearances and early playoff exits -- not championships, not even close. Everyone within the franchise knew the truth, and everyone around the league knew it too. Since the moment Laimbeer walked in the door, the Liberty have been plotting for future domination. Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better, which is exactly the space in which New York finds itself right now.
But the Liberty are not on some blind expedition, some sort of map-less wandering in the hopes -- fingers crossed, everyone -- of stumbling into a WNBA championship. No, New York has a plan. (In fact, this is another reason not to remove Laimbeer: He's not just the eventual captain of this renovated ship; he's also one of its architects.) And if you look closely at what the team has done, you'll see that the framework for success is actually in place. That backbone is Tina Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, for whom the Liberty traded -- surrendering depth and likely a few more wins this past season -- just days before the start of the 2014 season.
Here's the thing about building around a post player: It takes longer than building around a guard. When a team's cornerstone player is a guard, it's a package deal: the engine and the conductor in one. You can keep the train moving forward and gather complementary pieces -- the rebounder, the lockdown defender, the banger -- en route. This is possible, of course, because all-world guards aren't reliant on someone else to deliver them the ball. So they can often keep the franchise in the playoffs, even while they're technically still building toward a championship.
This simple fact buys time and has, over the years, saved the jobs of a number of coaches.
But when a team's franchise player is a center (or power forward, as Charles might eventually become), you've bought a powerful engine, but you're not necessarily going anywhere until you find a conductor to harness the power. This, of course, is because great post players cannot also deliver themselves perfectly placed entry passes and cannot bring the ball upcourt.
This is where the Liberty find themselves. They have Charles, perhaps the most powerful engine in the league, but they need a few more pieces around her before they can start moving in the right direction. As mentioned above, the coaching staff might switch Charles to power forward, where she played some this season, so that she can focus on dominating offensively without exhausting herself trying to defend the league's host of physically imposing centers. This means one of the first pieces New York must secure is a center who can bang, who can take the defensive pressure off Charles. Next on the list is a spot-up shooter who can spread the floor so that when Charles is double-teamed, as she will inevitably be, she can pass to someone who has a consistently reliable outside shot. The Liberty made only 103 3-pointers on the season, while opponents made 174 against them. And let's not forget that Essence Carson hasn't been 100 percent healthy since Laimbeer took over -- she, too, will certainly help balance the floor.
Also, a small point, but an important one: The Liberty have assistant coach Katie Smith, who knows exactly what Laimbeer demands and can easily smooth over any bumps his acerbic style might create.
Bottom line: A plan exists. And so, too, does a head coach who knows how to win championships once that plan is executed.
Now all the Liberty need is to stay the course and not do anything dramatic.