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The Sky's the limit for the New York Liberty, whose future on and off the court looks brighter than it's been in years

New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello (left) and star Sabrina Ionescu talk on the sideline.
New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello (left) and star Sabrina Ionescu talk on the sideline.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

  • The New York Liberty have found success and stability after years of tumult on and off the court.
  • Tuesday's playoff loss against the reigning champions showcased the team's resilience.
  • With a steady foundation now in place, New York is positioning itself to become a title contender.

BROOKLYN, NY — The Liberty's season-ending loss to the Chicago Sky confirmed what most WNBA fans already knew; New York's young squad isn't a championship contender just yet.

But the vibrant energy reverberating across the sold-out Barclays Center Tuesday night belied the home team's 18-point deficit as the final buzzer sounded. The first-round elimination matchup marked more than just the team's first home playoff game in half a decade; it represented the Liberty's transition from a franchise overcoming extreme tumult to one ready to seriously pursue its first-ever WNBA title.

"We pushed them, we tried, things didn't go our way tonight," head coach Sandy Brondello said immediately after Tuesday's loss.

Sandy Brondello speaks during a post-game press conference.
Brondello speaks during the post-game press conference following the Liberty's loss to the Chicago Sky.
Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

"But we'll be back better and stronger next year," she added with a smile. "So I'm excited about that."

From the Mecca of basketball to a glorified high school gym

The New York Liberty are one of just three original franchises still remaining in the WNBA, and their early success helped chart a course for the W to become the oldest women's professional sports league in the United States. As detailed in acclaimed director Alison Klayman's documentary, "Unfinished Business," the Liberty routinely packed their home arena — Madison Square Garden — with devoted fans and A-list celebrities in the first few seasons following the league's inception.

But waning novelty and poor management dulled the organization's shine. After two decades without any hardware to show for it, billionaire MSG owner James Dolan put the franchise on the auction block and, while waiting for a suitable bidder, shipped the team to a small arena well outside New York City.

New York Liberty players wave to fans after a 2019 game at the Westchester County Center.
Liberty players wave to fans after a 2019 game at the Westchester County Center.
Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

That bidder came two years later: Brooklyn Nets owner and billionaire Alibaba executive Joe Tsai. After two painful seasons at the Westchester County Center, the Liberty were expected to make their highly anticipated move back to the Big Apple — this time in Brooklyn — and begin efforts to reclaim the fans they lost during their extended stint upstate.

But with COVID-19 ravaging communities across the country — including New York City itself in the early days of the pandemic — the Liberty were forced to abandon their plans to debut at the Barclays Center, which Tsai also owns. Instead, the team found itself playing in the WNBA's locked-down bubble in Bradenton, Florida, for the 2020 season.

A league-worst 2-20 record followed. But with a young franchise superstar in Sabrina Ionescu newly on their roster and a sparkling home awaiting them in bustling Brooklyn, the Liberty had already seen some seeds begin to sprout as they headed into the 2021 campaign. 

A team grows in Brooklyn

The Liberty's first-ever game at the Barclays Center offered fans a glimpse at potential brilliance on the horizon for the long-struggling franchise. In the final second of a back-and-forth contest against the Indiana Fever, Ionescu drained an off-balance, dazzling three to lift her squad to a thrilling first victory in its new home.

sabrina ionescu
Ionescu celebrates draining a game-winning three in the Liberty's first game at the Barclays Center.
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

But New York's early-season success wasn't sustainable. Ionescu still hadn't fully recovered from the ankle injury that stole her rookie season, and Natasha Howard — the three-time WNBA champion who was the team's marquee free agency acquisition in 2021 — missed all but 13 games with a knee injury.

Still, the Liberty showed considerable progress from the year prior. They won 13 games — a 550% increase from 2020 — and found themselves a superstar in forward Betnijah Laney.

And even after losing 11 of its final 13 games, New York wriggled its way into the playoffs for the first time since 2017. In the first round, Laney and company went toe-to-toe with the star-studded Phoenix Mercury before losing by just one point in the final second of the single-elimination road game.

Liberty defenders Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb look to defend Phoenix Mercury superstar Brittney Griner during the 2021 playoffs.
Liberty defenders Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb look to defend Phoenix Mercury superstar Brittney Griner during the 2021 playoffs.
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

When Phoenix parted ways with longtime head coach Sandy Brondello that off-season — despite making it to the WNBA Finals — the Liberty capitalized on the opportunity, swapping out second-year head coach Walt Hopkins for the former WNBA All-Star who'd once coached the Mercury to a title.

In 2022, the pieces finally started to come together. Ionescu and Howard were both healthy to start the year, and with each earning an All-Star nod come July, both players had developed into the stars New York's front office long hoped they'd become.

There were still some unlucky hiccups along the way, to be sure. Laney — who'd led the team in scoring in 2021 — spent all but nine games recovering from a knee injury. Young role player Jocelyn Willoughby spent most of the season rehabbing a quad injury, while 2021 Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere fought through various injuries of her own.

New York Liberty star Betnijah Laney.
Liberty star Betnijah Laney.
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

But unlike last year, when the team's hot start cooled into a discouraging conclusion, the Liberty's 2022 season ended on an upward trajectory. They developed an identity, built chemistry with French sharpshooter Marine Johannes and 6-foot-10 Chinese center Han Xu, and fought hard for playoff positioning by winning six of their final eight games — a point of emphasis for Brondello as the season came to an end.

"I was proud of how we finished the season in trying to make the playoffs," Brondello said Tuesday. "We would've lost some of the games earlier in the year."

This postseason sets the stage for a major leap in 2023

With a hard-fought win over the Atlanta Dream on the very last day of the regular season, New York punched its ticket to the 2022 WNBA playoffs. And even though the Liberty finished out their schedule on the upswing, few expected the seventh-seeded squad to offer a serious challenge for Candace Parker and her second-seeded Chicago Sky.

But New York marched into Chicago's Wintrust Arena and delivered a gut-punch to the reigning champions, earning a surprise 98-91 road victory in Game 1 of the series that "woke 'em up" for the rest of the playoffs, according to Brondello. The Sky's experience was on full display in Game 2 — a historic 38-point blowout that forced a decisive final game back in Brooklyn.

Natasha Howard (right) looks to contain Chicago Sky superstar Candace Parker.
Howard (right) looks to contain Chicago Sky superstar Candace Parker.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

"Our organization has invested a lot in us to be able to be put in this position to play in New York City in front of the fan base," Ionescu told Insider ahead of Tuesday's game. "They've invested a lot in us and just being able to fill these stands."

A sell-out crowd packed its way into the Barclays Center Tuesday night, including courtside celebrities and decked-out diehards making the pilgrimage for the Liberty's first-ever playoff game in Brooklyn. An already-loud arena reached a fever pitch in the fourth quarter as the scrappy home team cut Chicago's 12-point halftime lead to just three, but the young squad didn't have enough juice to close the gap and make the Sky fall.

Still, New York's resilience — both within Tuesday's do-or-die contest and over the past few years at large — was on full display. Last year's team had neither the personnel nor the health to put up a late-game rally against a team of Chicago's caliber, and the Liberty of 2018 couldn't even dream of packing the house in a major sports arena like the Barclays Center.

Betnijah Laney takes a shot in front of a sold-out Barclays Center during Game 3 of the Liberty-Sky series.
Laney takes a shot in front of a sold-out Barclays Center during Game 3 of the Liberty-Sky series.
Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

Nor could they have dreamed of wooing elite free agents; this year's team can almost taste it.

"Now it's about going out and adding — you know, there should be some pretty good free agents out there, and if we can just nail one or two that would lead us in the right direction to progress even faster next year and go further in the playoffs," Brondello said. "The goal is to win a championship, so to do that we keep growing together and adding a few pieces."

The coach and general manager Jonathan Kolb have laid the groundwork to tempt the WNBA's most prolific talents to take a chance on New York. Last off-season, the franchise pursued Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart — arguably the best player in women's basketball today — with a swanky Los Angeles dinner that included the two-time WNBA champion, her wife, and their daughter, as well as Brondello and the Tsais.

Breanna Stewart.
Breanna Stewart.
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Stewart — a Syracuse, New York, native — ultimately chose to stay in the Emerald City on a one-year supermax deal. But in May, she told the Seattle Times' Percy Allen that she expects "more dinners" during this upcoming off-season, when she'll once again become a free agent.

"They have a lot of talent over there," the 6-foot-4 forward said of the Liberty. "I don't know. We'll see what happens." 

Free agency was a major talking point throughout the Liberty's exit interviews Thursday morning. Brondello cited the Tsais' ambitious vision for the franchise, as well as their team's top-notch facilities as major selling points to superstars on the market.

She added that she hopes the team's free agency targets will bring defensive intensity, aggression, and experience with them to New York. Laney and Howard, meanwhile, were a bit more specific in suggesting that their team go after a veteran point guard and a dominant big for 2023.

Sandy Brondello (right) hugs Skylar Diggins-Smith after a 2021 playoff victory.
Brondello (right) hugs Skylar Diggins-Smith after a 2021 playoff victory.
AP Photo/Chase Stevens

Perhaps Skylar Diggins-Smith, a superstar point guard who played under Brondello with the Mercury and was rumored to be on the trading block despite an All-Star caliber season, could fit the bill. So too could Brionna Jones, a soon-to-be free agent who, after dominating the paint off the bench for the Connecticut Sun this season, is a leading Sixth Player of the Year candidate.

Regardless of who comes aboard this off-season, Brondello is encouraged by the fact that the players on her 2022 roster "bought into what we were trying to accomplish this year." There are "some really good signs," she said with a smile, that the team "laid a really solid foundation" for the future.

"This season is just touching the surface of what we want," Ionescu said during her exit interview Thursday. "We want to be a playoff team every year. Not as a seven or eight seed, but in conversation for a top seed."

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