The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, October 16, 2019

What now for the Liberty? — Interview with Val Ackerman — Must-click women's basketball links

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The Katie Smith aftermath

I’m on the record absolutely believing that the New York Liberty shouldn’t have fired Katie Smith, which they did early today after letting Smith twist in the wind for several weeks.

The idea that Smith, who got two seasons — both with home games at Westchester County Center, no one’s idea of home court, with a shifting front office and therefore a roster that wasn’t quite logical — would miss out on season three, this one with Sabrina Ionescu and at, all indicates are, Barclays Center (expect an answer on that by next week, I hear) was hard to stomach.

Still, the Liberty have a new GM, a new owner, and often that comes with a coaching change. Since that’s their direction, what needs to happen now?

Well, whoever takes over will need to take whatever steps are necessary to rejuvenate Tina Charles’ career. That can and should be some combination of figuring out better places on the court to get her the ball — her shooting efficiency dipped precipitously, especially in 2019 — and an overall offensive approach that makes best use of Charles, Ionescu, and the bevy of versatile scorers on the roster, from Kia Nurse and Asia Durr in the backcourt to Amanda Zahui B. and Rebecca Allen up front. Figuring out how to best deploy mismatch-at-all-times Han Xu would help, too, in Year 2 of her career.

Someone like Amber Stocks deserves a look, though the defensive limitations she experienced in Chicago could give the Liberty pause. Pokey Chatman is newly available, though whether she’d want to return to just coaching is an open question after two head coach/GM combo roles in Chicago and Indiana. Getting someone like Tricia Fabbri from Quinnipiac to do the Curt Miller jump from college to pros (though Miller had some time as a WNBA assistant) might hold interest. Hell, if the money’s there, try and go get Miller himself, who just had a remarkable run with the Sun.

Ultimately, the future is bright with or without Katie Smith in New York. But let’s not mistake that for a reason to think her future isn’t bright, too. She enters the coaching market with loads of experience, a deep well of contacts (and an industry that thinks she got a raw deal, based on my conversations today). She’s now in a coaching realm where the NBA is open to women, too, though as someone who has watched the steady stream of elite talent leave the women’s game for the men, someone easily among the top ten players in the history of the WNBA heading to the men’s side would be cause for qualified sadness.

So sure, this is a breakup that will work out for all involved. But it didn’t have to happen. And it’s a shame to see an all-time great lose a chance to take that next step with her team.

This week in women’s basketball

Check out Kelsey Trainor’s conversation with Muffet McGraw. Excited about this podcast in general!

Last week produced some epic drama in Washington. Jenn Hatfield with the macro look at the Mystics is worth your time.

Candace Buckner explained why the parade for the Mystics isn’t until next spring.

The Post killed it generally on WNBA Finals coverage (full disclosure, I did a bit of that work). Check out their special section!

Fred Katz captured how much the Mystics mean to the Wizards.

Loved this Erica Ayala deep dive on the Plaisances.

You’ve been warned: Drake is going to be fantastic this season.

If you’re not speculating on who the Los Angeles Sparks new GM is going to be, I don’t want to know you.

Cat Ariail had some fascinating questions about the WNBA-China relationship.

The WNBA walks the walk, you guys.

Mike Anthony is right, Crystal Dangerfield needs to be great for UConn to contend this season.

Stat of the Week

Emma Meesseman had a playoffs for the ages.

Five at The IX: Val Ackerman

(Some great insights as always from Val, whom I caught up with at Big East Media Day ahead of taking the train to D.C.)

HOWARD MEGDAL: Congratulations, first of all, on bringing UConn back into the fold, and obviously the specific ramifications of that for women’s basketball. When we spoke a year ago, I went back to look at it, and you talked about needing an anchor team. It feels like you know a lot of ways UConn can be that anchor team in the most significant way possible. Is that how you viewed it specific to women’s basketball?

VAL ACKERMAN: Well I think, we recognized immediately that the combination of what Connecticut could bring in men’s basketball and women’s basketball was going to be one plus one is three. Because on the women’s side, I think that [DePAul coach] Doug [Bruno] was right. We were talking greatest of all time-quality program to look at for a period of years…

I really credit the start of a WNBA, in part, to what women’s college basketball had become, thanks to UConn and Tennessee at that time.

I mean, [Geno Auriemma’s] contributions to game are absolutely unmatched. For us, to have that back in the conference was definitely seen as an asset. A positive, and one of the several reasons why it made sense. And so yes, do I think, he’s going to be hard to beat? I think our guys know that. No one has illusions about that. But, as I was trying to make a joke here, losing is going to happen at some point. Maybe not while he’s the coach, but I think our teams are actually really excited to have a chance to play against him, having their own league, help them get better. And then just generally for me to have somebody with that women’s basketball brain in the conference, as we look to help the sport as a whole.

HOWARD MEGDAL: It seems like a real obvious synergy too, between the way he has so many connections in the WNBA world and obviously with your history there as well, does it give more of an opportunity to make it a cohesive structure? A year round of women’s basketball, when you guys have such a strong TV presence, and then you’ve got the W coming in essentially, fill in the time in the calendar where you guys aren’t and vice versa.

VAL ACKERMAN: Yeah. Well, with all due modesty, I’ve been preaching this for years. I mean I’ve been saying this from the beginning that there is, and I say now, there’s, I said then it was opportunity. I now say it’s untapped opportunity so let’s get going guys.

To create a synergistic approach to the landscape. I mean noncompeting seasons, it’s WNBA in the summer, college basketball in the winter. You have no early entry, in the WNBA, and I was part of that. That was our rule from the beginning and players have kind of accepted it. So you have these players who are building their identities at these college programs in ways that doesn’t happen on the men’s side because the best players don’t stay for four years in many cases.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Was that the reason for the rule?

VAL ACKERMAN: It was just really like we wanted a mature player. We wanted a player who been through the rigors of the NCAA, had a chance to develop. We were almost encouraging them to get their degrees. The minimum age is 22… we just really thought it was better for us. We thought it would help women’s college basketball keep those players. And then we just, a little maternalistically thought it was good for the players, that they would be able to just have that so, and the money and frankly the money wasn’t going to be there. I think on the men’s side, part of the reason for early entry was the money is so good. If the players want to come early. WNBA, I mean the salaries for the first-year players aren’t enough to make somebody make the leap.

HOWARD MEGDAL: A new CBA would potentially change that, but I just wonder how closely you think that will affect sort of the growth of this league on the women’s side over the next five years. Just making sure that there’s a pathway, not just to professionalism, but a pathway to professionalism with an off-season.

VAL ACKERMAN: It’s got to be funded and that’s it. And frankly, to be honest, I was here when we started the WNBA. One reason we did it in summer was because, and we made nonexclusive contracts, was because we thought it was good that the players had an opportunity to play the rest of the year, and an income opportunity the rest of the year.

We thought that was a plus. And frankly that’s worked. I mean, now you sort of see that it’s gotten, it’s a raggedness, and they do all that over a period of years. You get tired and it’s hard…

I think Terri [Jackson], in the union, are going to talk about all of that now. I think just generally the economics of the WNBA do need to improve significantly from what I can tell. Restorative, significant leaps to happen in player compensation. I mean, I just know the economics really well.

And, I hope that happens. It’s all basically going to be about fan support. It’s how many fans are coming, how many are watching on television, how many are buying tee-shirts, and then the sponsors come when they think the, their scale and the fans match up with the league’s needs.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Can it be league investment side of that as well? I mean, there’s this, common refrain also, by investing more by saying, okay look, this is what has been built, and so does it take you to another level to be able to allow players, for instance, a lack of raggedness because there’s an investment, on the league’s side that leads to rest, that changes the level of play. I mean we just started with the charter flight, the game that followed was played at a crispness we don’t always see at the end of the playoffs.

VAL ACKERMAN: Frankly, it’s interesting, a lot of college programs including UConn charter all the time. But the funding modelis a different one. I think that’ll be the big question, what’s the chicken and egg? Do you need more investment to get more fans to come? That’ll be the calculation that the owners have to make, and that’ll have to get, debated with the union, because I think the players would say, “Hey, if you can put more into this, advertise more, promote it, that can help get more fans.”

The league have to make that judgment. I mean, at the end of the day, I think for the WNBA, the future will be continuing capitalization. It’s going to be in the product. It’s going to be in the promotion. It’s going to be in the scheduling. And I think, I’ve always wondered if they might switch to the winter. I think at the end of the day, the winter is awfully crowded.

Do you really want to go up against the NBA, college basketball men and women, and all the other sports? Is there a shifting of the season? They should probably look at that, and then it’s going to be the leadership piece. I mean they just going to have to have people who know what they’re doing, who understand all these nuances, understand the game, understand the business.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports Burn It All Down podcast
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.