The best-case scenario for the New York Liberty just happened — Women’s basketball transfer tracker talk

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Jan. 24, 2024

I was having a meal with a WNBA talent evaluator down in Washington, D.C. just after the Minnesota Lynx disposed of the Mystics in the WNBA semifinals, sweeping Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver in their first postseason together back in 2017. This evaluator wasn’t particularly surprised, and made the point that the 2017 Mystics were never going to be the problem. The 2018 and 2019 Mystics would be, once everyone got used to playing together and learning their roles. The same rules can and should be applied when it comes to the present-day New York Liberty.

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Accordingly, the decision by Jonquel Jones to return to New York, first reported by Jackie Powell, isn’t simply good offseason news for the team. It represents the best possible news. It is talent and continuity in one.

Let’s just stipulate that in many ways, Jonathan Kolb already did most of his offseason homework before the class bell even rang. His most important players are Jones and Breanna Stewart, and he announced his intention to core Stewart at the final media availability just after the WNBA Finals. His two most important defenders, Betnijah Laney and Kayla Thornton, had already signed extensions before the season ended. So had Sabrina Ionescu. Courtney Vandersloot is signed through 2024.

The only real remaining mystery came from Jones, who indicated she was eager to continue the New York project, but stopped short of verbally committing ahead of the team scattering for the offseason.

In a version of events where Jones chose to go elsewhere, New York would have struggled to like-for-like replace someone of her prodigious gifts, the downside of employing an MVP, I suppose. As we have previously reported, Delle Donne is looking for a way out of D.C., though she has yet to utilize the tactic that led to her arrival in Washington in the first place — naming her only acceptable destination — leaving Mike Thibault holding plenty of cards, and rendering her preferences in the matter moot (for now).

But just take Delle Donne and put her on New York’s roster for Jones. Is that a good fit, given the overlap between Delle Donne’s game and that of Stewart? Even if you view Delle Donne and Jones as similar level of players, is it a reasonable bet that Delle Donne will play as many games in 2024 as Jones will?

It’s hard to make the case that anyone likely to move in this offseason will be as impactful as Jonquel Jones will be. And that is before taking into account the difference for New York between having a still-recovering Jones integrate in Year 1 with Sandy Brondello, and a fully-healthy Jones building on her strong finish in Year 2.

It took the Aces a while to find the right combination and turn into the force they have become — A’ja Wilson was drafted in 2018, but the Aces didn’t even reach the WNBA Finals in 2021, falling to the Phoenix Mercury in five games — and Natalie Williams has wisely prioritized continuity as well.

New York can and some might argue should make further moves — one WNBA talent evaluator highlighted backcourt defensive help, another focused on their bigs behind the starters — but the Liberty aren’t going to sink or swim, ultimately, based on the defensive contributions of guards who won’t play when Ionescu and Vandersloot are on the floor in crunch time, nor bigs who will sit when Jones and Stewart are on the floor late in games. (And New York simply needs Laney out there when it matters most.)

But for purposes of this offseason and the larger New York Liberty project, the only thing that really mattered was making sure the one player the team hadn’t locked down among the core, Jones, was retained for the second shot at a title. With a tumultuous offseason ahead, the Liberty can breathe a sigh of relief, no matter what happens next. After all, even a team that comes together among the most talented available players on the market can’t fast-forward their process to that of the 2019 Washington Mystics. It’ll still be 2017 in D.C. for any of them.

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Written by Howard Megdal

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