How Sandy Brondello can help the New York Liberty win their first WNBA title

Sandy Brondello was 150-108 in eight seasons with Phoenix, leading the Mercury to the 2014 title and a trip to the WNBA Finals this past season. Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

A month after parting ways with the Phoenix Mercury, Sandy Brondello is back in charge of a WNBA team. Brondello was introduced Friday as coach of the New York Liberty.

Brondello, 53, knows the WNBA inside and out. The Australia native played for five seasons in the league, beginning in 1998. She has been a WNBA head coach or assistant since 2005, working in San Antonio, Los Angeles and Phoenix. She is 164-128 as a head coach, with a 24-21 playoff record. The Mercury made the playoffs in each of Brondello's eight seasons, highlighted by the 2014 WNBA championship.

Now, she becomes the Liberty's ninth head coach and will take on a challenge 25 years in the making: winning the franchise's first championship. One of the league's eight original franchises, New York has played in the WNBA Finals four times, but not since 2002.

How will Brondello, who succeeds Walt Hopkins, help change the Liberty's fortunes? New York, which has the No. 5 pick in April's WNBA draft, went 12-20 last season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Brondello knows how to win

Hopkins, whose contract was not renewed in December after two seasons with the Liberty, talked a lot about establishing a winning culture. But he was hired as a WNBA head coach with such a limited amount of experience, it suggests the Liberty rolled the dice and hoped for the best based on Hopkins selling his team-building and strategic concepts.

Brondello can point to her résumé. Some might argue that she should have won more than one title in eight seasons in Phoenix, and that's the kind of criticism pro coaches have to face. The bottom line is, she has a championship and one other trip to the WNBA Finals, which came this past season as a No. 5 seed. She has been in every kind of pressure scenario as a coach.

The Liberty won just one of their last nine regular-season games last season. They have not had a winning record since 2017, Bill Laimbeer's last season as coach, and they haven't won a playoff game since 2015. Brondello's experience in Phoenix was about trying to be a championship-caliber team every season, and she can bring that vibe to the Liberty.

She can empower the players

In Phoenix, Brondello always kept the public focus on the players' talent and success. She seemed able to manage egos and help players find their roles. She protected them when they were having difficult times, too.

Brondello is not going to throw histrionic fits on the sideline or make subtle (or unsubtle) jabs at players to the media. She wants the players to get the credit and be in the spotlight.

The Liberty are still a pretty young team, and they have no mega-alpha player like Diana Taurasi. It's hard to say if anyone has truly established herself as New York's leader, but that's something that Brondello can help facilitate.

Brondello can help figure out New York's identity

In their early successful years, the Liberty were scrappy gamers who played tough defense and had an old-school mentality about teamwork.

Later, their biggest star players were Cappie Pondexter from 2010 to 2014 and Tina Charles from 2014 to 2019. New York has had some teams good enough to potentially win a championship. But there has never been a season in which the Liberty were the best team in the league. Their least amount of losses in a season has been 11 (three times), which most recently happened in 2015.

Can the Liberty get to the point where they are one of the league's top teams? Brondello will now be part of trying to make that happen.

The Liberty were next-to-last in NET rating last season. New York's defense needs to consistently be better, and the Liberty also should just be a more fun to watch offensively.

They averaged 78.5 PPG last season, third-worst in the league. With players such as Betnijah Laney, Natasha Howard, Sabrina Ionescu, Sami Whitcomb and Michaela Onyenwere, New York has more firepower than it always showed. But it was also their first season playing together.

She can help build the Liberty's chemistry

The last several years, it has been difficult for the Liberty to even come close to having the kind of cohesion needed for a contender.

The franchise was put up for sale in November 2017. The Liberty finally were bought by Nets owner Joseph Tsai in 2019. They played in the Westchester County Center in 2018-19, and that wasn't popular with the players or the fans.

The Liberty's 2020 bubble season in Bradenton, Florida, was abysmal. Hopkins was in his first year as head coach, and most of what could go wrong did go wrong. Top pick Ionescu was lost for the season to an ankle injury in the Liberty's third game, and their No. 2 pick from 2019, Asia Durr, didn't play at all because she was ill with COVID-19. The Liberty finished 2-20.

Through trades, free agency and the draft, new faces came to New York in 2021, such as Howard, Laney, Whitcomb and Onyenwere, who was WNBA Rookie of the Year. And things got better for the Liberty, who finished 12-20. Some might have thought Hopkins was on the right path.

But the franchise decided otherwise. And almost immediately, a very experienced coach was available in Brondello. It was similar to when the Connecticut Sun let go Mike Thibault after the 2012 season, and he went to Washington, where he led the Mystics to a title in 2019.

This is a fresh start for Brondello and the Liberty. Not just her time in the WNBA, but also her experience as a player and coach with the Australian national team has taught Brondello a lot about creating good team chemistry -- and also how to avoid it going bad.