The New York Liberty played for the WNBA championship four times in the league's first six seasons. In those early days, the Liberty seemed to be right in the heart of the action. But 20 years have passed since New York has been in the WNBA Finals.
One of the league's original franchises, the Liberty haven't been a contender for a while. And as the No. 7 seed that faces the 2-seed Chicago Sky in a best-of-three series as the WNBA playoffs begin Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2), it's a stretch to call New York a contender now. The Liberty (16-20) will have to secure at least one road victory against the defending champions to move on, and they went 1-3 against the Sky in the regular season. New York hasn't won a playoff game since 2015.
Yet just the fact that the Liberty are in the playoffs for the second consecutive season -- after a three-year absence when they went a combined 19-71 from 2018 to 2020 -- means something. Sports fans nationwide might love or hate teams from New York, but it's the most populated city in the country and brings a lot of media attention. And the WNBA is better off when the Liberty are in the postseason.
"It's definitely good to be in the New York market ... to be in the playoffs," Liberty guard/forward Betnijah Laney said. "I think it's good exposure for not only us, but the W as a whole."
Under Sandy Brondello, who is in her first year in New York but is a longtime WNBA coach, there's a feeling about the Liberty that good things are here now and better things are around the corner.
The Liberty had their ups and downs this season, including a 1-7 start and a 3-7 record in July. But things have started to come together. Laney, the Liberty's leading scorer in 2021, was out from May 17 to Aug. 6 because of knee issues that required surgery. Her return gave the Liberty another top-tier player on their run to a playoff berth.
This year, New York has seen Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, blossom in her first fully healthy season, as she leads the team in scoring (17.4 points per game) and assists (6.3) and is second in rebounds (7.1). The guard has had two triple-doubles this season and provides the excitement factor that she did as a college star at Oregon.
"Sabrina has had a great year," Brondello said of the All-Star.
"We want sustainable success, and this just gives us confidence as we move forward. There's areas we need to get better in, but it's the start of a journey and hopefully will be a long one." Liberty coach Sandy Brondello
Forward Natasha Howard, limited to 13 games last season because of a knee injury, played all but one game this year, and she is the Liberty's leading rebounder (7.3 RPG) and second-leading scorer (15.1 PPG).
Three players from overseas -- France's Marine Johannes, China's Han Xu and Australia's Rebecca Allen -- all have been contributors and have their own respective fan bases. Xu, an effervescent 6-foot-10 center, is known for her smile and her progress this season. She averaged 3.0 points as an understandably overwhelmed 19-year-old WNBA rookie in 2019. Now she is averaging 8.5 points and 3.6 rebounds and is just starting to come into her own at age 22.
The Liberty signed New York state native Stefanie Dolson, who won the WNBA title with Chicago last year, as a free agent. They picked up guard Crystal Dangerfield, the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year who was waived by the Minnesota Lynx just before the season began. After a brief stint with the Indiana Fever, Dangerfield came to New York on May 21, and she has started 27 of 30 games with the Liberty.
New York might not yet be a team with all the goods to compete for a title, but especially when the Liberty are clicking offensively, they are fun to watch.
The Liberty are just two years removed from going 2-20 in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida; that's also when Ionescu was lost for the season with a severe ankle injury suffered in her third WNBA game. Nothing seemed to be going New York's way, but there's been a turnaround since then.
"We talk about our culture, and we want to be a united team," Brondello said. "We found a way, and we grew as a team -- on and off the court. We want sustainable success, and this just gives us confidence as we move forward. There's areas we need to get better in, but it's the start of a journey and hopefully will be a long one."
Brondello was still a player in the WNBA, with the Miami Sol, when the Liberty last made the WNBA Finals, losing to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002. Richie Adubato was New York's coach then, and Brondello is now the seventh to helm the team since Adubato was fired during the 2004 season. He led the Liberty to all three of their WNBA Finals appearances. They also played in the first WNBA championship game in 1997, before there were playoff series; that was under the leadership of the late Nancy Darsch.
From 2004 to 2015, the Liberty lost in the conference finals four times, the last in 2015. That was the last year of the old playoff format that matched the Eastern and Western conference winners in the WNBA Finals. Bill Laimbeer was the Liberty coach then, followed by former WNBA star Katie Smith and Walt Hopkins.
The Phoenix Mercury didn't renew Brondello's contract in December, which was the best possible outcome for New York. A coach with championship experience -- the Mercury won the title in 2014 under Brondello -- was available just at the time the Liberty needed new leadership.
The Liberty players have responded well to Brondello, and she has been happy with their progress. And the team is making believers out of its fans in Brooklyn. The franchise played at Madison Square Garden for many of its first 21 seasons -- with some exceptions -- until being sold by former owner James Dolan. Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai bought the team in 2019, and Barclays Center became its full-time home last year.
New York needs a victory in at least one of its two playoff games in Chicago to have a chance to play again at home this year. The Sky will make that very difficult. But even if they don't compete in Barclays again until 2023, the Liberty now seem a lot more like the kind of team the WNBA benefits from them being.
"I think I had pretty high expectations coming into it, knowing it was Brooklyn and New York City, but they've kind of blown them out of the water," Dolson said of the vibe around the Liberty. "The fans have come out for a lot of games, and our last game was incredible. They come out and support us, and it makes it feel that much more important and special."